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The Purpose of Transfer Trials: What Are They And How Do We Use Them?

what is the purpose of transfer trials

The purpose of transfer trials is to make sure that any error that a child is making in learning doesn’t become embedded in the response. What I mean by that is if we’re asking a child a question and they make an error, and then we correct them without going back and re-asking that question, that error is going to become part of the learned response that they’re going to make.

For example, I have a horrible sense of direction. If I need to get from point A to point B, and I make a couple wrong turns, as long as it gets me to point B, I’m going to keep making those wrong turns the next time. I don’t want to find a new way to get there as long as I know that making those wrong turns will get me where I need to go. 

For the learner it’s the same thing. If they get access to the end of that trial, or some sort of reinforcement, while having that mistake embedded in the response, there’s no motivation there for them to make the correct response the next time they’re presented with the same SD.

What is a Transfer Trial?

A transfer trial is one of many resources for teaching students with autism. Using a transfer trial gives the learner a chance to practice saying the correct response after they have given an incorrect one. This is a teaching moment and not meant to be a new trial to take data on. It is essentially the instructor teaching the learner what the correct answer should be and allowing them to understand this before moving on to the next trial. The instructor can give as much support as needed for the transfer trial, whether that be gestures, verbal cues, or positional prompts.

What is the Purpose of Transfer Trials?

In technical terms, we want the learner to be responding to the one particular SD versus responding to us. Say I held up a picture of a sock to the learner and said “what’s this?” Their response is then “banana.” So I correct them and say “It’s a sock.” Then the learner says “sock.” 

That’s an example of echoic control. That’s not responding to the SD, what is it? It’s responding to me saying it’s a sock, and she says a sock. So the next time I present this card, what is it? She’s probably going to wait for me because she wants to respond to the echoic. So therefore, we need to be doing a transfer trial. 

What Does a Transfer Trial Look Like?

I hold up a picture of a sock. “What is it?” The learner says, “banana,” which is incorrect. I then correct the learner, saying, “it’s a sock.” Then, like before, the learner will repeat, “sock.”

But the transfer trial comes in when I go back to the beginning and hold up the picture again. “What is it?” The learner then says the correct answer, “sock!”

“You got it! It’s a sock.”

That’s what we mean by re-presenting that SD so that the learner has a chance to respond to the SD correctly, and not just doing echoic. That entire sequence of responses is one trial. So if they needed a transfer trial, we would mark that trial as incorrect. And the purpose of the transfer trial is to teach them to respond to that SD correctly. Even though they respond correctly during the transfer trial, you would still mark it as one full incorrect trial. Then the next time it’s presented, not after the error correction, that would be a new trial.

Want more information on transfer trials? We have a free download on transfer trial procedures that can help you get started using them for your children or clients. Click the button below to get it in your email.

Expanded Trials

Sometimes I’ll even go further and do some type of expanded trial before I go on to another trial. That would look like adding something completely different at the end of the trial before starting over. Going back to the sock example, once I did the transfer trial to correct the learner to say sock, I might then say “do this” and pat my head, prompting the learner to do the same. Then we’d move onto the next trial, holding up the sock again, “what’s this?” And the learner says, “sock.” 

Make sure you give the learner lots of praise and reinforcement when they do or say the correct thing. “You got it! Amazing.” 


We want to use transfer trials in order to teach our learners the correct responses in our trials. It’s important for them to learn the right answers so that they don’t end up repeating the wrong ones. This is the purpose of transfer trials.

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