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Persistent Student Tendencies to Memorize versus Abstract: Effects on Learning in Science Courses

Persistent Student Tendencies to Memorize versus Abstract: Effects on Learning in Science Courses

Mark McDaniel

Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis

Date: April 13, 2017

Location: Coverdell


In this talk, co-sponsored by the SEER Center, Mark proposes a potentially important difference across individuals in the qualitative characteristics of what they learn from conceptual training experiences. He suggests that during instruction, some learners focus on acquiring the particular exemplars and responses associated with the exemplars, whereas other learners attempt to abstract underlying regularities reflected in the particular exemplars linked to an appropriate response (termed “rule learners”). He further suggests that an individual’s tendency to either focus on exemplars during learning versus focusing on extracting some abstraction of the concept or problem solution might be a relatively stable characteristic of the individual. Supporting this individual-differences distinction, he will report experiments that demonstrate that the learners indexed a priori as rule learners (through function-learning extrapolation profiles) were more likely to exhibit transfer to novel instances in a problem solving domain and in an abstract coherent category task than were exemplar learners. These individual tendencies were not reliably associated with working memory capacity, achievement test scores, or fluid intelligence, nor did these standard individual-difference measures predict performance in analogical problem solving or acquisition of abstract coherent categories.

About the Speaker

Mark McDaniel is a Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences (1980 Ph.D., University of Colorado), and the founding Co-Director of the Center for Integrative Research on Cognition, Learning, and Education (CIRCLE) at Washington University in St. Louis.  McDaniel is internationally known for his work in the application of cognitive psychological principles to education. Over the past 35 years he has published numerous papers related to education, including topics such as pre-questions, discovery learning, feedback, mental models, analogical learning, and classroom studies on testing effects.   

McDaniel has developed a number of other research foci in the general area of human learning and memory, including projects investigating the learning processes by which people acquire complex concepts. An important aspect of this work is exploring individual differences in the tendency for learners to focus on abstraction versus learning of examples when attempting to acquire complex concepts.  His research also includes an emphasis on prospective memory (remembering to perform an intended action at some future moment).

McDaniel has published over 250 articles, chapters, and books in the area of human learning and memory. To facilitate dissemination of research literatures pertinent to learning and education, with Peter Brown and Roddy Roediger, he co-authored a book published by Harvard University Press entitled Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (2014).