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The effects of contingency variables

Prepared by John Church, PhD, School of Educational Studies and Human Development

University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Research into the effects of various kinds of consequences and contingency operations on motivation and learning is extensive. The effects of reinforcing pupils for their effort, their productivity, and their correct responses have been studied in many hundreds of controlled experiments. As a result we know more about the effects of consequences than we do about the effects of almost any other teaching variable. Lysakowski and Walberg reviewed some of this research in 1981 and concluded that reinforcement variables have a stronger effect on learning than almost any other variable apart from practice itself. They further concluded that: "Contrary to previous theory and opinions, the strong effects of instructional reinforcement appear constant across grades (kindergarten through college), socio-economic levels, race, private and public schools, and community types" (Lysakowski & Walberg, 1981, p. 69).

Since then researchers have continued to study the effects of different types of reinforcing (and aversive) consequences, the effects of different types of contingencies, the effects of different schedules of reinforcement (and punishment) and the effects of reinforcing different dimensions of performance.

In this chapter we will review the effects on motivation and learning of introducing and removing positive and negative reinforcement contingencies, the effects of introducing and removing positive and negative punishment contingencies, the effects of differentially reinforcing differing dimensions of performance and the effects of differing schedules of reinforcement and punishment.


  • Lysakowski, R. S. & Walberg, H. J. (1981). Classroom reinforcement and learning: A quantitative synthesis. Journal of Educational Research, 75, 69-77.