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Cumulative versus rapid introduction of new information.

ABSTRACT: This study investigated the way new information is presented to students. Subjects were 60 elementary and middle school students, most with learning disabilities. Students used two versions of a specially designed computer-assisted instruction (CAI) program. One version rapidly presented students with seven pieces of information (rapid-introduction group); the other cumulatively presented smaller "chunks" of information (cumulative-introduction group). Both groups worked to mastery level successfully but students in the cumulative group spent one-third the time, required fewer responses, showed less frustration, and made fewer errors in the process. Results suggest that students with learning disabilities need much more practice than most commercial CAI programs supply.

* Torgesen (1986a, 1986b) astutely noted that the advent of computers has created an unfortunate diversion by drawing attention to who delivers instruction (a computer or a teacher) rather than to the design of the instruction, including its sequence and integration. Attention to design becomes increasingly important as researchers move from structural to instructional explanations of problems, such as memory deficits in individuals with mild disabilities (Kail, 1984). As Campione and Brown (1977) noted, the number of activities individuals use in memory situations is enormous, such as rehearsal, organization, and elaboration. The present study deals with a very particular organization issue that arises when the information to be remembered is sequenced by a teacher or computer: how quickly new pieces of information should be introduced.

Several studies have investigated the optimum number of unrelated items, such as vocabulary words or math facts, that a person can process at one time. For college-age students (subjects typically recruited in memory-span studies), the number of unrelated digits, letters, or words that can be repeated after one presentation is between six and eight (Deese & Hulse, 1967; McGeoch & Irion, (1952). Miller (1956) reviewed several different kinds of studies and concluded that seven represents the maximum number of unrelated items an individual can process at a time.

In a study designed to determine the relative efficiency of various set sizes in teaching foreign words, Furukawa (1970) reported the highest retention with the two groups using 7 "chunks" and 14 "chunks." Each chunk represented a sentence, a question, and an answer. Though both the 7- and the 14-chunk groups outperformed the other groups (made up of 1, 2, and 21 chunk sizes), the 7-chunk size would be preferable for subjects with limited short-term memory.

The situation with elementary and secondary students with learning disabilities could be quite different. Introducing seven new pieces of information at once might overwhelm these students. Johnson, Gersten, and Carnine (1987) used computer assisted instruction (CAI) to compare two rates of introduction for teaching vocabulary to adolescents with mild disabilities. One program provided cumulative teaching and practice exercises on small sets of words and cumulative review exercises on words. The students started with 3 words. A new word was not introduced until students could correctly identify all the words introduced previously. The other program in the Johnson et al. study introduced a set of 25 words at one time with no cumulative review. More students taught with the small-teaching set, cumulative-review program reached the mastery criterion, and they reached mastery in less time than did students in the large-teaching-set, no-cumulative-review program.

In the Johnson et al. study (1987), two intact, commercial CAI programs were compared, which meant the two treatments differed in many respects. Moreover, the comparison was between the introduction of three new items followed by a cumulative presentation of one new item at a time, with the introduction of 25 new items in rapid succession, as a comparison of extremes. The present study compared cumulative introduction with the rapid introduction of only 7 new items, the number recommended by Miller (1956). in addition, the present study was carried out in the context of two versions of the same CAI program.

Earlier research with students without disabilities (Carnine, 1976) found a cumulative introduction to be more efficient than a rapid introduction. Carnine compared cumulative and rapid introductions of six letter-sound correspondences to preschoolers.

The cumulative treatment was significantly more efficient, requiring only about two-thirds as many trials as for the rapid treatment.



Subjects were 95 elementary and middle school students who received remedial reading as part of a university-based, special education, teacher-training program. The students were referred to the program because they had individual education plans (IEPs) or were receiving remedial reading instruction. In the district these students attended during the year, eligibility for an IEP and for the label "learning disabled" was determined by a discrepancy between ability and achievement as demonstrated through classroom observation and performance of at least 2 years below grade level on a standardized achievement test such as the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test.

Subjects were given a screening test to determine their potential for learning from an experimental CAI program designed for the Macintosh computer (Slocum, 1988). Five students were deemed unsuitable for the studies because of their poor performance on the screening test. Four students had excessive difficulty operating the mouse of the CAI program; one student had little knowledge of the English language. This left 90 students as potential subjects.

The students were stratified by age, grade level in school, and sex. Sixty were then randomly selected and randomly assigned to one of the two treatments. As the study was being implemented, several students either moved or were absent on the day scheduled for the treatment (6) or experienced a computer failure in the middle of the treatment (7). The number of students, mean age, grade in school, sex, and status (29 with an IEP and 3 remedial) appear in Table 1.

Two types of performance scores were also gathered, on experimenter-made pretests and on the Word Identification Subtest of the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test-Revised (Form H), a widely recognized standardized achievement measure. The mean scores on these measures also appear in Table 1. Even with subject attrition and the inherent difficulties in stratifying a sample of mildly handicapped students, the data in Table 1 indicate that the groups were roughly equivalent. Almost all the differences between the two groups favored the rapid-introduction group. The rapid-introduction group had more younger students, more females, fewer mildly handicapped students, and higher scores on the Woodcock; but none of these differences was significant.

The students in both treatment groups displayed little preknowledge of the countries of Central America. The rapid-introduction group correctly identified a mean of .9 countries out of the 7 countries on the labeling pretest, and the cumulative-introduction group identified a mean of .8. Of the 5 responses on the inference test, the students in the rapid-introduction group answered a mean of 1.7 items correct; the cumulative-introduction group, 1.5 items. No pretest difference was significant.


As noted earlier, two versions of the same CAI program were designed. The goal of the program was to teach students to identify the seven countries of Central America via a map of Central America, with the seven countries outlined.

Both CAI programs included 35 models and 125 questions. In a model, the computer introduced a country by shading in the country and concurrently displaying its name. After the initial introduction of a country, review models were also dispersed throughout the program. For each question, a country's name would appear in a box at the bottom of the computer screen. The students had to use a mouse to move the cursor to the country requested and click the mouse to enter the response to the question.

The models and questions were divided into two parts because of the capacity of the computer files. The first part (14 models and 62 questions) was called the introductory set. The second part (21 models and 63 questions), called the practice set, provided extra review so that students could reach a mastery level on all seven countries.

In the cumulative-introduction treatment, Country I was introduced, then the student responded to one item on that country. Country 2 was introduced, then the student responded to one item on that country. Then 6 questions were presented, 3 on each of the two countries. The 6 questions were presented in random order. Following an incorrect response to any question, the computer repeated the preceding models and questions. The computer then presented a third country. The computer then presented 13 questions that asked about all three countries. After 13 consecutive correct responses on the first three countries, the model for the fourth country was presented. Basically the same procedure was repeated until all seven countries of Central America were introduced. The only difference was that the number of consecutive correct responses varied from 13 to 17 before a new country was introduced. More correct responses were required as more countries were introduced, because student proficiency had to be exhibited with more countries (all introduced up to that point) before the next new country was introduced.

In the rapid-introduction treatment, the same map of Central America was displayed and the countries were presented in the same order, but the countries were presented one after another with only one interspersed question. Country I was introduced, then the student responded to I question on that country. Country 2 was introduced, and so forth until all seven countries were introduced. The computer then presented the remaining 55 questions on the introductory disk.

Feedback was the same for both treatments. The computer would signal a correct response with a single beep. Another question was then presented. At any time the student made an error, the student would hear two beeps and immediate corrective feedback would occur. The correct country would be shaded in with its name displayed.

Following this feedback, models and questions were repeated to review both the country that was missed and the countries introduced up to the point in the program where the error was made. The number of questions repeated for review depended upon where in the program the mistake was made. Any time the student made an error on a particular country, the computer automatically returned to the point in the program where the last model for that country appeared and repeated all the questions between that model and the point where the error had occurred. Students continued to repeat questions until they reached mastery (i.e., made no errors in answering the last 15 questions in the program). This mastery criterion applied to the students in both programs.


Screening Measure. The screening test guided students through a CAI tutorial to teach recognition of three states in the eastern part of the United States. The tutorial introduced students to the use of the mouse and to the way in which models and questions were presented. The screening did not require mastery of the three states.

Measures Administered After Treatment. The main measure was a paper-and-pencil labeling test, which was administered as a pretest, a post-test, and a maintenance test. It consisted of a map of Central America, followed by a list of the names of the seven countries. Beside the name of each country was a letter. The investigator stated these instructions to each student:
 This is a map of Central America. Take the letter
 that is beside the country's name and write the
 letter in one of the countries. You might not
 know all the countries, but do the best you can.

The labeling test was a measure of contest transfer-from the computer to paper and pencil. The second test, called the inference test, was a measure of content transfer. The four test questions with five responses (resulting in a possible score of 5 for the test) were presented on a sheet of paper:
1. What country is at the bottom of the map of
 Central America?
2. Name the two smallest countries in Central
3. Name the country that is between Costa Rica
 and Honduras.
4. Name one of the countries that touches Guatemala.

A list of the seven countries of Central American appeared on the bottom of the inference test.

The investigator read the questions to the students and told them to choose their answers from the list. The students were told that they could just write the first letter of the country's name in the blank.

Measures Administered During Treatment. Time and trials-to-mastery data were collected for each subject. The computer kept the data on the total number of responses made and the amount of time needed to reach mastery on both the introductory set and the practice set.


Each treatment was presented in one session. The time it took to complete a session varied from 10 to 60 min. The variance resulted from extra items that were displayed whenever students made errors.

The students were given the labeling test three times: as a pretest, as a posttest immediately after finishing the treatment, and as a maintenance test 7 days after the posttest. The inference test was given at the same time as the maintenance test. Not all students received the maintenance test and inference test because summer school ended before their week was up. Students who were not going to be present for the maintenance test and inference test were given the inference test as a pretest (7, rapid; 5, cumulative). The purpose of giving the inference test as a pretest to this small sample was to allow a rough gauge of pretest and posttest gain resulting from the treatments.


Table 2 shows the mean scores and standard deviations for the labeling posttest, the labeling maintenance test, the inference transfer test (given in the same session as the labeling maintenance test), along with the mean time and mean number of trials for the introductory and the practice set and the mean number of errors for the introductory sets for both the cumulative- and the rapid-introduction treatment groups.

The students in both treatments showed significant learning from the pretest to the posttest. The rapid-introduction group got a mean of 6.8 out of 7 items correct, and the cumulative-introduction group got a mean of 7.0 items correct. Fourteen of the 22 students in the cumulative-introduction group took the maintenance test, and 10 of the 25 students in the rapid-introduction group took the maintenance test. Students in the rapid-introduction group got a mean of 6.8 items correct; students in the cumulative-introduction group got an average of 6.1 items correct. Because pretest-posttest correlations were low, a 2 x 2 analysis of variance (ANOVA) (Treatment x Time of Test) was conducted. No difference was significant. Similarly, no significant difference was found on the inference test. The mean number of correct responses on the inference test was 3.8 for cumulative introduction (SD = 1.3) and also 3.8 for the rapid introduction (SD = 1.5).

The most noticeable differences between the groups were reflected by the number of responses and number of minutes to complete the introductory set of items, and the number of errors made in the introductory set. Each error a student made resulted in extra items being presented. A 2 x 2 ANOVA (Treatment x Item Set) was conducted on number of responses and on elapsed time. The students in the cumulative-introduction treatment responded to a mean of 102.8 items and took 8.7 min to complete the introductory set. The students in the rapid-introduction treatment responded to a mean of 258.4 items and took 22.7 min to complete the set. The Treatment x Item Set interaction was significant for number of responses, F(1,4/5) = 34.4, p < .001, and for elapsed time, F(1,4/5) = 41.6, p <.001. The students in the rapid introduction treatment took more time and required more responses to complete the introductory set. The mean latency per response did not differ significantly for the rapid and cumulative treatments, however; the means were 3.94 s versus 3.58 s for the introductory set and 3.45 versus 3.55 for the practice set. In addition, in the introductory set, the students in the rapid-introduction group made significantly more errors than students in the cumulative-introduction group, 34.5 versus 7.5.


The study demonstrated that students in either treatment could learn a set of seven new pieces of information in one session. Students in both treatments scored very well on the two labeling tests and on the inference test. The ceiling effects on these measures were expected because of the mastery-to-criterion procedure.

The striking difference was in the efficiency of the treatments. The students in the rapid-introduction treatment required almost three times as much time and over twice as many responses as the students in the cumulative-introduction group to work through the introductory set of items. This finding replicates that of the Carnine (1976) study that compared cumulative and rapid introductions of six letter-sound correspondences to preschoolers and found the cumulative treatment significantly more efficient.

Some students in the rapid-introduction group appeared to be very frustrated. They often made comments such as, "When is this going to be over?" In addition, a substantial number of subjects muttered under their breath and jumped when the bell indicated an error. The students in the cumulative-introduction group did not exhibit these behaviors. These observations also seem to correlate with the number of errors made by the students in the two treatments. The average number of mistakes for the rapid-introduction treatment was 34.5, versus 7.5 for the cumulative-introduction treatment.

One of the first subjects in the rapid-introduction treatment spent an hour on the introductory set. The subject never got enough correct responses to move to the practice set. Although she was the only subject to be dropped from the study for not completing both treatment sets, her experience led the researchers to set a time limit for subjects in the rapid-introduction treatment. Many subjects came close to the time limit, but none reached it.

Introducing seven new pieces of information at one time causes definite learning difficulties and seeming emotional reactions in elementary and middle school students with learning disabilities. This finding refines the conclusion of Johnson et al. (1987), who found that introducing 25 pieces of new information at one time was relatively ineffective and inefficient for secondary students with learning disabilities. Although memory training might be able to expand the maximum number of items that could be successfully introduced at one time, the present study suggests a compensatory instructional procedure-cumulative introduction-to accommodate these students (Engelmann & Carnine, 1982).

It is important to note the extensive practice required or the students to master the information. The cumulative-introduction treatment had a ratio of responses during instruction to correct maintenance test responses of 35; the ratio for the rapid-introduction treatment was 53. Revising the program could quite likely reduce the amount of practice, but not by too much. This amount of practice is far greater than what is found in commercial instructional material. This finding confirms what special education teachers already know-their students require far more practice than provided in almost all instructional programs. The problem is pervasive, including all content handled through drill and practice-math facts, spelling words, letter-sound correspondences, vocabulary, and so forth. Cumulative introduction is but one procedure for helping students overcome difficulties they have in remembering information. Various other procedures are also available (Carnine, 1989a;

Mastropieri, Scruggs, & Levin, (1985). Of course, sophisticated strategies are required for teaching higher order skills to students with learning disabilities (Carnine, 1989b; Palincsar & Brown, 1987); but even in those cases, students often are required to have extensive background knowledge at their disposal, which is best learned through a cumulative introduction procedure.


Campione, J., & Brown, A (1977). Memory and metamemory development in educable retarded children. In R. Kail & J. Hagen (Eds.), Perspectives on the development of memory and cognition. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Eribaum.

Carnine, D. W. (1976). Similar sound separation and cumulative introduction in learning letter-sound correspondences. Journal of Educational Research, 69, 368-372.

Carnine, D. (1989a). Designing practice activities. Journal of Learinng Disabilities, 22(10), 603-607.

Carnine, D. (1989b). Teaching complex content to learning disabled students: The roles of technology. Exceptional Children, 55, 524-533.

Deese, J. E., & Hulse S. H. (1967). The psychology of learning. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Engelmann, S., & Carnine, D. W. (1982). Theory of instruction. New York: Irvington.

Furukawa, J. M. (1970). Chunking method of determining size of step in programmed instruction. Journal of Educational Psychology, 61, 247-254.

Johnson, G., Gersten, R., & Carnine, D. 1987). Effects of instructional design variables on vocabulary acquisition of LD students: A study of computer-assisted instruction. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 20(4), 206-213.

Kail, R. 1984). The development of memory in children. New York: W. H. Freeman.

Mastropieri, M. A., Scruggs, T. E., & Levin, J. R. (1985). Maximizing what exceptional students can learn: A review of research on the keyword method and related mnemonic techniques. Remedial and Special Education, 6(2), 39-45.

McGeoch, J. A., & Irion, A. L. (1952). The psychology of human learning. New York: Longmans, Green.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.

Palincsar, A. S., & Brown, D. A. (1987). Enhancing instructional time through attention to metacognition. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 20(2), 66-75.

Slocum, T. A. (1988). IS graphics: instructional system for graphic facts. (computer program). Seattle: Experimental Education Unit, University of Washington.

Torgesen, J. K. (1986a). Using computers to help learning disabled children practice reading: A research-based perspective. Learning Disabilities Focus, 2, 72-81.

Torgesen, J.K. (1986b). Computer-assisted instruction with learning disabled children. in J. K. Torgesen & K. Y. L. Wong (Eds.), Psychological and educational perspectives on learning disabilities. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.


MARY GLEASON (CEC Chapter #216) is an Assistant Professor, DOUGLAS CARNINE is a Professor, and NANCY VALA is a Master's degree student in the Special Education Area in the College of Education at the University of Oregon, Eugene.

Manuscript received November 1988; revision accepted October 1989.

Exceptional Children, Vol. 57, No. 4, pp. 353-358. [C]1991 The Council for Exceptional Children.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Council for Exceptional Children
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:computer-assisted instruction
Author:Gleason, Mary; Carnine, Douglas; Vala, Nancy
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Feb 1, 1991
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