Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Using Prior Knowledge to Minimize Interference When Learning Large Amounts of Information

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Using Prior Knowledge to Minimize Interference When Learning Large Amounts of Information

Article excerpt

In three experiments, we examined mediated learning in situations involving learning a large amount of information. Participants learned 144 "facts" during a learning phase and were tested on facts during a test phase. In Experiments 1 and 2, participants learned facts about familiar individuals, unfamiliar individuals, or unfamiliar individuals associated with familiar individuals. Prior knowledge reduced interference, even when it played only a mediating role. In Experiment 3, participants learned facts about unfamiliar individuals or unfamiliar countries, with half the participants in each group associating the unfamiliar items with familiar individuals. Again, use of prior knowledge to mediate learning reduced interference even when the new information was conceptually dissimilar to the previously known information. These results are consistent with the mental model account of long-term memory.

Studies have shown that prior knowledge can have large beneficial effects on learning and memory. For example, in a study by Morris, Gruneberg, Sykes, and Merrick (1981), participants who varied in their knowledge of soccer were presented with scores from a number of different soccer matches and later were asked to recall those scores. Those who possessed more knowledge of soccer recalled more scores. Similarly, in a study by Van Overschelde and Healy (2001), participants were required to learn a large set of domain-irrelevant fabricated facts about 6 baseball players or 6 movie stars, including 12 facts about each person (total of 144). The 144 facts were all unique but were drawn from 12 fact types (e.g., favorite month, type of car driven), so that there was a high degree of similarity across the facts learned. It was found that when the participants had high prior knowledge about the persons, they learned more facts about them than when they had little or no prior knowledge about them, even though the facts were fabricated and domain irrelevant. When the participants had little or no prior knowledge, performance actually decreased across learning rounds, despite increased exposure to the facts in the study phase of each round. This decreased performance across rounds is surprising because performance would be expected to improve as study opportunities increase. However, the proactive and retroactive interference from other items was presumably substantial in this situation because of the large number of items and the high degree of similarity among them. In contrast, when the participants had high prior knowledge, there was no decrease in performance across learning rounds, suggesting that prior knowledge can mitigate interference effects.

There are at least two alternative theoretical accounts for prior knowledge effects, one based on a propositional network and the other on mental models. These accounts have recently been contrasted (Sohn, Anderson, Reder, & Goode, 2004), with support provided for the propositional network account (but see Radvansky, 2005). However, it is not clear how this propositional network account could accommodate the findings of Van Overschelde and Healy (2001), including the surprising decrease in performance across rounds for the case involving low prior knowledge. This account has been focused on the retrieval process rather than the learning process. Those favoring this account (e.g., Anderson, 1983) have argued that prior knowledge effects may arise from higher order processes utilizing long-term memory, which is conceptualized as consisting of nodes and connections between nodes. The nodes represent concepts, whereas the connections represent relationships between concepts. Retrieval entails activating a central cue node, with activation spreading from this central node to all other connected nodes, including the target concept; successful retrieval occurs when the target concept's activation reaches a certain threshold. The number of connections emanating from the central cue node influences retrieval in that, as the number of connections increases, the amount of activation that reaches each associated node decreases. …

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