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Paired-Associates Learning

The above example involved serial learning, because items had to be learned in fixed order. A second verbal learning technique from the turn of the century was called paired-associates learning. Mary Whiton Calkins, who was president of the American Psychological Association in 1905, invented this technique. The paired associates method requires a subject to learn pairs of items by forming associations between them. Reflecting the old "S-R " assumptions which dominated experimental psychology from about 1900-1950, in which all learning was portrayed as associations between stimuli and responses, the first item is called a stimulus, the second item a response.

What is the paired-associates method?

In paired-associates learning, a list was considered memorized when the subject could respond to any stimulus from the list with its associated response. This was supposed to resemble real-life situations in which a person responded to a stimulus such as the sight of a person's face with a response such as a name.

In a paired-associates experiment, you might see a list like this:

4-VNR      7-CSL       8-RKJ      2-KPD

After you inspected the list, the experimenter would present a stimulus item (like 7) and you would try to supply the response item (CSL). Then the experimenter might present the stimulus 4 and you would answer VNR. You must learn the association between each stimulus and its corresponding response. The pairs could occur in any order.

What are "natural language associations"?

Suppose you were trying to defeat Ebbinghaus's original intentions again by using meaning to memorize nonsense syllables. The first step might be to think of some word resembling the nonsense syllable. For example, CSL might remind you of castle. If the pair was 7-CSL and you had just read the classic story, "The House of Seven Gables," you might imagine a castle-like house with seven gables (seven points on the roof). This would be another example of elaborative encoding.

Researchers use the term natural-language associations to refer to examples like this and the previous one (involving "mibery"). Both involve words and sentences from ordinary language. Different people make different associations, and research suggests that people do best with their own associations, rather than those supplied by an experimenter.

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