Skinner's Teaching Machine and Programmed Learning Theory

Nichole Wleklinski

In 1954 B.F. Skinner embarked upon a series of studies designed to improve teaching methods for spelling, math, and other school subjects by using a mechanical device that would surpass the usual classroom experience. He believed the classroom had disadvantages because the rate of learning for different students was variable and reinforcement was also delayed due to the lack of individual attention. Since personal tutors for every student was usually unavailable, Skinner developed a theory of programmed learning that was to be implemented by teaching machines.

The teaching machine is composed of mainly a program, which is a system of combined teaching and test items that carries the student gradually through the material to be learned. The "machine" is composed by a fill-in-the-blank method on either a workbook or in a computer. If the subject is correct, he/she gets reinforcement and moves on to the next question. If the answer is incorrect, the subject studies the correct answer to increase the chance of getting reinforced next time.

The teaching machine is merely a device for presenting the set of frames of which the program is composed. However, it is not supplementary but all-inclusive. The program will do all the teaching through a response/reward mechanism. Skinner also noted that the learning process should be divided into a large number of very small steps and reinforcement must be dependent upon the completion of each step. Skinner suggested that the machine itself should not teach, but bring the student into contact with the person who composed the material it presented. He believed this was the best possible arrangement for learning because it took into account the rate of learning for each individual student.

The machine is a laborsaving device because it can bring one programmer into contact with an infinite number of students. Skinners programmed instruction became a major education and commercial enterprise that flourishes today.

Modern Applications with Skinner's Programmed Learning Theory


Hill, Winfred F. (1977) Learning: A Survey of Psychological Interpretations. New York, NY: Thomas Y. Crowell Company.

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