Investigating the effects of organisation on learning

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  1. Investigating the effects of organisation on learning

Clive Newstead

  1. Abstract

Background: Previous research suggests that the organisation of information is integral to its storage in and recall from memory. Aim: Differences with regard to the use of categorisation of information have been observed between cultures and age groups, so the aim is to find out the degree to which categorisation affects the learning of information in 16-18 year olds. Method: 20 participants aged 16-18 had 60 seconds to learn as many words as they could from a grid containing 24 words. The grid contained 6 words in 4 different semantic categories and was either categorised (control) or randomised (experimental). Participants then recalled as many of the words as they could. The amount of words that they recalled was observed. Results: The difference in the number of words remembered between the two conditions was found to be insignificant when put to the independent t-test and tested at the 0.05 level. In fact, participants in Condition B (randomised) recalled more words on average than those in Condition A (organised). However, participants in Condition B showed 68.83% categorisation upon recall, compared with 0.5% that would have been shown if participants recalled the words in the order that they appeared on the radomised grid. Conclusion: The results suggest that the degree of organisation of information upon presentation does not affect the amount of information remembered. However, the actual process of mentally organising the information may be a significant factor in the amount of information remembered. Individual differences may affect the way the information is organised, but this study found that categorical organisation was the most common form of this.

  1. Introduction

Much evidence suggests that information in memory is highly organised, and that we remember large amounts of information by associating it with other similar pieces of information already stored. It may even be that the organisation of information is a prerequisite for information to be stored; for example, Mandler (1967) stated that memory and organization are not only correlated, but organization is a necessary condition for memory. From this viewpoint, it follows that, by definition, any information stored in the memory must be organised somehow. It may also be that the organisation of information upon presentation facilitates its storage, and that if information is not organised, people will attempt to create their own methods of organisation (Tulving, 1968).

Categorical clustering is a term coined by Bousfield (1953) in order to describe one type of organisation in learning. In his research, he presented participants with a list of 60 words (15 from 4 different categories: animals, anthroponyms, professions and vegetables) and asked participants to free-recall the list. He found that, despite not having been told what the categories were, participants tended to recall the words according to their category and thus demonstrated the phenomenon.

Bower et al. (1969) presented participants with words which were arranged into conceptual hierarchies. For one group, these were arranged in hierarchical form, and for the other they were listed randomly. The participants who were presented with the words in hierarchical form recalled almost 3½ times as many words as those to whom they were presented randomly, suggesting that the organisation of the words upon presentation facilitated their storage in memory.

A similar trait has also been observed with naturally occurring stimuli. Rubin and Olson (1980) asked students to recall the names of as many members of staff in their school as they could, and found that students showed a strong tendency for the members of staff's names to be recalled by their respective departments. This also shows evidence for categorical organisation. They further found that students who re-arranged word cards into more categories remembered more words on average than those who created less categories, and that those who were not told to actively remember the words, instead just sort them, remembered the same amount as those asked to remember them. These indicate that not only does categorisation increase the amount of information remembered, but the active process of organisation may even cause the information to be remembered.

More support that organisation and learning are intertwined comes from Kahana and Wingfield (2000), who found that the relation between organisation and learning remained the same even after significant differences between participants' mnemonic abilities had been taken into account.

One case study which suggests that memory is highly organised comes from Hart et al. (1985). Having almost made a complete recovery from a stroke two years previously, M.D. experienced no problems except that he was unable to name different types of fruit and vegetable or sort them into categories. However, he was able to name and sort types of food, for example, and vehicles, which suggests that his inability to carry out these tasks was limited to specific semantic categories.

  1. Aims

The findings of this previous research suggest that organisation does play a large role in the storage, structuring and restructuring of information in memory. However, organisation does not necessarily imply categorisation, which is what will be tested here. Also, in a similar way that Gutchess et al. (2006) found that age and culture affected the way in which categorisation was used in memory, it may be that young people in turn use it differently.

So, the following experiment aims to investigate the effects of organisation on learning in 16-18 year-olds. More specifically, it will investigate the degree to which organisation of information upon presentation affects the storage and recall of words presented in a randomised grid. Following on from research by Bower et al. (1969) and Rubin and Olson (1980), two hypotheses have been drawn:

  1. Experimental hypothesis

Participants will recall, on average, fewer words when the words given are listed randomly, than will the participants for whom the words are listed categorically.

  1. Null hypothesis

There will be no difference in the average total amount of words recalled between participants to whom the words are listed categorically and those to whom they are presented randomly.

  1. Method

The study was carried out using a controlled experiment with an independent measures design. The independent variable was the degree to which the word grid was categorised and took two values: categorised (control) or randomised (experimental). These respectively formed the two conditions, A and B respectively, of the experiment. The dependent variable was the amount of words recalled from the list.

Standardised instructions (see Appendix 4) were given prior to participation to eliminate confusion as to the procedures of the experiment. In order to prevent participants from consciously grouping similar words in both conditions as a result of prior knowledge, the single-blind method was used. In addition, the experiment took place in an isolated environment so as to avoid distraction.

Ethical issues were also taken into consideration. Participants were required to read and sign a document (see Appendix 4) outlining their rights as participants. Due to the single-blind method, the document also informed the participants that the purpose of the experiment was not fully explained before participation, but in debriefing it was explained fully and the opportunity was given for any questions to be asked or comments to be given.

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In conjunction with the aims of the study, the target population was people of both genders aged 16-18, and participants were gathered using an opportunity sample. The participants numbered 20 and were male and female sixth form students at St Aidan's Church of England High School. The youngest was 16 and the oldest 18. Conditions were allocated to participants by alternation, whereby odd-numbered participants (1st, 3rd, 5th, ...) were allocated to Condition A (categorised) and even-numbered participants (2nd, 4th, 6th, ...) were allocated to Condition B (randomised). Psychology students did not participate because they would be more likely to guess the ...

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