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3 tips of positive and negative reinforcement in eLearning

3 tips of positive and negative reinforcement in eLearning

With the pandemic restructuring education around the world, eLearning has become a trend for both kids and adults. For us as educators, it’s both good news and bad news. On the one hand, both educators and learners could benefit from accelerated educational innovations which are specifically designed to improve effective learning and 24/7 access to educational resources. On the other hand, educators, especially those new to online environments may find it challenging to apply strategies we use in a physical space to engage learners in an online classroom.  

What are positive and negative reinforcement in eLearning? 

 Positive reinforcement refers to the teacher’s behaviors of adding something that increases the learner’s response. For example, a teacher gives praise or positive feedback on the learner’s performance of a task with specific examples of what the learner did well. As a result, the learner is encouraged to continue using that language correctly.  

On the other hand, negative reinforcement means the teacher removes something the learners don’t enjoy as a reward for positive behaviour, which also increases the expected learner response. For instance, a teacher reduces some or all homework for students who hand in their last homework on time. The students are highly likely to continue to complete their homework in a timely manner as they are encouraged by the removal of it. While positive reinforcement is widely agreed to have a positive impact on student engagement and learning in the classroom, negative reinforcement strategies are usually less known as people think it can lead to a decrease in learner motivation and engagement; but I have found some working well in my experience. 

1. Repeating lesson aims and rewarding students who stay committed to them is an often-missed area that could receive positive reinforcement. One common mistake that I made when I first started teaching online was to assume my learners knew what we would do in our classroom and why we were doing it. I would start teaching or practicing right after a short warm-up. Soon I found my learners asking questions off-topic or not related to the aim of the lesson or using their prior knowledge to complete a task rather than using what they have learned and practiced in that lesson.

In an online classroom, a variety of tools can help you and the learners focus on the aim and be engaged.

  • You can highlight the lesson objectives with a drawing tool or use some symbols while you walk your learners through them.
  • Using some visual materials like a picture or a video to encourage your learners to predict the target language or situations to apply them can also be a good idea. 
  • Use a note box or something similar to provide a written form of the aims and target language, so you and the learners can always refer back to them.
  • Reward the learner(s) with e-stickers, emojis, or other similar tools when they use the correct language.

2. The importance and benefits of using praise and positive feedback on the learners’ performance cannot be overemphasized.
However, praise is more effective with evidence of specific learner behavior. If learners hear generic praise like ‘great job’ and ‘well done’ they won’t know exactly what they should repeat.
In comparison, evidence-based praise would be something like, ‘Julie, I hear you used this phrase correctly on the second try which is a good improvement for you. And Lillian, you rephrased your questions so your partner can understand you. Rephrasing is an important skill for communication.’ Learners understand what they did well and why they should continue doing so.

3. An additional example of negative reinforcement would be to cancel a part of a normal class routine that learners don’t enjoy that much. For example, a quiz, or recitation and dictation which is still quite popular in local public schools in my region.
Adult learners, compared to the stress of homework or tests, might feel more pressure from making mistakes in a lesson. Negative reinforcement for them could be to remove the chance or the feeling of being embarrassed about mistakes they made, especially if it’s in front of a group. In group settings, what we can try is to pair them up and send them into separate rooms for peer correction and feedback. In a 1 on 1 lesson, we can encourage self-correction from the learner and ask them why, instead of telling them what is wrong. The reward the learners get is obvious. They develop a habit of self-assessment and engage with their peers in the online classroom.   


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