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What is a Discrete Trial?


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Discrete Trial teaching is a specific method of teaching used to maximize learning.  It is a teaching technique or process used to develop many skills, including cognitve, communication, play, social and self help skills.  It is just good teaching. 
The teaching strategy involves:
  1. Breaking skills into the smallest steps
  2. Teaching each step of the skill intensively until mastered
  3. Providing lots of repetition
  4. Prompting the correct response and fading the prompts as soon as possible and
  5. Using positive reinforcement procedures.
A therapy session uses repeated trials (or presentations) with each trial having a DISTINCTLY identifiable beginning, middle and end.  So the trial is "Discrete" in that it is distinct and it has clearly identifiable steps and a conclusion.  Each step of a skill is mastered before new concepts are presented.

In Discrete trial teaching, a very small amount of information is given and the student’s response is immediately reinforced or not reinforced.  This is different compared with more traditional teaching methods which present large amounts of information with no clearly targeted interactive response on the student’s part.

Below is a graph showing sample "discrete" trials with a beginning, middle and an end:




(SD, or instruction)

Behavior of Student

Consequence (reinforcement)




"touch juice"

touches juice with great attention

Big reinforcement "Great"

"touch cookie"

Touches cookies w/good attention

Big reinforcement "Terrific"

"touch juice"

touches juice w/poor attention

"ok" reinforcement not as big

"touch cookie"

touches JUICE good attention

"lets try again"

"touch cookies"

no response

no reinforcement, "you need to look"




And so we see above, every trial has 3 parts, a beginning, middle and end.  You must have all three parts to be a discrete trial.  

bullet A-  The beginning, or antecedent, is what you do, to make the student respond. This can be a question, a visual stimulus, a prompt or an event.
bullet B-  The middle, or behavior, is the behavior of the student and his response/or lack of response, to the antecedent.
bullet C-  The end, or consequence, is your response to the students behavior. 

It is crucial that you always maintain clean, clear and distinct trials with ALL THREE STEPS- beginning, middle and end.  Practice with a video camera so you can go back and study therapy sessions and verify that your Discrete Trials stay clear and distinct.  Your reinforcement (or response) should occur immediately after the student responds.  Responding immediately will help shape the behavior by letting the student know whether she responded correctly.  Differential Reinforcement techniques should be used to shape the desired behavior (B) of the student.  For a comprehensive and detailed explanation of Discrete Trials refer to " Work In Progress.

You will find many valuable books, tapes and conference info at the Future Horizons website about ABA.  Future Horizons is a company specializing in products related to Autism Spectrum Disorders.  This is the FIRST place to look for books and tapes on Autism because that is what they SPECIALIZE in providing.

Find great books, videos, and conferences now at Future Horizons
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