Step 1: Select a Task (Pinpoint)

A task should be: (A) countable, (B) have a counting period, (C) include a correct /incorrect pair, (D) specify the learning channel set, and (E) be a movement that is "hard-to-do."

A. Countable

Earlier we described how Precision Teachers attempt to translate learning tasks into concrete, directly observable behaviors that can be counted and recorded. For issues related to this topic, review the Focus on Directly Observable Behavior section.

B. Counting Period

The counting period is the amount of time each day one spends counting the movement (McGreevy, 1983, p. 11-12). The counting period might be as short as 1 minute or as long as 24 hours. For example, one might count "Susan makes free-throw shots for 1 minute" or "Dan eats a candy bar throughout the day."

It is important that the counting period be the same each the day. Suppose "Susan makes free-throw shots" is assessed for 2 minutes on some days and for 4 minutes on other days. Even if all the scores are converted to "counts per minute," there is a problem. Susan may become fatigued during 4-minute timings, with her performance deteriorating about half way through. Thus, the two timings of the same movement seem to represent two separate tasks, distinguished by differing levels of required endurance.

The counting period needs to be long enough so that the movement can occur frequently, at least 8-10 times. For example, if the counting period is 1 minute and Susan is unable to shoot, let alone make, 8-10 free-throw shots in that time, then the teacher should consider lengthening the counting period.

Another scenario concerns movements that occur infrequently throughout the day. For example, Dan might normally attempt to set his alarm clock once daily. Even if the counting period was extended to as long as 24 hours, at best the frequency would be one. In cases like these, Dan and his teacher may have to set up a special time (maybe 5 minutes each night) when Dan can practice the behavior over and over again.

Yet another scenario concerns complex movements. For example, "Mark feeds the dog" consists of four smaller movements: (1) Mark gets the dog bowl from cupboard, (2) Mark opens the bag of dog food, (3) Mark pours the right amount of dog food into the bowl, and (4) Mark places the food bowl in dog eating area. In such a case, McGreevy (1983) recommends that the counting period be the length of time that it takes a skilled person to perform the task. Mark's parents may be able to feed the dog in 2 minutes; thus, the counting period for "Mark performs the four steps of feeding the dog" would be 2 minutes (with each step constituting a count). When the counting period is less than 5 minutes, one should consider including more than a single counting period each day. For instance, Mark might practice feeding the dog three times daily, for a total counting period of 6 minutes.

C. Correct/Incorrect Pair

A task description should include both what to do (correct) as well as what not to do (incorrect). Ideally, one should count and work with both correct and incorrect movements. Sometimes it is easy to forget this, especially when the student's problem is severe. For example, the greater the frequency of Bobby whining throughout the day, the greater the resolve of the teacher to eliminate it. But the teacher should always consider what movement should occur in place of the undesirable one. Otherwise, he or she may get rid of one problem (whining) only to see it replaced with another one (tantruming). Behavior reduction procedures are improved when the teacher maximizes the conditions for a desirable alternative behavior (Martin & Pear, 1998).

To illustrate, consider the improved modifications to some of our previous examples. In each case, the teacher would be counting and working with a correct and an incorrect movement.

  • Ben moves a utensil with food from his plate to his mouth without (correct) or with (incorrect) spilling the food.
  • Mark performs each of the 4 steps of feeding the dog correctly or incorrectly for 2 minutes.
  • Susan makes (correct) or misses (incorrect) free-throw shots for 1 minute.
  • Dan eats a piece of fruit (correct) or eats a candy bar (incorrect) throughout the day.

McGreevy (1983) recommends that if one cannot work with both correct and incorrect movements, then always count and work with the correct movement.

D. Learning Channel Set

Each task description should be make clear both the input (or receive) channel and an output (send) channel. Ways in which we input information include seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting, and feeling (tactile). Precision Teachers also consider internal events such as thinking and feeling (emotion) to be input channels. The output channel could involve any movement on the part of the learner. Common output channels include saying, writing, pointing, drawing, and performing. A learning channel set specifies both the input channel and the output channel. For example, suppose a student uses flashcards to learn common terms in her course. If she does so by looking at a definition on one side of the card and then saying the term that comes to mind, the learning channel set would be summarized as see and say.

McGreevy (1983) notes that two advantages of learning channel sets are that they "tell other people how we are teaching a task" and they alert to the teacher to the fact that "there are many ways to learn the same movement" (p. II-18). For example, in the beginning, the learning channel set for Susan may be guide and shoot: "Susan feels the coach guide her arms as shoots a free throw correctly or incorrectly in one minute." Later, the learning channel set may be hear and shoot: "Susan hears the coach tell her what to do as she shoots a free throw correctly or incorrectly in one minute." Ultimately, the learning channel set would become think and shoot: Susan thinks about making a free throw as shoots a free throw correctly or incorrectly in one minute." Specifying the learning channel set at each stage in teaching makes it clear that the coach is providing less and less assistance.

There is another reason why teachers should consider learning channel sets. Lindsley (1990; 1995) claims that behavior is independent. This implies that we should not assume that because a student has mastered a task in one learning channel set that the student can then perform a second task in another learning channel set, no matter how apparently similar the two tasks. For example, a student who has mastered a hear and select task (e.g., hear "Dog" / select picture of dog) will not necessarily be able to perform a related see and say task (e.g., see picture of dog / say "dog") (cf., Sidman, 1994, pp. 227-228).

E. "Hard-To-Do"

A task should be selected on the basis that it is "hard-to-do." An assessment should reveal that there is room for improvement for both correct and incorrect movements. The goal is to teach the student a new task, not something he or she already knows how to do.

Sometimes an assessment may reveal that the correct movement occurs well below the goal level but incorrect movements are at or close to zero. Thus, there is room for improvement for correct movements only. This sort of learning picture suggests that the student may be avoiding any sort of movement that could be scored as incorrect, perhaps because errors had been punished in the past. The teacher should encourage to go faster and not worry about mistakes (e.g., see Bower & Orgel, 1981). In Precision Teaching, errors are considered to be learning opportunities: the more movements, correct or incorrect, the more chances to learn.