By Dr. Jeff Kupfer, PhD, Imagine! Consultant
We perform skills throughout our lives, but performing competently often requires a combination of precision or finesse, along with a minimum of errors. Both are necessary — a fancy omelet cannot include eggshells.
Performance errors often discourage learning. We may try harder when we perform slightly under par, but frequently walk away if we commit errors that results in financial loss, harm to ourselves or others, social embarrassment, and so on.
Persons with developmental and intellectual disabilities may encounter this same effect and become discouraged with learning, in general. Learning situations have an impact on all Learners. When skills are not taught well, or taught with frequent reprimands and few words of encouragement, it is not surprising that Learners who stand to benefit resist or reject teaching plans. My own observations in Planning Meetings lead me to suggest many Learners will agree to participate in teaching plans, but only if the role of the Instructor is strictly casual advisor – there in spirit only, providing neither guidance nor correction.
Errorless Learning uses instructional methods specifically designed to prevent or substantially minimize any Learner errors. This is readily accomplished by providing the maximum amount of support to the Learner in the earliest stages of learning, and then gradually reducing these supports until the skills remain intact with little or no support required (Terrace, 1963). There are three components to this method: (1) prompting, (2) fading, and (3) backward chaining.
Some steps in learning skills require prompts to complete, perhaps starting with several hints or clues provided by the Instructor until the skills are performed more accurately. We can provide these prompts to ourselves (such as Post-it Notes) to improve our self-management skills.
Once these skills are performed with accuracy and few errors, prompts can be faded until the skill is performed without any external support.
In the Figure directly below, a Learner may practice writing the letter “E” using a complete sample of that letter. Successful reproduction of the letter leads to a new sample that contains less of the previous sample and invites more letter-writing by the Learner with less prompt. This fading process can continue until the Learner writes the letter without requiring a sample.
From Sidman, 2010
If you have ever been in a school play perhaps you learned your part by studying a script, reading it directly at first, then covering up portions as you learn it well. Or maybe you learned to sing a song using the written lyrics at first, then removing them as you improved. We often use a model or sample of printed information as an example of the correct way to do something and gradually reduce its influence.
In backward chaining, a skill is taught from the end of the activity to the beginning. A bow to a shoe is pulled tight by the beginning learner and immediately encounters the benefit to a tied shoe. Once this is mastered, the Learner can begin to learn how to make the bow, naturally leading to the step of “tightening the bow” which has been mastered and can be performed independently.
Thus, all the steps in the activity are “taught backwards”. If there are 10 steps to teaching a skill, we start with the last step (Step 10) which results in the Learner coming into direct contact with the accomplishment. Then, we teach Step 9 which, when completed, naturally leads to Step 10 — a step that has been mastered and requires no prompting.
This process continues until we teach the very first step of the activity as the last step. Once Step 1 is mastered, steps 2-10 should be performed with little or no errors, and no prompting In the example below, A Learner can to write his name, first with the entire sample, then one letter at a time. The letter “E” is well-learned in step 2 so that when step 3 is introduced and completed correctly, the sample for “E” is no longer required and the name can be completed without prompting.
From Sidman, 2010
Of course, not everything needs to be learned in this manner. When we have already learned a skill, but have not performed the skill for some time, we may need a few prompts just to get the ball rolling. That is, we only require a minimum amount of prompts. We may say: “Okay, I have it now… let’s take it from the top.” Think Frank Sinatra…
On the other hand, newly acquired skills or ones that haven’t been performed for years may benefit from a greater amount of supports. Errorless learning techniques have been used in education for decades, particularly when the skill to learn must be performed with accuracy and when there is little room for error. More recently, errorless learning has been used in rehabilitation settings and has produced improved outcomes and sparked motivation in participation. Therapy-related skills are acquired more rapidly with less frustration and with greater success and satisfaction.
Sidman, M. (2010). Errorless learning and programmed instruction: The myth of the learning curve. European Journal of Behavior Analysis, 11, 167-180.
Terrace, H.S. (1963). Errorless transfer of discrimination across two continuua. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 6, 223-232.