Psychological Strategies for Improving Motivation and Learning – Strategy 1: Shaping

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Gradual reinforcement toward the goal
Image by 14995841 from Pixabay

Various researchers (Cruz & Cullinan, 2001; Maslow, 1987; Pintrich & Schrunk, 2002) have demonstrated a strong positive correlation between motivation and achievement. Motivated learners approach tasks eagerly, exert high levels of effort, and persist in the face of difficulty. When students lack adequate motivation, they often become restless and disruptive in the classroom as well. Borrowing from the behaviorist and social learning theory perspectives, teachers can employ various strategies to encourage positive classroom behavior, increase motivation and facilitate student achievement.


Shaping refers to “a process that involves reinforcing learners for making gradual progress toward a terminal behavioral goal” (Fetsco & McClure, 2005, p. 43). The process involves setting goals for students and reinforcing successively closer and closer approximations to that behavior. As a new level of performance is achieved, the target goal is successively adjusted to a higher level. The process typically involves five steps, including: (1) Identifying the desired target or terminal goal; (2) Identifying sub-goals, referred to as successive approximations, that progressively move the student toward the terminal goal; (3) Identifying the current level of student functioning in terms of the identified successive approximations; (4) Assisting the student’s progress through the successive approximations by providing reinforcement for each progressive step toward the terminal goal; and (5) Continuing the process until the terminal goal is reached. Shaping has been identified as particularly effective for skills requiring persistence, endurance, increased levels of accuracy and greater speed or extensive practice to master (Shunk, 2004; Woolfolk, 2003). However, it also represents a relatively time-consuming strategy that requires constant monitoring.

In applying this strategy to increase reluctant or disruptive students’ motivation and effort in their learning process, the teacher would work with them to set a final goal of consistently turning in all homework assignments (e.g., five math homework assignments completed each week). Initially, any response that resembles the goal would be reinforced. If the initial rate of performance reflected an average of one completed assignment each week, the successive approximations would bridge the gap between the current level of one and the terminal goal of five. The teacher would use shaping by reinforcing students for improving on the number of completed assignments submitted. This may begin as reinforcement for completing two assignments. Once this rate is relatively stable, reinforcement would be given for the completion of three assignments (no longer reinforcing for levels below this) and so on until the terminal goal is reached and maintained.

To address disruptive behavior, a similar process would be initiated whereby students would be progressively reinforced for longer and longer periods of independent work without interruption. At the onset this might be implemented by reinforcing five minutes of quiet work without interruption. Gradually, as students respond to the reinforcement the time would increase until the behavior reflected the desired level.

The bottom line is that intelligence in everyday life requires a balance among adaptation to, shaping of, and selection of environments.
Image by 14995841 from Pixabay


Cruz, L. & Cullinan, D. (2001). Awarding points using levels to help children improve behavior. Teaching Exceptional Children, 33(3), 16–23.

Fetsco, T. & McClure, J. (2005). Educational psychology: An integrated approach to classroom decisions. New York, NY: Pearson.

Maslow, A. (1987). Motivation and personality (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Pintrich, P. R. & Schrunk, D. H. (2002). Motivation in education, (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Schunk, D. H. (2004). Learning theories: An educational perspective, (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Woolfolk, A. (2003). Educational psychology, 9e. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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