Sequence learning
Sequence learning is inherent to human ability because it is an integrated part of conscious and nonconscious learning as well as activities. Sequences of information or sequences of actions are used in various everyday tasks: "from sequencing sounds in speech, to sequencing movements in typing or playing instruments, to sequencing actions in driving an automobile." Sequence learning can be used to study skill acquisition and in studies of various groups ranging from neuropsychological patients to infants. According to Ritter and Nerb, “The order in which material is presented can strongly influence what is learned, how fast performance increases, and sometimes even whether the material is learned at all.” Sequence learning, more known and understood as a form of explicit learning, is now also being studied as a form of implicit learning
Implicit learning
Implicit learning is learning of complex information in an incidental manner, without awareness of what has been learned. It may require a certain minimal amount of attention and may depend on attentional and working memory mechanisms...

 as well as other forms of learning. Sequence learning can also be referred to as sequential behavior, behavior sequencing, and serial order in behavior.


In the first half of the 20th century, Margaret Floy Washburn
Margaret Floy Washburn
'Margaret Floy Washburn , leading American psychologist in the early 20th century, was best known for her experimental work in animal behavior and motor theory development...

, John B. Watson
John B. Watson
John Broadus Watson was an American psychologist who established the psychological school of behaviorism. Watson promoted a change in psychology through his address Psychology as the Behaviorist Views it which was given at Columbia University in 1913...

, and other behaviorists believed behavioral sequencing to be governed by the reflex chain, which states that stimulation caused by an initial movement triggers an additional movement, which triggers another additional movement, and so on. In 1951, Karl Lashley
Karl Lashley
-External links:*...

, a neurophysiologist at Harvard University
Harvard University
Harvard University is a private Ivy League university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, established in 1636 by the Massachusetts legislature. Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and the first corporation chartered in the country...

, published “The Problem of Serial Order in Behavior,” addressing the current beliefs about sequence learning and introducing his hypothesis. He criticized the previous view on the basis of six lines of evidence:
The first line is that movements can occur even when sensory feedback is interrupted. The second is that some movement sequences occur too quickly for elements of the sequences to be triggered by feedback from the preceding elements. Next is that the errors in behavior suggest internal plans for what will be done later. Also the time to initiate a movement sequence can increase with the length or complexity of the sequence. The next line is the properties of movements occurring early in a sequence can anticipate later features. Then lastly the neural activity can indicate preparation of upcoming behavior events, including upcoming behavior events in the relatively long-term future.

Lashley argued that sequence learning, or behavioral sequencing or serial order in behavior, is not attributable to sensory feedback. Rather, he proposed that there are plans for behavior since the nervous system prepares for some behaviors but not others. He said that there was a hierarchical organization
Hierarchical organization
A hierarchical organization is an organizational structure where every entity in the organization, except one, is subordinate to a single other entity. This arrangement is a form of a hierarchy. In an organization, the hierarchy usually consists of a singular/group of power at the top with...

 of plans. He came up with several lines of evidence. The first of these is that the context changes functional interpretations of the same behaviors, such as the way “wright, right, right, rite, and write” are interpreted based on the context of the sentence. “Right” can be interpreted as a direction or as something good depending on the context. A second line of evidence says that errors are involved in human behavior as hierarchical organization. In addition, “hierarchical organization of plans comes from the timing of behavioral sequences.” The larger the phrase, the longer the response time, which factors into “decoding” or “unpacking” hierarchical plans. Additional evidence is how easy or hard it is to learn a sequence. The mind can create a “memory for what is about to happen” as well as a “memory for what has happened.” The final evidence for the hierarchical organization of plans is characterized by "chunking"
Chunking (psychology)
Chunking, in psychology, is a phenomenon whereby individuals group responses when performing a memory task. Tests where individuals can illustrate "chunking" commonly include serial and free recall, as these both require the individual to reproduce items that he or she had previously been...

. This skill combines multiple units into larger units.

Types of sequence learning

There are two broad categories of sequence learning—explicit and implicit—with subcategories. Explicit sequence learning has been known and studied since the discovery of sequence learning. However, recently, implicit sequence learning has gained more attention and research. A form of implicit learning
Implicit learning
Implicit learning is learning of complex information in an incidental manner, without awareness of what has been learned. It may require a certain minimal amount of attention and may depend on attentional and working memory mechanisms...

, implicit sequence learning refers to the underlying methods of learning that people are unaware of—in other words, learning without knowing. The exact properties and number of mechanisms of implicit learning are debated. Other forms of implicit sequence learning include motor sequence learning, temporal sequence learning, and associative sequence learning
Associative Sequence Learning
Associative Sequence Learning explains how mirror neurons are able to match observed and performed actions, and how individuals are able to imitate body movements. The theory was proposed by Cecilia Heyes in 2000.. .Its central principle is that associations between sensory and motor...


Sequence learning problems

Sequence learning problems are used to better understand the different types of sequence learning. There are four basic sequence learning problems: sequence prediction, sequence generation, sequence recognition, and sequential decision making. These “problems” show how sequences are formulated. They show the patterns sequences follow and how these different sequence learning problems are related to each other.

Sequence prediction attempts to predict the next immediate element of a sequence based on all of the preceding elements. Sequence generation is basically the same as sequence prediction: an attempt to piece together a sequence one by one the way it naturally occurs. Sequence recognition takes certain criteria and determines whether or not the sequence is legitimate. Sequential decision making or sequence generation through actions breaks down into three variations: goal-oriented, trajectory-oriented, and reinforcement-maximizing. These three variations all want to pick the action(s) or step(s) that will lead to the goal in the future.

These sequence learning problems reflect hierarchical organization of plans because each element in the sequences builds on the previous elements.

In a classic experiment published in 1967, Alfred L. Yarbus
Alfred L. Yarbus
Alfred L. Yarbus was a Russian psychologist who studied eye movements in the 1950s and 1960s.Yarbus pioneered the study of saccadic exploration of complex images, by recording the eye movements performed by observers while viewing natural objects and scenes...

 demonstrated that though subjects viewing portraits reported apprehending the portrait as a whole, their eye movements successively fixated on the most informative parts of the image. These observations suggest that underlying an apparently parallel process of face perception, a serial oculomotor process is concealed. It is a common observation that when a skill
A skill is the learned capacity to carry out pre-determined results often with the minimum outlay of time, energy, or both. Skills can often be divided into domain-general and domain-specific skills...

 is being acquired, we are more attentive in the initial phase, but after repeated practice, the skill becomes nearly automatic; this is also known as unconscious competence. We can then concentrate on learning a new action while performing previously learned actions skillfully. Thus it appears that a neural code or representation for the learned skill is created in our brain, which is usually called procedural memory
Procedural memory
Procedural memory is memory for how to do things. Procedural memory guides the processes we perform and most frequently resides below the level of conscious awareness. When needed, procedural memories are automatically retrieved and utilized for the execution of the integrated procedures involved...

. The procedural memory encodes procedures or algorithms rather than facts.

Ongoing research

There are many other areas of application for sequence learning. How humans learn sequential procedures has been a long-standing research problem in cognitive science
Cognitive science
Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary scientific study of mind and its processes. It examines what cognition is, what it does and how it works. It includes research on how information is processed , represented, and transformed in behaviour, nervous system or machine...

 and currently is a major topic in neuroscience
Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system. Traditionally, neuroscience has been seen as a branch of biology. However, it is currently an interdisciplinary science that collaborates with other fields such as chemistry, computer science, engineering, linguistics, mathematics,...

. Research work has been going on in several disciplines, including artificial intelligence
Artificial intelligence
Artificial intelligence is the intelligence of machines and the branch of computer science that aims to create it. AI textbooks define the field as "the study and design of intelligent agents" where an intelligent agent is a system that perceives its environment and takes actions that maximize its...

, neural networks
Neural Networks
Neural Networks is the official journal of the three oldest societies dedicated to research in neural networks: International Neural Network Society, European Neural Network Society and Japanese Neural Network Society, published by Elsevier...

, and engineering.

Further reading

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