Discussant’s Comments Re SAFMEDS for ABAI 2018 (Not Presented)

Discussant’s Comments That Could Have Been Presented at ABAI 2018

by John W. Eshleman, EdD, BCBA-D

25 May 2018

[Though originally scheduled to attend the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) Convention in San Diego, CA in May of 2018, for a variety of reasons I did not attend the convention.  I had been scheduled to be the Discussant for a Symposium entitled “Fluency Based Instruction in University Settings” (Baltazar, 2018).  Dr. Traci Cihon who’d arranged this (and another) symposium arranged to have me replaced as Discussant by Dr. Lee Mason, who became the Discussant-of-Record.  Prior to the convention Dr. Mason emailed me asking me what I might have planned on saying. The paper below is based on my email reply to him (cc’d to Dr. Cihon, too) about some points that I likely would have made had I served as Discussant.  I should note, too, that in the role of Discussant, I’d have also reviewed and commented upon the two papers that comprised the symposium. – John Eshleman, May 28, 2018.]


Regarding SAFMEDS. I’ve been working and researching them since about 1980, mostly R&D, less so for experimental analysis. Since you asked, here are a few thoughts:

SAFMEDS are flashcards. In the early years of SAFMEDS, the originator of the acronym/procedure, Dr. O. R. Lindsley often still referred to them as flashcards (Lindsley, 1981).  It took about 10 years between 1978 and 1988 or so for the term SAFMEDS to become common. The term originated as an application of operant lab principles (see any background regarding the history of Lindsley himself, as a student of B. F. Skinner’s) to an educational method – specifically to flashcards.

I would contend that the basic operant principles at the time were pretty-well documented both in terms of experimental analytic origins and also applied research and applications of them.  So, implementing these principles would not itself require validation of them as principles.

But, what about flashcards themselves?

I have served as a reviewer for papers about SAFMEDS, including a couple of recent ones within the past two years.  At that time, about two years ago, I wondered about the origins of flashcards in American education.  When did flashcards themselves first originate?  I did a quick “google” search and within seconds found some sources that indicated that flashcards originated in the 1830s! That’s almost 200 years ago, now. Ok, 188 years, give or take a few (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flashcard).

I recall a point that my doctoral dissertation Chair and Advisor, Dr. E. A. Vargas repeatedly made: A development of a particular technology both verifies and validates any scientific or engineering principles behind it; in short, a pragmatic truth criterion. Vargas noted that Skinner (1979) in his autobiography had noted the same point. E.g., programmed instruction technology was a pragmatic validation of operant lab principles (not the only one of course!).

So, flashcards have been around in American education for nearly two centuries. That suggests some technological validation and some pragmatic truth criterion.  Viewed from the perspective of metacontingencies, this also suggests some rather long staying-power.  Presumably, if flashcards themselves did not work to achieve certain educational outcomes, as a cultural practice their usage would have likely gone extinct by now.  There seems little other reason to think that flashcards would persist that long unless they had some educational value, whether more recently experimentally analyzed or not, and whether behavior analysis agrees or not. They signify a fairly robust technology.

So, what about SAFMEDS? I agree that the experimental analysis from a behavior analysis perspective may seem lacking.  I’ve chaired several theses that have investigated several of the terms of the acronym themselves.  For example, one of my students, Juntunen (2009) investigated the “Saying” out loud procedural variable by arranging an experiment using a sound meter that recorded decibel levels of learners saying the cards noticeably out loud (e.g., 50 to 60 decibels) compared to whispering them or saying them quietly (about 20 decibels if I recall — could be wrong, but I don’t have her thesis handy).  The result of that experiment was mostly inconclusive, with perhaps only a slight edge to saying them more loudly.  This, and other research efforts, plus my own lengthy experience of using them in my courses perhaps makes me one of the most skeptical of them while yet remaining an advocate for them.

So, here’s the deal. SAFMEDS are flashcards.  We know that flashcards have a robust, pragmatic, empirical validation.  There may not be a whole lot of evidence that SAFMEDS work “better” than flashcards (or better than other fluency-building methods that result in fluent verbal and especially intraverbal repertoires). But there’s also no evidence at all that SAFMEDS are any worse than so-called traditional flashcards.  Neither flashcards nor SAFMEDS  need further research before it becomes permissible or acceptable for teachers to start using them, because they have been doing so since about 1830, just not SAFMEDS style, necessarily!

But, I tend to regard comparison studies as the wrong line of reasoning.  If you haven’t seen Dr. Jim Johnston’s (1988) paper in The Behavior Analyston “Strategic and Tactical Limits of Comparison Studies” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2741858/ ) then I encourage you to do so.

SAFMEDS are NOT a panacea. They do not always work the same way for everyone, or for every instructional task. Most especially, I have found from incorporating them in my courses that the worst possible application of them is for “terms and their definitions.”  Using SAFMEDS for terms and definitions will likely run counter to what Dr. Carl Binder discussed in his 1996 paper in The Behavior Analystabout fluency and fluency-building (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2733609/).  There are other, I think, better methods for teaching terms and their definitions (some of which were pioneered by my mentor, Dr. Stephen A. Graf — http://www.stevegraf.org: see “Prime Principles” in (http://nebula.wsimg.com/78512dfa3d88b6bc0b84e887d7721142?AccessKeyId=F33FC376F01581DAB5C0&disposition=0&alloworigin=1)

So, what can SAFMEDS be used for?  To establish and/or strengthen intraverbal “word association” verbal response repertoires.  The late Dr. W. S. Verplanck (1992)  has a paper in The Analysis of Verbal Behavior journal, regarding the Word Association Test (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2748587/ ).  That, and other basic intraverbals (e.g., using store-bought Arithmetic flashcards SAFMEDS style to teach some basic arithmetic relations), or to use them in picture-naming “tact” type research and development seems the best way to go. In this latter, put photos or diagrams etc. on the fronts and SeeSay the name of the object shown.

Well, I have a lot more that I could address, but I’ll leave you with these thoughts above. If you’re interested, I encourage you to pursue more behavior analytic research with SAFMEDS, but with also taking into account the limitations noted above, most especially Johnston’s.


Baltazar, M. (Chairperson). (2018). Fluency based instruction in university settings. Symposium presented at the meeting of the Association for Behavior Analysis International, San Diego, CA. Manchester Grand Hyatt, Harbor Ballroom C. Symposium #205 TBA/EDC Applied Research, 9:00 am – 9:50 am.

Binder, C. V. (1996). Behavioral fluency: Evolution of a new paradigm. The Behavior Analyst, 19(2): 163–197. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2733609/)

Flashcard. Wikipedia entry. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flashcard). Retrieved 28 May 2018 by John W. Eshleman.

Graf, S. A. (1993). “Prime Principles.” Crew Reference Manual. Course Syllabus for General Psychology 560. Youngstown State University, Youngstown, Ohio. Page 6. http://nebula.wsimg.com/78512dfa3d88b6bc0b84e887d7721142?AccessKeyId=F33FC376F01581DAB5C0&disposition=0&alloworigin=1

Johnston, J. (1988). Strategic and tactical limits of comparison studies. The Behavior Analyst, 11(1): 1–9. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2741858/).

Juntunen, T. (2009). The Effects of Response Amplitude on the Acquisition of Vocal-Verbal Behavior Using Fluency-Building. Unpublished Master’s Thesis, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.  J. W. Eshleman (Thesis Chairperson).

Lindsley, O. R. (1981).  Current issues facing standard celeration charting. Invited Address presented at the Winter Precision Teaching Conference, Orlando, Florida.

Skinner, B. F. (1979). The Shaping of a Behaviorist. New York: Knopf.

Verplanck, W. (1992). A brief introduction to the word associate test. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 10, 97–123. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2748587/)


John W. Eshleman, EdD, BCBA-D, May 2018



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