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Programmed Learning

Programmed learning

A method of self-instruction that enlists machines or specially prepared books to teach information.

Originally introduced in the mid-1950s by behaviorist B.F. Skinner, programmed instruction is a system whereby the learner uses specially prepared books or equipment to learn without a teacher. It was intended to free teachers from burdensome drills and repetitive problem-solving inherent in teaching basic academic subjects like spelling, arithmetic, and reading. Skinner based his ideas on the principle of operant conditioning , which theorized that learning takes place when a reinforcing stimulus is presented to reward a correct response. In early programmed instruction, students punched answers to simple math problems into a type of keyboard. If the answer was correct, the machine would advance to another problem. Incorrect answers would not advance. Skinner believed such learning could, in fact, be superior to traditional teacher-based instruction because children were rewarded immediately and individually for correct answers rather than waiting for a teacher to correct written answers or respond verbally. Programmed instruction quickly became popular and spawned much educational research and commercial enterprise in the production of programmed instructional materials. It is considered the antecedent of modern computer-assisted learning.

Two types of programmed learning can be compared. Linear programming involves a simple step-by-step procedure. There is a single set of materials and students work from one problem to the next until the end of the program. Branching programming is more complex. Students choose from multiple-choice answers and then are prompted to proceed to another page of the book depending on their answer. If a correct answer is given, students move on to another page with more information to learn and more questions to answer. An incorrect answer leads to comments on why the answer is incorrect and a direction to return to the original question to make another selection.

Just as the programming developed more complexity over the years, so did the teaching machines themselves. Early, simple machines were little more than electronic workbooks. Later machines allowed students to be instructed on more complex material that required more than one-word or one-number responses. In some, students could write their responses and move ahead by comparing their answers to acceptable answers. Programmed-learning books differ from traditional workbooks because they actually teach new information through this step-by-step stimulus-response method rather than simply offering practice material for already-learned skills.

Research has shown that programmed learning often is as successful, and sometimes more successful, than traditional teacher-based learning because it recognizes the different abilities and needs of individual children. Students who have mastered the material can move ahead more quickly, while those who need more practice are repeatedly exposed to the problems. Programmed learning also allows teachers more time to concentrate on more complex tasks. One criticism of programmed learning centers on the lack of student-teacher interaction. It has been shown that some students thrive more fully with the human motivation inherent in more traditional learning situations.

Further Reading

Bower, Gordon H., and Ernest R. Hilgard. Theories of Learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1981.

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programmed instruction

programmed instruction, method of presenting new subject matter 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. Computer-assisted instruction, which both tests students' abilities and marks their progress, may supplement classroom activity or help students to develop ideas and skills independently.

The first teaching machine was invented (1934) by Sydney L. Pressey, but it was not until the 1950s that practical methods of programming were developed. Programmed instruction was reintroduced (1954) by B. F. Skinner of Harvard, and much of the system is based on his theory of the nature of learning. As programming technology developed, so did the range of teaching machines and other programmed instruction materials. Programs have been devised for the teaching of spelling, reading, arithmetic, foreign languages, physics, psychology, and a number of other subjects. Some programs are linear in concept, allowing advancement only in a particular order as the correct answer is given. Others are branching, giving additional information at the appropriate level whether a correct or incorrect answer is given.

Although there has been considerable controversy regarding the merits of programmed instruction as the sole method of teaching, many educators agree that it can contribute to more efficient classroom procedure and supplement conventional teaching methods. Teaching machines enable students to work individually, calling for active participation of the learner. In industry and the armed services, programmed instruction is often used to train personnel.

See P. Callender, Programmed Learning (1969); L. Thomas, Self-Organized Learning (1985).

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"programmed instruction." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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