Declarative concepts (i.e., key terms with short definitions of the abstract concepts denoted by those terms) are a common kind of information that students are expected to learn in many domains. A common pedagogical approach for supporting learning of declarative concepts involves presenting students with concrete examples that illustrate how the abstract concepts can be instantiated in real-world situations. However, minimal prior research has examined whether illustrative examples actually enhance declarative concept learning, and the available outcomes provide weak evidence at best. In the three experiments reported here, students studied definitions of declarative concepts followed either by illustrative examples of those concepts or by additional study of the definitions. On a subsequent classification test in which learners were presented with examples and were asked to identify which concept the example illustrated, performance was greater for students who had studied illustrative examples during learning than for students who only studied definitions (ds from 0.74 to 1.67). However, the effects of illustrative examples on declarative concept learning depended in part on the conditions under which those examples were presented. Although performance was similar when examples were presented after versus before concept definitions (Experiments 1a–1b), classification accuracy depended on the extent to which examples of different concepts were interleaved and whether definitions were presented along with the examples (Experiment 2).
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This characteristic is also what distinguishes declarative concepts from declarative facts, which are non-abstract statements with truth values (e.g., George Washington was the first president of the USA; the capital of Ohio is Columbus).
Examples for each concept were presented in separate blocks to align the schedule of presentation trials in the example groups with the schedule of presentation trials in the definition-only group. In the definition-only group, presentation of the definition for each concept was spaced across blocks, because a wealth of prior research has shown that massed restudy often has minimal to no benefit for learning (for reviews, see Cepeda, Pashler, Vul, Wixted, and Rohrer 2006; Dunlosky et al. 2013). Thus, massed restudy would have provided a very weak comparison group.
Lower-familiarity and higher-familiarity students in each experiment did not significantly differ in age, education, or vocabulary (all ps 0.18–0.98, except for a significant 4 % difference in vocabulary and a 0.7-year difference in education favoring the higher-familiarity subset in Experiment 1a), although they may have differed on other factors not measured here. Differences in concept familiarity were related to the time of semester in which participants completed the experiment in Experiment 1a and Experiment 2, with 77 and 62 % of lower-familiarity participants completing the experiment in the first half of the semester versus only 36 and 33 % of higher-familiarity participants in the first half of the semester. Both of these experiments involved samples drawn from the Kent State participant pool, the majority of which consists of students enrolled in General Psychology (in which the relevant content domain tends not to be covered until later in the semester). In Experiment 1b, 72 and 70 % of lower-familiarity and higher-familiarity participants completed the experiment in the first half of the semester, but the Washington University participant pool includes a much large proportion of advanced undergraduates who likely had completed coursework in which they may have previously encountered the experimental concepts.
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The research reported here was supported by a James S. McDonnell Foundation 21st Century Science Initiative in Bridging Brain, Mind and Behavior Collaborative Award.
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Rawson, K.A., Thomas, R.C. & Jacoby, L.L. The Power of Examples: Illustrative Examples Enhance Conceptual Learning of Declarative Concepts. Educ Psychol Rev 27, 483–504 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-014-9273-3
- Declarative concepts
- Concept learning