Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Acquiring a Cognitive Skill with a New Repeating Version of the Tower of London Task

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Acquiring a Cognitive Skill with a New Repeating Version of the Tower of London Task

Article excerpt

Abstract

A computerized version of the Tower of London task was used to investigate cognitive skill learning. Thirtysix healthy volunteers were assigned to either a random condition (nonrecurring problems), or to a sequence condition in which, unbeknownst to the subjects, a repeating sequence of three problems was presented. Indices of execution, planning, and total time, as well as number of moves performed, were used to measure behavioural change. Subjects' performance improved in both conditions across blocks of practice. A distinct learning effect related to the repeating sequence was also observed. This suggests that a specific skill that reflects procedural learning of the strategies, rules, and procedures pertaining to repeating problems can develop over and above a more general skill at solving cognitive planning problems with practice.

Cognitive skill learning can be defined as the process by which rules, procedures, and strategies relevant to the performance of a task demanding mental operations come to be combined and used effectively following repeated practice. A broad range of paradigms have been used to study the time course of learning and the critical parameters required to trigger the acquisition of new cognitive abilities, including tasks as varied as those involving mnemonic abilities (Ericsson, 1985), artificial grammar (see Knowlton & Squire, 1994 for a review), mathematics and arithmetic (Campbell & Graham, 1985; Charness, Milberg, & Alexander, 1988; McGlinchey-Berroth, Milberg, & Charness, 1989; Pauli et al., 1994), computer use and programming (Anderson, Farrell, & Sauers, 1984; Glisky & Schacter, 1988, 1989; Glisky, Schacter, & Tulving, 1986; Pirolli & Anderson, 1985; Squire & Frambach, 1990), as well as those requiring planning and problem-solving abilities (Butters, Wolfe, Martone, Granholm, & Cermak, 1985; Daum et al., 1995; Fasotti, Eling, & van Houtem, 1994; Saint-Cyr, Taylor, & Lang, 1988). In general, the results of these studies have shown that normal control subjects become more efficient at performing cognitive tasks as a function of practice. Indeed, learning on these types of tasks is usually observed through test performance and is measured by a gradual reduction in reaction time, a decrease in the number of errors, and/or a reduction in the number of trials to reach criterion.

Theories of skill learning provide a useful conceptual framework to understand the processes involved in the acquisition of cognitive skills. For example, the models elaborated by Fitts (1962) and Anderson (1990) propose the existence of three distinct stages in the development of a cognitive skill: 1) a declarative or cognitive stage, 2) a compilation or associative stage, and 3) a tuning or autonomous stage. In the first stage, skills develop through the use and integration of declarative knowledge in the form of instructions and essential information pertaining to the performance of the task at hand. Anderson (1990) has argued that, at this stage, learners are using domain-general problemsolving procedures that are provided by accumulating examples of possible solutions or mental operations, which can then be stored as declarative knowledge for future use. It is believed that this knowledge can speed up performance because, rather than having to go through all the processes involving the application of rules and procedures of a given task, a particular strategy can be retrieved directly from memory (Anderson & Fincham, 1994; Anderson, Fincham, & Douglass, 1997; Pirolli & Anderson, 1985). Thus, at this stage, changes are thought to be related to the amount of declarative information that learners acquire with the development of a new skill, the knowledge base becoming greater and better organized with experience. Evidence for such changes comes from studies that have investigated the differences between experts and novices in various cognitive domains such as chess playing (DeGroot, 1965) or physics (Heller & Reif, 1984; Larkin, 1985). …

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