Chapter 10: Single-Subject Research

Researcher Vance Hall and his colleagues were faced with the challenge of increasing the extent to which six disruptive elementary school students stayed focused on their schoolwork (Hall, Lund, & Jackson, 1968)[1]. For each of several days, the researchers carefully recorded whether or not each student was doing schoolwork every 10 seconds during a 30-minute period. Once they had established this baseline, they introduced a treatment. The treatment was that when the student was doing schoolwork, the teacher gave him or her positive attention in the form of a comment like “good work” or a pat on the shoulder. The result was that all of the students dramatically increased their time spent on schoolwork and decreased their disruptive behaviour during this treatment phase. For example, a student named Robbie originally spent 25% of his time on schoolwork and the other 75% “snapping rubber bands, playing with toys from his pocket, and talking and laughing with peers” (p. 3). During the treatment phase, however, he spent 71% of his time on schoolwork and only 29% on other activities. Finally, when the researchers had the teacher stop giving positive attention, the students all decreased their studying and increased their disruptive behaviour. This confirmed that it was, in fact, the positive attention that was responsible for the increase in studying. This was one of the first studies to show that attending to positive behaviour—and ignoring negative behaviour—could be a quick and effective way to deal with problem behaviour in an applied setting.

Most of this textbook is about what can be called group research, which typically involves studying a large number of participants and combining their data to draw general conclusions about human behaviour. The study by Hall and his colleagues, in contrast, is an example of single-subject research, which typically involves studying a small number of participants and focusing closely on each individual. In this chapter, we consider this alternative approach. We begin with an overview of single-subject research, including some assumptions on which it is based, who conducts it, and why they do. We then look at some basic single-subject research designs and how the data from those designs are analyzed. Finally, we consider some of the strengths and weaknesses of single-subject research as compared with group research and see how these two approaches can complement each other.

  1. Hall, R. V., Lund, D., & Jackson, D. (1968). Effects of teacher attention on study behaviour. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 1, 1–12.