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Effective Online Instruction Requires Behavioral Science

Virtual learning poses new and unique challenges to the education system.

As the next school year approaches, we all face the harsh reality that schools will likely remain closed and online instruction will continue. The transition to virtual learning poses new and unique challenges to an education system that was already struggling to effectively educate students.

More than 60% of American students score below proficiency in all academic subjects. This tragic statistic increases to more than 80% for students of color and those living in poverty. Our education system was failing too many students before the pandemic. Now, our education system must educate many kids virtually, which gives rise to both ecological and instructional challenges.

Ecologically, kids must have access to technology like the internet and a computer. Kids must also have a proper workspace in the home environment free from distractions. These kinds of requirements pose an enormous barrier to many students—particularly those living in poverty. First and foremost, for virtual instruction to succeed, kids must have access, and it is the responsibility of our policymakers to ensure that kids have that access.

However, ensuring that kids can access virtual instruction doesn’t solve the bigger problem facing us. Educational practices don’t work for a majority of students—even when these practices are occurring in classrooms. Access to a computer and the internet are basic requirements for attending online classes, but actually learning during those classes requires effective instruction. If instructional practices aren’t designed according to the science of learning, then online instruction will inevitably be as ineffective as classroom instruction has historically been.

Schools are, and always have been, designed based on traditions and beliefs (Berens, 2020). As a result, a majority of American students fail to acquire proficiency in essential academic skills. Students are pushed ahead based on age and the passage of time—not prerequisite skill mastery. Teachers must follow arbitrary timelines set by the school district, rather than being allowed to act as scientists and adjust their instruction to the learning of their individual students. As such, students are exposed to a series of lessons, get tested on those lessons, and get pushed on to the next series of lessons—regardless of test performance.

These traditions result in many students having cumulative skills deficits, which prevent them from effectively learning and mastering more advanced content. This tragic reality is evidenced by the fact that American students become less proficient throughout the course of schooling. A greater percentage of 4th graders score as proficient than 8th graders, and a greater percentage of 8th graders score as proficient than 12th graders (see here and here). In other words, the more schooling American students get, the less proficient they become in essential academic areas.

Behavioral science, which is the science of learning, has led to the discovery that learning requires the repeated, reinforced practice of skills over time. Moreover, complex repertoires cannot be effectively learned and mastered until the component skills included in that complex repertoire are mastered. Unfortunately, schools aren’t designed according to the science behind how learning actually works. As a result, the vicious cycle of school failure continues—year after year and student after student.

Sadly, this cycle of school failure has the potential to worsen with online instruction. Students will have even fewer opportunities to participate in lessons and repeatedly practice essential skills to mastery. online instruction largely requires that students function independently, where they must complete assignments with little to no instruction provided. But students can’t function independently if they haven’t mastered the skills required to do so.

In addition to effective instruction, online schooling requires that effective reinforcement systems be designed for students. Behavioral science has led to the discovery that behavior is selected by its consequences. Reinforcing consequences strengthen behavior and increase the probability that the behavior will continue to occur. Punishing consequences weaken behavior and decrease the probability that behavior will continue to occur.

Unfortunately, most educators aren’t trained to understand this basic process. As a result, students aren’t provided with the opportunity to frequently behave in the desired way and have that behavior reinforced so that it can be strengthened and become permanent. More often than not, students actually practice the wrong thing and develop bad habits that interfere with learning effective skills. Moreover, punishing consequences are frequently used to control student behavior. Behavioral science has led to the discovery that punishment can lead to emotional behavior and the avoidance of academic tasks altogether. This unfortunate fact is evidenced by the fact that many students will actively avoid participating in class or completing assignments.

For online instruction to work, that instruction must be designed according to the scientifically validated principles of learning. Students must be encouraged to participate in online lessons and receive immediate reinforcement for that participation. Direct Instruction (DI) is an empirically validated teaching method based on behavioral science that strengthens class engagement and ensures that learning takes place during lessons. Sadly, the DI method has been blocked by the educational establishment since the early 1970s, despite empirical findings that it produces exponentially greater learning gains than traditional approaches.

Moreover, students require the opportunity to repeatedly practice basic skills until they are truly mastered—or fluent. Behavioral science has led to the discovery that, as basic skills are repeatedly practiced and reinforced over time, they increase in speed—measured as a rate of response—until they become fluent. Fluent skills are neurologically permanent, resistant to distractions and fatigue, and available for the effortless learning of more complex skills. Our science has also led to the discovery that, when kids are provided the opportunity to achieve fluency in essential skills, they begin leaping up curriculum ladders with little to no instruction required. (Berens, 2020). Fluent learners also demonstrate increases in attention span, confidence, perseverance, and critical thinking skills.

Since the dawn of our education system, our schools have failed to evolve. Education is as inefficient and ineffective today as it was a century ago. The current pandemic poses even more challenges to effectively educating kids than ever before. If we don’t demand that our schools evolve and incorporate teaching practices based on behavioral science, we won’t rise to this challenge, resulting in even more students being left behind.


Berens, K. (2020). Blind Spots: Why Students Fail and the Science that can Save Them. In press. The Collective Book Studio: Oakland, CA.

ADDIN EN.REFLIST Binder, C. (1996). Behavioral Fluency: Evolution of a New Paradigm. The Behavior Analyst, 19(2), 163 - 197.

Skinner, B. F. (1968). The technology of teaching. New York,: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Watkins, C. L. (1997). Project Follow Through : a case study of contingencies influencing instructional practices of the educational establishment. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies.

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