Positive Reinforcement in the College Classroom

Why is it important for our higher education learners to receive positive reinforcement? Do adult learners have this need? In what ways can instructors provide their adult learners with positive reinforcement?

Sharp (2011) lays it down beautifully, explaining that as we grow up we receive incentives, prices, stickers, and encouragement for the most mundane actions such as making our beds. However, as we grow and become more self-motivated, the amount of positive reinforcement declines exponentially by the time we pursue higher education.

Unfortunately, our higher education settings are geared to a more impersonal approach, decreasing the possible room for positive reinforcement. Sharp suggests “we are much less likely to praise or reward students for their efforts when we feel distant from them—when they’re simply part of a massive, faceless group rather than distinct individuals” (p. 52). Additionally, Williamson (2018) states that our adult learners, who are sometimes “mature” students, lack confidence, are often shy, and seek approval.

So, what is positive reinforcement and how can we achieve it in higher education? Williamson (2018) describes positive reinforcement as a practice that increases the probability of the desired student behaviour being repeated. She suggests reinforcements should be given to adult learners as they get closer to the defined goal through verbal and nonverbal cues by the teacher. She believes that this practice makes the “learning process faster and more efficient”. It can also result in increased self-esteem, motivation, and gratitude. How can we bring more positive reinforcement into our classrooms?

Strategies to increase student ability and confidence:

1. If teaching a writing class, Sharp (2011) suggests bringing in a good exemplar from a student and sharing it anonymously with the rest of the students, pointing out the factors that have turned the writing into a great piece.

2. Offer bonus points for achieving a certain level or completing an additional activity.

3. Encourage students to ask questions or express ideas and praise them for taking initiative.

4. Allow learners to design the next challenging level to keep them motivated, responsible, and autonomous. This will reinforce a positive classroom atmosphere.

5. Allow adult learners to take on a leadership role and guide a discussion, questionnaire or an activity in smaller groups.

6. Offer an additional additive grading system. In an additive system, students will start accumulating from 0 and work their way up, which is opposite to the traditional subtractive grading system.

7. Set up weekly/monthly goals and a questionnaire and allow students to self-reflect and write a report to you on their performance, and then provide a quick feedback on their reflection.

8. Conduct competitions on a variety of activities and combine them with bonus points. You could use platforms such as Kahoot.com, Mentimeter, or Socrative.com for carrying out quick quizzes or questionnaires.

What are some strategies you use to increase confidence in your students?


Sharp, S. (2011). A New Look at the Interactive Writing Classroom: Methods, Strategies, and Activities to Engage Students. R&L Education.

Williamson, J. (2018, October 10). Develop Reinforcement Techniques. Retrieved from https://owlcation.com/academia/Reinforcement-Techniques-for-Vocational-Adult-Instructors

Hi everyone! My name is Sherry, and I have been teaching adult learners for the past 18 years. I am an OCT certified teacher with a master’s degree in Education. I teach English, ESL, OSLT, research and report writing courses at a post-secondary level of education. As an educator, I am passionate about incorporating diverse instructional strategies that would benefit students with various learning abilities. I am also passionate about research and implementing various ED-Tech tools in developing and instructing various courses. I am very glad to be a part of the TESL Blog team.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *