An experimental investigation of learning and performance in children with academic disabilities

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A distinction between learning and performance has long been traditional in theoretical and experimental formulations of general learning theory. More recently a similar or parallel distinction has developed in the literature on children with academic difficulties. Here it has been referred to as a distinction between "assimilation and utilization" or between "disorders in the function of taking in knowledge" and "disorders in the use of learning." Other recent investigations have further hypothesized that a set of broad motivational variables characterized as "fear of success" or "need to fail" are crucial in the poor achievement of some children with academic difficulties. This study was designed as an experimental investigation of some consequences that seemed deducible from the inter-relationships among these distinctions and hypotheses. Three groups of children were defined within a normal school population by a statistical comparison of academic grades and achievement test scores in reading. All subjects had at least average I.Q. scores. In the first group, academic grades were significantly lower than might have been predicted from the achievement test scores. This was considered to reflect a difficulty in performance and the group was referred to as the non-performers. In the second group, academic grades and achievement test scores were both considerably below the average for the whole group. This was considered to reflect a difficulty in learning, and the group was referred to as the non-learners. In the third group, academic grades and achievement test scores were congruent and both were at an average level. This group was referred to as the normals. Subjects were examined individually under one of three conditions of evaluative feedback: (1) competitive success, (2) competitive failure, and (3) neutral. In the competitive success condition, the subject was convinced that he was performing more adequately than his peers. In the competitive failure condition, he was convinced that he was performing more poorly. In the neutral condition, the feedback was purely procedural. A modified version of the Digit-Symbol Test was the principal task. During the performance trials emphasis was on speed, and time in seconds was taken as a performance measure. After 10 trials, each subject was asked to complete the Digit-Symbol form without a key. The number of digit-symbol combinations remembered correctly was taken as a measure of learning. Thematic Apperception Test stories and Sarason Anxiety Scale scores were obtained from each subject. The major hypotheses may be stated informally. The non-performer group should show greater decrement in performance than in learning, and the largest performance decrement should occur under the competitive success condition. The non-learner group should show decrements in both performance and learning when compared to the other two groups. They should show no special decrement under success. The normal group should show best performance and learning under the success condition with only slight decrements under the other two conditions. There should be no difference between the non-performer and the normal group on the learning measure. None of these major hypotheses were unequivocally substantiated. There was, however, evidence to warrant several conclusions. The groups defined statistically were discriminable on some experimental tasks. This lends credence to the notion of two types of learning problems. The crucial role of competitive success in influencing the behavior of the non-performer group was demonstrated. However, such broad motivational patterns as “need to fail” or “renunciation of success” are not sufficiently explanatory. There was, in fact, evidence that consideration must also be given to the non-performers unduly intense "need to succeed". The experimental conditions were effectively created in that there were differences among conditions across all groups on the learning measure. Also, each group showed a pattern of differential response to each of the conditions.



This thesis was digitized as part of a project begun in 2014 to increase the number of Duke psychology theses available online. The digitization project was spearheaded by Ciara Healy.



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