Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program



English (en)

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Mark A McDaniel


Individual differences have not often been considered within the problem-solving or concept-learning literatures despite the indication that some individuals are better able to transfer to novel problems and that manipulations in strategy can effectively increase the ability to transfer: Gick & Holyoak, 1983). Research in the function-learning domain indicates that there may be two qualitatively different types of learners: those who remember distinct example associations: exemplar learners) and others who abstract rules that govern each association: rule learners; DeLosh, Busemeyer, & McDaniel, 1997). Data from two unpublished studies: McDaniel, Cahill, Robbins, & Trumpower, 2012; Fadler, Lee, Scullin, Shelton, & McDaniel, 2012) have demonstrated the stability of these two types of learning across a variety of different higher order problem-solving, concept-learning, and cognitive tasks. However, it remains to be seen whether these differences between learners have implications for the type of conceptual material often used in classrooms.

In the current project, this issue was addressed through two experiments. During Experiment 1, participants were first identified as exemplar or rule-based learners on the basis of function learning transfer performance. Each group then read several passages and answered questions about the passages that ranged in their degree of transfer. Rule learners performed better than exemplar learners on each question type and the two types of learners also demonstrated qualitatively different processing during function learning training and on a test of analogical transfer. The data from Experiment 2 showed that rule learners behaved qualitatively differently from exemplar learners during function learning training but failed to replicate the passage data from Experiment 1. However, a benefit was found on recognition memory for exemplar learners on a concept-learning task.

The current study is the first to show differential benefits for exemplar and rule-based processing. It also provides evidence that function-learning tendency can be used to predict differences on concept-learning tasks and that only rule learning is associated with abstraction ability. The findings suggest that individual differences should be considered both in current hybrid models of categorization, but also potentially in classrooms that might rely heavily on problem solving, where the differences in types of learners may have an impact on student performance and understanding.


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