What ever happened to Errorless Learning?

Lately it seems like I’ve been seeing a bunch of tweets and blog posts talking about errors being good for students because they learn from their mistakes.  WHAT??  When did this trend start?  And how?

I’m not saying that kids can’t learn from their errors.  I’m just saying that for almost 50 years we’ve known about a better way….and it’s called errorless learning.

Errorless Learning is a procedure that was introduced in 1963 by Herb Terrace in a publication from the experimental psychology lab.  The early work in errorless learning was in visual discrimination training with pigeons.  Terrace and his colleagues observed that under traditional trial & error training methods the pigeons showed emotional and aggressive behavior following error responses.  But by using the errorless training procedures these “by-products” of discrimination training were avoided (Terrace, 1972).  During the 70s and into the 80s these errorless methods made themselves into applied settings, such as education and training.  The most common implementation allows learners to make only correct answers initially, gradually adding distractor items once the learners choose the correct answer reliably.  By adding more items only as the student masters the previous ones, large performance repertoires can be built without significant errors.

Errorless learning methods have now been used for more than 40 years in education.  The two primary reasons for using this approach in education are 1) the students don’t repeatedly make errors, therefore they don’t establish an “error history” that is later difficult to break; and 2) minimizing errors reduces emotional and aggressive behavior that can occur following errors, or avoidance of the work altogether.  In other words, by utilizing guided practice and errorless training methods we can not only establish accurate responding, but also we have the happy “by-product” of kids enjoying the work because they can do it!  Turns out kids like feeling good at stuff!  And while it is true that these methods are used for students with special education needs and adults in rehabilitation settings, they work just as well for regular education students.   After all, why should regular ed kids be penalized with less effective trial & error methods just because they are “regular?”

To read more about errorless learning, here are some selected references:

Egeland, B., Winer, K. (1974). Teaching children to discriminate letters of the alphabet through errorless discrimination training.  Journal of Reading Behavior, 6 (2), 143-150.

Etzel BC, LeBlanc J.M. (1979). The simplest treatment alternative: the law of parsimony applied to choosing appropriate instructional control and errorless-learning procedures for the difficult-to-teach child. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 4, 361–382.

Mueller, M. M., Palkovic, C.M., Maynard, C.S. (2007).  Errorless Learning: Review and Practical Application for Teaching Children with Pervasive Developmental Disorders, Psychology in the Schools, 44 (7), 691-700.

Schilmoeller GL, Schilmoeller KJ, Etzel BC, LeBlanc JM.  (1979). Conditional discrimination after errorless and trial-and-error training. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 31(3), 405–420.

Terrace, H.S. (1963). Discrimination learning with and without “errors”. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 6, 1–27.

Terrace, H.S. (1972). By-products of discrimination learning. In G.H. Bower (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 5). New York: Academic Press.

Touchette, P.E., Howard, J.S. (1984). Errorless learning: reinforcement contingencies and stimulus control transfer in delayed prompting. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 17(2), 175-188.

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About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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2 Responses to What ever happened to Errorless Learning?

  1. Mair says:

    Thanks for posting on this topic! I have found that in education people often confuse “errorless learning” with perfection. In other words, they expect errorless performance but do not program for it properly, or at all. This creates confusion and frustration not only for the students, but also for the teachers. Again, when errorless performance is not a result of an “errorless program”, the educator ought to look back at the instruction and determine the gap in the instruction that lead to the error.

    I concur that there is often a stigma attached to errorless learning programs due to predominant use with special education students, but share your sentiment that “why should regular ed kids be penalized with less effective trial & error methods just because they are “regular?” Of course, this does not mean that everything is or should be programmed for errorless learning. Sometimes natural consequences are a good teacher too 🙂

    • karen mahon says:

      Thanks for your comment, Mair, and great point about examining the instruction if the errorless learning program doesn’t generate errorless (or close to errorless) performance. I guess it all does get back to the student always being right!

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