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3 Benefits of Using Probe Data in ABA

Deciding between probe and trial-by-trial data collection in your discrete trial instruction sessions? In the world of Applied Behavior Analysis (specifically discrete trial training), the ongoing search for effective data collection methods is a journey we are all too familiar with! Having used both methods, I feel that there are pros and cons to each. In this post, we’ll explore the benefits of utilizing probe data and how it stacks up against its counterpart.

Probe Data vs Trial-by-Trial Data: What’s the Difference?

Trial-by-trial data involves recording every occurrence of a behavior or skill during discrete trials, offering a detailed and comprehensive view of a learner’s performance. On the other hand, probe data takes a more streamlined approach, capturing one record of the target skill (typically the first instance within an instructional session). It serves as a sampling method, providing a snapshot of the learner’s abilities without the exhaustive documentation of each trial. While trial-by-trial data offers thoroughness, probe data balances efficiency, making it a valuable alternative. Each method has its merits, and practitioners often weigh the benefits of comprehensive analysis against the ease and practicality offered by the probe approach.

Pictured here are two completed data sheets, one using trial-by-trial data (right) and one using probe data (left). Typically if using probe data collection, we collect data during the first probe of each morning and afternoon instructional sessions. Grab these free printable IEP tracking sheets here to try using each type of data collection method with your student and make a data-driven decision!

probe vs trial data 1 1 3 Benefits of Using Probe Data in ABA

BENEFIT #1: Probe Data is Easier for Staff to Collect

One of the undeniable advantages of probe data lies in its simplicity for staff. Traditional trial-by-trial data can be time-consuming, demanding constant attention and precision. On the flip side, probe data allows for a more relaxed approach, freeing up valuable time for staff to engage in other critical aspects of their work. I find that staff typically find probe data collection less demanding, leading to increased accuracy and adherence to data collection protocols. This ease of use translates to more consistent and reliable data, laying the foundation for effective decision-making in behavior intervention.

BENEFIT #2: Probe Data is Easier to Graph & Analyze

Graphing and analyzing data can often feel like navigating a complex maze. However, probe data shines in its simplicity, providing a clearer picture for behavior analysts, special education teachers, and/ or behavior technicians. The streamlined nature of probe data allows for quicker visualization of trends and patterns, making it an efficient tool for monitoring progress. This ease of analysis empowers us to make timely adjustments to skill acquisition programs, ensuring the most effective and tailored support for each student.

The graph pictured to the left is an example of IEP goal data using daily probe data. The probe score is reflected by the checkmark under “Yes” (if the student performed the current target skill correctly) or “No” (if the student performed the current target skill incorrectly). A percentage is then calculated (automatically using the power of Google Sheets™!) to reflect a weekly score (percentage of correct probes over total number of probes conducted).

BENEFIT #3: Probe Data Leaves More Room for Personal Connections

Beyond the logistics, probe data allows educators to focus on what truly matters—teaching and building personal connections with our students. Freed from the constant data recording of each trial, we can invest more time in understanding individual needs and adapting their teaching styles accordingly. Instead of catching up on data collection while your student is engaging a toy or game during their reinforcer break, you can instead take a minute to enjoy the preferred activity with your learner, perhaps strengthening your teacher-student relationship. This ability to connect more with students on a personal level can foster a more positive and supportive learning environment.

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What does the data say?

A 2009 study published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (Najdowski et al.) compares probe data with trial-by-trial data to determine which method produced more rapid rates of mastery for learning targets among children with autism. The results suggest “that there was little difference in terms of the number of sessions in which a participant displayed mastery performance and in the percentage of correct responding during maintenance probes using either the all-trials or the first-trial data-collection method.”

These findings suggest that using probe data is a viable option in discrete trial instruction. As always, choosing what data collection method should be based on other individual factors, such as your student’s learning history with either method, as well as type of skill and staff abilities and training.


In conclusion, the utilization of probe data is not just a pragmatic shift; it’s a paradigm that aligns with the evolving landscape of ABA. Probe data can simplify data collection, analysis, and interpretation. Embracing this method not only enhances the efficiency of our interventions but also empowers us to prioritize what truly matters—meaningful connections with our learners. Data collection should not just be a task but a catalyst for positive change in the lives of our students.


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