BOX 3.1 What People Learn

Ericsson et al. (1980) worked extensively with a college student for well over a year, increasing his capacity to remember digit strings (e.g., 982761093…). As expected, at the outset he could remember only about seven numbers. After practice, he could remember 70 or more; see Figure 3.1. How? Did he develop a general skill analogous to strengthening a “mental muscle?” No, what happened was that he learned to use his specific background knowledge to “chunk” information into meaningful groups. The student had extensive knowledge about winning times for famous track races, including the times of national and world records. For example 941003591992100 could be chunked into 94100 (9.41 seconds for 100 yards). 3591 (3 minutes, 59.1 seconds for a mile), etc. But it took the student a huge amount of practice before he could perform at his final level, and when he was tested with letter strings, he was back to remembering about seven items.

SOURCE: Ericsson et al. (1980:1181–1182). Reprinted by permission.

FIGURE 3.1 Change in average digit span remembered.

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