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Paired-Associate Learning

concept formation mary whiton calkins word response stimulus learner

Strategy used by psychologists to study learning.

Paired-associate (PA) learning was invented by Mary Whiton Calkins in 1894 and involves the pairing of two items (usually words)—a stimulus and a response. For example, words such as calendar (stimulus) and shoe (response) may be paired, and when the learner is prompted with the stimulus, he responds with the appropriate word (shoe).

The study of PA learning has been important for a number of reasons. Psychologists view it as representative of the kind of learning that people engage in every day. For example, when learning a new word, a person must pair the word itself with the concept it represents. This is the essence of PA learning. Another reason is that it allows researchers to study the associations between stimuli and responses. Although this stimulus-response approach has lost some of its importance in contemporary psychology, researchers—especially behaviorists— have been interested in how stimulus-response links are formed and broken.

Psychological research has revealed that when people learn paired associates, they engage in two separate mental processes. The first is the learning of the response; the second is the formation of a bond between the two words. This second process seems to produce a one-way association in many circumstances. That is, a learner is much more likely to remember the response word if given the stimulus; people have a harder time remembering the stimulus if presented with the response word.

This pattern holds true when the response has never been used as a stimulus. On the other hand, if a particular word (e.g., cloud) has been used both as a stimulus and as a response (e.g., cloud-pen and bag-cloud), the learner gets accustomed to using the word in two ways. In later testing, the subject is likely to remember the word pair correctly when presented with either word. Based on research such as this, psychologists have concluded that learners remember the word pair as a unit, not as a stimulus that simply leads to a response.

Further Reading

Deese, J., and S.H. Hulse. The Psychology of Learning. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 1967.

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