Programed Instruction- An Introduction

Dr. V.K.Maheshwari, M.A(Socio, Phil) B.Se. M. Ed, Ph.D

Former Principal, K.L.D.A.V.(P.G) College, Roorkee, India

One can gain appreciable insights to the present day status of the field of instructional technology from examining its early beginnings and the origins of current practice. Programmed Instruction  was an integral factor in the evolution of the instructional design process, and serves as the foundation for the procedures in which IT professionals now engage for the development of effective learning environments. In fact, the use of the term programming was applied to the production of learning materials long before it was used to describe the design and creation of computerized outputs.- Romizowski (1986)

Programmed Instruction is probably derived from B. F. Skinner’s (1954) paper “The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching” which he presented at the University of Pittsburgh at a conference of Current Trends in Psychology and the Behavioral Sciences. In that presentation, which was published later that same year, Skinner reacted to a 1953 visit to his daughter’s fourth-grade arithmetic class (Vargas & Vargas, 1992). Interestingly, this paper written in part from the perspective of an irate parent, without citation or review, became the basis for his controversial (Skinner, 1958) work, “Teaching Machines,” and his subsequent (1968a) work, “The Technology of Teaching.” In the 1954 work, Skinner listed the problems he saw in the schools using as a specific case “for example, the teaching of arithmetic in the lower grades” (p. 90). In the 1950s many of the ideas that had surfaced earlier were clarified and popularised.  Programmed instruction was among the first, in historical significance for instructional developments and analytical processes, important to instructional design.  This form of instruction is based on the behavioural learning theories.

The early programmed instruction was often delivered by some form of  ‘teaching machine’  but later it brought the concept of interactive text.  The programmed instruction movement extended the use of printed self – instruction to all school subject areas to adult and vocational education as well (Romiszowski,1997).  Later as the technology developed other media, such as radio, television video and computer, came of use.

Characteristics of Programmed Instruction

When discussing the underpinnings of Programmed Instruction it is easy to get bogged down in conflicting definitions of what the term means, which leads to disagreements as to when it first began, which leads into the arguments, efficacies and origins of particular concepts, and so forth. Since the work (and personality) of B. F. Skinner is included in the topic, the literature is further complicated by the visual array of misconceptions, misrepresentations, etc. of his work. Programmed Instruction, now a days is considered  as a method of teaching in which the information to be learned is presented in discrete units, with a correct response to each unit required before the learner may advance to the next unit, a monitored, step-by-step teaching method in which a student must master one stage before moving on to the next.

Here are some major characteristics of programmed instruction;

A-     The material is divided into small steps known as frames;

B-     Frequent response is required of the student;

C-     There is immediate confirmation of right answers or correction of wrong answers for each response the student makes;

D-     The content and sequence of the frame were subjected to actual tryout with students and were revised on the basis of the data gather by the program author.

A program, however, is the actual instruction. The student’s success or failure depends on the program. Nearly all students are capable of learning when properly programed materials are made available.  A program can be distinguished from a lesson plan or a book. A book is only a source of materials to which the student exposes himself. There is little or no predetermined interaction between the book and the reader in the form of required responses and feedback. A lesson plan is often a skeletal outline of materials and activities the teacher will use in teaching. The actual instruction is something related to but apart from the lesson outline .The programmed materials, as distinguished from programmed instruction, or the actual use   of the materials are simply the educational materials which the students learn. A program accepts the responsibility for the management of the learning situation, the program tries to see to it that the student does learn, and it takes the blame for the student’s failure

Writing and Revising a Program

Central to the roots of Programmed Instruction is the idea that programmers must decide what students should be to be able to do once they have completed the program. Generally, this involves some sort of activity analysis and specification of objectives.

Program writing has three major steps


B-The actual writing

C- Tryout and revision

The Preparation

The Preparation of a program consists of five steps you should consider before you begin writing it:

A-     Select a unit or topic

B-     Prepare a content outline

C-     Define the objectives in behavioral terms

D-      Construct (and administer) a test of entering behavior

E-      Construct (and administer) a test of  terminal behavior

Select a unit or topic

The selection of a topic can be guided by several factors. First, select subject matter with which you are thoroughly familiar. Unfamiliarity will result in misleading and inaccurate materials and will interfere with your learning how to program the materials. Second restrict yourself to a very small area of subject matter. The tendency of the beginning programmer is to select too wide a topic. The development of a program and the administration of it to the student are usually very time consuming activities.

Prepare a content outline

This outline should cover all the material you plan to teach. It is frequently the product of a careful examination of a number of textbooks and reference sources. An experienced  teacher also has the use of his notes, textbooks , and assignments he has used in conventional  instruction. If you have not taught the material you are about to program, you should consult an experienced teacher  who can supply knowledge, specific examples, and interesting illustrations which may be useful in your program. One of the chief criticism s of programed materials is that they have been published before adequate editing of the manuscript for accuracy and clarity of subject matter and presentation (Soles,1963). Occasionally an individual with some unpolished programing skills and with little knowledge of the subject matter has accepted the responsibility of writing a program. The results can be and have been disastrous. The chief advantage of the teacher as a programmer is that he can combine his knowledge of the subject matter with his new knowledge about programmed instruction.

Define the objectives in behavioral terms

The writing of objectives involves both task description and task analysis. Task description, is the description of terminal behavior. Task analysis examines  the component behaviors the student must acquire in the process of reaching the terminal behavior. It is better to state your objective in general rather than in behavioral terms. The general statement is an instructional goal. You then analyze this goal by asking yourself what behaviors are needed to attain it. You must continue the analysis of behavior until you have reached the probable level of entering behavior.

Construct (and administer) a test of entering behavior

The construction of this test requires you to determine the necessary prerequisite behavior which you will recall but not provide instruction for in your program. The prerequisite behaviors are the bases for writing the items for the test of entering behavior. If you administer such a test to your students early in the development of your program, the test results should indicate at what points your programming must begin. You should write several items for each entering behavior to be certain that the student does not answer an item correctly by only making a lucky guess. In dealing with a group of students you may discover considerable variability in entering behavior. One possible way of handling this problem is to develop a program with branches. The program can direct students with more adequate entering behavior than other to skip the introductory frames of the program and to turn to the advanced frames.

Construct (and administer) a test of terminal behavior

This test, based on your original task description, is used for performance assessment, the fourth component of the basic teaching model. The items should be scrambled and should not  follow the order in which the terminal behaviors were acquired in the program. Administer the test to your students before they study the program. In this way you can discover whether any student have already  acquired the behaviors  your program teaches. Material which the student already knows should be deleted from the program. In the administration of your entering and terminal tests, the ideal result is that all students obtain a perfect score on the test of entering behavior and obtain a zero score on the test of terminal behavior.

The Actual Writing

The Actual Writing of a program consists of five steps you should consider:

A-Present the material frames.

B- Require active responding

C- Provide for confirmation or correction of response

D-Use prompts to guide students response

E-Provide careful sequencing of the frames

Present the material frames

A frame is a small segment of subject matter which calls forth particular student responses. As a programmer your task is to provide those stimuli necessary to evoke the student responses which must be acquired as steps toward the terminal behavior. Not only a frame a unit of subject matter, such as a sentence or paragraph of a chapter, but also it is constructed to call forth particulars and eventually, specific terminal behaviors. Not only is a frame a unit of subject matter, such as a sentence or paragraph of a chapter, but also it is constructed to call forth particular responses and, eventually, specific terminal behaviors. There are four essential parts of a frame;  the stimulus and the stimulus context; the cues or prompts necessary to produce the response reliably; the response or responses the stimulus evokes; and enrichment material which makes the frame more readable or interesting or which recalls previously learned materials to facilitate student response. It is found that short steps are more effective than large steps for initial learning, and the progressive lengthening of steps leads to the best performance on the test of terminal behavior.

Require active responding

An necessary part of the frame is the response the student is asked to make . For the construction of frames, the Stuart Margulies  critical response rule can be used. The student can be expected to know only that portion of the material to which he has responded correctly. He cannot be expected to learn information which he does not use in making an immediate response.

It is important that the student be required to make the critical response. Holland (1960) altered the normal version of a program by choosing different response words which had little relationship with the critical content and which could be supplied by observing trivial cues. The absence of errors made during the study of a program can mislead the programmer into believing that the students are learning more than they are. By making trivial responses they are learning very little.

If you analyze the terminal behavior, you will be able to indicate clearly the critical responses the student should make. The responses in the frame always depend on some important part of the  subject matter, such as understanding a new illustration, recognizing important details  of the subject matter, or acquiring a new term.

The location of the response blank may also be a source of difficulty.  Robert Horn (1963, p.4) argued that the blank should appear a close to the end of the frame as possible because this position spares the student the awkwardness of flipping his eyes back and forth, “skidding around inside frame after frame looking for the relevant material.” It is often helpful at first to write the frame in question form because the question focuses the attention on the form of the required response. It is, of course, entirely permissible that a frame remain in question form. And it is sometimes desirable to use multiple-choice alternatives rather than fill-in blanks.

Weather the response programmed material should be OVERT or COVERT has been the subject of considerable discussion.. Unfortunately, these terms have shifted in meaning and “one man’s overt is frequently another man’s covert”. Actually in overt response the students wrote down their answers on sheet of paper ,, while in covert response students mentally composed a response to each blank in the frame before turning the page to the correct answer. Although the findings on the relative benefits of overt and covert responding have not always been consistent. Richard Anderson (1967) points to two conclusions which have considerable empirical support: (a) Overt  responses facilitate learning when the responses are relevant to the content of the lesson, and (b) Overt responses should be required in the learning of unfamiliar and technical terms.

The reason overt responding facilitate learning is not clear at present. Ernest Rothkopf (1966) suggests that test questions/ frames off a program control what he calls ‘ Mathemagenic  Behavior’- covert and overt behaviors of the student in the instructional situations which give birth to learning. Mathemagenic behaviors include reading, asking questions, inspecting an object, keeping the face oriented toward the teacher, and mentally reviewing a recently seen motion picture. They also include looking out of the classroom window, yawning, turning the pages of a textbook without reading, writing notes to a student in a neighboring seat, and sleeping either in class or either in a library carrel. Some of these behaviors, you can see, are quite unrelated to the achievement of instructional objectives. If it were possible, however, to control mathemagenic behaviors, the control could facilitate learning. Such control can be obtained through the insertions of questions in reading passage.

Provide for confirmation or correction of student responses

You have seen in the preceding examples of frames that the correct response to the frame always appears. Providing the correct response, with which the students compares his own response, has been a standard characteristic of programed instruction. When the student discovers that his response is correct, he obtains confirmation; when it is incorrect, he receives correction. The practical necessity or efficiency of immediate confirmation has never been adequately studied. It does appear that early programmers failed to distinguish between the motivational and informational aspects of immediate knowledge of results.

It is suggested that supplying the correct response may be more important later than earlier in the program, when most of the prompts for the correct responses are withdrawn. The tight sequencing of program frames, so that one frame interlocks with those which precede and follow it, provides a source of informational feedback apart form that provides by the printed answers.

Use prompts to guide Student Response

Prompts are cues provided in the program frame to guide the student to the correct response. They are supplementary stimuli in that they are added to a frame to make the frame easier, but are not sufficient in themselves to produce the response.

Prompts have two basic purposes:  They guide the student to the correct response without over controlling his behavior, and they prevent the student from making unnecessary errors. These  purposes suggests that you must avoid both over prompting and under prompting in writing your frames. A common source of over prompting is the COPYING FRAME, in which the student is asked to make a response given in the frame. In it the student need only copy the important word to respond correctly. The copying frame is a means for producing the response the first time and is useful as an introductory frame. Since it displays the full response, however, it is not a form of prompting. The main disadvantage is that the student can make correct verbatim responses which he conceptually does not understand. The use of copying  frame tends to make  a program dull and reduce the amount of student learning. It is not uncommon that students respond correctly to all the frames in a program and still fail to answer correctly to  the test of terminal behavior. Such a result is usually the result of over prompting and of the liberal use of copying frames.

The use of prompts to guide student responses requires you to withdraw these prompts so that the student can eventually achieve the terminal behavior without supporting cues.

Provide careful Sequencing of the Frames

The sequence, or order, in which your frames appear depends upon two factors: the description and analysis of the behaviors your program intends to teach, and the conditions essential for the learning required by the various tasks.

It is even possible to develop frames which engage the student in problem solving and discovery learning. Kersh(1964) developed a programmed discovery procedure which prescribed conditions under which the student would engage in searching behavior and which specified occasions for the teacher to give verbal approval to the student for the searching behavior he exhibited as he progressed through the program.

All the fundamental learning conditions-discrimination, generalization, contiguity, practice and reinforcement- can be embodied in the frame sequences, of course, can also provide for review and testing whenever these are necessary. One of the major advantages for educational psychologists in studying programed instruction is the freedom allowed in manipulating the fundamental learning conditions.

Tryout and Revision

We have divided the third stage of program development into three steps:

1-Develop the first draft of the program while working closely with your students.

2-Edit the program on the basis of the original try-out with these students.

3-Revise the program on the basis of terminal test performance and student responses to the program frames.

Develop the first draft of the program-

At this stage you should not try to produce highly polished frames. Thomas Gilbert suggests that  you work closely with each student in this stage of program development. Find out where the student makes his mistakes and what you can do about it. Revise the frames or frame sequence until the student learns from them what he is supposed to learn. The first tryout should occur before developing the program very far.

Edit the program

The following suggestions can be taken care of while editing the program:

  • Frames should be written clearly in good language
  • What is said should be correct
  • The response required of the student should be relevant to the purpose of the frame. If the student is to learn to do something, you should make him do it rather than talk about it
  • If you use a multiple-choice items, the alternatives should be feasible answers
  • Frames should contain sufficient context to make clear what is being presented and what is wanted
  • You should not include more points than the student can respond to in one frame
  • You should eliminate irrelevant material
  • In concept teaching, you should provide a representative sample of illustrations and provide for negative examples as well
  • You should make liberal use of thematic prompts and sparing use of formal prompts
  • You should make the frames toward mastery as large as  the student can reasonably be expected to handle. Let testing tell you when the step is too large
  • The testing should tell you how much practice and prompting to provide

Try out and revise

After this editing you have a fledgling program to try out, It should be neatly typed and carefully duplicated. You will need about fifteen to forty or more students- but use as many/as few as you have When you administer your program this time, resist any impulse to intervene. The program must now assume the full instructional responsibility. You can supply the student with paper which bears numbered blanks. On these  they can check the frames which give them difficulty and give a description of the difficulty. You can also record any questions they ask while studying the program. After finishing the program the students should take the test of terminal behavior. The students’ response records will reveal  which frames were missed. From these records you an make a list of common errors. If you group the items of the test by subunits, you can also determine which sections of the program were ineffective. High error rates on particular frames or particular sections indicate a need for revision. The conventional standard has been the 10 percent error rate. Finally, if you require the students to annotate their copies of the program,  their comments can also guide your revision.

Probably no single movement has impacted the field of instructional design and technology than Programmed Instruction. It spawned widespread interest, research; then it was placed as a component within the larger systems movement and, finally, was largely forgotten. In many ways, the arguments and misconceptions of the “golden age” of Programmed Instruction over its conceptual and theoretical underpinnings have had a profound effect on the research and practice of our field—past, present and future.


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