Learning of multiple regularities by children and adults

Potter, C.

Princeton University

Both children and adults are sensitive to predictable structures, but do not always track the same information (e.g., Jost et al., 2012; McNealy et al., 2010). Learning meaningful regularities, like those found in language, requires not just memorizing specific items, but also detecting broader patterns. In a series of studies, we asked how participants of different ages learn in the presence of multiple, independent structures. 5-6-year-olds and adults encountered an artificial language, consisting of pairs of syllables constructed according to two orthogonal regularities. Participants were tested for learning of both specific tokens and underlying regularities using a novel visual Likert scale. Both children and adults successfully learned the individual items, but collectively showed limited sensitivity to the regularities. However, the pattern of individual differences diverged between children and adults, suggesting similar behavior may not reflect identical learning mechanisms. Subsequent studies probed the influences of memory and attention. Results suggest participants better detected regularities when they had more robust representations of individual exemplars and that adults' learning may be more malleable than that of young children. Together, these studies provide insight into a few of the many factors that may lead learners to find structure in a complex environment.