What is Programmed Instruction?

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  • Written By: J.M. Densing
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 26 November 2019
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Programmed instruction is an instructional method in which the material to be learned is presented to the student in small chunks of information. In order to progress through the material, the student needs to demonstrate understanding of the previous information, thereby receiving instant reinforcement for correct responses. This method can be instructor led or can be self taught by the student. It also lends itself well to computer assisted learning. The method was originally popularized by B.F. Skinner as a behavioral approach to teaching.

Programmed instruction is a precise process. The material a student learns is broken down into tiny chunks to avoid overwhelming the student with too much at once. At times, a single course may consist of thousands of these chunks, or units, of instruction. It is thought that presenting the material in small pieces improves comprehension and retention. It's also much easier to pinpoint exactly where learning issues occur, and which parts are not understood, allow for immediate remediation.


Once broken down into units of instruction, the information can be presented to the student. As the student works through the content, his or her understanding is checked after each unit. This can be accomplished through questioning directly after the information is presented. If the student responds correctly, demonstrating appropriate comprehension, he or she is able to move on; this provides immediate positive reinforcement. If the response is incorrect, the student receives the information again to provide an opportunity to process it before moving on to the next module.

A carefully designed program can be instructor led but it works best in a one-to-one setting, or with a very small group of students with similar abilities; it's a difficult method to apply in larger groups. Most curricula that utilize programmed instruction are designed to be self taught, allowing the student to move through the material at his or her own pace. This also allows faster learners to move ahead quickly while allowing others to take as much time as is needed. Programs can utilize a textbook approach, or they can be taught via computer. Most contemporary programmed instruction uses computers, which are ideal for this approach since software can be programmed to deliver information and test questions automatically.

B.F. Skinner is considered by many to be the "father" of programmed instruction. He popularized the approach in the 1950s. Skinner viewed it as a behavioral method, which used questions to elicit the correct response as the desired behavior. The approach then rewarded or reinforced the behavior by allowing the student to move on to new material. Skinner invented a mechanical device called a "teaching machine" containing a list of questions that automated by the standards of his day the task of programmed instruction.


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