Learning conditional chains with PORTL (video)

This summer, I will be giving two workshops that involve a little game called PORTL.

Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz, Kat Dignan, and I will be giving the first workshop on May 22 in San Antonio as part of the Association for Behavior Analysis annual convention.

Then in June, Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz and I will be giving a two-day workshop in St. Louis, Missouri for HALO. Registration for the HALO workshop can be found here.

What is PORTL?

PORTL (The Portable Operant Research and Teaching Lab) is a tabletop game that can be used to simulate a variety of learning situations. The game had its beginnings in another shaping game, called GENABACAB, which was developed by English dog trainer Kay Laurence.

shaping-workshop-40-300x225PORTL is played using a collection of small objects, a clicker to mark behavior, and small tokens or blocks as reinforcers. Students learn to communicate entirely through reinforcement and environmental arrangement, as they may not use verbal instructions, models, or gestures during teaching.

PORTL exercises can be used to teach students about reinforcement, extinction, discrimination, stimulus control, shaping, chaining, schedules of reinforcement, and other behavioral principles. The game allows students to see the principles of behavior in action and practice applying those principles to change behavior.

As students gain more experience with the game, they can use it to ask and answer complex questions about learning and behavior and as an apparatus for research projects. PORTL’s flexibility as both a teaching tool and research apparatus makes it practical and useful for students, teachers, trainers, and researchers.

Check out this article for even more info about PORTL.

Teaching with PORTL: A video example

We often videotape ourselves when playing PORTL and then use the videos to refine and improve our teaching skills. In this video, I was experimenting with different strategies for teaching complex chains with minimal or no errors. The video shows the entire teaching session, from start to finish. The final performance is a conditional chain. When a cue is given, the learner is to roll the dice. Then, based on the number that appears on the dice, the learner is to move the dice right, left, or down.

I would suggest watching through the video once to get a sense of the progression of teaching steps and the different components that comprise the chain. Then, watch through the video another time, paying attention to the prompts and cues that are used at each step to guide the learner, as well as how these prompts are both added and taken away. Also watch and see if you notice any places where the learner hesitates before responding. Why do you think this happens?

I know that spending many hours playing PORTL has significantly improved my shaping and observation skills, as well as my ability to map out a teaching plan and to assess and modify my plan based on the learner’s behavior.

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  • Kate O’Brien

    Thanks for sharing that video! I really loved comparing the logical progression here to how I present things to my dog. It made me smile to see how a previous step made the next one obvious and the learner offered their behavior with confidence. I bet they smiled too 🙂

    • Hi Kate,

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the video!

      We (myself and the people at the University of North Texas who I play PORTL with) are planning to share some more PORTL videos in the coming months.


      Mary Hunter, M.S.
      Dog Trainer and Behaviorist
      Serving Dallas-Ft. Worth

  • This great training. Please may I share the video in my people training courses? With credits to you and inviting them to sign up for your emails.

  • angiefruitcake

    This is amazing!!! I loved watching this whole thing, and I’d LOVE to try this game myself, sometime. I was honestly surprised by your partners hesitation after you took away the markers, but it showcased exactly what this was all about so well. Thank you for sharing such a great video!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the video!
      Yes, give it a try. If you and your learner are both new to the game, start with simple behaviors – touching a certain object, doing a certain action, etc. Then, you can work up toward more complex puzzles, such as the one shown in this video. It is definitely a lot of fun.