Concept learning: What happens when hypothesis testing fails?

Robert C. Mathews, William B. Stanley, Ray R. Buss

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


The dominant model of concept learning in experimental psychology, the hypothesis testing model, is described and its applicability to education is questioned. One issue related to the generality of this model was tested by an experiment in which subjects attempted to figure out a simple but difficult to discover concept presented by exemplars over a long series of trials. Based on their performance on this task, subjects were categorized into three levels of concept attainment. It is argued that hypothesis testing theory adequately describes only the behavior of the most successful (Level 1) subjects. Based on the differential levels of performance on old vs. new items and the subjects’ verbal reports of their selection strategies, Level 2 subjects appear to have relied heavily on memorization of previously seen exemplars. However, their above-chance performance on the new (postcriterion) items indicates some level of concept attainment. Since most of these adult subjects were totally unable to verbalize even a partial statement of the rule, their knowledge of the concept cannot be adequately explained in terms of the hypothesis testing model.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)91-96
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of Experimental Education
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 1985
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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