Errorless Learning: Learning without mistakes

“You only learn by making mistakes” is a common statement expressed by those who, well…make mistakes! Errors are so ingrained into our day-to-day lives that most are dread even the slightest blunder. However, errorless learning is a therapy strategy to eliminate that fear. It answers the question: Is it possible to learn without making mistakes? Through errorless learning, yes, anyone can learn without mistakes.

Errorless learning
Errorless learning

What is Errorless Learning?

Errorless learning is a type of discrimination learning—the ability to have varying responses to different stimuli—that decreases or eliminates the likelihood of erroneous choice selection. Whether at school or home setting, children often have a negative response to an error. The goal is to facilitate learning in such a way that children are not so preoccupied with being wrong that they neglect to retain correct information.

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Routine teaching procedures introduce ample opportunity to make mistakes. Students focus on correcting those errors through the prompts given to them by the teacher once the mistake has already been made. It, however, adds a prompt immediately after the question so that the child can only respond correctly.

Who Uses Errorless Learning?

The term errorless learning was coined in the 1950s by psychologist Charles Ferster. B.F. Skinner’s statement, “errors are not necessary for learning to occur,” largely inspired the strategy. Some children do not respond favorably to trial-and-error learning, which forms its basis. Intellectual disability, memory impairment, traumatic brain injuries, and dementia, are instances where teachers and parents resort to errorless learning.

The Steps of Errorless Learning

It is a process. For the intervention to be successful, teachers are advised to follow a set of specific steps. It is best to adjust these steps to cater to the needs of the individual, as each presents a unique set of abilities and thinking styles.

1. Probing

The first step in errorless learning is probing, which consists of asking the student a series of questions to determine what they already know. The purpose of probing is to assess the child’s current level of knowledge on the subject that will later be presented by the teacher.

2. Present the Question

Without revealing the status of the child’s right or wrong answers, the teacher demonstrates the desired outcome of the incorrect answer. This serves as a foundation for the questions used in the errorless learning lesson because the student understands what is expected from them.

3. Give a Cue or Prompt

Perhaps the most central component of errorless learning is applying the cue or prompt. Prompts range from a light physical touch to gestures, objects, or even verbal cues. Verbal cues vary. For example, the teacher might choose to state the whole answer as a cue (i.e. 4 + 4 = 8, what do you think?), sentence completion, and multiple choice. It is up to the teacher’s discretion to identify a cue or prompt that will provide success for the individual.

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It requires that the teacher present the cue along with the questions selected in the previous steps. Overall, the cue and its timing minimize the margin of error. The student’s capacity for mistakes is reduced only if the cue and question occur simultaneously.

4. Conduct a Trial

The completion of many trials elicit optimal patterns of learning.
Practice trials are a collaborative effort until the student is confident enough to carry out the task independently. Children with significant impairments rely on a higher number of trials to retain the skill. Before moving on to a new procedure, teachers must confirm the student is correct at least 90 percent of the trials.

Errorless Learning Applies Prompts
Errorless Learning Applies Prompts

5. Decrease Prompt

Self-sufficiency and independence are the aims of any learning method. While the prompt is given simultaneously with the question during the beginning trials of errorless learning, increasing the time intervals between the prompt and question guide teachers and students towards their objective. As the student exhibits improvements, prompts are slowly faded.

Reinforcements for Errorless Learning

Positive reinforcement increases the probability of continuing wanted behavior in the future. It plays a huge role in errorless learning. Children thrive off of positivity, as negative responses to their errors contributes to their frustration. The teacher follows the correct answer with positive reinforcement. Similar to identifying an appropriate prompt, the teacher must find a reinforcement that motivates the child. Examples of suitable positive reinforcements include small toys, verbal praise, physical gestures (i.e. clapping, hugging, etc.), and food.

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Error in Errorless Learning

On rare occasions, the student will still make an error. The manner in which the teacher handles the error influences the efficacy of errorless learning. If the student answers a question or performs a task incorrectly, teachers are instructed to withhold positive reinforcement while presenting the question again.

The teacher’s response to error changes the student’s entire perspective of mistakes throughout this process. Positive reinforcement is not to be withheld in place of negativity. In the case of a mistake, negative comments and scolding distract from the concept of errorless learning. However, an error should not be praised with a reward either.

Techniques of Errorless Learning

Effective teaching to achieve errorless learning depends on a variety of techniques that have inspired the strategy:

  • Stimulus shaping—A stimulus contrasting to the correct selection is modified by the teacher over a series of trials. Its physical features are altered.
  • Stimulus fading—Elements of the stimulus (i.e. color, size, shape, etc.) are faded as they decrease in intensity. Bright colors dull, size decreases, and borders of shapes lessen to condition the child into learning the new information.
  • Time delay— Time delay is a technique revolving around decreasing the prompt stimuli. Trials usually begin with a 0-second time delay, but as the child consecutively arrives at the correct answer, the time delay between the question and prompt increases to 3 to 5 seconds.
  • Superimposition—Two stimuli are paired together to generate the correct response. Once the correct response has been associated with the stimuli pairing, one stimulus is gradually removed.
  • Imagery—Employing imagery is helpful to promote the correct answer in errorless learning. Teachers might have students draw pictures or they present images with their questions. The visuals support learning.  
  • Backward chaining—Backward chaining is an inference method characterized by working backward to reach a target (Jerome & Strumey, 2007). View it as answering the last question on a test first.
  • Pre-correct—Mid-lesson, the teacher might notice a skill they predict the student will struggle with. Precorrection diminishes the probability of error. Rather than allowing the student to mispronounce a word or calculate a math problem incorrectly, the teacher confirms the correct response in advance before the incident becomes a mistake. For example, a teacher might say, “That word looks difficult. It is pronounced as ___. Let me know if you need help.”

Advantages of Errorless Learning

  • Reduces the number of errors—Immediate prompting decreases the chance of errors while learning a new task or academic skill.
  • Decreases frustration—Reinforcements used in errorless learning removes the emotional distress component that arises from repeated trials of choosing the wrong answer.  
  • Eliminates the awareness of wrong information—In errorless learning, the incorrect choice is not an option. Students only learn the correct skill, as opposed to having to reteach information learned in error.
  • Increases instruction time—With the incorrect choice less available, teachers have more time to teach other skills because their students are not falling into an error cycle.
  • Independence—Teachers reduce the time between cues to foster independent learning. Children eventually respond on their own.

Errorless Learning and Autism Spectrum Disorder

While any child can benefit from errorless learning, professionals frequently implement the strategy in children with an autism spectrum disorder. Studies published in the Texas Guide for Effective Teaching prove children with autism “over‐select and over‐generalize responses to failure or novel tasks” (2009). Those with autism also show a tendency to repeat mistakes rather than adopting the correct choice. This potentially provokes behavioral issues.

References

Jerome, J., Frantino, E. P., & Sturmey, P. (2007). The effects of errorless learning and backward chaining on the acquisition of Internet skills in adults with developmental disabilities. Journal of applied behavior analysis, 40(1), 185–189. doi:10.1901/jaba.2007.41-06