Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Learning with and without feedback in children with developmental language disorder

Arbel, Y., Fitzpatrick, I., & He, X. (2021). Learning with and without feedback in children with developmental language disorder. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 64(5), 1696–1711. https://doi.org/10.1044/2021_JSLHR-20-00499

When a child says, ‘tup’, and we reply, ‘no, that’s a cup. Say cup’, we’re providing feedback that we expect will help the child learn the correct form. This feedback is considered to provide an avenue for ‘explicit learning’, that is, the conscious effort to learn the right form. This type of learning requires the child to monitor and evaluate feedback, so it places demands on working memory and executive functioning. On the other hand, when a child says, ‘tup’, and we say, ‘yes, that’s a cup. Let’s have a drink’, we’re creating opportunities for ‘implicit learning’, that is, the unconscious learning of patterns. This type of learning without feedback does not require self-monitoring, and so does not place demands on working memory and executive functioning.

The ability to learn from feedback is also tied to certain brain regions such as the frontal cortex and basal ganglia. Prior work suggest that feedback processing may be impaired in children with developmental language disorders (DLD) due to poor working memory skills and brain abnormalities. It would follow that children with DLD may learn better if they can bypass feedback processing.

In this study, 14 typically developing (TD) children and 13 children with DLD learned new words. During the learning session, children learned the names of novel objects and EEG data was recorded. On each trial, children saw two images and heard a name. In the feedback trials, participants had to decide which object matched with the name followed by feedback. Green checkmarks indicated correct responses while red Xs indicated incorrect responses. In the no feedback trials, correct responses were highlighted with a green box around the object and participants did not have to respond. During immediate and delayed (1-week later) testing, children had to decide which of the two objects matched a name and no feedback was provided. As expected, TD children performed better than DLD children overall. Interestingly, for both groups of children, learning was better without feedback than with feedback when tested immediately and after a delay. Further, when learning from feedback, both groups of children were more likely to benefit from positive feedback (repeat a correct response) than change after negative feedback (switch to the correct response). The EEG data showed that TD children were more sensitive to negative feedback than children with DLD.

It is interesting to consider how the effect of feedback, or lack thereof in this case, fits into clinical practice. This might be one way to reduce working memory demands, that is, to prioritize the learning of new information by minimizing the need to process feedback simultaneously. The findings also suggest the importance of positive feedback. More broadly, the findings regarding feedback were surprising, and further replication and study of feedback in DLD is important.

Blogger: Theresa Pham is a student in the combined SLP MClSc/PhD program, supervised by Dr. Lisa Archibald

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