Traditional vs. Embedded Discrete-Trial Teaching: Which is more effective?

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By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor, bSci21.org

Kaneen Geiger and team published a study in Behavior Analysis in Practice evaluating two types of Discrete Trial Teaching (DTT).  DTT is a popular teaching method used by Board Certified Behavior Analysts to teach a variety of social and language skills in a structured trial-by-trial format.  Typically, each trial begins with a discriminative stimulus (e.g., “touch nose”), followed by 3-5 seconds in which the learner can make the desired response.  If the learner exhibits the response, reinforcers such as praise are given.  If the learner does not exhibit the response, a variety of prompts are usually given to teach the learner the appropriate response.

However, Geiger and team noted that DTT is not without criticisms.  For example, DTT’s highly structured format risks inhibiting the generalization of skills to new settings.  The attentional demands of DTT may also create complications regarding the learner’s motivation to continue the teaching program.  Finally, the demands of DTT may, at times, increase the likelihood that learners will try to escape or avoid the program.

Thus, Geiger’s team sought to compare the effectiveness of DTT vs DTT embedded in a more naturalistic format.  Here’s what they did:

Participants: Two children with autism, approximately 4 years of age, with VB-MAPP scores of 79 (18-30 month language skills) and 119 (30-48 month language skills) participated in a small room at a preschool.

Traditional DTT Condition: The traditional DTT condition contained trials initiated with the presentation of a picture, an instruction to point to the picture, 3 seconds to respond, and either praise or a gestural prompt contingent on a correct or incorrect/no response.

Embedded DTT Condition: The embedded DTT condition presented discrete trials within a game format.  For example, the instruction for one of the participants was “Jump to the cheetah.” followed by a 3s for a response.  The learner gained praise and edibles for a correct response, and received gestural prompts contingent on an incorrect/no response.

The conditions, including a preference condition wherein learners chose their learning method for new skills, were randomly alternated in an alternating-treatments design format.

Results: Embedded DTT enabled one learner to acquire a set of target responses in 5 sessions (9 trials per session), compared to 15 sessions for the traditional DTT format.  However, both techniques were equally effective for a second set of target responses.  For the other learner, embedded DTT produces acquisition within 27 sessions, compared to 52 sessions for the traditional DTT format.  However, when tested on a second set of target responses, similar and faster acquisition times were seen for both techniques.

Regarding preference, one learner showed no preference for traditional vs. embedded DTT, while the other learner showed a slight preference for the embedded DTT procedure.

Be sure to check out the full article for many more details that were not included here, including future implications.  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns bSci21.org and BAQuarterly.com.  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at todd.ward@bsci21.org.

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