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Spontaneous elaboration of paired associates and formal operational thinking : a developmental analysis Greer, Ruth Nancy Elizabeth


The learning of paired associates has been conceptualized (Rohwer, 1973) as the creation of shared meaning for items that are initially disparate by generation of a common event or episode in which the two referents interact. While children of primary school age have been found capable of applying these mental operations when prompted to do so, their spontaneous use has not been found before adolescence, and then only with considerable variability within any one age group. Spontaneous elaboration was characterized as the habitual adoption of an active, planful, strategy-like orientation to the problem posed by later recall. The intent of this research was to examine the degree to which the presence of the hypothetico-deductive and propositional thinking abilities of the Piagetian formal operational period underlie the propensity to spontaneously elaborate. In addition, the structure of the paired associate list allowed for investigation of the developmental course of spontaneous elaboration across levels of noun abstractness and associative meaningfulness. The performance of 277 students in grades 6, 8, 10, and 12 was assessed using the Formal Operations Instrument, a paper and pencil, group administered test developed specifically for this purpose. Items included three conservation tasks (weight, volume, density), combinatorial thinking (Piaget's colorless chemicals task) and two of Peel's (1971) verbal problems of propositional logic. Six subjects of each sex within each grade were then assigned to one of three memory treatment groups: 1) control, given instructions simply to pay attention and do their best to learn the pairs; 2) repetition, instructed to repeat all pairs during study trials; 3) trained, given instructions and practice in generation of both interactive images and meaningful sentences as methods of elaboration. All subjects were required to learn a mixed list of eight concrete and eight abstract noun pairs over three repeated study and test trials. Within each concreteness level, one half of the pairs were of high associative meaningfulness (m) while the other was of low m. Recall results indicated spontaneous use of elaboration for both concrete and abstract pairs by the tenth grade level from the onset of trial 1. There was some evidence of spontaneous elaboration of concrete pairs at the sixth grade level, but not until the third trial. These results did not interact with level of m. Prompted use of elaboration was evident from the performance of the trained groups at all grade levels and with all pairs with one exception, grade 6 students with low m abstract pairs. It was inferred that some minimal level of richness of associative possibilities must be present in the materials for a given child if a semantic coupling is to be created. A modest relationship between formal operational abilities and overall recall performance was found. There was no evidence to support the contention that these abilities are uniquely related to that aspect of performance responsible for spontaneous evocation of elaborative processes, however. Lack of specificity in the processes involved in performance on both the Piagetian and the memory task, as well as difficulties in assessment of formal operational abilities were felt to be primarily responsible for this lack of aptitude-treatment interactions. Implications of this research for the timing of content and of instruction in processing skills within the classroom were discussed.

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