What is Continuous Reinforcement?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 17 September 2018
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In operant conditioning, continuous reinforcement is reinforcement which occurs every time the desired behavior occurs. This is in contrast with a partial reinforcement schedule, in which reinforcement is provided sometimes, but not always, on a schedule which can vary in irregularity. Typically, continuous reinforcement is used at an early stage of operant conditioning, when the goal is to familiarize the organism being conditioned with the basic ground rules of the situation. Continuous reinforcement must be provided promptly and consistently in order to work.

Reinforcement is a technique which is designed to increase the probability of repeat behavior, in contrast with punishment, in which the goal is to decrease the probability of repeat behavior. In positive reinforcement, a pleasant stimulus is introduced to the situation as a reward, while in negative reinforcement, a negative stimulus is taken away as a reward. While negative reinforcement might sound strangely like punishment, it is important to note that rather than punishing behavior by introducing a negative stimulus, it is rewarding behavior by taking the unpleasant stimulus away.


A classic example of positive reinforcement is food. Organisms from rats to dolphins enjoy eating special treats, and will quickly learn to associate a desired behavior with a snack. The drawback to using food for positive reinforcement is that an organism may grow full before a session is over. For this reason, people sometimes prefer to use what is known as a secondary or conditioned reinforcer, something which an organism has been conditioned to view as positive. For example, the phrase “good dog” on its own is not a reinforcer, but it becomes one when a dog is conditioned to associate the phrase with food or physical attention. When an organism is on a continuous reinforcement schedule, it receives a reward in the form of a primary or secondary reinforcer every time it exhibits a desired behavior.

One of the most commonly used examples of negative reinforcement comes from laboratory experiments in which animals are shocked until they exhibit a desired behavior, such as pushing a button. In a conditioned form of negative reinforcement, a tone sounds before the shock occurs, with the animal learning to associate the tone with the shock. The animal has the choice of hitting the button before the shock happens, learning to avoid the shock by hitting the button first. Negative reinforcement is used in escape and avoidance conditioning, and occasionally by frustrated parents, as in “clean your room and I'll stop nagging.”

The continuous reinforcement schedule is used to establish basic ground rules so that the organism being conditioned understands what is happening and why. While animals have been used as examples in this article, operant conditioning can also be used on people. For example, many parents use this method to teach their children positive behaviors, switching to a partial reinforcement schedule later so that children do not learn to expect praise with every positive behavior. As in the nagging example, parents can also use a conditioned negative reinforcement, with children learning to do something after being asked once to avoid being subjected to constant reminders.


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Post 6

Bhutan - I wanted to add that my kids generally do well in school but there are times when they may not put in the same effort and the grade will reflect it.

I try to take care of it right away. First I try to find out if they understood the material by asking questions about it. Then if they understood the material but rushed and were careless then they get punished.

However, if they did not understand the material then I review it with them and tell them in the future to come to me so that I can help them with it.

This does not happen too often because I check their homework, but I if it happens it is usually during the class work assignments.

My children understand how I feel about them doing their best so they usually do because I reinforce the importance of doing your best every day with them.

Post 5

Mutsy - I agree with that. Children are being given such difficult work that I don’t remember receiving work like that when I was a kid.

I mean my daughter was reading “A Christmas Carol” in the fourth grade. This book is written at a sixth or seventh grade level and even at that grade the material is difficult.

She did well but I had to reinforce her positive study habits so that she would continue to do well. I had her read the story to me and then I would ask her all about it.

She loved the story and enjoys reading because I would tell her how well she was doing and it would encourage her to work harder. I have to say that I was impressed.

Post 4

BrickBack- I think that consistency is the key to behavioral reinforcement. I know when my children work hard in school and I will bring them a special treat when I pick them up at school to acknowledge it.

I always reward the effort not necessarily the result because my daughter can do her best and get a perfect score and other times her best might be a 90. I want her to build positive study habits so I try to catch her doing this and reward her because of it.

I know people are focused on results, but the right results will occur automatically once they have assimilated the right study habits. By working hard my daughter is developing character and a strong work ethic which are very desired results because the most successful people in life are the ones that work the hardest.

Post 3

I think that you should use behavioral reinforcement measures with children in order to discourage improper behavior.

For example, in a classroom a teacher will explain the rules of the classroom to the students and then offer the consequences for not meeting those behavioral standards.

If a student talks when the teacher is talking the teacher will consider it an offense and reduce the amount of recess the student receives.

My daughter’s teacher allows the children three strike before they receive a punishment. Once they commit the offense for the third time then the child starts to receive the punishment.

I think that it is fair because the children know what is expected and she is very consistent when she issues the punishment so children know that she is serious.

Post 2

The Big Bang Theory used behavioral reinforcement once. Sheldon tried to "fix" some of Penny's habits that he disliked, and to encourage ones he did, by giving her chocolate every time she did something he liked. It worked, and it probably would work if someone tried to do that with a young woman, unfortunately, myself included. At least, until I started gaining weight.

Post 1

Continuous really does work, almost creepily so. The trick is to not give someone the form of positive or negative reinforcement every single time, but at random intervals- this can work both for causing and for preventing bad behavior, though, so be careful.

For example, a child who asks for a candy bar every time they go to the store will stop asking if they are told no every single time long enough. If a parent says no 5 times, though, and then yes once, the child will remember the one time and keep asking.

Similarly, if a child is given a treat every time he or she finished schoolwork, that child will not do it after the one time of not receiving a treat. If you give your child a treat randomly, say once or twice a week when you see fit, that will encourage doing the work in case the treat comes that time.

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