Of half a mind Thoughts on learning and uncertainty

Psychonomics 2018 - Building relational knowledge through active control

In some prior work, my colleagues and I have found that active control—being able to dictate the content or pacing of information—leads to enhanced episodic memory for materials experienced during study.1 2 Let’s say that I’m your instructor and I have a set of definitions on flashcards that I want you to learn. If I give you (the student) more control over the selection and pacing of flashcards, it’s likely that you’ll have better memory later on compared to conditions where you don’t have control.

But as an instructor, I don’t just want my students to memorize a set of independent definitions. I also want them to integrate those concepts together to form some coherent knowledge about the domain. For example, I don’t just want my research methods students to be able to define different types of validity; I also want them to be able to relate them to each other and the broader goals of experimental methods. In contrast to the first goal of forming memories of independent sets of items, it is less clear to what extent having control over learning leads to enhanced integration of study experiences into conceptual knowledge.

The project described in this poster aims to understand the effects of active control on relational knowledge formation. It uses a common relational reasoning task (transitive inference) to disentangle enhancements to memory for individual items from enhanced integrative encoding. The results so far suggest that having control over the selection of items leads to improved integrative encoding over a passive condition lacking such control. Critically, however, the benefit of active control only appears among people with higher working memory capacity. This provides another piece of evidence that the benefits of “active learning” may not be so universal, but instead depend on students having the cognitive resources to maintain and integrate disparate study experiences.

Click on the image below to get the PDF of the poster:


  1. Markant, D., Ruggeri, A., Gureckis, T. M., and Xu, F. (2016). “Enhanced memory as a common effect of active learning.” Mind, Brain, and Education. 

  2. Markant, D., Dubrow, S., Davachi, L., and Gureckis, T.M. (2014). “Deconstructing the effect of self-directed study on episodic memory.” Memory & Cognition 42(8), 1211—1224. doi: 10.3758/s13421-014-0435-9 

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