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The ACT*/ACT-R Approach to Learning

Procedural Skills John Anderson and his colleagues at Carnegie-Mellon University developed instructional computer programs that have been effective in teaching students how to perform complex procedural skills, such as solving algebraic equations and programming using the computer language LISP.The underlying theory is called ACT* theory, which assumes that the learning process is the same regard- less of the material being learned. ACT* theory focuses on the changes that occur as a learner proceeds from knowing what to do (declarative knowledge) to knowing how to do it (procedural knowledge).

Progressing from declarative to procedural knowledge is important to successful performance. For example, a person who understands the steps involved in making an effective sales presentation may not actually be able to perform one. It is one thing to learn what must be done, and another thing to actually accomplish it.

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An instructional technique called model tracing is used in developing a computer-tutoring program. This approach starts with the assumption that there is an ideal way to solve problems in the content area being learned. This is identified, along with the types of mistakes that are commonly made. A learn- ing model is then developed that contains all the correct and incorrect rules for performing the task, and includes a set of assumptions about how a student’s knowledge changes after each step in the process.

Through problem solving, trainees learn by doing. The tutoring program helps learners identify problems and corrects their errors immediately. The tutor reduces the burden placed on a learner’s memory by displaying the goals to be reached and helping to fill in some of the details. The tutor in effect guides the student through the learning process.

The ACT* approach features an intelligent computer-assisted instruction pro- gram. One example of a company using this approach is the Campbell Soup Com- pany, which has a computer-based Cooker Maintenance Advisor.146 Campbell’s food-processing plants use a huge cooker to sterilize processed food. Cooker

breakdowns are expensive because they disrupt all other operations in the plant. Because cookers are such complex systems, it is not easy to train engineers andmechan- ics to install, operate, and maintain them. When the engineer who knew the system best was nearing retirement, the company developed an intelligent tutoring software program that captured much of the knowledge he had acquired over forty-four years on the job.

The Cooker Maintenance Advisor is an interactive system that uses a question-and-answer format. Engineers and maintenance technicians use the sys- tem in training and as an aid when on the job. Use of the Cooker Maintenance Advisor has resulted in both cost and time savings, and employees throughout the company can benefit from the expert’s advice and experience.

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