Verbal ability, previous practice and load on short-term memory as determiners of differences in a complex learning task: an experimental study
Gorham, R. G.
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Traditional psychometric theory and practice classify people according to broad ability dimensions but do not examine how these mental processes occur. Hunt and Lansman (1975) proposed a 'distributed memory' model of cognitive processes with emphasis on how to describe individual differences based on the assumption that each individual possesses the same components. It is in the quality of these components ~hat individual differences arise. Carroll (1974) expands Hunt's model to include a production system (after Newell and Simon, 1973) and a response system. He developed a framework of factor analytic (FA) factors for : the purpose of describing how individual differences may arise from them. This scheme is to be used in the analysis of psychometric tes ts . Recent advances in the field of information processing are examined and include. 1) Hunt's development of differences between subjects designated as high or low verbal , 2) Miller's pursuit of the magic number seven, plus or minus two, 3) Ferguson's examination of transfer and abilities and, 4) Brown's discoveries concerning strategy teaching and retardates . In order to examine possible sources of individual differences arising from cognitive tasks, traditional psychometric tests were searched for a suitable perceptual task which could be varied slightly and administered to gauge learning effects produced by controlling independent variables. It also had to be suitable for analysis using Carroll's f ramework . The Coding Task (a symbol substitution test) found i n the Performance Scale of the WISe was chosen. Two experiments were devised to test the following hypotheses. 1) High verbals should be able to complete significantly more items on the Symbol Substitution Task than low verbals (Hunt, Lansman, 1975). 2) Having previous practice on a task, where strategies involved in the task may be identified, increases the amount of output on a similar task (Carroll, 1974). J) There should be a sUbstantial decrease in the amount of output as the load on STM is increased (Miller, 1956) . 4) Repeated measures should produce an increase in output over trials and where individual differences in previously acquired abilities are involved, these should differentiate individuals over trials (Ferguson, 1956). S) Teaching slow learners a rehearsal strategy would improve their learning such that their learning would resemble that of normals on the ,:same task. (Brown, 1974). In the first experiment 60 subjects were d.ivided·into high and low verbal, further divided randomly into a practice group and nonpractice group. Five subjects in each group were assigned randomly to work on a five, seven and nine digit code throughout the experiment. The practice group was given three trials of two minutes each on the practice code (designed to eliminate transfer effects due to symbol similarity) and then three trials of two minutes each on the actual SST task . The nonpractice group was given three trials of two minutes each on the same actual SST task . Results were analyzed using a four-way analysis of variance . In the second experiment 18 slow learners were divided randomly into two groups. one group receiving a planned strategy practioe, the other receiving random practice. Both groups worked on the actual code to be used later in the actual task. Within each group subjects were randomly assigned to work on a five, seven or nine digit code throughout. Both practice and actual tests consisted on three trials of two minutes each. Results were analyzed using a three-way analysis of variance . It was found in t he first experiment that 1) high or low verbal ability by itself did not produce significantly different results. However, when in interaction with the other independent variables, a difference in performance was noted . 2) The previous practice variable was significant over all segments of the experiment. Those who received previo.us practice were able to score significantly higher than those without it. J) Increasing the size of the load on STM severely restricts performance. 4) The effect of repeated trials proved to be beneficial. Generally, gains were made on each successive trial within each group. S) In the second experiment, slow learners who were allowed to practice randomly performed better on the actual task than subjeots who were taught the code by means of a planned strategy. Upon analysis using the Carroll scheme, individual differences were noted in the ability to develop strategies of storing, searching and retrieving items from STM, and in adopting necessary rehearsals for retention in STM. While these strategies may benef it some it was found that for others they may be harmful . Temporal aspects and perceptual speed were also found to be sources of variance within individuals . Generally it was found that the largest single factor i nfluencing learning on this task was the repeated measures . What e~ables gains to be made, varies with individuals . There are environmental factors, specific abilities, strategy development, previous learning, amount of load on STM , perceptual and temporal parameters which influence learning and these have serious implications for educational programs .