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Consider the category: The effect of spacing depends on individual learning histories

Lauren K Slone, Catherine M Sandhofer
Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 2017, 159: 34-49
The spacing effect refers to increased retention following learning instances that are spaced out in time compared with massed together in time. By one account, the advantages of spaced learning should be independent of task particulars and previous learning experiences given that spacing effects have been demonstrated in a variety of tasks across the lifespan. However, by another account, spaced learning should be affected by previous learning because past learning affects the memory and attention processes that form the crux of the spacing effect. The current study investigated whether individuals' learning histories affect the role of spacing in category learning. We examined the effect of spacing on 24 2- to 3.5-year-old children's learning of categories organized by properties to which children's previous learning experiences have biased them to attend (i.e., shape) and properties to which children are less biased to attend (i.e., texture and color). Spaced presentations led to significantly better learning of shape categories, but not of texture or color categories, compared with massed presentations. In addition, generalized estimating equations analyses revealed positive relations between the size of children's "shape-side" productive vocabularies and their shape category learning and between the size of children's "against-the-system" productive vocabularies and their texture category learning. These results suggest that children's attention to and memory for novel object categories are strongly related to their individual word-learning histories. Moreover, children's learned attentional biases affected the types of categories for which spacing facilitated learning. These findings highlight the importance of considering how learners' previous experiences may influence future learning.


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