Episode 57:

Systematic Instruction

Date released: December 2014


Partners: Phil Brown

Systematic instruction is an important instructional approach that has many benefits for people with disability. Phil Brown is an experienced expert in this field and in this episode takes us through systematic instruction and how to apply the principles in our teaching and coaching.

Systematic Instruction—What is it?

Guest author: Phil Brown
The Inclusion Club—Episode57, stock coffee cup photoIn Episode 55 we introduced systematic instruction as an approach to teaching and coaching that has great application for inclusive instruction. Since then we’ve had a number of email exchanges with Inclusion Club subscribers wanting to find out more. So, we are delighted to introduce today our friend and genuine expert in this field, Phil Brown. We’ve worked with Phil to bring you this special episode on systematic instruction.

It’s a long episode, so grab a cup of coffee and settle in!

Systematic instruction is an approach to instruction based the principles and research of Applied Behaviour Analysis (also called ABA). ABA is based on a large body of rigorous scientific research over the last half century on the principles of learning. The terms systematic instruction is used here as a synonym for ABA.

Shortly we will outline the key features of systematic instruction, but it should be noted that if we were to look at the approaches taken by many coaches or trainers acknowledged by their peers as highly effective at teaching skills, we would undoubtedly observe them using many and perhaps all of the key features of systematic instruction. Sports science has become extremely rigorous. The principles of learning identified by researchers of systematic instruction are also scientific. It is therefore to be expected that you will observe many of the features of systematic instruction in modern sports coaching and training. However, an advantage gained by sport coaches and trainers in understanding the principles of systematic instruction is, that it has isolated, defined and closely researched many key aspects of learning and training. It provides an excellent, objective, dispassionate, empirical framework for analysis of skills-training in sport or any other training. As early as the 1980s the following statement was made in the Journal of Sports Psychology:

While operant technology [i.e. systematic instruction / applied behaviour analysis] is not to be regarded as a panacea for all of sport and physical education, it certainly provides behavioral principles and strategies that could be used effectively to develop, maintain, or change target sport and physical education behaviors.

Donohue et al, 1980, p, 325

A description of systematic instruction

By way of introduction let’s first consider a few reasons why systematic instruction is important.

A key element of systematic instruction is accurate assessment – as mentioned in the video above. If you don’t accurately assess what you are instructing how do you know you are achieving what you set out to achieve? Below are two more short videos explaining why accurate assessment is so important.

The following description of systematic instruction does little credit to its potential depth and scope for application in sport and physical education. However, we will proceed as we are sure you will see the applicability and potential of this approach. The key features of systematic instruction are:

  • Defining the Skill & Setting a Mastery Criteria
    The skill being taught is precisely defined. This allows its performance to be observed accurately, and enhances the clarity of the trainers’ instructions. A clear and precise criteria is set for the mastery of the skill. For example, 100% of the steps of the skill will be performed correctly on 3 consecutive occasions. Accurate assessment is not possible without accurate observation and the setting of a mastery criteria.
  • Accurate & Regular Assessment
    Accurate assessment provides accurate information on which to revise the instructional strategy employed to achieve success or further enhance performance. This is referred to as data-based instruction. Progress is assessed each time training occurs, or daily, a few times a week or weekly, and instruction is modified as required.
  • Task analysis
    If the skill has more than one step, then it is broken down into sub-steps that are small enough to ensure effective mastery of the skill. This is called Task Analysis. Repeated training is provided in the performance of all steps of the skill as a whole, but as required some individual steps or small clusters of steps are trained separately and intensively because they need more training than other steps.
  • Intensive and Persistent Training
    Persistent and intensive instruction is used to achieve initial acquisition and mastery of the skill. This is called massed practice.
  • Highly Consistent Training
    The initial acquisition of skills is facilitated by consistency of training strategies and assessment by all trainers. Inconsistent training can be confusing and lead to errors in the performance of the skill. Minimizing errors expedites successful skill acquisition. This is called errorless learning.
  • Prompts and Specific Corrective Feedback / Error Correction
    Prompts and specific corrective feedback minimise errors. Prompts are delivered before an error is made to ensure the skill or step of the skill is performed correctly. If an error is made, specific corrective feedback is provided. This involves the use of prompts to correct the error.
  • Strong Positive Reinforcement
    Strong reinforcers are used to increase motivation to perform the skill correctly. Reinforcers are delivered for improved or correct performance of the skill.
  • Training & Assessment Strategies are explicitly & accurately documented
    Usually all the information previously mentioned is precisely and explicitly documented as a Systematic Instruction Plan (also called a Program Form) so that it can be communicated accurately to all people involved in either or both instruction or assessment of the skill.

Of particular importance here is the use of task analysis—a process familiar to many coaches but very important in terms of systematic instruction. See the video below for an explanation of why task analysis is so critical to the whole process:

Different types of positive reinforcement

Young female basketball player talking to her coachPositive reinforcement means that there is a consequence following the performance of a skill that motivates the future correct performance of the skill or better performance of the skill. On one hand, although many people may find some things reinforcing e.g. social praise, a salary increase, or winning 5 million dollars in a lottery, on the other hand reinforcers can be highly specific to individuals. What is a reinforcer for one person is not necessarily a reinforcer another? The rule of thumb is … if the ‘consequence’ delivered after the performance a skill does not lead to better or correct performance of the skill in future then it is not a ‘reinforcer’! There are many types and degrees of reinforcers that may appeal to people involved in sport or physical education. These may include:

  • Social praise
    Usually in the form of verbal statements (e.g. “good job!) or gesture (e.g. thumb up) or touch (e.g. a pat on the back)
  • Information and measurement devices
    Showing incremental improvement in performance (e.g. checklists, stop watches, laser-based measurement devices, weight scales, heart rate monitors, scoreboards at a sporting venue)
  • Increased social status
    For example, from being a member of a team, a winner, or simply being recognised as an athlete
  • Token reinforcers
    For example, points gained in competition leading to a future award, or a medal, or a certificate
  • Employment
    As a professional athlete or some other form of monetary gain

Of course, reinforcement can be positive and negative.

Negative reinforcement occurs, when as a consequence of improved performance, a negative consequence is removed. For example, it may apply to a child who grows up in a high-profile family sporting-dynasty with pressure to perform in the sport at which his parents and siblings are very successful. If he achieves sufficient success, the weight of potential family disapproval of lack of sporting prowess will be removed. Of course, the role of negative reinforcement would continue related to fear of letting the family down at each major championship.

Whatever peoples’ attitudes to the term “negative reinforcement”, this form of reinforcement is quite common in certain circumstances such as not wanting to let the team down, not wanting to lose a financial benefit, fear of not being selected as part of the team or where there is pressure to perform in front of family and peers.

However, in terms of what teachers, coaches, trainers, selectors do to enhance performance, it is generally considered desirable, professional and ethical to use positive reinforcement rather than deliberately constructing circumstances where negative reinforcement applies beyond the usual unavoidable occurrences of this type of reinforcement (i.e. setting up potential consequences which are perceived by the sports person, student, patient or client as punitive).

Example of prompting & why prompting is so important?

Prompts are delivered before the performance of a skill, or step of a skill, to guide the correct performance of the skill or skill step. They can also be used after the incorrect performance of the skill or step of the skill to deliver specific corrective feedback / error correction. Along with positive reinforcement, prompting is an extremely powerful way of changing behaviour. Positive reinforcement increases the likelihood that correct or better performance of the skill will occur at a future time. Prompting increases the likelihood that the skill will be performed correctly, and so creates increased opportunity for the delivery of a reinforcer. Positive reinforcement and prompting therefore work together to increase correct performance of the skill.

Prompts may be verbal prompts (e.g. “Turn your foot 90 degrees to the ball”); model prompts (e.g. demonstrating turning your foot 90 degrees to the ball); visual or gestural prompts (hand signs, symbols, photos, words indicating – turning the foot 90 degrees to the ball); partial physical prompts (e.g. coach taps the player’s foot outwards indicating turning your foot 90 degrees to the ball based on a shared understanding from previous discussion); full physical prompts (e.g. using one or two hands to fully turn the players foot 90 degrees to the ball).

What is a natural cue? How is it different from a prompt? Why are cues important?

Coach discussing strategy with his team of female athletesNatural cues, like prompts and reinforcers are an important element of systematic instruction.

What is the difference between a natural cue and a prompt? In simple terms, a natural cue is a naturally occurring event that tells a person that a skill needs to be performed, and a prompt is an action by their trainer or coach that helps them perform the skill.

In sport however, natural cues probably need to be focused on mainly when training people who can’t figure out when they have to perform a skill. For example, a person with intellectual disability or ASD who is poor at categorisation. In this case the person may not have that “Ah ha!” moment of “Oh yeah, I know how to do that!” or “I know what to do!”, because although they may have learnt the skill in another setting, they don’t categorise the current setting as one of the settings where the skill applies. In these circumstances the trainer would need to highlight natural cues during the training of people with cognitive disabilities. For example, regarding the behaviour of fullbacks in soccer (sorry ‘football’)! If for example, when a fullback moves forward to tackle an opponent, this is a natural cue for the other fullback to move across in front of the goal to better protect the goal.

The natural cue that the coach might point out in training is that the other fullback has started to move up the field. Coaches of people with cognitive disabilities such as intellectual disability, developmental disabilities (e.g. ASD) and perhaps those with acquired-brain injury, may need to pay particular attention to natural cues in a way that they don’t usually have to when training other players. If the coach doesn’t pay attention to natural cues, she might think to herself about a player, “I don’t know, he just doesn’t get it.” I keep telling him ‘get ready’ when the other fullback moves forward but he just stands where he is till it’s too late!” This might be because the prompt “get ready” is not explicit enough to highlight the natural cue. If so, during training the coach may need to explicitly point out when and what to do when the other fullback moves forward. This may require repeated set-piece rehearsal involving the other fullback moving forward and the player in question moving across to cover the goal. At the beginning of each rehearsal of the skill, the coach may need to say something like: “Jane, watch the other fullback and be ready to move across when she moves forward.”

Initially the coach might need to stand with the player and prompt the correct performance of the skill by saying something explicit (a verbal prompt), and or pointing (a gestural prompt), and or a light touch to the players back when and in the direction she has to move (a partial physical prompt). This may seem so obvious that coaches don’t think to do it. However, coaches need to make a conscious effort to analyse and highlight natural cues for people with cognitive disabilities and rehearse players’ response to them in ways and to an extent not required with other players.

What are ‘Latency’ and ‘Response Interval’?

The Inclusion Club, Episode57—Young baseball player at batLatency is the usual time it takes someone to respond (e.g. to initiate a response to an instruction). This is determined by repeated observation of the person until the trainer is confident he or she knows the typical time taken to respond by the person in relation to the skill being performed.

Why does latency matter and how does it determine ‘response interval’?

Latency is important for two reasons:

Firstly, the only way to know if someone can perform a skill independently is to give them sufficient time to perform the skill. If you always jump in early and prompt the player, they may get used to being promoted and not learn to perform the skill independently. When players get in the habit of waiting to be prompted this is called prompt dependency. This is of particular concern in relation to the coaching of people with an intellectual disability or ASD. It is not uncommon that, with all the good will I the world, parents, teachers and coaches are often overly helpful towards people with these disabilities and as a result prompt too often and too soon leading to the unintended consequence that the player becomes prompt dependent.

Secondly, prompts need to be both systematically delivered and systematically faded (i.e. removed). Not removing prompts (i.e. continuing to prompt when it is no longer necessary) is another cause of prompt dependency. Systematic (i.e. consistently programmed ) use of prompts allows the option of using one of a range of systematic prompt delivery strategies developed in applied behaviour analysis through years of empirical research. For example, ‘Constant Time Delay’ or the ‘System of Least Prompts’. Most of these prompt delivery strategies at some point require the trainer to delay their prompting long enough for the person being trained to respond to an instruction, or to do the next step in a skill. This delay by the trainer is called the response interval. The response interval is judged by assessing the players ‘latency’. If for example a particular player with an intellectual disability normally takes 4 seconds to start play after the umpire or coach calls “Play”, then the trainer sets a response interval of 5 or 6 seconds, this way the coach gives the player adequate time to perform the skill before delivering the prompt to start play.

How do you know systematic instruction his working?

In a way this question involves an inherent contradiction. It is somewhat of an oxymoron. Accurate assessment of progress (to determine if a strategy is working) is an integral element of systematic instruction. Therefore if you use systematic instruction, by definition you are assessing the effectiveness of the instruction undertaken. The effectiveness of this type of instruction is strongly underpinned by the fact that data-based instruction is integral to it. Data-based instruction involves regular accurate data collection on the basis of which instructional strategies are trialled and changed until instruction is successful or as successful as possible. Systematic instruction has proven so effective because it involves a scientific process of experimentation until success is achieved or as much success is achieved as seems possible.

As described above this is facilitated by:

  • defining the skill and setting a mastery criteria, and
  • conducting accurate and regular assessment

Try it!

Further Reading

General Technical Resources on Systematic Instruction:
Alberto, P. A. and A. C. Troutman (2012). Applied Behavior Analysis for Teachers. Columbus, Ohio, Merrill / Pearson.
Cooper, J. O., et al. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. Columbus, Ohio, Pearson / Merrill – Prentice Hall.

References specific to Sport & Physical Education:
Alstot, A. E. (2012). Implications for the Use of Token Economies in Physical Education: A Literature Review. PHEnex, 4(1). http://ojs.acadiau.ca/index.php/phenex/article/view/1449
Alstot, A. E., et al. (2013). “Effects of Interventions Based in Behavior Analysis on Motor Skill Acquisition: A Meta-Analysis.” Physical Educator 70(2). http://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-334485906/effects-of-interventions-based-in-behavior-analysis
Donahue, J. A., et al. (1980). “Behavior Modification in Sport and Physical Education: A Review ” Journal of Sport Psychology 2: 311-328 http://www.humankinetics.com/acucustom/sitename/Documents/DocumentItem/8548.pdf
Lavay, B. (1984). “Physical Activity as a Reinforcer in Physical Education.” Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly 1: 315-332. http://www.humankinetics.com/acucustom/sitename/Documents/DocumentItem/12649.pdf

Other Resources:
See References for ‘ABA Health, Sports & Fitness’ listed at: http://www.behavior.org/resources/585.pdf
See Special Interest Group: ABA & Health, Sport & Fitness: at https://abainternational.org/constituents/special-interests/archives/health,-sport,-and-fitness.aspx

Relevant Journals:
The Journal of Behaviorial Health & Medicine (JBH&M) [Formerly the Journal of Behaviour Analysis in Health, Sport, Fitness and Medicine]

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About the author: Phil Brown

About the author: Phil Brown