What is PORTL?

A car, zebra and block that could be used to play the teaching game PORTL

PORTL is a tabletop game that provides an interactive environment for learning about behavior principles and investigating behavioral phenomena. It is played using a collection of small objects, a clicker to select behavior, and small blocks as reinforcers.

PORTL had its beginnings in another game, called GENABACAB, which was developed by English dog trainer Kay Laurence. About a decade ago, Laurence taught this game to Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz and his graduate students. The students started playing the game with each other and were hooked. They also began modifying the game to create an apparatus that could be used for teaching and research. 

Students need minimal instructions 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. This gives them a sense of discovery and gets them excited to learn more about how behavior works.

Over the past seven years, we have developed a series of PORTL lessons that can be used to teach basic behavior principles to undergraduate students, graduate students, and professionals. We are currently writing a PORTL manual, which will be available late summer 2019.

Watch this video to see PORTL in action:

PORTL can be used for:

Teaching: PORTL allows students to see the principles of behavior in action and practice applying these principles to change behavior. It is essentially a portable Skinner box for humans. PORTL also builds empathy and understanding. While playing the role of the learner, students experience what their clients might be feeling.

Inquiry: Often, students have questions about how particular behavioral phenomena work, but do not have easy access to experimental equipment for asking these questions. PORTL can be used to model different behavioral phenomenon and ask questions about controlling variables. These types of exploratory projects help students improve their analytic skills.

Research: PORTL offers a convenient and low-cost apparatus for conducting research studies. In addition, the time required for each participant to complete a study is short, usually under an hour. This is an advantage both for recruiting participants and for teaching students how to design, implement, and refine experimental procedures.

Further reading

  • Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz and Mary Hunter are currently writing a PORTL manual. The 40+ exercises in the manual will show you how to use PORTL for teaching, inquiry, and research. Join our email list to be the first to know when the manual is available.
  • In 2016, Operants, the quarterly magazine produced by the B. F. Skinner Foundation, published an article by Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz and Mary Hunter called “PORTL: Your portable Skinner box.” Click on this link to download a copy of the magazine.
  • Several master’s thesis studies at the University of North Texas have been conducted using PORTL. In May 2019, the first PORTL research study, The Power of One Reinforcer, was published in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior.
  • Dr. Traci Cihon and her master’s students have used PORTL activities for the past several years to illustrate basic behavioral concepts to undergraduate students. Rob Goodhue, Szu Chi Liu, and Dr. Cihon recently published an article in the Journal of Behavioral Education that details how PORTL can be used in undergraduate classes.
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