Precision Teaching Behavior Dynamics Designs

Single case experimental designs have become an established method for determining functional relations between variables. According to the What Works Clearinghouse, single case designs “can provide a strong basis for establishing causal inference, and these designs are widely used in applied and clinical disciplines in psychology and education, such as school psychology and the field of special education” (Kratochwill et al., 2010). Single case designs help experimenters arrange and examine relations occurring between and among variables (Kazdin, 2011). The following figure shows the symbolic representation of three common single case designs that experimenters can use to discover a functional relation with variables.

A number of excellent books describe a variety of single case designs and how experimenters use them for discovering order in nature (e. g., Gast, 2010; Johnston & Pennypacker, 2009; Kazdin, 2011; Kennedy, 2005). The three experimental designs in above figure work by establishing experimental control between the application of the independent variable, or the intervention, on a dependent variable. Experimental control means an experimenter achieved a predictable change in behavior reliably produced by manipulating some part of the environment (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2007). Experimental control occurs because the experimenter exercises precise control of the implementation of the independent variable, or the intervention, by presenting it, withdrawing it or varying the value of it while also holding all confounding and extraneous variables constant (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2007).

Conducting good science with single case experimental designs requires a high degree of planning, implementation fidelity and resource availability and management. Within the context of Precision Teaching, experiments using single case designs and the subsequent production of functional relations have occurred (e.g., Kubina, Young & Kilwein, 2004; McDowell & Keenan, 2001; Young, West, Howard & Whitney, 1986). Yet the majority of people applying Precision Teaching do not reside within a University setting where access to resources and other important components for conducting experiments exist. Teachers and learners within home, private and public schools constitute the main body of people applying Precision Teaching. And within home, private and public school settings the teachers and learners typically do not have the resources necessary for conducting controlled experiments that lead to the discovery of functional relations. Nevertheless, “good science does not require experiments, it can be done with an intelligent use of observational evidence… there is more than one way to do science, depending on the nature of the questions and the methods typical of the field” (Pigliucci, 2010, p. 20).

Many scientific disciplines do not conduct experiments but that does not mean they cannot conduct good science that results in uncovering latent order in nature. Paleontology, for instance, does not conduct experiments [Experiments – an activity were an experimenter carefully controls variables and looks for factors that reliably affect the results observed due to the manipulations variables, (Clark, 2004)]. Paleontology studies ancient life by examining the structure of organisms revealed by fossils found within rocks. Paleontologists cannot arrange conditions or experiments to study extinct organisms. Instead, paleontologists can observe a particular type of fossil in specific rock strata. Trilobites no longer exist. Paleontologists, however, have learned a great deal about trilobites by examining their fossils in a geologic strata existing within the Paleozoic era. Paleontologists have discovered different orders of trilobites, when they lived, where they lived and how they lived, all without active experimentation.

Scientific disciplines such as paleontology and astronomy cannot conduct active experiments but they can collect empirical data through observations and produce and test hypotheses leading to reliable and valid knowledge about nature. Precision Teachers who mainly operate in the fields of education and psychology do not face the same restrictions as paleontologists and astronomers; Precision Teachers can and do conduct experiments. But many teachers do not have the luxury or resources required to coordinate and administer carefully controlled experiments.

As a profession, teachers face a more vital charge when contrasted with conducting tightly controlled experiments that lead to functional relations, namely producing learning outcomes. Three principles define the role of teachers; “Principle 1: The teacher makes a profound difference in how, what, when, and why students learn…. Principle 2: Teaching involves creating as many opportunities as possible for successful learning…. Principle 3: effective teaching enhances what the learner already knows and enables the learner to do things that could not be done before” (Darch & Kame’enui, 2004, p. 13-15).

Teachers have an applied role similar to physicians. Physicians with a family practice aim to provide primary care for their patients. Family practice physicians typically do not conduct controlled research; they spend the majority of their time delivering a range of medical care services. Likewise, teachers focus their energies creating successful learning outcomes for their students. Teachers and family practice physicians could conduct experiments, however, they both concentrate on applied outcomes.

Even though teachers do not usually conduct experiments, they still need to monitor learner behavior and apply good science to routine problems. Commonplace problems teachers face range from students not making progress in an specific skill to having to teach learners two to three years behind same age peers in academic achievement. Every teacher in every subject and in every school setting will deal with learning and/or behavioral problems at some point in time. Some problems may have simple resolutions; others may require a more intensive systematic approach. Precision Teaching offers an applied, scientific system for analyzing, and ultimately dealing with, all types of learner behavior. Unlike single case designs that seek to establish functional relations among variables, Precision Teaching also applies behavior dynamics designs in a search for variables yielding regular and predictable patterns of behavior. Behavior dynamics refers to  a level of research where correlated phenomena (e.g., behavior changes and interventions) lead to predictive, replicable, and believable outcomes (Cooper, 2005).

I admire and very much appreciate single case designs and the functional relations they can uncover. Additionally, I value experiments and welcome teachers to apply single case designs with Precision Teaching if they desire. The sciences of education and psychology both necessitate the full range of varied, quality science (i. e., descriptive, correlational and experimental studies) producing empirically verifiable information necessary for understanding nature. The part of nature interesting to teachers includes human behavior and learning.

Two of the basic behavior dynamics designs examine celeration/bounce changes between two or more phases, the following figure shows both designs. In the first design the teacher implements an intervention or collects baseline data. Most precision teachers immediately implement an intervention because they do not have luxury spending time not teaching, or applying interventions aimed at creating successful learning opportunities (baselines form a critical part of experimentation). Next, a decision rule, or a teacher established guideline (e.g., specific period of time), triggers a phase change and a new intervention begins. The teacher then inspects the celeration and bounce in the first phase and compares it against the celeration and bounce in the second phase. The teacher could select from a variety of other analytical techniques that come to bear on the data evaluation between the two phases. A teacher could employ any additional analytical technique like the combined jump/turn analysis, frequency and celeration multipliers, a comparison of successive AIMs and outlier analysis for rich understanding of the comparisons. Both the visual and quantitative information would provide a strikingly clear analysis as to the magnitude, direction and quality of behavioral changes between the first and second phase of data.


The second behavior dynamics design evaluates data similarly to the first design except the celeration/bounce changes also occur across multiple participants. Even though individual interventions will produce different degrees of learning, the general principles of learning apply to all students and examining changes across multiple participants will show precisely how a class of interventions affected learner behavior. The visual and quantitative analysis of Standard Celeration Charted behavior leads teachers to conclusions that specific interventions or variables produce (or don’t produce) reliable and convincing changes in pinpointed behavior.

As a teacher, behavior analyst, speech therapist, or whatever profession you practice, behavior dynamics offers a means for you to uncover order in nature. In the final analysis, most of the helping professions’ codes of conduct reference delivering services to people through the use of researched-based or science-based methods. Therefore, our analytic attention and compassionate inclinations should draw us towards useful, applied behavior discovery systems like Precision Teaching and behavior dynamics.



Clark, J. O. E. (2004). The essential dictionary of science. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Cooper, J. O. (2005). Applied research: The separation of applied behavior analysis and precision teaching. In W. Heward, T. Heron, N. Neef, S. Peterson, D. Sainato, G. Cartledge, R. Gardner, L. Peterson, S. Hersh & J. Dardig (Eds.), Focus on behavior analysis in education: Achievement, challenges, and opportunities. (pp. 295-303). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Darch, C. B., & Kame’enui, E. J. (2004). Instructional classroom management: A proactive approach to behavior management (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Gast, D. L. (2010). Single subject research methodology in behavioral sciences. New York: Routledge.

Johnston, J. M., & Pennypacker, H. S. (2009). Strategies and tactics of behavioral research (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Kazdin, A. E. (2011). Single-case research designs: Methods for clinical and applied settings (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Kennedy, C. H. (2005). Single-case designs for educational research. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Kratochwill, T. R., Hitchcock, J., Horner, R. H., Levin, J. R., Odom, S. L., Rindskopf, D. M. & Shadish, W. R. (2010). Single-case designs technical documentation. Retrieved from What Works Clearinghouse website. Retrieved from

Kubina, R. M., Young, A. E., & Kilwein, M. (2004). Examining an effect of fluency: Application of oral word segmentation and letters sounds for spelling. Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 13, 17-23.

McDowell, C., & Keenan, M. (2001). Developing fluency and endurance in a child diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 34, 345-348.

Pigliucci, M. (2010). Nonsense on stilts: How to tell science from bunk. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Young, K. R., West, R. P., Howard, V. F., & Whitney, R. (1986). Acquisition, fluency training, generalization and maintenance of dressing skills of two developmentally disabled children. Education and Treatment of Children, 9, 16-29.

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