Delayed reinforcement vs immediate reinforcement
: effects of delayed reinforcement on skill acquisition

  • Sean Heaney

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The general consensus is that reinforcement should be immediate to optimize the efficiency and effectiveness of discrete trial training (DTT; Cooper et al., 2007). However, in applied settings, clinicians and caretakers may struggle to do this with consistency. The current study used an adapted alternating treatments design (AATD) to first (Experiment 1) compare skill acquisition during DTT using immediate reinforcement, delayed reinforcement (8s), and delayed reinforcement (16s) for six autistic participants. All participants acquired skills taught using immediate reinforcement; however, acquisition efficiency was negatively affected by the introduction of delayed reinforcement for four participants. Experiment 2 extended previous research by comparing efficiency of skill acquisition during DTT using immediate reinforcement with a low quality (LQ) reinforcer, delayed reinforcement with a LQ reinforcer, and delayed reinforcement with a high quality (HQ) reinforcer for three participants who showed sensitivity to delays in Experiment 1. Teaching with a delayed HQ reinforcer was the most efficient while teaching with a delayed LQ reinforcer was the least efficient. Experiment 3 aimed to compare the long-term effects of delayed and immediate reinforcement and HQ reinforcers and LQ reinforcers through a series of monthly maintenance probes for the three participants in Experiment 2. All participants maintained skills taught using delayed HQ reinforcers whereas maintenance using LQ or immediate reinforcers was idiosyncratic across participants. We discuss the practical implications of the study’s findings in teaching skills to autistic individuals.
Date of AwardFeb 2024
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorStephen Gallagher (Supervisor), Julian Leslie (Supervisor) & Shannon N. Ward (Supervisor)


  • Parameters
  • Maintenance
  • Persistance
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Treatment integrity

Cite this