Academic journal article Human Factors

Practice Effects on Skil Acquisition, Learning Outcome, Retention, and Sensitivity to Relearning

Academic journal article Human Factors

Practice Effects on Skil Acquisition, Learning Outcome, Retention, and Sensitivity to Relearning

Article excerpt


Learning, or skill acquisition, represents a change in a person that occurs at a particular time as a function of experience or practice. Because it is not directly observable, learning must be inferred from performance on a memory test, in which the retention interval may be immediate or delayed. How does practice affect an item's probability of being encoded and subsequently remembered over time? In describing the relationship among practice, acquisition, and retention, Ebbinghaus (1964) stated:

These relations can be described figuratively by speaking of the series as being more or less deeply engraved on some mental substratum. To carry out this figure: as the number of repetitions increases, the series are engraved more and more deeply and indelibly; if the number of repetitions is small, the inscription is but surface deep and only fleeting glimpses of the tracery can be caught; with a somewhat greater number the inscription can, at least for a time, be read at will; as the number of repetitions is still further increased, the deeply cut picture of the series fades out only after longer intervals. (Pp. 52-53)

In the more than 100 years since Ebbinghaus originally presented this analogy, numerous studies have suggested that the relationships among practice, acquisition, and retention are not this straightforward. The literature is replete with findings that certain acquisition conditions that slow the rate of improvement, or that decrease performance during practice, still yield enhanced posttraining performance relative to a standard practice condition (for a review, see Schmidt and Bjork, 1992). For instance, Shea and Morgan (1979) compared motor skills on three tasks that were learned and tested under random or blocked (fixed-sequence) practice schedules. Retention was compared by condition, and results showed that although the random condition was considerably less effective during the learning process (i.e., it degraded performance during skill acquisition), these subjects performed better on retention tests than did subjects who learned in the blocked condition.

Using a cognitive task, Carlson and Yaure (1990) reported a similar finding. In three studies they showed how random practice schedules yielded poorer acquisition performance but superior retention relative to blocked practice schedules. They attributed the cause of this finding to processing, rather than storage, demands of intertrial activity. That is, working-memory demands were higher for the random trials because subjects had to reload information into working memory more often, impairing the acquisition phase of learning but enhancing the retention and transfer of the acquired skills. In their words, "this intraitem processing view emphasizes fluency in accessing and using component skills rather than procedures for choosing which of several skills to use" (p. 485).

Other kinds of practice schedules also influence acquisition and retention (e.g., Glenberg, 1979; Hintzman, 1974). Some classic examples include the benefits of distributed over massed practice (e.g., Greene, 1989; Proctor, 1980), as well as the benefits of using a variety of example problems during practice and problem solution (e.g., Gick and Holyoak, 1987; Singley and Anderson, 1989). In the latter case, when the variety of example problems is restricted, learning tends to be rapid but transfer tends to be weak. Finally, increasing the time spent exercising a new cognitive skill typically results in improved performance and reduced cognitive load (e.g., Ackerman, 1988; Anderson, 1987, 1993; Bryan and Harter, 1899; Fisk and Rogers, 1992; Sweller, 1988; Woltz, 1988). Rules become strengthened as a result of sustained and successful practice applying them.

What basic mechanisms are presumed to underlie these different practice effects on learning? Although Watkins (1990) passionately argued that use of the memory trace metaphor is counterproductive, we find it useful in characterizing the processes of memory. …

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