Sunday science: Trial and success learning

Science Sunday posts are short posts about the science of animal behavior and training. They often feature a quote or a passage of text. Spend a moment today thinking about the ideas in the post. As always, you can share your thoughts or questions in the comments section.

Behavior Analysis Book Shelf

“A program is a defined set of procedures by which behavior, behavior-contingencies relations, and the contingencies themselves are changed. There are different ways to program. One way is through trial and error. However, in this kind of learning the individual makes many errors and can suffer in the process of learning. He can also learn through a trial-and-success program. This is designed in steps which are attuned to, and built upon, his progress. In the course of this kind of learning he will not make mistakes. Both methods of learning may produce the same pattern, but, although the outcomes of learning are the same, there may be important differences in other areas. For example, the child who is taught to swim by being thrown into water over his head may eventually swim as well as the child who is gradually introduced to water. However, the first child, once he is away from his watching parents, may shun water. One can say that they have had different histories or experiences, or one may state that each has been involved in a different program.”

Arthur Schwartz & Israel Goldiamond
Social casework: A behavioral approach, 1975

Learning usually isn’t much fun when you just can’t figure out the right answer. Think back to a class you took in high school or college that was impossibly difficult. Perhaps it was high school trigonometry, a college Spanish literature class (taught in Spanish!), or a world history class that involved memorizing hundreds of facts. Were you relieved when the course was finally over?

On the other hand, when a person (or animal) is met with success during learning, the person usually has better retention of the information or skill, enjoys the learning process, and looks forward to learning more. In addition, the teacher is usually regarded more favorably.

Trainers who train with shaping and positive reinforcement are often able to train behaviors in such a way that the animal makes very few errors during the acquisition of a new behavior. The animal is successful during learning because the trainer breaks the task into logical steps and sets up the teaching environment so that the correct behavior is very likely to occur at each step. Here’s an example of a creative trial and success program for teaching a dog to go to a mat.

Watch on YouTube: Target training to the mat

Of course, as Goldiamond and Schwartz discuss, there are usually lots of different ways to teach a person or animal to perform a behavior that result in similar outcomes. However, even when the outcome is similar (for example, swim two laps in the pool), an observant individual can often notice differences in performance if learners were taught with different programs. This could include differences in body language, as well as the person’s willingness to engage in the task.

If you want eager and engaged animals that are willing to learn and perform, think about how you can make your training trial and success learning, rather than trial and error.

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