Shaping Students to be Better Shapers

Guest Blog from Mary Hunter and Jesús Rosales-Ruiz

There, in the very first lab session, I found myself creating behavior. Without any words being exchanged between me and my experimental subject, that little white furry animal was doing exactly what I told it to do—things it had never done before, things that gave it no evolutionary advantage, and even more incredibly, exactly what the lab manual said the animal was going to do when I set up specified contingencies.

Murray Sidman (2007)

When Dr. Murray Sidman was a student, introductory psychology and behavior analysis classes often included a laboratory component. In these classes, students performed exercises related to reinforcement, extinction, stimulus control, shaping, chaining, and other concepts. Many students, including the young Murray Sidman, found these classes thrilling. It was exciting for students to see behavior changing before their very eyes, and the exercises gave students important insights about how the principles of behavior worked.

Unfortunately, while a few laboratory classes still exist, these types of classes are no longer the norm. This means that students often do not have the opportunity to practice implementing procedures and watching behavior change in a controlled environment with a living organism. However, students can still have these types of experiences using a game called PORTL.

What is PORTL?

PORTL, which stands for the Portable Operant Research and Teaching Lab, is a tabletop game that is played by at least two people. It has been developed by Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz and Mary Hunter.

Two men studying together
[2] Image provided courtesy of Ivan Samkov under Pexels License

PORTL uses a collection of small objects, a clicker to select behavior, and small blocks as reinforcers. The teacher selects behaviors and communicates with the learner entirely through the operation of the clicker. The teacher may not talk to the learner, model the behavior, or use physical prompts.

As a teaching tool, PORTL can be used to model many of the same phenomena that Dr. Sidman saw in his early lab sessions. This helps students better understand the behavioral concepts they are reading about, and they experience first-hand that learning is an orderly and predictable process. Students can also use PORTL to improve their teaching skills. Through playing PORTL, they learn how to design, implement, and revise teaching programs.

In addition, PORTL can be used for research. In recent years, several students at the University of North Texas have conducted master’s thesis projects using PORTL under the direction of Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz.

This year, Dr. Rosales-Ruiz and Mary Hunter published a laboratory manual called PORTL: Your Portable Operant Research and Teaching Lab. The manual contains the curricula they use for their undergraduate classes, graduate classes, and professional workshops. The exercises in the manual take the reader on a guided journey for how to use PORTL for both teaching and research.

PORTL in the Classroom

Mary and Dr. Rosales-Ruiz teach a PORTL practicum class at the University of North Texas for first-year graduate students. In the class, students use PORTL to learn how to design, implement, and test teaching programs.

During the first part of the semester, students follow a series of exercises in the PORTL manual to practice foundational skills related to reinforcement delivery and shaping. Later in the semester, they practice writing and implementing shaping plans for progressively more difficult behaviors.

Hands playing board games
[3] Image provided courtesy of Pavel Danilyuk under Pexels License

By the end of the semester, the students are ready for their final project. Pairs of students are assigned a complicated behavior. The two students must work together to design and test a program that can be used to teach their behavior with minimal or no errors to both experienced and naive PORTL players.

Here are three of the goal behaviors that students worked on for their final projects this semester:

Group 1: Teach the learner to roll three dice. If any of the dice display the same number, the learner rolls the dice again until the three dice display three different numbers. Then, the learner stacks them with the lowest number on the bottom and the highest number on top.

Group 2: Start with three buttons on a pipe cleaner and more buttons to the side. The learner rolls a dice. If the learner rolls a 1, 2, or 3, the learner puts another button on the pipe cleaner. If the learner rolls a 4, 5, or 6, the learner takes two buttons off the pipe cleaner. If there are no buttons on the pipe cleaner, the learner pushes the pipe cleaner off the table.

Group 3: Give the learner three objects. Two of the objects match, and one of the objects is not the same. If you hold up one card, the learner touches the odd object. If you hold up a different card, the learner touches one of the objects that does match. Your cards should work with any combination of objects.

Three people sitting around a table playing with wooden blocks
[4] Image provided courtesy of Gustavo Fring under Pexels License

One benefit of PORTL is that your “rat” can talk to you after teaching is finished. For example, the first time that Group 3 taught their behavior, the learner did not learn the concepts of “same” and “different.” Instead, she came up with a complicated set of rules based on the position of the objects and their colors. During the discussion afterward, the teacher realized she needed to use a different set of objects and vary their positions more frequently during teaching.

PORTL experiences such as this help students improve their teaching and analytical skills, whether they work with humans or animals. What’s even better is that PORTL makes learning fun. As students implement procedures and watch what happens, they experience the same excitement that Dr. Sidman felt while shaping his first lab rat.

Additional Resources and Opportunities

First, you can find out more about PORTL at

Second, Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz, Mary Hunter, and Crystal Fernandez will be giving a six-hour workshop called “Teaching with PORTL” at the 2020 ABAI Convention in Washington, D.C.

Third, here are two good video links and articles about PORTL:

  1. What is PORTL? video and article
  2. Errorless chain video (below) and article

Image credits:

  1. Cover image provided courtesy of Pavel Danilyuk under Pexels License
  2. Image provided courtesy of Ivan Samkov under Pexels License
  3. Image provided courtesy of Pavel Danilyuk under Pexels License
  4. Image provided courtesy of Gustavo Fring under Pexels License