Abrupt Strategy Change Underlies Gradual Performance Change: Bayesian Hierarchical Models of Component and Aggregate Strategy Use

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Abstract

While researchers have often sought to understand the learning curve in terms of multiple component processes, few studies have measured and mathematically modeled these processes on a complex task. In particular, there remains a need to reconcile how abrupt changes in strategy use can co-occur with gradual changes in task completion time. Thus, the current study aimed to assess the degree to which strategy change was abrupt or gradual, and whether strategy aggregation could partially explain gradual performance change. It also aimed to show how Bayesian methods could be used to model the effect of practice on strategy use. To achieve these aims, 162 participants completed 15 blocks of practice on a complex computer-based task—the Wynton-Anglim booking (WAB) task. The task allowed for multiple component strategies (i.e., memory retrieval, information reduction, and insight) that could also be aggregated to a global measure of strategy use. Bayesian hierarchical models were used to compare abrupt and gradual functions of component and aggregate strategy use. Task completion time was well-modeled by a power function, and global strategy use explained substantial variance in performance. Change in component strategy use tended to be abrupt, whereas change in global strategy use was gradual and well-modeled by a power function. Thus, differential timing of component strategy shifts leads to gradual changes in overall strategy efficiency, and this provides one reason for why smooth learning curves can co-occur with abrupt changes in strategy use.

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