Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Learning and Interactivity in Solving a Transformation Problem

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Learning and Interactivity in Solving a Transformation Problem

Article excerpt

Published online: 24 January 2015

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2015

Abstract Outside the psychologist's laboratory, thinking proceeds on the basis of a great deal of interaction with artefacts that are recruited to augment problem-solving skills. The role of interactivity in problem solving was investigated using a river-crossing problem. In Experiment 1A, participants completed the same problem twice, once in a low interactivity condition, and once in a high interactivity condition (with order counterbalanced across participants). Learning, as gauged in terms of latency to completion, was much more pronounced when the high interactivity condition was experienced second. When participants first completed the task in the high interactivity condition, transfer to the low interactivity condition during the second attempt was limited; Experiment 1B replicated this pattern of results. Participants thus showed greater facility to transfer their experience of completing the problem from a low to a high interactivity condition. Experiment 2 was designed to determine the amount of learning in a low and high interactivity condition; in this experiment participants completed the problem twice, but level of interactivity was manipulated between subjects. Learning was evident in both the low and high interactivity groups, but latency per move was significantly faster in the high interactivity group, in both presentations. So-called problem isomorphs instantiated in different task ecologies draw upon different skills and abilities; a distributed cognition analysis may provide a fruitful perspective on learning and transfer.

Keywords Problem solving . Interactivity . Learning . Epistemic actions . Distributed cognition


Problems are encountered frequently in everyday activity, varying in complexity and occurring across a diverse array of settings. In solving these problems, or indeed making sense of situations, people interact with local resources, both cultural and material (Kirsh, 2009). Traditionally, problem solving has been cast and understood in terms of information-processing models of move selection in a clearly defined problem space (Newell & Simon, 1972) or more recently of the shifts in excitatory and inhibitory activation in layered networks of "knowledge elements" that result in the restructuring of a problem representation in working memory (Ohlsson, 2011, p. 105). Emphasis on mechanisms of information processing do not foreground the co-determination of an agent'srepresentation of the problem and a problem's physical presentation wrought by interactivity (Kirsh, 2009; 2013).

Transformation problems have been the focus of research in cognitive psychology for the past 50 years. In these problems, a well-defined space connects an initial and a goal state. Legal moves are defined in terms of simple rules and enacted with simple operators. Participants must reach the goal state by transforming the initial state through a series of intermediate states. Awell-studied class oftransformation problems are river-crossing problems. In these problems, objects-people, animals, or things-must be carried from one "riverbank" to another on a "boat" but with a set of constraints on moves that can be selected to reach the goal. A common version involves three missionaries and three cannibals (Reed, Ernst, & Banerji, 1974); another involves three hobbits and three orcs (Thomas, 1974). In transporting all cannibals and missionaries from one bank to the other, cannibals must not outnumber missionaries on either bank. The boat can take at most two passengers, and at least one. The problem space is relatively narrow since illegal moves cannot produce blind alleys of any depth (Reed et al., 1974) and can be completed in 11 steps. In different versions, problem difficulty is a function of the rules that constrain the number of objects that can be moved at any one time, which combinations of objects are allowed on the boat, and which combinations can be left on either bank. …

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