How do Task Characteristics Affect Learning and Performance? The Roles of Variably Mapped and Dynamic Tasks

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For well over a century, scientists have investigated individual differences in performance. The majority of studies have focused on either differences in practice, or differences in cognitive resources. However, the predictive ability of either practice or cognitive resources varies considerably across tasks. We are the first to examine task characteristics’ impact on learning and performance in a complex task while controlling for other task characteristics. In 2 experiments we test key theoretical task characteristic thought to moderate the relationship between practice, cognitive resources, and performance. We devised a task where each of several key task characteristics can be manipulated independently. Participants played 5 rounds of a game similar to the popular tower defense videogame Plants vs. Zombies where both cognitive load and game characteristics were manipulated. In Experiment 1, participants either played a consistently mapped version—the stimuli and the associated meaning of their properties were constant across the 5 rounds—or played a variably mapped version—the stimuli and the associated meaning of their properties changed every few minutes. In Experiment 2, participants either played a static version—that is, turn taking with no time pressure—or played a dynamic version—that is, the stimuli moved regardless of participants’ response rates. In Experiment 1, participants’ accuracy and efficiency were substantially hindered in the variably mapped conditions. In Experiment 2, learning and performance accuracy were hindered in the dynamic conditions, especially when under cognitive load. Our results suggest that task characteristics impact the relative importance of cognitive resources and practice on predicting learning and performance.

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