Niels Taatgen

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Skill Acquisition

When I started working with ACT-R it lacked a plausible mechanism for learning new production rules, i.e. task specific strategies. During a half-year sabbatical in 1999, I developed the mechanism of production compilation as a plausible account of learning task-specific skills. In production compilation, general problem-solving strategies (e.g., analogy) are specialized by a single mechanism into task-specific strategies that in some models leads to qualitatively different behavior.

As a first demonstration of the viability of production compilation, I modeled learning the English past tense (Taatgen & Anderson, 2002), which grew into a contender of connectionist models of the phenomenon. We later extended this model to the German plural (Taatgen, 2001), and to phonetic representations (Taatgen & Dijkstra, 2003). Production compilation has proved to be a useful mechanism in other developmental domains, for example the balanced-scale task (van Rijn, van Someren & van der Maas, 2003).

Another component of skill acquisition is the ability to learn from instructions. Our idea is that new task knowledge initially has a literal format (examples or explicit instructions), and that production compilation gradually transforms these instructions into task-specific rules. I have demonstrated this idea in a model of the Kanfer-Ackerman Air Traffic Controller task (KA-ATC, Taatgen, 2002; Taatgen & Lee, 2003) where the model accurately predicted both aggregate data, and explained individual differences between individuals.
These initial models showed that production compilation serves as a single mechanism that can explain several different phenomena in skill acquisition, development and instruction.

The control aspect in learning dual tasking and complex dynamic tasks

My recent work has focused on a problem beyond production compilation: how can we explain that during skill acquisition people not only become faster, but also more robust and flexible? The solution I finally found was to abandon the traditional hierarchical representation of tasks (Taatgen, 2005; 2007). Instead of tying the instructions in a strict order, instructions now contain the preconditions in which they can be carried out, and are organized in instructions sets (I have called this a weak hierarchy). This new representation produces models with a nice balance between top-down and bottom-up control, and led me to formulating the Minimal Control Principle. This principle states that people organize their knowledge for a task to minimize the amount of top-down control they have to exert. In a cognitive model, the number of control states corresponds to the amount of top-down control. I applied this principle in several studies (Taatgen, 2005), and have used it as a guiding principle for subsequent models.

Key references

Taatgen, N. A., Huss, D., Dickison, D. & Anderson, J. R. (2008). The acquisition of robust and flexible cognitive skills. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 137(3), 548-565. (pdf)

Taatgen, N.A. (2005). Modeling parallelization and flexibility improvements in skill acquisition: from dual tasks to complex dynamic skills. Cognitive Science, 29(3), 421-455. (pdf)

Taatgen, N.A. & Lee, F.J. (2003). Production Compilation: A simple mechanism to model Complex Skill Acquisition. Human Factors, 45(1), 61-76. (pdf)

Taatgen, N.A. & Anderson, J.R. (2002). Why do children learn to say "broke"? A model of learning the past tense without feedback. Cognition, 86(2), 123-155. (pdf) (models)