Imagery and Paired-Associate Learning in Preschoolers

M. Carole Macklin, University of Cincinnati
ABSTRACT - An experiment was designed to test the effects of imagery on young children's learning of characters paired with products. Children in one condition, sentence-repetition, repeated a verbal elaboration to assist their remembering. In a second condition, an interrogative one, the youngsters answered "why" questions based on the pairings. Control subjects were not provided any specific learning-strategy instructions. Results indicated no statistical differences in memory between the sentence-repetition and interrogative conditions. However, memory in the sentence-repetition and interrogative groups was better than in the control condition. The results provide implications to both memory strategy instruction and elaboration concepts of memory applicable to marketing contexts.
[ to cite ]:
M. Carole Macklin (1985) ,"Imagery and Paired-Associate Learning in Preschoolers", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 37-41.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 37-41


M. Carole Macklin, University of Cincinnati


An experiment was designed to test the effects of imagery on young children's learning of characters paired with products. Children in one condition, sentence-repetition, repeated a verbal elaboration to assist their remembering. In a second condition, an interrogative one, the youngsters answered "why" questions based on the pairings. Control subjects were not provided any specific learning-strategy instructions. Results indicated no statistical differences in memory between the sentence-repetition and interrogative conditions. However, memory in the sentence-repetition and interrogative groups was better than in the control condition. The results provide implications to both memory strategy instruction and elaboration concepts of memory applicable to marketing contexts.


Because the information-processing approach allows for detailed description of cognitive functioning, it assists us in understanding age-related patterns of television viewing. As described by Roedder (1981), a major reason for age differences in the learning of information is the varied abilities of children to use mnemonic strategies. From an information-processing perspective, children are grouped into the following categories that are approximate: 1) limited processors, below age S, who cannot use mnemonic strategies, 2) cued processors, ages 6 to 9/10, who use strategies sporadically, and 3) strategic processors, ages 10/11 and above, who use them spontaneously.

Older children, strategic processors, appear to respond to televised information like adults. They can rehearse incoming information and store it in memory. Cued processors, ages 6 to 9/ 10, seen to have the same ability to store and retrieve information, but with one exception. Frequently, cued processors must be specifically prompted to use these abilities. Very young children, limited processors, have been characterized as exhibiting mediational deficiencies; that is, they are simply unable to use strategies to remember better, even when prompted. Recent evidence has accumulated in developmental psychology that younger children, the limited processors, are capable of benefiting from experimenter-induced strategies (Levin 1976). Research provides empirical support for the proposition that children under six years do not use mnemonic strategies when requested to generate such strategies on their own. However, experimenter-induced strategies provide for a more capable view of the young child's processing abilities. A review of the literature on paired-associates learning follows in the next section of this paper.

If empirical work in an advertising context supports Levin (1976) finding of assistance for limited processors in improving memory, then important implications are possible for advertisers. Can advertisers engage young children in strategies to better remember their products? Do catchy characters, slogans, and jingles assist the preschooler in recognizing advertised products at the point of purchase? The advertiser is keenly interested in the child's ability to distinguish the advertised product from the other product alternatives. Therefore, do aids to increase recognition work with young children who are generally described as unable to use mnemonic strategies?

The current research will examine the basic question of whether young children can benefit from strategic instructions. An experiment will be described in which imposed images of a character I sired with a product are shown to children with different sets of instructions. The central question addressed in the research is under what conditions preschoolers better learn pairs of characters and products in an intentional learning setting.


During the past decade, developmental psychologists have actively examined children's use of memory strategies (for review, see Kail and Hagen 1977; Ornstein 1978; Kail 1979). In studies of children's paired-associate learning, subjects have typically been presented lists of pairs; for example, two words, pictures, objects, or pictures and words. The task is to learn the appropriate response to each pairmate.

Several different types of imagery have been examined with the paired-associate paradigm (Reese 1977; Pressley 1977, 1982). Elaboration techniques can include pictures. verbalizations, and/or interrogative techniques. The experimenter can provide images in the form of pictures (imposed images), or s/he can instruct the child to create an image (induced images). Additionally, the pairs can be presented in separate pictures (unelaborated) or can be shown in an interactive scene (elaborated) (Rohwer 1973). Pairs are commonly studied in the following combinations: 1) imposed-unelaborated, 2) imposed-elaborated, and/or 3) induced-elaborated. For example, an illustration of a boy and a ball presented separately would constitute pictorials of the first category, imposed-unelaborated. If the boy were shown throwing the ball, then the second category, imposed-elaborated, would be represented. The third category, induced-elaborated, would be invoked if the child were instructed to mentally picture the boy throwing the ball. Elaboration, called verbal labeling, can also be verbal when the child repeats or generates a sentence involving two items. Pairs can therefore be verbally and/or visually presented. For example, if a picture of a boy and a ball were presented separately, but with a sentence for the child to repeat, "The boy threw the ball," then an imposed-unelaborated pictorial/ imposed-verbal elaboration would result.

More recently, attention has been given to another technique, based on interrogation, that reportedly results in better learning as compared to verbal elaboration procedures (Turnure, Buium, and Thurlow 1976; Buium and Turnure 1977; Kestner and Borkowski 1979; Pressley and Bryant 1982). These experiments based on interrogation included "what" and "why" conditions. For example, for the pair, soap-jacket, the subjects were asked, ' What is the soap doing under the jacket?" and "Why is the soap hiding in the jacket?" (Turnure, Buium, and Thurlow 1975; Buium and Turnure 1977). In general, subjects who answered these questions had higher associative recall of the pairs as compared to those children who repeated a sentence ("The soap is hiding in the jacket.") and those who repeated labels of the items (soap-jacket). Kestner and Borkowski (1979) replicated the results suggesting the superiority of the interrogative technique in improving memory for paired items. The theoretical explanation offered (Buium and Turnure 1977) was that the interrogative procedure increased the semantic depth to which the items were processed (Craik and Lockhart 1972).

Rohwer (1973) contended that an elaboration is effective with children because it provides a meaning shared by the pairs. Controversy exists as to what types of elaboration (pictorial, verbal, pictorial and verbal, or interrogative) best assist young children's learning (Pressley 1977, Pressley and Bryant 1989). Of particular relevance to the current research to be reported, previous work with verbal elaboration suggests inconclusiveness in terms of its effectiveness with preschoolers. While Rohwer et al. (1971) found the addition of sentences to pairs of objects improved preschoolers' learning better than imposed, pictorial elaborations, other research has not provided concurrence. Reese (1965; 1970) found that preschoolers performed equally well with pictorial and verbal elaborationS. On the other hand, using color rather than black and white photos, Evertson and Wicker (1974) reported young children as learning more from pictorially elaborated pairs. In an able summary, Pressley (1977, p. 590) contended that the presentation of the elaboration (pictorial, verbal, or visually and verbally) made little difference in children's learning. Indeed, any differences in elaborations were minor when compared to the results from an absence of any elaboration.

Moreover, Pressley and Bryant (1982) presented research challenging the superior effectiveness of the interrogative technique. In incidental learning situations, the advantages of the interrogative technique did not generalize to children older than five or six. Pressley and Bryant argued that very young children may exhibit improvement with the interrogative technique due to a "low level performance problem." (Pressley and Bryant 1982, p. 1264). When task involvement was increased or when children were informed of the goal of learning, then young children repeating the elaborations learned as much as the children in the interrogative conditions. In intentional learning situations, subjects in the interrogative and sentence-repetition conditions did equally well, with both conditions resulting in higher performance as compared to the labeling-control condition. Therefore, although the interrogative procedure may be useful in some situations with young children, other procedures may work as well in other situations and with older children .

Elaboration procedures have been found useful in school tasks. An increasing number of studies have indicated real-world applications of associative tasks such as learning the capitals of states and facts about Presidents (e.g., Pressley and Levin 1978; Pressley and Dennis-Rounds 1980). The current research will present a preliminary effort at determining the effectiveness of elaboration techniques in a marketing context.


An experiment was designed to assess whether verbal elaboration and interrogative techniques would assist young children's learning of character/product pairs. It was hypothesized that in an intentional learning situation, preschoolers would show improved performance, as compared to control subjects, when asked to repeat an elaborating sentence (sentence repetition condition) or when asked to answer a "why" question (interrogative condition). Based on Pressley and Bryant's (1982) finding of no superior assistance of the interrogative technique in intentional learning situations, no statistically significant difference was expected between the two experimental conditions.

It should be noted that a recognition task was selected rather than a recall one. Young children have been previously found to perform well on recognition tasks (Perlmutter and Myers 1978). More importantly, and as briefly discussed in the introduction to this paper, the marketer is keenly interested in the young child's recognizing advertised products from alternative offerings at the point of purchase.


An one factor experiment was designed to test the hypothesis that young children who repeated a sentence or answered a "why" question would outperform preschoolers who received no specific mnemonic strategies. Therefore, the one factor consisted of three levels: I) overt sentence labeling of the pairs, 2) interrogation posed about the pairs, and 3) control or no specific instructions provided for remembering.


Arrangements were made with a daycare center in a suburban community of a large, Midwestern city. Fourteen subjects were included in each condition. Of the forty-two subjects, one-half were four and the other half were five years old. Equal numbers of the younger and older children were included in the treatments. The mean age of the subjects was 58.8 months. There were more boys than girls in the study (57% versus 43%), and they were mostly white (90.5% white, 9.52 black). The children could best be described as coming from middle to upper-middle, dual income families.


Five characters were paired with five products. The pictures of the characters and products were randomly assigned to 5-1/2" x 9" cards. The images were transferred to the cards by a Kodak-color copying process. These materials were a subset of cards used in another experiment and described by Macklin (1984).

The pictures of the characters were obtained from playing-card materials available from a firm specializing in school supplies. Three of them were animated (2 female/1 male), and two were human (1 female/1 male). The products were available for sale and were intentionally familiar to the subjects. Familiar products were selected to minimize the difficulty of the task and to increase the external validity of the study. Of the five items, there were two chewing gums, one snack item, one candy bar, and one breakfast cereal. A pretest of the items confirmed their appeal and recognizability. None of the items used were judged to be more likable than others at a statistically significant level.

Each card depicted the character on the right side and the product on the left. The cards varied in the following ways by the experimental treatments. For the sentence-repetition condition, a sentence was added; for example, "Luke Lion likes Bubblicious." For the interrogative condition, a question was shown; for example, "Why does Luke Lion like Bubblicious?" For the control group, the card contained no writing but simply illustrated the character and the product. The order of the cards was randomized but held constant across conditions and subjects.


Each child was interviewed individually at the daycare center. The children were randomly assigned to the treatment groups.

The subjects were asked a few questions about themselves in order to insure their ease with the experimenter. The children were then asked if they knew the names of the products. Cards showing the pictures of the products were shown one at a time. If a child did not know the name of the product, then the experimenter prompted the brandname to the child. Few promptings were required, because the products were familiar. As mentioned in the preceding section of this paper, familiar products were selected to minimize the difficulty of the task and to increase the external validity of the study.

The subjects were then told that they would play a game in which they would see a character shown with a product. The children were told that they would look at some cards one at a time and that they should try to remember "who went with what." Thus, the learning situation was intentional The experimenter paced the exposure so that each card resulted in equal times for all conditions.

In the sentence-repetition condition. the experimenter read the sentence to the child, then the child was asked to repeat aloud the sentence with the experimenter. In the interrogative condition, the child was asked aloud why the character liked the product; for example, -Why does Luke Lion like Bubblicious?" In the no-words control condition, the children quietly studied the pictures of the characters paired with the products.

The recognition task consisted of five, separate answer sheets administered one at a time. Each sheet showed the character and four product alternatives, one of which wag correct. The child was asked to point to the correct product. The word "likes" was typed next to the character. The three incorrect product choices were randomly selected from a pool of eight items (the five experimental products and three confederates: one candy bar, one breakfast cereal, and one snack item). The choices were held constant across subjects and conditions. The children seemed to complete the task with ease.


Preliminary results showed no effects due to sex, race, or age of the subjects, therefore, these variables were not included in further analyses. The means and percentages correct for each condition are shown in Table 1.

A one-way analysis of variance for the number correct showed a statistically significant difference of condition (F - 8.33, df - 2, p - 0.001). (Please see Table

Inspection of the data in Table l indicates the children in the sentence-repetition and interrogative conditions performed better than the children in the control condition. This observation was confirmed by a Tukey-HSD test (p < .05). There was no statistically significant difference between the sentence-repetition and interrogative conditions. Therefore, the major hypothesis of the research was supported by the findings.





Interestingly, and in accord with Pressley and Bryant (1982). the preschoolers who answered a "why" question did not outperform those who repeated aloud a labeling sentence. The "why" responses were most typically in the vein, "...because it's good," or "...because I like it too." A few children answered, "I don't know." Children are assumed to have attended to task equally well in both experimental conditions. Therefore, Buium and Turnure's (1977) theoretical explanation of the two conditions producing dissimilar semantic depths of processing is not supported.

In summary, in an intentional learning setting, the interrogative procedure did not produce better recognition than did the sentence-repetition procedure. This finding does not support the contention of processing differences as suggested by earlier research (Turnure, Buium, and Thurlow 1976; Buium and Turnure 1977). Additionally, mnemonic instruction appeared as enabling preschoolers to remember better characters with pairs.


The research findings suggested that young children who receive aids for remembering will outperform children who receive no assistance. While such a finding is not unexpected, it must be cautioned. The current research involved an intentional learning task; that is, the children were told to remember the pairs. Most studies of strategy use by children in associative learning have included specific instructions to learn the pairings (Pressley 1977). It will be remembered, however, that some work comparing sentence-repetition and the interrogative technique has consisted of incidental learning tasks; that is, the children were not told of the goal to learn the pairs (Turnure, Buium, and Thurlow 1976; Buium and Turnure 1977). As described, these studies indicated that, with preschoolers, the interrogative technique assisted children more than the sentence repetition procedure.

For those interested in advertising implications perhaps a more important question is, which type of learning task is more appropriate to the viewing situation? Differences are to be expected as Collins' (1970) work in media applications would suggest. Probably the best answer is that both types of learning situations need to be examined. First, a determination is needed as to whether different types of learning Situations indeed make a difference for preschoolers. By the time children are in their early grade school years, intentional learning instructions increase attentiOn to tasks (e.g., Flavell and Wellman 1977).

Second, both types of learning probably occur in natural viewing situations. Although much TV viewing may be undirected, children may view commercials purposefully to learn about specific products. Therefore, from a practical standpoint, both types of learning situations need to be examined,

In addition, children from a broader range of backgrounds need to be studied. Previous studies of children's reactions to television advertising have indicated different responses based on race (Donohue 1975; Donohue, Meyer, and Henke 1978). In addition, children of different ages need to be examined. The current findings were consistent with previous research suggesting the effectiveness of providing strategic instructions for children in the early grade school years (Macklin 1934). Cued processors (ages 6, 7, 8) benefitted from instructions to repeat verbal labels; however, strategic processors (ages 10, 11) showed little improvement. It was hypothesized and upheld from theory that older children spontaneously use one or more mnemonic strategies to remember information. Interrogative techniques were not included in the study and, therefore, comparisons between the experimental conditions cannot be addressed.

Finally, the issue of employing recognition or recall measures needs to be addressed. The current work included recognition measures, in part, because of their relevance to the marketer's concerns. As Rossiter (1976) argued, children's visual memory is crucial for in-store product selection. Consumers appear to use information that they have stored in visual memory. Therefore, any mnemonic aids that assist the child in recognizing a product from other alternatives may result in greater incidences of purchase.

Thus, the advertiser may want to voice the slogan, "Mikey likes 'Life,'" in hopes of the young viewer repeating the slogan and then recognizing 'Life' in the grocery store. Alternatively, the preschooler may also be assisted if the announcer in the commercial asks, "Why does Mikey like 'Life?'" Considering this last technique as one to gain closure, it may be particularly effective if one regards viewing to be incidental in nature. An empirical test is needed because of contradictory findings from repetition and interrogative techniques used in traditional, paired-associate tasks (Turnure, Buium, and Thurlow 1476; Buium and Turnure 1977; Kestner and Borkowski 1979; Pressley and Bryant 1982).

In summary, the current results suggested that, in intentional learning situations, preschoolers were assisted by both sentence-repetition (verbal labeling) and interrogative techniques in recognizing character/product pairings. Additional questions need future research. Do these findings generalize to other populations, to other types of dependent measures (recall), and to other types of learning situations (incidental)? Answers to these questions would be beneficial in context of the current research, as well as in terms of expanded settings that include audiovisual presentations of such mnemonic devices as slogans and tingles.


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