Thursday, August 12, 2010

ASL, Handshapes, and Schema Learning

Being an instructional designer by trade, I tend to want to take a very active role in my own learning. Learning ASL is a very high priority to me right now, and I am constantly looking for ways to improve the quality and speed of my learning. In general, my ASL teachers have been wonderful, possibly the best teachers of any subject I have had in my long career as a learner.

At this point I have taken 7 quarters of ASL classes. Here at NTID, the first 3 courses are ASL A, B and C. In those courses you learn some basic vocabulary, and general rules for how the language is structured. After that you can take Communication Practice (which practices expressive skills), Receptive practice, or courses on specific parts of the language, such as fingerspelling, numbers, and classifiers.

There is one thing they seem to be doing lately that I wonder about.

There are certain signs that were introduced quite early in my learning that I am constantly confused about. Maybe in the first week of ASL we learned the sign for "appointment" and "work".  I can come up with the sign for "work" -- I have used it many times. But the sign for "appointment seems" welded to the sign for "work" in my brain. And although I know if it is different than "work", but I have to really think hard to come up for it. Why is this happening? When I asked my wonderful tutor Marge Carillo, why these are taught at the same time, she replied that she taught them together because they were similiar signs.

Does teaching things that are close or similar help or hinder the learning process?

 My research turned up a chapter of Memory and Mind titled Category Learning as Schema Induction by researcher John P. Clapper, who is affiliated with California State University. (The entire chapter can be found here.)

Clapper contends that adults classify things into groups, and the most efficient way to learn the next thing is to see what it is "just like that, only different" as my brother Clyde would say. So showing the first sign, then showing a second, that is similar in some way -- either handshape or movement -- is good. But it is important how those two signs are introduced. Clapper says,

"As already noted, when instances of two categories are presented in a randomly
intermixed sequence, relatively little learning of either category is observed.
However, when the sequence is arranged so that one category (call it “A”) is
well-learned prior to the introduction of the second category (“B”), then people
will learn both categories easily. Thus, categories A and B will both be learned
much better in a “contrast-enhancing” sequence like A A A A A A A A A A A
A B A B B A B A A A B, and so forth, than in a “mixed” sequence like A B A
B B A B A A B B A B A B B A B A A A B, and so on. The only difference
between these two sequences is the fact that the first six Bs in the second (mixed)
sequence are absent and replaced by the same number of As in the first (contrast)
sequence. Thus, simply reducing the number of B instances (by eliminating all
of them from the first 12 trials of the training sequence) leads to a dramatic
improvement in B learning."
This would lead me to think that teaching one sign - "work" and having the student practice it multiple times before another sign - "appointment" -  is introduced, and then contrasted with "work" over and over, would be better than showing the first sign and then the second sign. I think this is especially important if the signs are similar, because they will have less to contrast with.  Presenting and practicing the material in the manner that John Clapper suggests would emphasize the differences in the signs, and that should result in improved retention and learning.


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