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The Essential Guide to ABA Transfer Trials: What Are They & How Do BCBAs Use Them?

Mastering effective teaching strategies is essential in the world of ABA. Among these, transfer trials stand out as a pivotal technique.

Imagine you’re trying to find your way through an unfamiliar city. If you make a series of wrong turns, but eventually reach your destination, you’re likely to repeat those same mistakes next time because they still lead you to where you wanted to go. Similarly, if a learner receives reinforcement despite an error in their response, they have no incentive to correct their response in future trials.

Transfer trials are an essential tool in the behavior analyst’s toolkit, designed to ensure that learners don’t solidify errors in their responses. To put it simply, when a learner makes a mistake during a learning activity, it’s crucial to provide an opportunity to correct the error through repetition, rather than letting the mistake become a part of their learned response.

What are Transfer Trials?

Transfer trials are a strategic method used in ABA teaching. They offer learners the opportunity to correct an incorrect response by practicing the right one immediately afterward.

Unlike traditional error correction methods that may overlook the necessity of re-asking a question post-correction, transfer trials emphasize repetition and reinforcement. This method is founded on the principle that learning is most effective when correct responses are consistently reinforced, thereby preventing incorrect responses from taking root.

The level of support during a transfer trial can vary – including gestures, verbal cues, or physical prompts, depending on what the learner needs to succeed.

Why Transfer Trials Matter

Transfer trials offer a structured method for reinforcing correct responses immediately after an error. The ultimate goal of transfer trials is to encourage learners to respond correctly to the specific stimulus (SD) presented, rather than merely mimicking the instructor’s prompt.

For example, if a learner incorrectly identifies a picture of a sock as a “banana,” simply telling them the right answer (“It’s a sock”) and having them repeat it does not ensure they are responding to the picture itself.

They might be relying on echoic prompts from the instructor. Through transfer trials, we reintroduce the stimulus, allowing the learner to make the correct association and response independently.

How to Implement Transfer Trials in ABA

Implementing transfer trials involves several strategic steps to meet each learner’s unique needs.

1. Identify the Need

Transfer trials start with careful observation. As an ABA practitioner, you must find moments where a learner persistently struggles with a concept or skill. For instance, if a child learning to identify colors consistently misidentifies “blue” as “green,” this recurring error signifies a prime opportunity for a transfer trial.

Identifying these patterns early allows for timely intervention, preventing incorrect responses from becoming ingrained habits. This step highlights the importance of attentive and thoughtful observation for a personalized learning approach.

2. Preparation

Next, setting up the learning environment is key. This involves minimizing distractions and ensuring that all necessary materials are at hand. For color identification example, you might prepare flashcards of various colors.

Additionally, preparing the learner involves clearly explaining the task at hand, using simple language, and even a demonstration to ensure understanding. This preparation phase sets the stage for a focused and effective learning session.

3. Execution

With the groundwork laid, executing the transfer trial involves a careful balance of correction and reinforcement.

Continuing with our example, if the child again misidentifies “blue” as “green,” immediately show them the correct blue flashcard, clearly stating, “This is blue.” Follow this correction by re-asking the original question, “What color is this?”

Once the child correctly identifies blue, immediate and enthusiastic reinforcement of the correct response is vital. This could be verbal praise like, “Exactly! Well done, that’s blue,” or a tangible reward aligned with the child’s preferences.

Repetition of this cycle – error, correction, re-ask, and reinforcement – ensures that the learner associates the correct response with positive outcomes, thereby solidifying the correct knowledge and behavior. Each scenario will require its unique adaptations of the transfer trial steps, but the underlying principles of identification, preparation, and execution remain constant with this effective teaching strategy.

Going Beyond: Expanded Trials

Consider the scenario where a learner consistently confuses “blue” with “green.” After employing a transfer trial to guide the learner toward the correct identification of “blue,” an expanded trial introduces an unrelated task before revisiting the original challenge.

For instance, immediately following the correction and successful identification of the color blue, you might introduce a completely different action, such as saying, “Do this,” while patting your head.

This task breaks the pattern. Introducing an unrelated action disrupts the immediate sequence of events, ensuring that the learner’s correct identification of “blue” isn’t just a memorized reaction to a specific sequence, but a genuine understanding of the concept.

Measuring the Success of Transfer Trials

The success of transfer trials isn’t measured by the immediate trial following an error, but by subsequent trials. This method ensures that the correct response has been effectively learned and retained. Then, when a standard transfer trial isn’t enough, an expanded trial may be used.


Transfer trials are more than just a teaching technique; they’re a way to clearer understanding and more meaningful learning for our students. By adopting a patient, supportive approach, BCBAs can make a profound difference in the lives of those they work with, guiding them toward more accurate and confident responses.

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