Programmed instruction

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1 Definitions

  • Although Skinners initial programmed instruction format has undergone many transformations, most adaptations retain three essential features: (1) an ordered sequence of items, either questions or statements to which the student is asked to respond; (2) the student's response, which may be in the form of filling in a blank, recalling the answer to a question, selecting from among a series of answers, or solving a problem; and (3) provision for immediate response confirmation, somtimes within the program frame itself but usually in a different location, as on the next page in a programmed textbook or in a separate window in the teaching machine. (Joyce, Weil & Calhoun, 2000:332)
  • Programmed instruction is a method of presenting new subject matters to students in a graded sequence of controlled steps. Students work through the programmed material by themselves at their own speed and after each step test their comprehension by answering an examination question or filling in a diagram. They are then immediately shown the correct answer or given additional information. Computers and other types of teaching machines are often used to present the material, although books may also be used. (The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001-05, retrieved 16:22, 16 August 2007 (MEST)).
  • Programmed instruction consists of a network of statements and tests, which direct the student to new statements depending on his pattern of errors. It is based on a particular tool which is called teaching machine. (Cited from Encyclopedia.com ???).

Sometimes a distinction is made between programmed instructions and programmed learning. See also: Mastery learning

2 Theory and history

There are various origins and flavors of programmed instruction. The most important to subcategories are:

  • linear programs (in the Skinner tradition)
  • branched programs (in the Crowder tradition)

2.1 Skinner's operant conditioning

See behaviorism for the theory.

  • Programmed instruction is based on Skinner's "operant conditioning", a (behaviorist theory stating that learning is change in behavior, i.e. the individual's response to events (stimuli). Behavior can be conditioned by rewarding the right stimulus-response patterns.

According to Greg Kearsley:

  1. Behavior that is positively reinforced will reoccur; intermittent reinforcement is particularly effective
  2. Information should be presented in small amounts so that responses can be reinforced ("shaping")
  3. Reinforcements will generalize across similar stimuli ("stimulus generalization") producing secondary conditioning

Skinner argued strongly against teaching that is based on punishment. According to Kristinsdóttir, “In a chapter of his book 1968 Why teachers fail he argued that formal education is usually based on 'aversive control'. Teaching rests on punishment and ridicule for unsuitable behavior rather than showing a consideration for the shaping and reinforcement of responses to be learned. He also said that lessons and examinations are designed to show what pupils do not know and cannot do, rather than to expose and build upon what they do know and are able to learn. Therefore, he argued, teachers fail to shape their children's behavior sufficiently, leading to inappropriate learning or to learned responses that are quickly forgotten (Skinner, 1968).”E. (Markle, S. (1969). Good Frames and Bad (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley.)

2.2 The teaching machine

The first teaching machine was invented by Sydney L. Pressey in the 1920's,

Skinner in the 1950's introduced a concept of "teaching machine" that differed from Pressey's in some ways. “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.” (learning technologies timeline, retrieved 16:22, 16 August 2007 (MEST))

Romiszowski (1997:16) cited by Kristinsdóttir defined the "core" of Skinner's stimulus-response model as “that learning has occurred when a specific response is elicited by specific situation or stimulus with a high degree of probability. The more likely and predictable the response, the more efficient the learning has been. These attempt to shape human behavior by presenting a gradual progression of small units of information and related tasks to the learner. At each stage the learner must actively participate by performing the set task. He is then immediately supplied with feedback in the form of correct answer”

Skinner stated that the student should compose his response on his own, rather than choose it among a large range of possibilities, because the responses should not be recognized but recalled. Moreover, according to Skinner, the machine should present information in a designed sequence of steps. In programmed instruction, the subject is the student itself, the aim is his/her understanding of the material and the reinforcement or punishment refers to satisfaction or disappointment, resulting from the comparison of the student's answers with the E.answers given by the computer.

Teaching machines did not allow students to proceed in their tasks unless they understood the materials. The machines helped students to give the correct answer by "a logical presentation of material" (Skinner on Programmed Instruction) and by "hinting, prompting, suggesting, and so on, derived from an analysis of verbal behavior" (Skinner, 1958).

2.3 Crowder's intrinsic or branching program

Norman Crowder, a contemporary of Skinner, was working independently for the armed services on programmed instruction. He felt that a program was a form of communication between a programmer and a user. Like any communication, the program must be directed to the individual. Unlike Skinner, Crowder was not working from a psychological perspective, but from a communications point of view. In an intrinsic or branching program, each frame presents more text than the average linear frame. After reading, the user responds to an adjunct question, usually in a multiple-option format. Unlike Pressey's auto-instructional approach, which provides only confirmation of the correctness or incorrectness of that response, branching style optional choices lead users to optional forms of feedback, most of which is corrective. If the user makes a correct response, the program asserts the reasons why she or he was correct and moves on to new material. If an incorrect response is made, the program, at the very least, informs the user that an error was made and then branches the user back to the previous frame for another try.

The primary purpose of feedback" is to determine whether the communication was successful, in order that corrective steps be taken." (Crowder 288) Depending upon the complexity of the error committed, the programE. may initiate a remedial sequence of instruction, a practice designed to eliminate the learning deficiency. Branching instruction adapts the sequence of the program to a limited degree to fit the prior learning and processing capabilities of the user. The term intrinsic refers to the fact that all program options are intrinsic to the program and, therefore, not dependent on any external programming device. This approach is especially adapted to machine presentation, which provides for greater levels of adaptability. Branching texts tend to be large and confusing, especially when users try to access them in a manual way.

The primary difference between Skinner's conception of programming and Crowder's is in the function of the response. To Skinner, learning results from making the correct response. Contrary to this response orientation, Crowder believed that learning results from the realignment of the user's knowledge structure, and that the response is simply a means for controlling the program or machine. The larger chunks of information need to be assimilated and integrated with what the user already knows. The response, he believed, tests the level of integration. This type of programming benefits the higher-ability user, who is more capable of higher-level integration of ideas, more than it does the lower-ability user.

Portia Diaz-Martin (2001, retrieved 15:56, 14 August 2007 (MEST)).

2.4 Mastery learning

According to Davis & Sorrel (1995), "The mastery learning concept was introduced in the American schools in the 1920's with the work of Washburne (1922, as cited in Block, 1971) and others in the format of the Winnetka Plan." It then was revived in the late 1950' with programmed instruction and brought to perfection by Caroll and Bloom's work.

3 The architectures of programmed instruction

Programmed instruction has the following core elements:

  • Contents are broken down into pieces of instructions called frames. A frame contains statements and questions.
  • Learners then read the frame and immediately answer a question about the frame
  • There is an immediate feedback about the correctness of the frame (usually in a different place)
  • Instruction is self-paced and learners are active (in the sense of reactive)

3.1 Skinner variant

  • Contents are very small, i.e. simple statements plus a question or direct questions
  • Answers are usually filling in blanks
  • Feedback is in the form of the correct answer

“Programmed instruction (PI) involved breaking content down into small pieces of information called frames. A PI textbook might contain several thousand frames of information. Students would read a frame, then answer a question about the frame. Then they would check their answer (get "feedback") and proceed to the next frame. When PI was delivered by a "teaching machine" the possibilities for effective teaching seemed unlimited to many. PI-style software is linear. Skinner argued that PI was more effective than traditional teaching methods, ” (Programmed Instruction, retrieved 16:22, 16 August 2007 (MEST)) ... since learners have to receive thousands of reinforcements, something a teacher can do.

Here is an example on programmed English (M.W Sullivan) presented by Joyce, Weil & Calhoun (2000:333):

1. Words are divided into classes. We
   call the largest class nouns. Nouns are
   a class of ________________________.                          words
2. In English the class of words called
   nouns is larger than all the other
   __________________ of words combined                          classes


3.2 Questions only

Daniel K. Schneider doesn't know where this comes from, but I can show an example. On my bookshelf I found a book (Daniel P. Friedman,Matthias Felleisen, The Little LISPer, MIT Press ISBN 0-262-56099-2.) It teaches a programming language and is only composed of questions in increasingly difficult order.

Is it true that this is an atom?           Yes,
 atom                                      because atom is a string of characters
                                                 beginning with the letter a.

Is it true that this is an atom?           Yes,
 turkey                                    because turkey is a string of characters
                                                 beginning with a letter.

Is it true that this is an atom?           Yes,
 1942                                      because 1942 is a string of characters
                                                 beginning with a digit

This strategy looks very Skinnerian, since the learner is supposed to learn from good answers.

3.3 Branching style

Branching is used with the idea that slower learners can be presented with additional information if they can't respond well enough to a sequence of frames and that more advanced students can be exposed to more challenging materials.

  • Each frame usually presents more text than the average linear frame.
  • After reading, the user responds to a question, usually in a multiple-option format (since this allows for easy electronic treatment)
  • Feedback then, can be corrective i.e. branch the user into a sequence that attempts to remediate the learner's misconceptions or gaps in understanding.

Some versions of this model (i.e. Crowder's original) are more based on a (corrective) theory of communication than a behaviorist learning theory.

Special forms of this model are so-called drill and practise programs where learners are supposed to develop basic skills like arithmetics and keyboard operations by many repetitions. The program adjusts drill sequences according to answers.

3.4 Mastery learning

Mastery learning refers to the idea that teaching should organize learning through ordered steps. In order to move to the next step, students have to master at least 80% of the prerequisite step.

4 Additional topics

4.1 The role of the teachers in Skinner's thoughts

Even if in a chapter of his book “Why teachers fail”, Skinner argued that teachers fail to shape their students’ behaviour sufficiently, he stated (1954) that: “If the teacher is to take advantage of recent advances in the study of learning, she must have the help of mechanical devices.” Concluding his analysis he also argued that mechanized instruction should be integrated into all schools, not as a replacement for, but as an adjunct to the teacher. By saying so, he did not deny the importance of the teacher in the learning process.

Many objections to Skinner’s programs have been raised during these years. The most important is that people think that the answers given by the machine are only “indicators of success” which do not constitute a complete learning program. However, students are obliged to determine on their own the success of their research and problem-solving efforts. All this is considered to be minimal and the starting point of any problem. So, maybe, the real benefit of programmed instruction is precisely the effort made by the student which can be seen as a sort of grounding for developing the ability to think and to learn on his own. Ability that will be achieved only thanks to the involvement of the teacher in class.

At the beginning, programmed instruction was thought for students particularly gifted, in order to prevent them to waste their time by listening things they already knew, and that could be useless for their learning process. Those who think (and are still thinking) that programmed instruction isolate students, must consider that the machine brings them into contact with the people who composed the material and with a large number of other students. Besides, computers prevent students from repeating the same material and facilitate the review of previous lessons, so, each student can learn in accordance with his own level. But all this is only feasible in class, where the role of teachers is once more important for stimulating discussion and improving the quality of education itself. Moreover, the fact that the student is among his friends avoids the risk of socially isolating him as homeschooling does.

4.2 Technological progress

It is important to bear in mind that "teaching machines" were much more similar to a mechanical tool than a computer as we know it. If education accepted with great interest Skinner’s suggestions, it was not like that for industry because companies thought that this machine could get out of production soon. For these reasons, the materials concerning programmed instructions were mainly books, detracting the value of Skinner as a forerunner of (behaviorist) e-learning.

Some time later, the programmed instruction movement presented the concept of interactive text and extended this kind of instruction to all school subjects. So, computer-assisted instruction could assist students, by allowing them to test their abilities and to mark their improvements, supplementing the activities in class and helping to develop new skills independently. But, it was still economically difficult to put a system like that into place. As a consequence, programmed instruction as a whole seemed to sink into oblivion. Of course, another reason was a change in the understanding of learning (not discussed here).

Nowadays, the situation has changed a lot: thanks to technological progress, in particular Internet and various learning platforms like learning management systems, one could implement Skinner’s theories and projects more economically.

4.3 Open-contents and programmed instructional texts

One could use the technology of wikis that succeeded in creating Wikipedia. Wikitechnology offers a great deal of opportunities based on the work of an increasing number of volunteers. In addition, the learning material can be translated in many languages in order to let people consult it for free and at home.

The success of wikis and other open source softwares gave rise to several communities of learning, made up of people who just want to 'share knowledgeE.' at all levels. The range of subjects has developed a lot, concerning spelling, reading, arithmetic, foreign languages, psychology, physics and much more. Some programs enable advancement only in a fixed order, others give additional information at the appropriate level whether a correct or incorrect answer is given, providing an immediate feedback.(See [1])

See open educational resources.

5 References and links

  • B. F. Skinner, works and life. Retrieved December 9, 2006 from [2]
  • Bloom, B. (1971). Mastery learning. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.
  • Callender. P (1969) Programmed Learning
  • Calvin, A. (1969). Programmed instruction: Bold new venture. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
  • Carroll, J.B. (1989). The Carroll model: A 25 year retrospective and prospective view. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 26-31.
  • Chen, I. (2006). An electronic textbook on instructional technology HTML, retrieved 16:22, 16 August 2007 (MEST).
  • Cowder, N. A. (1964). On the difference between linear and intrinsic programing. In A. G. Grazia, & D. A. Sohn (Eds.), Programs, teachers, and machines (pp. 77-85). New York, NY: Bantam Books.
  • Crowder, N. A. (1959): Automatic tutoring by means of intrinsic programming. In E. Galanter (Ed.), Automatic teaching: The state of the art, Wiley.
  • Crowder, Norman (1969). "Automatic Tutoring by Intrinsic Programming. " In A. A. Lumsdaine and Robert Glaser, eds., Teaching Machines and Programmed Learning. Washington, D.C.: National Education Assn., 1960.
  • Diaz-Martin, Portia (2001). Computer-Assisted Instruction/Programmed Instruction, ESL 519 Selection, Acquisition, and Management of Non-book Resources, HTML, retrieved 15:56, 14 August 2007 (MEST).
  • Dodge, B. (1996). Distance Learning on the World Wide Web [Electronic Version]. In Computer Trainer’s Personal Trainer’s Guide (chapter 12). Author: Brandon, B. Retrieved December 9, 2006 from [3]
  • Eshleman, J. W., (1999). Pluses and minuses of programmed instruction, HTML, retrieved 16:22, 16 August 2007 (MEST).
  • Fry, E.B. (1963). Teaching machines and programmed instruction. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  • Hanna, Michael S.; Gibson, James W. (1983): Programmed Instruction in Communication Education: An Idea behind Its Time. Communication Education, 32, 1, 1-7.
  • HighBeam Encyclopedia, & University of Columbia (2006). Programmed Instruction. Retrieved December 9, 2006 from [4]
  • Joyce, B., Weil, M., Calhoun, E. : Models of teaching, 6th edition, Allyn & Bacon, 2000. ISBN 0205389279.
  • Kashihara, A. (2003). Book review: The Knowledge Medium: Designing Effective Computer Based Learning Environments, Author: Berg, G. A. (2003), Retrieved December 9, 2006 from [5]
  • Kay, Harry et al. (1968). Teaching Machines and Programmed Instruction, Penguin Books Inc.
  • Kulhavy, R. W.; Wager, W. (1993): Feedback in programmed instruction: Historical context and implications for practice. In: J. V. Dempsey & G. C. Sales (Eds.), Interactive instruction and feedback, (pp. 3-20). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.
  • Leshin, C., Pollock, J., Reigeluth, C. (1992). Instructional design strategies and tactics. New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications.
  • Lysaught, J. & Williams, C. (1963). A guide to programmed instruction. New York, NY: James Wiley and Sons.
  • Maddux, C. D., Johnson, D. L., & Willis, J. W. (1997). Educational computing: Learning with tomorrow's technologies. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Operant Conditioning (B.F. Skinner) [6]
  • Orlich, D. C., Harder, R. J., Callahan, R. C., & Gibson, H. W. (2001). Teaching Strategies: A guide to better instruction. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Pearson Education, & University of Columbia (2006). Programmed Instruction. Retrieved December 9, 2006 from [7]
  • Phatidic in Culture (2004). Public Schools: Problems and Solutions. Retrieved December 9, 2006 from [8]
  • Pigeon, Robert F. (1964). Programmed Instruction for Biology , BioScience, Vol. 14, No. 8, pp. 21-24. doi:10.2307/1293173
  • Programmed instruction, The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001-05. HTML, retrieved 16:22, 16 August 2007 (MEST)
  • Skinner, B.F. (1968). The Technology of Teaching. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  • Sólrún B. Kristinsdóttir (2001). Programmed Instruction. Retrieved December 9, 2006 from [9]
  • Thomas. L (1985). Self-Organized Learning
  • University of Cyprus, & CBLIS Community. Sixth International Conference on Computer Based Learning in Science (2003). Retrieved December 9, 2006 from [10]
  • University of Southampton. School of Education. Retrieved December 9, 2006 from [11]
  • Programmed Instruction (WikiEd, CTER programme, Department of Educational Psychology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign..