Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Chocolate Really Can Solve Any Problem

When thinking about a future career, I am still quite unsure of which path I would like to follow. However one occupation that has always intrigued me has been teaching, and I have recently attained some experience in this field. At my university in Canada, I was a teaching assistant for an introductory psychology module last semester. Before teaching my first tutorial, I was absolutely petrified to get up in front of 30 students and teach an entire class. While other teaching assistants were stressed about handling unruly classes, my worst fear was that one of my classes would be the “silent type” and not say a word while I rambled incoherently trying to fill the silence. Of course, in my very first tutorial, every question I asked was met with silence and blank stares.

            Enter Applied Behavioural Analysis or ABA. At the time, I did not realize that I was employing these methods in my classroom but I realize now I was using ABA to alter my students’ behaviour. Applied Behavioural Analysis is a therapy that is designed to solve behavioural problems using reinforcers to alter behaviour. These reinforcers can either precede the behaviour (antecedents) or follow the behaviour (consequences). The idea is based on Thorndike’s (1927) Law of Effect, which states that the likelihood of a behaviour occurring depends on the previous consequences that occurred the last time the behaviour was conducted. Behaviour associated with a positive consequence will be more likely to be repeated.  A large amount of research has been conducted concerning implementing ABA techniques in the classroom. Researchers have found that positive reinforcers can have an important effect on students, especially at the primary level. By rewarding a child for good behaviour, good behaviour will become the norm in your classroom. This can be applied in many situations from rewarding your students for paying attention, to participating or even completing homework or achieving good grades (Hoffman et al., 2009). While there have been critics that suggest that rewards can have a negative impact on students motivation, research has found that nearly all teachers use some form of rewards as positive reinforcement in their classroom and deem it to be an effective practice (Hoffman et al., 2009).

            An important aspect of ABA is to find the right incentive. The first step is to identify the target behaviour that needs to be modified, and then select appropriate reinforcers to be implemented and finally monitor the behaviour. In my case, I found that while my students weren’t motivated by the incentive of participation marks, chocolate seemed to do the trick. By offering chocolate to any student who answered a question, the room was soon full of students eager to participate, and by the end of the semester there was always a student ready to answer even if no chocolate was present.  I was able to alter my students’ behaviour by using chocolate as a positive reinforcer to increase the level of participation and participation soon became a regular occurrence in tutorial. I have learned two important lessons from this experience:  1) Applied behavioural analysis is an effective method to use in a classroom if I decide to pursue teaching and 2) Chocolate is the answer to all problems in life!

Emily Winters


Hoffmann, K. F., Huff, J. D., Patterson, A. S., & Nietfeld, J. L. (2009). Elementary teachers' use and perception of rewards in the classroom. Teaching and Teacher Education25(6), 843-849.

Thorndike, E.L. (1927). The Law of Effect. The American Journal of Psychology, 39,212-222

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