The nature of problem solving has been a difficult one to pin down, with much of the focus placed on hypothetical cognitive structures based on technological metaphors that change as quickly as the currently popular technologies after which they are modeled. While behavior analysts have made use of several effective instructional methodologies to produce reliable and impressive convergent learning outcomes, mainstream education has increasingly shifted toward divergent learning outcomes. Educators desire instructional models that are free flowing, spontaneous, and creative, producing students capable of solving problems in a wide array of domains. The analysis provided by a science of human behavior, combined with the aforementioned effective instructional strategies, reveals problem solving to be an area ripe for behavior analytic dissemination and interdisciplinary coordination. Behavior analysis offers a distinctly selectionist account of problem solving that focuses on the interaction between the learner and the environment. This paper serves three functions. First, the authors present a detailed and comprehensive account of human problem solving from a behavior analytic perspective, with a special focus on the role of verbal behavior. Second, research that supports this conceptualization is thoroughly detailed. Lastly, the authors describe effective problem solving curricula and instructional methods derived from a behavior analytic framework to assist educators as to how to create optimal learning environments to promote and nurture cultures of successful problem solving.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Readers are encouraged to thoroughly review Tiemann and Markle’s (1990) discussion of complex cognitive learning for a behavioral approach to such learning.
There are no doubt additional variables at play. The concept of response strength is one that has attracted criticism and merits further investigation (see Shahan 2017). Nonetheless, response strength serves as a useful tool for making sense of the other processes that may be involved in problem solving.
A principle called extinction (Skinner 1953).
In 1957, Skinner produced the first, comprehensive analysis of verbal behavior from a behavior analytic perspective—Verbal Behavior. He defines his subject matter, verbal behavior, as behavior that is reinforced not through direct contact with the environment (as is the case with non-verbal behavior); rather, verbal behavior is reinforced through consequences that are mediated from another individual who has been explicitly conditioned by the verbal community to reinforce verbal behavior (Skinner 1957, pp. 224–226). In essence, verbal behavior consists of a set of interlocking contingencies between a speaker (the one engaging in verbal behavior) and the listener (the one who reinforces the speaker’s verbal behavior) in which the listener functions as a discriminative stimulus for the verbal behavior of the speaker; the verbal behavior of the speaker serves as the discriminative stimulus for the listener’s behavior that subsequently serves as the consequence for the speaker’s behavior.
Skinner (1957) contrasts the subject matter of verbal behavior with the foci of disciplines such as linguistics whose emphasis is on the general trends of groups of people (such as all of those who speak Swahili) or the features of the language itself (e.g., differentiating transparent from non-transparent languages—such as Italian and English, respectively) by emphasizing that verbal behavior focuses on the behavior of the individual speaker and the meaning of what is communicated is found through the analysis of the environmental controlling variables.
Skinner (1957) outlines several verbal operants—or classes of verbal responses that are defined by their antecedent and consequence controlling variables—such as the mand, tact, echoic, and intraverbal. Each of these verbal operants specify not the exact topography of the response; instead, they predict the environmental conditions under which a number of potential responses, both verbal and non-verbal, might be strengthened and therefore be more likely to be emitted depending on the individual’s past history of reinforcement under similar conditions. The notion of the verbal operant is particularly helpful in designing interventions that support language acquisition (as is evidenced by a large body of empirical support; see for example, The Analysis of Verbal Behavior—1982 to present). Skinner (1957) purports that a specific topography of verbal behavior (i.e., a word or words) may serve many different functions for the speaker and therefore may need to be taught (i.e., reinforced) in a number of different situations. The individual who says “coffee” may do so when they “want” a cup of coffee (mand), when they see a cup of coffee (tact), after someone else says coffee (echoic), or when someone asks, “what do you drink every morning before going to work” (intraverbal).
Authors selected to include the terms “memory” and “memory strategies” as these terms are consistent with the literature cited throughout this section of the manuscript.
Skinner (1957) defines the autoclitic as, “[verbal] behavior which is based upon or depends upon other verbal behavior” (p. 315).
TAPS is available at http://www.talkaloudproblemsolving.com/.
Several studies did not meet the search criteria used for the current paper. However, a number of researchers have explored problem solving from a behavioral perspective (e.g., Foxx et al. 1988, 1989; Martella et al. 1992). These papers were excluded from this literature review but should be acknowledged given their contributions to our work (and that of others) on problem solving from a behavior analytic perspective.
Sequelic behavior was defined as a subtype of intraverbal responding, where the form of the responses did not match the form or the order of the preceding verbal stimulus (Vargas 1986).
Verbal operants not identified. Likely a combination of intraverbals and other operants under multiple control.
Verbal operants not identified. Likely a combination of intraverbals and other operants under multiple control.
Isawa (2002) described the request for further information as a mand; however, it was more likely a multiply controlled verbal operant consisting of stimulus controls associated with both mand and intraverbal operants.
Alessi, G. (1987). Generative strategies and teaching for generalization. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 5, 15–27. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf03392816.
Andronis, P. T., Layng, T. J., & Goldiamond, I. (1997). Contingency adduction of “symbolic aggression” by pigeons. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 14, 5–17. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf03392913.
Austin, J., & Delaney, P. F. (1998). Protocol analysis as a tool for behavior analysis. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 15, 41–56. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf03392922.
Binder, C. (1996). Behavioral fluency: Evolution of a new paradigm. The Behavior Analyst, 19, 163–197. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf03393163.
Braam, S. J., & Poling, A. (1983). Development of intraverbal behavior in mentally retarded individuals through transfer of stimulus control procedures: Classification of verbal responses. Applied Research in Mental Retardation, 4, 279–302. https://doi.org/10.1016/0270-3092(83)90030-9.
Carmichael, J. W., Bauer, J. D., Hunter, J. R., & Sevenair, J. P. (1988). An assessment of premedical program in terms of its ability to serve black Americans. Journal of the National Medical Association, 80(10), 1094–1104.
Carmichael, J. W., Hassel, J., Hunter, J., Jones, L., Ryan, M. S., & Vincent, H. (1980). Project SOAR (stress on analytical reasoning). The American Biology Teacher, 42(3), 169–173. https://doi.org/10.2307/4446862.
Catania, A. C. (1992). Learning (3rd ed.). New York: Prentice Hall.
Cerutti, D. T. (1989). Discrimination theory of rule-governed behavior. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 51, 259–276. https://doi.org/10.1901/jeab.1989.51-259.
Cihon, T. M., Kieta, A., & Glenn, S. (2017). Teaching behavior analysis with behavior analysis: The evolution of the teaching science lab at the University of North Texas. European Journal of Behavior Analysis. https://doi.org/10.1080/15021149.2017.1404393.
Delaney, P. F., & Austin, J. (1998). Memory as behavior: The importance of acquisition and remembering strategies. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 15, 75–91. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf03392925.
Dewey, J. (2008). The later works of John Dewey, 1925–1953, Essays and how we think: revised edition (Vol. 8). Carbondale: SIU Press.
Donahoe, J. W., & Palmer, D. C. (1994). Learning and complex behavior. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Doyle, W., Sanford, J. P., & Emmer, E.T. (1982). Managing academic tasks in junior high school: Background, design, and methodology. (R&D Rep. No. 6185).
Engelmann, S., & Carnine, D. (1982). Theory of instruction. New York: Irvington Publishing Inc.
Eppley, K. (2011). Reading mastery as pedagogy of erasure. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 26(13), 1–5.
Epstein, R. (1983). Resurgence of previously reinforced behavior during extinction. Behavior Analysis Letters, 3, 391–397.
Epstein, R. (1985). Extinction-induced resurgence: Preliminary investigations and possible applications. The Psychological Record, 35, 143–153. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf03394918.
Epstein, R. (1987). The spontaneous interconnection of four repertoires of behavior in a pigeon (Columba livia). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 101, 197–201. https://doi.org/10.1037//0735-7036.101.2.197.
Epstein, R. (1996). Cognition, creativity and behavior. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Epstein, R. (2015). On the rediscovery of the principle of resurgence. Mexican Journal of Behavior Analysis, 41, 19–43.
Ericsson, K. A., & Simon, H. A. (1993). Protocol analysis: Verbal reports as data (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Esch, J. W., Esch, B. E., McCart, J. D., & Petursdottir, A. I. (2010). An assessment of self-echoic behavior in young children. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 26(1), 3–13. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf03393078.
Evans, S. S., & Evans, W. H. (1985). Frequencies that ensure skill competency. Journal of Precision Teaching, 9(2), 25–30.
Ferris, K. J., & Fabrizio, M. A. (2009). Teaching analytical thinking skills to a learner with autism. Journal of Precision Teaching, 24(1), 29–33.
Foxx, R. M., Marchand-Martella, N. E., Martella, R. C., Braunling-McMorrow, D., & McMorrow, M. J. (1988). Behavioral Residential Treatment, 3, 193–210.
Foxx, R. M., Martella, R. C., & Marchand-Martella, N. E. (1989). The acquisition, maintenance, and generalization of problem solving skills by closed head-injured adults. Behavior Therapy, 20, 61–76.
Glass, A. R. (1992). The effects of thinking aloud pair problem solving on technology education students’ thinking processes, procedures, and problem solutions. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota, St. Paul.
Goldiamond, I. (1976). Self-reinforcement. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 9(4), 509–514. https://doi.org/10.1901/jaba.1976.9-509.
Guilford, J. P. (1950). Creativity. American Psychologist, 5, 444–454.
Hannah-Jones, N. (2015, September 9). A prescription for more black doctors. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/13/magazine/a-prescription-for-more-black-doctors.html.
Haughton, E. (1972). Aims: Growing and sharing. In J. B. Jordon & L. S. Robbins (Eds.), Let’s try doing something different kind of thing (pp. 20–39). Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.
Holth, P. (2008). What is a problem? Theoretical conceptions and methodological approaches to the study of problem solving. European Journal of Behavior Analysis, 9(2), 157–172. https://doi.org/10.1080/15021149.2008.11434302.
Isawa, S. (2002). Establishing a functional mand for instruction as a problem-solving skill in an adolescent with autism. Japanese Journal of Special Education, 39(4), 11–20. https://doi.org/10.6033/tokkyou.39.11_2.
Jenkins, R. V. (1984). Elements of style: Continuities in Edison’s thinking. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 424, 149–162. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.1984.tb23499.x.
Johnson, K. (2016). The morningside model of generativity. In Proceedings from the 2016 Morningside Academy Summer School Institute. Seattle, WA.
Johnson, S. D., & Chung, S. P. (1999). The effect of Thinking Aloud Pair Problem Solving (TAPPS) on the troubleshooting ability of aviation technician students. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education, 26(3), 19–37.
Johnson, K., & Layng, T. V. J. (1992). Breaking the structuralist barrier: Literacy and numeracy with fluency. American Psychologist, 47, 1475–1498. https://doi.org/10.1037//0003-066x.47.11.1475.
Johnson, K., & Street, E. (2004). The morningside model of generative instruction: What it means to leave no child behind. Cambridge, MA: The Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies.
Johnson, K., & Street, E. (2012). From the laboratory to the field and back again: Morningside academy’s 32 years of improving student performance. The Behavior Analyst Today, 13(1), 20–40. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0100715.
Johnson, K., & Street, E. (2013). Response to intervention and precision teaching: Creating synergy in the classroom. New York, NY: Guilford Publications.
Johnson, K., & Street, E. M. (in press). Generative Responding Through Contingency Adduction. In R. A. Rehfeldt, J. Tarbox, M. Fryling, & L. Hayes (Eds.), Applied behavior analysis of language and cognition. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Kisamore, A. N., Carr, J. E., & LeBlanc, L. A. (2011). Training preschool children to use visual imagining as a problem-solving strategy for complex categorization tasks. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 44(2), 255–278. https://doi.org/10.1901/jaba.2011.44-255.
Köhler, W. (1925). Intelligence of apes. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 32, 674–690. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221325.1991.9914708.
Layng, T. V. J. (2016). Converging qualities of personal competencies. In M. Murphy, S. Redding, & J. Twyman (Eds.), Handbook on personalized learning for states, districts, and schools (pp. 19–36). Philadelphia, PA: Temple University, Center on Innovations in Learning. Retrieved from www.centeril.org.
Layng, T. V. J., Twyman, J. S., & Stikeleather, G. (2004). Engineering discovery learning: The contingency adduction of some precursors of textual responding in a beginning program. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 20, 99–109. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf03392997.
Leon, M., Layng, T. V. J., & Soto, M. (2011). Thinking through text comprehension III: The programming of verbal and investigate repertoires. The Behavior Analyst Today, 12(1), 21–32. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0100708.
Levingston, H. B., Neef, N. A., & Cihon, T. M. (2009). The effects of teaching precurrent behaviors on children’s solution of multiplication and division word problems. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 42(2), 361–367. https://doi.org/10.1901/jaba.2009.42-361.
Lindsley, O. R. (1996). The four free-operant freedoms. The Behavior Analyst, 19(2), 199–210. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf03393164.
Luria, A. (1961). The role of speech in the regulation of normal and abnormal behaviors. New York: Liveright.
Mac Greene, D., & Bry, B. H. (1991). A descriptive analysis of family discussions about everyday problems and decisions. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 9, 29–39. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf03392858.
Maloney, M., Desjardins, A., & Broad, P. (1990). Teach your children well. Journal of Precision Teaching, 7(2), 36–58.
Martella, R. C., Agran, M., & Marchand-Martella, N. E. (1992). Problem solving to prevent accidents in supported employment. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 25, 637–645.
McMillan, J. H. (1987). Enhancing college students’ critical thinking: A review of studies. Research in Higher Education, 26, 3–29. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf00991931.
Mechner, F., Frederick, T., & Jenkins, T. (2013). How one can specify and teach thinking skills. European Journal of Behavior Analysis, 14, 285–293. https://doi.org/10.1080/15021149.2013.11434461.
Meichenbaum, D. (1977). A cognitive-behavior modification approach to assessment. In Cognitive-behavior modification (pp. 229–259). New York: Springer.
Meichenbaum, D., & Goodman, J. (1969). The developmental control of operant motor responding by verbal operants. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 7, 553–565. https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-0965(69)90016-2.
Meichenbaum, D., & Goodman, J. (1971). Training impulsive children to talk to themselves: A means of developing self-control. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 77, 115–126. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0030773.
Meichenbaum, D., & Goodman, J. (1979). Clinical uses of private speech and central questions about its study in natural settings. In G. Zivin (Ed.), The development of self-regulation through private speech (pp. 325–346). New York, NY: Wiley.
Michael, J., Palmer, D. C., & Sundberg, M. L. (2011). The multiple control of verbal behavior. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 27(1), 3–22. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf03393089.
OECD. (2014). Results: What students know and can do-student performance in mathematics, reading and science (Vol. I, Revised edition, February 2014). Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/pisa-2012-results-volume-I.pdf.
Palmer, D. C. (1991). A behavioral interpretation of memory. In L. J. Hayes & P. N. Chase (Eds.), Dialogues on verbal behavior (pp. 261–279). Reno, NV: Context Press.
Palmer, D. C. (2008). On Skinner’s definition of verbal behavior. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 8(3), 295–307.
Palmer, D. C. (2009). Response strength and the concept of the repertoire. European Journal of Behavior Analysis, 10(1), 49–60. https://doi.org/10.1080/15021149.2009.11434308.
Parsons, J. A., Taylor, D. C., & Joyce, T. M. (1981). Precurrent self-prompting operants in children: “Remembering”. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 36(2), 253–266. https://doi.org/10.1901/jeab.1981.36-253.
Peterson, P. L. (1979). Direct instruction: Effective for what and for whom? Educational Leadership, 37(1), 46–48.
Robbins, J. K. (1996). TAPS for teachers. Seattle, WA: Robbins/Layng & Associates.
Robbins, J. K. (2011). Problem solving, reasoning, and analytical thinking in a classroom environment. The Behavior Analyst Today, 12(1), 41–48. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0100710.
Robbins, J. K. (2014). Learn to reason with TAPS: A talk aloud problem solving approach. Seattle, WA: Robbins/Layng Associates.
Rosenshine, B. (March 1997). The case for explicit, teacher-led, cognitive strategy instruction. In Graves, M. F. (Chair), What sort of comprehension strategy instruction should schools provide? Symposium presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago.
Sautter, R. A., LeBlanc, L. A., Jay, A. A., Goldsmith, T. R., & Carr, J. E. (2011). The role of problem solving in complex intraverbal repertoires. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 44(2), 227–244. https://doi.org/10.1901/jaba.2011.44-227.
Schwab, J. J. (1960). What do scientists do? Systems Research & Behavioral Science, 5(1), 1–27. https://doi.org/10.1002/bs.3830050102.
Shahan, T. A. (2017). Moving beyond reinforcement and response strength. The Behavior Analyst, 40(1), 107–121.
Shahan, T. A., & Chase, P. N. (2002). Novelty, stimulus control, and operant variability. The Behavior Analyst, 25(2), 175–190. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf03392056.
Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan.
Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. Oxford, England: Appleton-Century.
Skinner, B. F. (1968). The technology of teaching. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Skinner, B. F. (1969). Contingencies of reinforcement: A theoretical analysis. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Skinner, B. F. (1974). About behaviorism. New York: Vintage Books.
Smith, G. S., Houmanfar, R., & Louis, S. J. (2012). The participatory role of verbal behavior in an elaborated account of metacontingency: From conceptualization to investigation. Behavior and Social Issues, 20, 122–146.
Tiemann, P. W., & Markle, S. M. (1990). Analyzing instructional content: A guide to instruction and evaluation. Champaign, IL: Stipes Publishing Company.
United States. National Commission on Excellence in Education. Department of Education. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform: A report to the Nation and the Secretary of Education, United States Department of Education. Washington, DC: The Commission: [Supt. of Docs., U.S. G.P.O. distributor].
Vargas, E. A. (1986). Intraverbal behavior. In P. N. Chase & L. J. Parrott (Eds.), Psychological aspects of language (pp. 128–151). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.
Watkins, C. L. (1995). Follow through: Why didn’t we? Effective School Practices, 15, 57–66.
Whimbey, A., Johnson, M., Williams, E., & Linden, M. (1993/2017). Blueprint for educational change: Improving literacies and science achievement with cooperative learning. Seattle, WA: Morningside Press.
Whimbey, A., Lochhead, J., & Narode, R. (2013). Problem solving and comprehension (7th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
About this article
Cite this article
Kieta, A.R., Cihon, T.M. & Abdel-Jalil, A. Problem Solving from a Behavioral Perspective: Implications for Behavior Analysts and Educators. J Behav Educ 28, 275–300 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10864-018-9296-9
- Behavior analysis
- Problem solving
- Verbal behavior