programmed instruction, method of presenting new subject matter to students in a graded sequence of controlled steps. Students work through the programmed material by themselves at their own speed and after each step test their comprehension by answering an examination question or filling in a diagram. They are then immediately shown the correct answer or given additional information. Computers and other types of teaching machines are often used to present the material, although books may also be used. Computer-assisted instruction, which both tests students' abilities and marks their progress, may supplement classroom activity or help students to develop ideas and skills independently.
The first teaching machine was invented (1934) by Sydney L. Pressey, but it was not until the 1950s that practical methods of programming were developed. Programmed instruction was reintroduced (1954) by B. F. Skinner of Harvard, and much of the system is based on his theory of the nature of learning. As programming technology developed, so did the range of teaching machines and other programmed instruction materials. Programs have been devised for the teaching of spelling, reading, arithmetic, foreign languages, physics, psychology, and a number of other subjects. Some programs are linear in concept, allowing advancement only in a particular order as the correct answer is given. Others are branching, giving additional information at the appropriate level whether a correct or incorrect answer is given.
Although there has been considerable controversy regarding the merits of programmed instruction as the sole method of teaching, many educators agree that it can contribute to more efficient classroom procedure and supplement conventional teaching methods. Teaching machines enable students to work individually, calling for active participation of the learner. In industry and the armed services, programmed instruction is often used to train personnel.
See P. Callender, Programmed Learning (1969); L. Thomas, Self-Organized Learning (1985).