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Errorless Learning Research Paper

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Errorless Learning

Errorless Learning Definition

Errorless learning refers to a type of training that reduces the learner’s opportunity to make errors during the learning process. The aim of this approach is to prevent the learner from reinforcing errant behavior, which may occur with repeated mistakes. One of the earliest researched errorless learning techniques, stimulus fading. is best highlighted in animal research by Terrace ( 1963 ), the first research that demonstrated the benefits of errorless learning. Terrace demonstrated that pigeons were better able to discriminate between green and red lights using stimulus fading. First, Terrace introduced a red light, the correct response. Once the pigeons responded consistently to the red light, a green light (the incorrect response) was introduced gradually to the experiment. The green light was at first briefly presented at a dim intensity, but eventually reached the same intensity and duration.

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References and Readings

Clare, L. Wilson, B. A. Carter, G. Breen, K. Gosses, A. & Hodges, J. R. (2000). Intervening with everyday memory problems in Dementia of Alzheimer Type: An errorless learning approach. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology. 22 (1), 132–146.

Fillingham, J. K. Hodgson, C. Sage, K. & Lambon Ralph, M. A. (2003). The application of errorless learning to aphasic disorders: A review of theory and practice. Neuropsychological Rehabilitation, 13 (3), 337–363. PubMed

Fillingham, J. K. Sage, K. & Lambon Ralph, M. A. (2006). The treatment of anomia using errorless learning. Neuropsychological Rehabilitation. 16 (2), 129–154.

Hebb, D. O. (1961). The organization of behavior: A neuropsychological theory. Stimulus and response – and what occurs in the brain in the interval between them. New York: Science Editions, Inc.

Komatsu, S. Mimura, M. Kato, M. Wakamatsu, N. & Kashima, H. (2000). Errorless and effortful processes involved in the learning of face-name associations by patients with alcoholic Korsakoff's syndrome. Neuropsychological Rehabilitation. 10 (2), 113–132.

Maritelli, M. F. Nicholson, K. & Zasler, N. D. (2008). Skill reacquisition after acquired brain injury: A holistic habit retraining model of neurorehabilitation. NeuroRehabilitation. 23. 115–126.

Mount, J. Pierce, S. R. Parker, J. DiEgidio, R. Woessner, R. & Spiegel, L. (2007). Trial and error versus errorless learning of functional skills in patients with acute stroke. NeuroRehabilitation. 22. 123–132.

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.

Mulholland, C. C. O'Donoghue, D. Meenagh, C. & Rushe, T. M. (2008). Errorless learning and memory performance in schizophrenia. Psychiatry Research. 159 (1–2), 180–188.

Pitel, A. L. Beaunieux, H. Lebaron, N. Joyeux, F. Desgranges, B. & Eutasche, F. (2006). Two case studies in the application of errorless learning techniques in memory impaired patients with additional executive deficits. Brain Injury. 20 (10), 1099–1110.

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

Other articles

Tutorial: Errorless Learning

As the name implies, errorless learning refers to teaching procedures that are designed in such a way that the learner does not have to – and does not – make mistakes as he or she learns new information or new procedures. Errorless learning has been contrasted with trial and error learning in which the learner attempts a task and then benefits from feedback, whether the attempt was correct or incorrect.

Trial and error learning may be more effective for students who (1) are more often than not correct, (2) are reasonably confident in their abilities, (3) are able to remember their learning experiences, and (4) are able to remember and use the feedback that they received. Trial and error learning may have the added advantage of producing deeper understanding – but only for those individuals who remember the learning experience. In contrast, errorless learning may be more effective for students who frequently make mistakes, who lack confidence (or may be frankly anxious), and/or who do not remember their learning experiences and the feedback that they receive.


Severe Memory and/or Intellectual Impairment: Errorless learning has been shown to be the most effective way to teach any content (information, rules, procedures, habits, and the like) to individuals with TBI who have significant cognitive impairments and/or severe specific memory problems.

Memory is one of the cognitive functions most commonly affected by TBI. Memory problems are common because (1) damage to the hippocampus in the limbic system of the brain makes it more difficult for information (academic information, everyday memories) to “stick” without special effort, and (2) damage to the frontal lobes makes it more difficult to use the special “strategic” procedures that facilitate retention of information. [See Tutorials on Memory ; Cognitive and Learning Strategies ]

Prevention of errors and ensuring errorless learning is the preferred approach in the classroom for many reasons, including the following:

1. Errors “stick” in memory because of emotionality: Errors seem to “stick” in memory more readily than correct responses for students with significant memory problems. This may be because errors are associated with embarrassment or anger or other strong emotions that “drive in” the incorrect response and make that response more likely the next time. If the student does not remember that the response was an error – at the level of consciousness he may have forgotten the entire experience – then the error will continue to be produced and may be difficult to eradicate. This is one important reason to minimize errors in the learning experiences of students with memory impairment.

2. Errors may “stick” in memory because they are self-generated: Errors may “stick” more readily because erroneous responses are self-generated and self-generated responses may be more likely to be retained. This phenomenon creates an interesting challenge for teachers: How can teachers create errorless learning routines while at the same time giving students the sense that they are generating their own responses? Skilled teachers seem to be able to do this. It means that teaching needs to be more than dull rote repetition of easy material. Rather the learning experiences should be fun and students should feel that they are contributing, but with assurance from the teacher that they are most often correct.

3. Significant anxiety can result in increased errors: Errorless learning procedures are important for students who experience significant anxiety when they are threatened with failure. For reasonably confident students, a little anxiety can heighten attention and retentiveness; therefore it may facilitate learning. However, serious anxiety can substantially interfere with acquisition and retention of information. Some students with TBI are anxious because they are perplexed about what they can do and what they can’t do after the injury. Others are anxious because of large amounts of unexpected failure after the injury. Still others are anxious because of changes in brain function. In any of these cases, teaching/learning routines designed to minimize errors are important to reducing anxiety and enhancing overall performance.

4. Significant discouragement, sadness, and/or depression can result in increased errors: Errorless learning procedures are also important for students who are discouraged or frankly depressed about their overall abilities after the injury. Because of all the losses they may have experienced (e.g. loss of abilities, loss of activities, loss of friends), many students with TBI experience depression at some stage of their recovery in reaction to the changes in their lives. In these cases, teachers should work hard to ensure as much success as possible. Errorless learning procedures are one tool to achieve this goal


It is not always easy to anticipate students’ difficulties and create teaching routines that guarantee success or “errorless learning”. Some students impulsively produce answers or other responses that are incorrect. Other students are so inconsistent from time to time that a task thought to be easy for the student may unexpectedly be difficult on a given occasion. Despite these difficulties, the goal of teaching without having the student make mistakes is important for many students.
[See Tutorials on Instructional Routines ; Performance-Oriented versus Support-Oriented (Apprenticeship) Teaching ]

What follows is a sampling of procedures that can be part of instructional routines that facilitate errorless learning:

1. Adjust your expectations appropriately. Do not ask for student responses unless you are at least 90% sure that the student is prepared to give the correct response.

2. Make sure that students are completely clear about what is expected of them. This may mean (a) giving models of correct responses or having models available for the student to look at, (b) ensuring that the instructions are very clear and well understood by the student, ( c) doing the task collaboratively with the student before asking him to do it by himself, and (d) gradually withdrawing your support – and being prepared to offer more support in the event of difficulty. [See Instructional Routines; Advance Organizers]

3. If necessary, complete the task collaboratively with the student. “Let’s do this together” is a better starting activity than “Let’s see if you can do this” for students who need errorless learning. Or “Let’s figure out what this means” is a better orientation to a reading comprehension task than, “Now, explain to me what that passage means.” [See Tutorial on Apprenticeship Teaching .]

4. Make the task doable by either (a) breaking it into parts and teaching the parts separately or (b) giving the student responsibility for only one or two components of a larger task while you do the rest. For example, the task of remembering a story that was read can be made doable by asking the student to listen for only one fact in the story and subsequently asking him to remember only that one fact. Alternatively, the teacher and the student can collaboratively retell the entire story, with the student contributing only one or two components. The advantage of the latter approach is that the meaning of the entire story is held together rather than being fragmented into parts. In either case, gradually add components as the student achieves mastery.

5. Anticipate problems and “pre-correct”. For example, if the student is reading and the next sentence has a word in it that you doubt the student can read, say something like, “I see a tricky word in the next sentence – the word is X – let me know if you need help when you get to that word.”

6. Provide adequate cues. The cue can be the entire answer (e.g. “I think these two numbers add up to 13; what do you think?”) or a sentence completion cue (e.g. “The president at the time was Abraham. That’s right, Lincoln”) or a semantic orienting cue (e.g. “The branch of government responsible for that. let’s think about that. clearly it’s not the legislative branch. it must be the. you know the judges and courts. that’s right, judicial; the judicial branch of government”). Multiple choice cuing may be helpful (e.g. The president at the time was a. Lincoln, b. Washington, or c. Cleveland). The cue should be strong enough to elicit the correct response. It would NOT be helpful, for example, to give a letter cue (e.g. “The capitol of Wisconsin is MMM. ”) which might just produce an error response either spoken or just thought. Furthermore, with letter cues of this sort, teachers often create a feeling in the student of being quizzed for the sake of being quizzed and may therefore cause a negative reaction. You should rather start with a cue that is strong enough to elicit the correct response the first time and is presented in a natural way that doesn’t seem like a quiz.

7. Ensure large numbers of successful repetitions to ensure learning. Students with significant memory problems may need to learn material much like we learn habits or rote procedures – with large amounts of successful repetition.

When you look back at the lesson after it is completed – or back at the instructional day as a whole – be sure that the student has been successful at least 90% of the time. Students with significant memory and learning problems are often successful less than 50% of the time, sometimes much less. This rate of failure explains much of their discouragement, resistance, oppositionality, and possibly also their retention of erroneous information or mistaken procedures.

Written by Mark Ylvisaker, Ph.D. with the assistance of Mary Hibbard, Ph.D. and Timothy Feeney, Ph.D.

A program of the Brain Injury Association of New York State, and funded by the Developmental Disabilities Planning Council.

Errorless learning

Errorless learning

Errorless learning was an instructional design introduced by psychologist B.F. Skinner in the 1930s as part of his studies on what would make the most effective learning environment. Skinner said: "errors are not necessary for learning to occur. Errors are not a function of learning or vice versa nor are they blamed on the learner. Errors are a function of poor analysis of behavior, a poorly designed shaping program, moving too fast from step to step in the program, and the lack of the prerequisite behavior necessary for success in the program." Errorless learning can also be understood at a synaptic level, using the principle of Hebbian learning ("Neurons that fire together wire together").

Many of Skinner's students and followers continued to test the idea. In 1963, Herbert Terrace wrote a paper describing an experiment with pigeons which allows discrimination learning to occur with few or even with no responses to the negative stimulus (abbreviated S−). A negative stimulus is a stimulus associated with undesirable consequences (e.g. absence of reinforcement ). In discrimination learning, an error is a response to the S−, and according to Terrace errors are not required for successful discrimination performance.

Principles [ edit ]

A simple discrimination learning procedure is one in which a subject learns to associate one stimulus, S+ (positive stimulus), with reinforcement (e.g. food) and another, S− (negative stimulus), with extinction (e.g. absence of food). For example, a pigeon can learn to peck a red key (S+), and avoid a green key (S−). Using traditional procedures, a pigeon would be initially trained to peck a red key (S+). When the pigeon was responding consistently to the red key (S+), a green key (S−) would be introduced. At first the pigeon would also respond to the green key (S−) but gradually responses to this key would decrease, because they are not followed by food, so that they occurred only a few times or even never.

Terrace (1963) found that discrimination learning could occur without errors when the training begins early in operant conditioning and visual stimuli (S+ and S−) like colors are used that differ in terms of brightness, duration and wavelength. He used a fading procedure in which the brightness and duration differences between the S+ and the S− were decreased progressively leaving only the difference in wavelength. In other words, the S+ and S− were initially presented with different brightness and duration, i.e. the S+ would appear for 5 s and fully red, and the S− would appear for 0.5 s and dark. Gradually, over successive presentations, the duration of the S− and its brightness were gradually increased until the keylight was fully green for 5 s.

Studies of implicit memory and implicit learning from cognitive psychology and cognitive neuropsychology have provided additional theoretical support for errorless learning methods (e.g. Brooks and Baddeley, 1976, Tulving and Schacter, 1990). Implicit memory is known to be poor at eliminating errors, but can be used to compensate when explicit memory function is impaired. In experiments on amnesiac patients, errorless implicit learning was more effective because it reduced the possibility of errors "sticking" in amnesiacs' memories. [1]

Effects [ edit ]

The errorless learning procedure is highly effective in reducing the number of responses to the S− during training. In Terrace's (1963) experiment, subjects trained with the conventional discrimination procedure averaged over 3000 S− (errors) responses during 28 sessions of training; whereas subjects trained with the errorless procedure averaged only 25 S− (errors) responses in the same number of sessions.

Later, Terrace (1972) claimed not only that the errorless learning procedure improves long-term discrimination performance, but also that: 1) S− does not become aversive and so does not elicit "aggressive" behaviors, as it often does with conventional training; 2) S− does not develop inhibitory properties; 3) positive behavioral contrast to S+ does not occur. In other words, Terrace has claimed that the "by-products" of conventional discrimination learning do not occur with the errorless procedure.

Limits [ edit ]

However, some evidence suggests that errorless learning may not be as qualitatively different from conventional training as Terrace initially claimed. For example, Rilling (1977) demonstrated in a series of experiments that these "by-products" can occur after errorless learning, but that their effects may not be as large as in the conventional procedure; and Marsh and Johnson (1968) found that subjects given errorless training were very slow to make a discrimination reversal.

Applications [ edit ]

Interest from psychologists studying basic research on errorless learning declined after the 1970s. However, errorless learning attracted the interest of researchers in applied psychology. and studies have been conducted with both children (e.g. educational settings) and adults (e.g. Parkinson's patients). Errorless learning continues to be of practical interest to animal trainers, particularly dog trainers. [2]

Errorless learning has been found to be effective in helping memory-impaired people learn more effectively. [3] The reason for the method's effectiveness is that, while those with sufficient memory function can remember mistakes and learn from them, those with memory impairment may have difficulty remembering not only which methods work, but may strengthen incorrect responses over correct responses, such as via emotional stimuli. See also the reference by Brown to its application in teaching mathematics to undergraduates.

References [ edit ]
  1. ^ Baddeley, A.D. and Wilson, B.A. (1994) When implicit learning fails: Amnesia and the problem of error elimination. Neuropsychologia, 32(1), 53-68.
  2. ^
  3. ^ B. Wilson (2009) Memory Rehabilitation: Integrating Theory and Practice, The Guilford Press, 284 pages.
  • R. Brown, Getting students not to fear confusion (2012) Using these ideas for undergraduate teaching of mathematics!
  • BF Skinner biography.
  • Rosales Ruiz, J. (2007). 'Teaching Dogs the Clicker Way' In: Teaching Dogs Magazine. May/June 2007.
  • Mazur, J.E. (2006). Learning and behavior. 6th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Rilling, M. (1977). Stimulus control and inhibitory processes. In: W.K. Honing & J.E.R Staddon (Orgs.), Handbook of operant behavior (pp. 432–480). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Skinner, B. F. (1937). Two types of conditioned reflex: a reply to Konorski and Miller. Journal of General Psychology. 16, 272-279.
  • Skinner, B. F. (1938). The Behavior of Organisms. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  • Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and Human Behavior. New York: Macmillan.
  • 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.

1. B.F. Skinner – Burrhus Frederic Skinner, commonly known as B. F. Skinner, was an American psychologist, behaviorist, author, inventor, social philosopher. He was the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology until his retirement in 1974. Skinner considered free will an illusion and human action dependent on consequences of previous actions. Skinner called the principle of reinforcement. To measure rate he invented the cumulative recorder. Using these tools, he and C. B. Ferster produced his most influential experimental work, which appeared in the book Schedules of Reinforcement. Skinner developed a philosophy of science that he founded a school of experimental research psychology -- the experimental analysis of behavior. Skinner was a prolific author who published 180 articles. Contemporary academia considers Skinner a pioneer of modern behaviorism, along with John B. Watson and Ivan Pavlov. A June 2002 survey listed Skinner as the most influential psychologist of the 20th century. Skinner was born to Grace and William Skinner. His father was a lawyer. He became an atheist after a Christian teacher tried to assuage his fear of the hell that his grandmother described.

B.F. Skinner – Skinner at the Harvard Psychology Department, c. 1950
B.F. Skinner – The grave of B.F. Skinner and his wife Eve at Mount Auburn Cemetery
B.F. Skinner – The teaching machine, a mechanical invention to automate the task of programmed learning

2. Reinforcement – In behavioral psychology, reinforcement is a consequence that will strengthen an organism's future behavior whenever that behavior is preceded by a specific antecedent stimulus. This strengthening effect may be measured as a higher frequency of behavior, shorter latency. Reinforcement does not require an individual to consciously perceive an effect elicited by the stimulus. Thus, reinforcement occurs only if there is an observable strengthening in behavior. However, there is also negative reinforcement, characterized by taking away an undesirable stimulus. An ibuprofen is a negative reinforcer because it takes away pain. Reinforcement is an important part of operant or instrumental conditioning. B.F. Skinner was a influential researcher who articulated many of the theoretical constructs of behaviorism. Skinner defined reinforcers such as what is valuable to someone. Accordingly, items considered pleasant or enjoyable may not necessarily be reinforcing. If the frequency of "cookie-requesting behavior" increases, the cookie can be seen as reinforcing "cookie-requesting behavior". If however, "cookie-requesting behavior" does not increase the cookie cannot be considered reinforcing. The sole criterion that determines if a stimulus is reinforcing is the change in probability of a behavior after administration of that potential reinforcer. The study of reinforcement has produced an enormous body of reproducible experimental results. Laboratory research on reinforcement is usually dated from the work of Edward Thorndike, known for his experiments with cats escaping from puzzle boxes.

Reinforcement – Diagram of operant conditioning

3. Operant conditioning – While operant and classical conditioning both involve behaviors controlled by environmental stimuli, they differ in nature. In operant conditioning, stimuli present when a behavior is rewarded or punished come to control that behavior. However, in classical conditioning, stimuli that signal significant events produce reflexive behavior. With repeated trials ineffective responses occurred less frequently and successful responses occurred more frequently, so the cats escaped more and more quickly. In short, some consequences strengthen behavior and some consequences weaken behavior. By plotting escape time against trial number Thorndike produced the first known animal learning curves through this procedure. Humans appear to learn many simple behaviors through the sort of process studied by Thorndike, now called operant conditioning. That is, responses are retained when they lead to a successful outcome and discarded when they do not, or when they produce aversive effects. This usually happens without being planned by any "teacher", but operant conditioning has been used by parents in teaching their children for thousands of years. B.F. Skinner is often referred to as the father of operant conditioning, his work is frequently cited in connection with this topic. His book "The Behavior of Organisms", published in 1938, initiated his lifelong study of operant conditioning and its application to human and animal behavior. Another invention, the cumulative recorder, produced a graphical record from which these response rates could be estimated. These records were the primary data that Skinner and his colleagues used to explore the effects on response rate of various reinforcement schedules. A reinforcement schedule may be defined as "any procedure that delivers reinforcement to an organism according to some well-defined rule". The effects of schedules became, in turn, the basic findings from which Skinner developed his account of operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning – Diagram of operant conditioning

4. Inhibitory – An inhibitory postsynaptic potential is a kind of synaptic potential that makes a postsynaptic neuron less likely to generate an action potential. They can take place at all chemical synapses, which use the secretion of neurotransmitters to create cell to signalling. Inhibitory presynaptic neurons release neurotransmitters that then bind to the postsynaptic receptors; this induces a postsynaptic change as ion channels open or close. An electric current that changes the membrane potential to create a more negative postsynaptic potential is generated. Depolarization can also occur due to an IPSP if the reverse potential is between the action potential threshold. Microelectrodes can be used to measure postsynaptic potentials at either inhibitory synapses. IPSPs can be seen as a "transient hyperpolarization". Some common neurotransmitters involved in IPSPs are glycine. This system IPSPs can be temporally summed with suprathreshold EPSPs to reduce the amplitude of the resultant postsynaptic potential. Equivalent EPSPs and IPSPs can cancel each other out when summed. The balance between EPSPs and IPSPs is very important in the integration of electrical information produced by excitatory synapses. The size of the neuron can also affect the inhibitory postsynaptic potential. GABA is a very common neurotransmitter used in the adult mammalian brain and retina. GABA receptors are pentamers most commonly composed of three different subunits, although conformations exist. The open channels allow these ions to pass through the membrane.

Inhibitory – Flowchart describing how an inhibitory postsynaptic potential works from neurotransmitter release to summation
Inhibitory – Graph displaying an EPSP, an IPSP, and the summation of an EPSP and an IPSP. When the two are summed together the potential is still below the action potential threshold.