Psychological Strategies for Improving Motivation and Learning – Strategy 3: The Premack Principle

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Grandma’s Rule
Image by Debbie Courson Smith 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.

The Premack Principle

The Premack Principle of operant conditioning was originally identified by David Premack in 1965. According to this principle, also known as Grandma’s Rule or activity reinforcers, a more frequent or more preferred behavior can represent an effective positive reinforcer for a less frequent or less preferred activity (Ormrod, 2004; Schunk, 2004). In general, students will be more motivated to perform a particular activity if they know that they will be able to partake in a more desirable activity as a consequence. Thus, if more desirable behaviors are made contingent upon less desirable behaviors, then the lower probability behaviors are more likely to occur. In order for the Premack Principle to be effective, the low frequency behavior must occur first.

In applying this strategy, the teacher would identify preferred activities that would represent a high frequency behavior for target students. Perhaps they love animals and enjoy the task of feeding the class hamster. Alternately, perhaps they enjoy free time in the school library. When these high frequency behaviors are identified, the teacher may set up conditions such that the students are allowed to engage in these favored activities once they complete an assignment or remain undisruptive for a certain period of time. In this way, students may be persuaded to bargain, so to speak, for the privilege of engaging in the preferred activities.
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Cruz, L. & Cullinan, D. (2001). Awarding points using levels to help children improve behavior. Teaching Exceptional Children, 33(3), 16–23.

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

Ormrod, J. E. (2004). Human learning (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

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.

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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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