Schedules Of Reinforcement

Schedules Of Reinforcement

In this article, we will examine common types of reinforcement schedules and how their application affects parenting.

What Are Schedules Of Reinforcement In Psychology

Operant conditioning is the procedure of learning to increase or decrease a voluntary behavior using reinforcement or punishment. Schedules of reinforcement are the rules that control the timing and frequency of reinforcement delivery to make a target behavior more likely to happen, continue or strengthen.

Reinforcement schedules are contingency schedules. The reinforcers are only given when target behavior has occurred, and therefore, the reinforcement is contingent on the desired behavior.

Continuous schedules apply reinforcement after each response while intermittent schedules apply reinforcement after some, but not all, responses.

Continuous schedule

Continuous schedules present the reinforcement after every performance of the desired behavior. This reinforcement schedule is the quickest in teaching a new behavior.

Continuous reinforcement schedule


Continuous reinforcement schedule is often used in animal training. A dog is rewarded with treats every time it does a trick correctly.

It also works well with very young children, e.g. potty training. A toddler is rewarded with candy every time he uses the potty successfully.

Intermittent reinforcement schedule (Partial schedule)

Intermittent schedules reward some desired behavior, but not all of it.

After a new behavior is learned using a continuous schedule, an intermittent schedule is often applied to strengthen it because behavior reinforced by intermittent schedules is more resistant to extinction.

Many different types of intermittent schedules are possible, but the four types of intermittent schedules commonly used in psychology are based on the time elapsed (interval) or the number of responses made (ratio).

The four types of intermittent schedules of reinforcement are:

  • Fixed interval schedule (FI)
  • Fixed ratio schedule (FR)
  • Variable interval schedule (VI)
  • Variable ratio schedule (VR)

Fixed interval schedule (FI)

A fixed interval schedule delivers reinforcements when a set amount of time has elapsed since the previous reinforcement. This schedule usually generates a scalloped or break-run behavior pattern, in which the subject pauses after every reinforcement and then delivers the behavior at a faster rate as the next reinforcement approaches​1​.

Fixed interval reinforcement-schedule


Students whose grades depend entirely on the final exam performance don’t study much at the beginning of the semester, but they cram when it’s almost exam time.

Here, studying is the targeted behavior and the grades are reinforcement given after the final exam at the end of the semester.

Variable interval schedule (VI)

A variable interval schedule delivers the reinforcer after a variable amount of time has elapsed since the previous reinforcement. This schedule usually generates a steady rate of performance.

Variable interval reinforcement-schedule


Students whose grades depend on the performance of pop quizzes throughout the semester study regularly instead of cramming at the end.

Variable interval schedules are more effective than fixed interval schedules in teaching behavior that needs to be performed at a steady rate​2​.

Fixed ratio schedule

Fixed ratio schedule delivers reinforcement after a specific number of responses are made. This schedule produces a high rate of response until a reinforcer is received, which is then followed by a pause in behavior.


A toy maker produces toys and the store only buys toys in batches of 5. When the maker produces toys at a high rate, he makes more money.

Variable ratio schedule

Variable ratio schedule delivers reinforcement after a variable number of responses are made. This schedule produces a high and steady response rate.


Gambling, such as a slot machine, rewards unpredictably. Each winning requires a different number of lever pulls. Gamblers keep pulling the lever in hopes of winning and become addictive.


Extinction is a special type of reinforcement schedule, in which the reinforcement is discontinued leading to a progressive decline of the previously reinforced response. How fast complete extinction happens depends on the reinforcement schedule used in learning the behavior. Among the 4 types of reinforcement schedules, Variable Ratio Schedule (VR) is the most resistant to extinction whereas Fixed Interval Schedule (FI) is the least.

Schedules of reinforcement and parenting

Parents use various reinforcement schedules to teach children new behavior, strengthen the desired behavior or try to stop undesired behavior.

A continuous schedule is often the best in teaching a new behavior. Once the response has been learned, an intermittent schedule can be used to strengthen the new behavior.


Let’s go back to the potty-training example. When parents first introduce the concept of potty training, they give the toddler candy whenever she uses the potty successfully. That is a continuous schedule. After the child has been using the potty consistently for a few days, the parents would transition to only reward the behavior intermittently using variable schedules.

Reinforcement and parenting

In daily life, parents sometimes unknowingly reinforce undesired behavior​3​. Because such reinforcement is unintended, it is often delivered inconsistently. The inconsistency serves as a variable reinforcement schedule, leading to a “learned” behavior that is hard to stop even when the parents stop applying the reinforcement.

Girl cries mother gives in


When a toddler throws a tantrum in the store, parents usually refuse to give in. But once in a while, when they’re tired or in a hurry, they decide to buy the candy, thinking they will do it just that one time. From the child’s perspective, such concession is a reinforcer that encourages tantrum throwing. Because the reinforcement (candy buying) is delivered at a variable schedule, the toddler ends up throwing fit regularly for the next give-in. This is one reason why consistency is important in parenting.

  1. 1.
    Dews PB. Studies on responding under fixed-interval schedules of reinforcement: II. The scalloped pattern of the cumulative record. J Exp Anal Behav. January 1978:67-75. doi:10.1901/jeab.1978.29-67
  2. 2.
    Schoenfeld W, Cumming W, Hearst E. ON THE CLASSIFICATION OF REINFORCEMENT SCHEDULES. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1956;42(8):563-570.

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