18 Dec

An introduction to PORTL: The Portable Operant Research and Teaching Lab

PORTL polar bear

By Mary Hunter and Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz

Have you heard about PORTL?

The Portable Operant Research and Teaching Lab (PORTL) is a tabletop shaping game that teaches individuals about behavior and shaping. Through playing the game, individuals get to see the principles of behavior in action and practice applying those principles to change behavior.

Three individuals, deep in conversation, during a PORTL game at a shaping workshop in Germany

Where did PORTL come from?

PORTL had its beginnings in another tabletop shaping game, called GENABACAB, which was developed by English dog trainer Kay Laurence. Kay developed GENABACAB and a series of GENABACAB exercises as a way to teach her students about the basics of shaping and to improve their timing and observation skills.

Several years ago, Kay taught GENABACAB to Dr. Rosales-Ruiz and his graduate students at the University of North Texas. The students were hooked and started playing the game with each other. They also started developing PORTL, by making modifications to the game so that it could be used for both teaching and research.

How is PORTL played?

Various items used while playing the shaping game PORTL

PORTL is played between two individuals, the teacher and the learner, using a collection of small objects, a clicker to mark behavior, and small tokens or blocks as reinforcers.

At the beginning of each exercise, the teacher presents the learner with a selection of objects. The learner is given only two instructions: “Your goal is to earn as many blocks as possible” and “Please interact with the objects.”

When the learner performs the correct behavior or an approximation toward the correct behavior, the teacher sounds the clicker and hands the learner a token. The learner drops the token into a dish and then resumes interacting with the objects. The teacher can rearrange the objects or add and remove objects to help guide the learner toward the goal behavior.

The teacher and learner take breaks periodically to fill out datasheets. The teacher records what just happened and what she plans to teach during the next training period. The learner records what he thinks he is learning and how he feels. Breaks can be taken after a certain number of tokens have been delivered (ex. 10 tokens) or after a certain amount of time (ex. 60 seconds). Breaks allow the teacher to continually assess the learner’s progress and to adjust the shaping plan as needed.

After each exercise, the teacher and learner compare datasheets. In addition, the learner can provide valuable feedback about what the teacher did well, as well as insight regarding which parts were confusing and why.

Why play PORTL?

PORTL teaches individuals how to shape behavior entirely through reinforcement and environmental arrangement. The person playing the role of the teacher may not use verbal instructions, models, gestures, or prompts to direct the learner during teaching.

PORTL teaches individuals how to shape behavior entirely through reinforcement and environmental arrangement. Click To Tweet

However, learning is not left to chance or guessing. Through playing the game, participants learn how to divide behaviors into component skills and appropriate teaching steps, assess the learner’s progress during teaching, and adjust and revise their teaching plan as needed.

Two students playing the shaping game PORTLIntroductory exercises help individuals practice the mechanics of training and the basics of shaping — delivering reinforcers, clicking the clicker at the right time, reinforcing simple behaviors, observation skills, data collection, and assessment.

As individuals continue playing the game they are introduced to additional concepts, including cues and stimulus control, concept formation, chaining, schedules of reinforcement, superstitious behavior, extinction and resurgence, and more.

Using PORTL for inquiry and research

In addition to teaching, PORTL is proving to be a simple, yet powerful tool for inquiry and research. As individuals become experienced with the game, they can begin using it to ask their own questions about learning and behavior.

PORTL can be used to model different training situations, ask questions about the interactions between variables, and explore the effects of certain contingencies. For example, individuals can use PORTL to test out different teaching techniques and strategies, before trying to teach a new behavior to their animal.

PORTL also provides a simple, convenient, and inexpensive way to conduct behavior research. This is noteworthy, as most laboratory equipment currently used for behavior research is expensive, complex, and requires the investigator to possess programming knowledge. One master’s thesis has been conducted at the University of North Texas using PORTL and a handful of other research projects are currently underway.

A PORTL story

At one of our first PORTL workshops, a participant was struggling to train an unusual behavior. The teacher’s goal was to train her learner to turn a little plastic toy polar bear upside down, then right side up, then upside down again and again. However, no matter what approximations she reinforced, the student kept trotting the bear across the table.

The teacher stared, perplexed and frustrated, as the student’s hand once again reached for the little plastic polar bear, picked it up, and trotted it across the table.

Reinforcement was infrequent and both the teacher and student were beginning to get frustrated. So, the teacher took a break and stepped away from the table to brainstorm with an instructor. As they discussed different ideas, the teacher suddenly hit on a solution that she thought might work, based on a concept that had been presented in one of the earlier lectures.

Returning to the table, the teacher found four pencils, arranged them in a square, and placed the bear inside. Now, the teacher only provided reinforcement to the student if the bear stayed inside its new “corral.”

PORTL polar bear

Since the square was much too small for trotting the bear, the student soon started experimenting with other types of movements. After just a short amount of time, the teacher had the student performing the target behavior of continuously turning the bear.

Afterwards, during the discussion, the student said she was very hesitant at first to turn the bear and experiment with other movements. Polar bears, she said, are supposed to trot, not turn! Having to keep the bear in the corral encouraged her to explore different movements and helped lead her to the goal behavior.

One unique aspect of PORTL is that individuals get experience being both the teacher and the learner. Students often report that being the learner is one of their favorite parts about PORTL. This experience helps build understanding and empathy because the learner begins to relate to what his or her own students experience during the learning process.

In conclusion

PORTL is a simple behavior analytic tool that can be adapted to fit a variety of training and research situations. Individuals need very little training initially to start playing PORTL. However, as they gain more experience with the game, they can use it to ask and answer complex questions about behavior. PORTL gives individuals a sense of discovery, as the game allows them to experience the principles of behavior in action, while at the same time improving their teaching skills.


Visit Clickertraining für Pferde to read this article in German.

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18 thoughts on “An introduction to PORTL: The Portable Operant Research and Teaching Lab

  1. Nice post! I have the KP version of Kay Laurence’s game called: You Don’t Say! I am thinking it is very similar to what you are describing and could be used the same way.
    By chance are you going to be publishing a blog, booklet, manual or something else on HOW to play to achieve the goals you mention in this post? I am quite interested in the idea of using it to do research!!

    • I am glad you are interested in PORTL and that you are interested in learning more about using it for research!

      We do have a curriculum we have developed, but it is not available for purchase currently. We use it in our seminars and workshops and it is also being used in a few of the undergraduate behavior analysis classes at the University of North Texas.

      We do plan to release some of the introductory lessons through our blog in 2016 and we hope these will give people the opportunity to learn more about how the game is played and start using it on their own.

      We are also working on a full manual, but it will probably still be awhile until it is available.

  2. OMG. I read this just this morning, we tried it out straight away. My brain now might explode as you have triggered a spontaneous combustion of so many ideas inside it depths. Thank you so much

  3. OMG. I read this this morning have tried it out already and my brain might explode with the ideas you have triggered that are spontaneously combusting inside it’s depths

  4. Do you think a game like this could help cure human long term depression by stimulating stimulating the seeking system as Jaak Panksepp describes it ? Could the act of playing the game be equivalent to a large dose of Rapastinel ? For people who through trauma in their life have shut down.

    • Hi Amanda,

      What an interesting idea! I think this would definitely be something worth thinking about.

      Whether it would work, I think would depend largely on if the person found the game reinforcing. If they did not find it reinforcing, the next step would be to see if there were things we could do to make the game reinforcing for them.



      • Hi Mary, Very true. My personal experience is that doing clicker training with an animal can be very helpful for depression. If you set the criteria really low you have a massive amount of opportunities to click. Which maybe stimulate you the teachers seeking system ? (Would it ?). If so maybe that is why, each training session feels like a boost and then when your animal learner achieves a behaviour that again is a huge jackpot as you get a sense of overall achievement. The only problem is it can be hard to have the concentration to set criteria if you are really struggling with mental health issues. But then it could be the animal contact that is the magic not the training experience, or the combination of the two.

        As a friend has a blind dog, we played portl with the learner blindfolded which is really interesting.

        I also wondered for experienced trainers would a variation where the learner picked out a card telling them what type of dog they are. Eg a excitable puppy, a calm puppy, a older dog, a nervous dog, a noise phobic dog. I thought it might be a interesting experience as a learner to role play how we think a type of dog would respond and as a teacher to work out what type of dog we are dealing with and adapt our training style. Maybe it is a silly idea. just a thought.

  5. Hi Mary,
    I am teaching an undergraduate psych class on behavioral principles applied to animal training and just tried playing PORTL (after attending Clicker Expo) with the students to help them apply behavioral concepts. They really enjoyed the game! One aspect of it that I really like is the review of peoples’ experiences when placed in the roles of teacher/learner. Learning to take another’s perspective is an important skill if you are going to teach, and I think requiring them to NOT use verbals or body language hints helped with that. It also helped them learn to think outside the box when it came to figuring out how to teach the behavior, and–when in the role of student–to come up with unique approaches to the objects. It also lead to a side discussion on the concepts of perseveration and the tendency to get “stimulus bound,” both of which come into play when dealing with clients who have frontal lobe dysfunction. So the potential is there not only with regard to mechanics, but a host of other concepts as well.

  6. Hi Chris,

    How excellent that you have tried PORTL with your undergrad students! I’m also glad to hear that you attended and really enjoyed the lab. Yes, PORTL can certainly provides a context that helps bring behavioral concepts alive.

    Please keep us updated – we would love to hear how it goes if you continue to use PORTL in your classroom.



    • Hi Jean,

      Thank you for your interest in PORTL!

      We are currently working on a series of articles that provide more information about how to play PORTL. Right now, it looks like we will probably start releasing them at the beginning of the summer. They will include information about how to get started playing the game, sample lesson plans, and copies of the datasheet. So, please stay tuned until then.



    • Hi Tina,

      The manual is not available yet. However, we are currently working on the manual and also on a series of articles and lessons that will introduce people to the game. Thank you for your interest!



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