The Impact of Goal Specificity on Strategy Use and the Acquisition of Problem Structure
Article first published online: 11 FEB 2010
© 1996 Cognitive Science Society, Inc.
Volume 20, Issue 1, pages 75–100, January 1996
How to Cite
Vollmeyer, R., Burns, B. D. and Holyoak, K. J. (1996), The Impact of Goal Specificity on Strategy Use and the Acquisition of Problem Structure. Cognitive Science, 20: 75–100. doi: 10.1207/s15516709cog2001_3
- Issue published online: 11 FEB 2010
- Article first published online: 11 FEB 2010
Theories of skill acquisition have made radically different predictions about the role of general problem-solving methods in acquiring rules that promote effective transfer to new problems. Under one view, methods that focus on reaching specific goals, such as means-ends analysis, are assumed to provide the basis for efficient knowledge compilation (Anderson, 1987), whereas under an alternative view such methods are believed to disrupt rule induction (Sweller, 1988). We suggest that the role of general methods in learning varies with both the specificity of the problem solver's goal and the systematicity of the strategies used for testing hypotheses about rules. In the absence of a specific goal people are more likely to use a rule-induction learning strategy, whereas provision of a specific goal fosters use of difference reduction, which tends to be a non-rule-induction strategy. We performed two experiments to investigate the impact of goal specificity and systematicity of rule-induction strategies in learning and transfer within a complex dynamic system. The results of Experiment 1 indicated that during free exploration of a problem space, greater learning occurred if participants adopted more systematic strategies for rule induction, and that participants come to favor such strategies. Experiment 2 revealed that participants who were provided with a specific goal performed well on the initial problem but were impaired on a transfer test using a similar problem with a different goal. Instruction on a systematic rule-induction strategy facilitated solution for both the initial and transfer problems, but participants' use of this strategy declined if they had a specific goal. Our results support Sweller's (1988) proposal that general problemsolving methods applied to a specific goal foster acquisition of knowledge about an isolated solution path but do not provide an effective way of learning the overall structure of a problem space. We interpret these results in terms of dualspace theories of search through problem space.