Research Article: Data-driven sequence learning or search: What are the prerequisites for the generation of explicit sequence knowledge?

Date Published: May 21, 2012

Publisher: University of Finance and Management in Warsaw

Author(s): Sabine Schwager, Dennis Rünger, Robert Gaschler, Peter A. Frensch.


In incidental sequence learning situations, there is often a number of
participants who can report the task-inherent sequential regularity after
training. Two kinds of mechanisms for the generation of this explicit knowledge
have been proposed in the literature. First, a sequence representation may
become explicit when its strength reaches a certain level (Cleeremans, 2006), and secondly, explicit knowledge may
emerge as the result of a search process that is triggered by unexpected events
that occur during task processing and require an explanation (the
unexpected-event hypothesis; Haider &
Frensch, 2009). Our study aimed at systematically exploring the
contribution of both mechanisms to the generation of explicit sequence knowledge
in an incidental learning situation. We varied the amount of specific sequence
training and inserted unexpected events into a 6-choice serial reaction time
task. Results support the unexpected-event view, as the generation of explicit
sequence knowledge could not be predicted by the representation strength
acquired through implicit sequence learning. Rather sequence detection turned
out to be more likely when participants were shifted to the fixed repeating
sequence after training than when practicing one and the same fixed sequence
without interruption. The behavioral effects of representation strength appear
to be related to the effectiveness of unexpected changes in performance as
triggers of a controlled search.

Partial Text

Everyday life offers many opportunities to learn about environmental regularities. It
is likely that a large part of this learning is not driven by an explicit intention
to learn. A strong example of the latter possibility is the acquisition of
one’s native language, which occurs at an age when explicit learning
strategies are not yet available and grammatical rules cannot be reported.
Therefore, it may be argued that in many cases learning takes place implicitly.
People neither have an intention to learn, nor do they necessarily become aware of
the regularities they have acquired (cf. Frensch,
1998). Most action sequences (motor as well as cognitive) are probably
learned this way: “by doing” and without top-down control through a
declarative representation of the regularity underlying the composition of the task

In this experiment, we studied the influence of unexpected events and implicitly
acquired sequence knowledge on the likelihood that a fixed repeating sequence is (a)
detected, (b) used for a pronounced improvement in task performance, and (c)
verbalized in a postexperimental interview. There appears to be no simple link
between the amount of practice with a specific sequence and the probability of
acquiring explicit sequence knowledge. Our initial assessment of verbalizable
sequence knowledge revealed that training with the systematic sequence of the
manipulation phase yielded more verbalizable knowledge than training with random
stimulus material, a finding that supports a strength based account of the
generation of explicit sequence knowledge. However, we also observed that training
with a different systematic sequence was at least as effective in producing
verbalizable knowledge about the sequence of the manipulation phase as training with
the same sequence.

The results of the present study corroborate the notion that explicit sequence
knowledge is generated if a search is triggered during task processing. We propose
that the trigger for this search is an unexpected event which can, but need not, be
related to the amount of preceding training or the strength of implicitly acquired
sequence knowledge.




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