4 Things You Need to Know About Errorless Learning

The field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) offers many different teaching methodologies. Each child learns in a unique way and teaching plans must cater to each child’s specific learning style. Errorless learning (EL), also called errorless teaching, provides structure for teaching, but what do you really know about it?

During errorless learning, or errorless teaching, professionals attempt to eliminate mistakes made by the learner. The instructor uses prompts to ensure correct responding and then systematically fades the prompts. Here are the 4 things you need to know before you get started:

  1. Errorless learning is an antecedent intervention
  2. There are many advantages and disadvantages
  3. Errorless learning isn’t appropriate for every learner
  4. There are 4 steps to implement errorless learning
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1. Errorless Learning is an Antecedent Intervention

Errorless learning is an antecedent intervention from Applied Behavior Analysis (to learn more about antecedent interventions read our post Using Antecedent Interventions to Minimize Challenging Behaviors) on Accessible ABA. This method of teaching skills minimizes opportunities for errors, increasing the frequency at which the child encounters reinforcement. Minimizing errors also reduces the likelihood that the child engages in challenging behavior.

Instructors use prompts to support the learner in responding correctly. The instructor then systematically fades the prompts to promote independent responding.

When an instructor first introduces a new skill acquisition target, she utilizes most to least prompting. If she decides to errorlessly teach the child to clap his hands when she says “clap your hands,” she begins by providing the SD and immediately uses a full physical prompt. She then systematically fades the prompt through the prompt hierarchy until the child responds independently.

The below graphic depicts common prompting strategies in relative order from most intrusive to least intrusive (from the base to the point of the triangle). Keep in mind that there are many other prompting strategies (i.e. positional prompts, within stimulus prompts, or model prompts) that would fall at various levels along this continuum depending on the particular needs of your learner. Additionally, carefully consider the use of verbal prompts as these prompts are often exceptionally hard to ultimately eliminate. For more on the prompt hierarchy read our post A New Perspective on the Prompt Hierarchy.

prompt hierarchy in aba

2. There are Many Advantages and Disadvantages

Errorless learning offers some important advantages you should consider. Errorless learning minimizes mistakes made by the learner and decreases the likelihood that errors will be repeated during future trials.  Many children with autism quickly develop inappropriate behavior chains when instructors wait for errors before providing prompts.

For example, one child I worked with learned to complete a foam alphabet puzzle. She put the pieces in the puzzle sequentially, but before putting in each piece, she brought the piece to her mouth and licked it. If she used errorless learning to teach puzzle completion, she would have been less likely to develop this inappropriate behavior chain. To learn more about behavior chains read our post Understanding Behavior Chains on Accessible ABA.

This strategy reduces the learner’s frustration and any problem behavior that may be associated with it.  Errorless learning provides more opportunities for reinforcement than traditional teaching methods and increases the time available for instruction as problem behaviors are reduced or eliminated.

While errorless learning offers many advantages, you must consider this distinct disadvantage before you implement the intervention. The primary disadvantage of EL is that learners may become dependent on the prompts used to assist them in responding correctly.  This teaching strategy requires the instructor to be able to systematically fade the prompts so that the learner eventually responds correctly without the prompts. In the beginning, it can be difficult for teachers to do this effectively.

3. Errorless Learning Isn’t Appropriate for Every Learner

Errorless learning can be used in a variety of situations.  Although it can be tempting to use EL with all of your learners, you must carefully consider the needs of each individual. Here are some of the best uses of errorless learning:

  • It may be appropriate if you are working with a learner who is struggling to learn a new skill through traditional teaching strategies.  
  • You may choose errorless learning when new tasks or mistakes cause the learner to engage in problem behaviors.  
  • It can also be a valuable tool when working with learners who develop routines quickly and may repeatedly respond incorrectly because it is part of a routine. 

Avoid using errorless learning for learners who:

  • Acquire skills quickly with traditional teaching methods
  • Easily become prompt dependent

4. There are 4 Steps to Implementing Errorless Learning

Errorless learning requires the instructor to follow 4 steps for implementation. In order to minimize the likelihood of prompt dependence and maximize learning, you must carefully implement each step.

Step 1: Identify the skill to be taught and how you will know the learner has mastered the skill

To begin implementing errorless learning, first identify the skill you want to teach and the mastery criteria for that skill. For example, you decide to teach the child to tact “cat.” You then decide that the learner meets mastery criteria when he responds correctly during 9 out of 10 trials during 3 consecutive teaching sessions without prompts.  

Some examples of skills that lend themselves to using this strategy include

  • Academic tasks such as letter recognition, sight words, or shapes  
  • Communication skills, including  receptive skills such as responding to verbal prompts and expressive skills such as asking for something they want 
  • Life skills such as cooking or hand washing  

Step 2: Identify the level of prompt needed to ensure a correct response

The second step is to identify the level of prompt needed to ensure that the learner responds correctly.  This will typically be done based on experience with your learner and what has been successful in the past.  Here’s a quick review of the different types of prompts you may choose:  

  • —Physical-Learner cued by moving part of learner’s body—
  • Gestural-Nonverbal cue such as pointing—
  • Verbal-Vocal cue that could be a phrase or syllable—
  • Visual-Picture or text cue—
  • Modeling-Correct response is demonstrated—
  • Positional-Item placed to increase likelihood of correct response

When selecting the level or type of prompt you will use, develop a plan for fading this prompt that can be used later in this process.  This plan reduces the risk of the child becoming prompt dependent.

Step 3: Begin the teaching trial

In the third step, the instructor begins the teaching trial. Start by presenting the discriminative stimulus (SD). Immediately provide the level of prompt identified in Step 2.  Attempt to block and physically prompt your learner if you observe the learner is about to make an error.  

If your learner responds correctly, provide immediate positive reinforcement.  Effective implementation requires that you accurately identify what motivates your learner.  If your learner responds incorrectly, increase the level of prompt that you use during the next trial and complete an error correction procedure. For example, if you believed that a gestural prompt would be sufficient, but the learner still made an error with this type of prompt, it would be appropriate to use a physical prompt during the next trial.

teaching errorless learning

Step 4: Repeat trials, systematically fade prompts to ensure continued correct responses until the learner is able to respond independently at the level identified during Step 1.

The final step in the process is to repeat the trials while systematically fading the prompts to ensure that the learner continues to respond correctly.  You will continue this process until the learner has reached the level identified during step 1.  

Here’s an example of prompt fading.  If you have decided to use physical prompts and you begin the first trial with hand over hand prompting, you would begin to fade this prompt by moving your hand to the learner’s wrist, then gradually moving the prompt up the arm.  If at any point, the learner responds incorrectly, return to the last level of prompting that produced a correct response then continue to fade the prompt gradually.  Each of the different types of prompt requires a different method of fading the prompt. 

 Important Considerations

Here are a couple of important things to keep in mind.  Before you begin using the errorless learning procedures, it’s essential to understand what motivates your learner.  Every correct response must be followed by something that motivates your learner.  This is the essence of positive reinforcement.  For more information about positive reinforcement, read our posts Effective Reinforcement Using ABA on Accessible ABA and What I Wish I Knew About Positive and Negative Reinforcement on Master ABA.

A cookie may be motivating to you but not necessarily your learner.  The same holds true for a high five, praise, bubbles and anything else we may typically think children like.  In order for EL to be effective, you must know what motivates the individual you are working with.  

The second thing to keep in mind is to always end a session on a successful trial.  You never want to end a teaching session after the learner makes a mistake.  If the learner makes a mistake on the trial you had planned to end with, conduct another trial, increasing the level of prompt to ensure a correct response, and provide reinforcement before ending the session. 

Examples of Errorless Learning

Mrs. Smith-Step 1

Mrs. Smith works with a 5-year-old student with autism.  She decides to use errorless learning to teach her student to correctly identify shapes.  Mrs. Smith completes step 1 of the process by deciding the first shape she will teach her student to identify is a circle.  She will teach her student to choose a circle when given 2 additional shapes, which will be a square and a triangle. She identifies mastery criteria as 80% correct responding for 3 consecutive sessions.

Mrs. Smith-Step 2

Mrs. Smith progressed to Step 2 of the process.  Through her past experiences with this particular student, Mrs. Smith believes that a visual prompt would help her student respond most successfully.  She prepares her flashcards so that the circle flashcard is a bold black and the square and triangle flashcards are a faded gray. 

Mrs. Smith-Step 3

Moving on to Step 3, Mrs. Smith begins the first trial by placing the 3 flashcards on the table in front of the student.  She asks her to “Find the circle.”  When the student raises her hand and begins to move toward the square flashcard, Mrs. Smith gently takes the student’s hand and guides it to the circle flashcard. Mrs. Smith remarks, “That’s the circle!” and gives her student a piece of her favorite cereal.

Mrs. Smith-Step 4

Mrs. Smith repeats the trial, providing reinforcement during each trial when her student selects the circle flashcard.  After 3 trials of successfully selecting the correct flashcard, Mrs. Smith pulls out the next set of triangle/square flashcards that are just a bit darker than the first set used during the first trials.  Mrs. Smith continues to offer reinforcement for correct responses.  She gradually fades the prompt by introducing subsequently darker triangle/square flashcards through many trials until those flashcards are as dark as the circle flashcards and the student is able to identify the circle without the prompt.

Video Examples

Check out this video by Autism Training Solutions for another example of Errorless learning in action.

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