Learning via observation

Abravanel and Gingold (1985) conducted a study on learning specifically on deferred imitation and immediate imitation. Its review of previous studies conducted on learning revealed that a child at the second year of life shows evidence of deferred imitation, which is imitation of modeled behavior after an interval where other events have intervened between modeling and reproduction of behavior. Classes of object/action combinations used in the current study were taken from the study by McCall, Parke and Kavanaugh (as qtd by Abravanel & Gingold, 1985). The current study however further classified these classes of actions with objects into three: simple/single actions, reiterative actions and sequentially coordinated actions.

Simple/single actions required demonstration of one behavior. Tasks measuring this were the Barrels where the child had to reveal contents of the large barrel by separating it into halves, and the Doll and crown, where the child has to put the crown on the bald-headed wooden doll. Reiterative actions were simple actions that had to be repeated several times. Tasks for this include the Spacemen, where the child is expected to produce vertical column of five spacemen toys in a feet-to-head order, the Blocks, where the child had to stack the cube block, disc block and pyramid block in that order, and Screwtoy, where the child had to turn the screwnut counterclockwise until it is free of the screw. Sequentially coordinated action tasks require two or more actions that differ from each other but have to be performed in some specific order.

Tasks for this include the Cylinder and doll, where the child has to insert a drumstick into a cylinder and push the doll out to let it fall into the table, and the Xylophone, where the child was expected to lose one tube from the base of the xylophone and strike each of the other two metallic pieces.

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Both groups follow four phases in every task: 1) Pre-test, where the child was presented with all of the materials for the task and allowed to handle them for 60 seconds. 2) Modeling followed where the treatment groups saw the target actions modeled twice, while the control group did not see any models but allowed to handle the materials for another 10 seconds. Each child had to accumulate four tasks from the seven possible tasks. The child then had an interpolated interval of 10 minutes, where he/she was free to do anything. This time gap was necessary to emphasize on the deferred imitation. 3) Post-test followed, where the child was presented with the materials of a task he/she had taken previously and targeted or expected actions had to be demonstrated within 60 seconds.

Responses were recorded and the next materials of second, third and fourth tasks were presented separately. 4) Immediate imitation follows right after post-test when it is clear that the child have not achieved the targeted actions of a particular task. The experimenter models again the targeted action and the child was given 60 seconds to reproduce the action. The third step looked into the deferred imitation while the fourth step looked into immediate imitation.

Scores were ranged from zero, where the child did nothing but look at the materials, to six, where the child successfully reproduced the targeted actions. However, scoring was reclassified were score zero to four was rescored as zero and score five to six were rescored as one. Data was analyzed using three-factor analyses of variance (Age X Sex X Treatment Condition). The study seeks to answer whether performance of the three classes of actions (i.e., simple/singe, reiterative and sequential coordinated) in deferential imitation and immediate imitation were the same for 12-month old and 18-month old children and treatment and control groups. The researcher hypothesizes that the 12-months old children would succeed in deferred imitation of simple/single actions and the 18-months old children would succeed in both reiterative and sequentially coordinated tasks.

Analysis on the deferred imitation found that in performing simple/single action and reiterative action tasks, the 18-months old produced the targeted actions significantly higher than the 12-month olds. In performing sequentially coordinated tasks, the 18-months old had greater number of targeted actions over the 12-months old on Cylinder and doll task, but equally on the Xylophone task. The treatment group had greater number of targeted actions over the control group in performing simple/single action tasks, in performing the two of the reiterative action tasks: Spacemen and Screwtoy  (but not the Blocks), as well as the Cylinder and doll tasks (but not the xylophone task) of the sequentially coordinated tasks. Interaction effect of age and treatment condition in performing the three classes of action tasks showed that the 18-months old had greater modeling effect. Further, there was no difference between girls and boys in the number of actions tasks successfully performed.

Immediate imitation was done for children who have not successfully accomplished the tasks on the third phase. More children from the control group were subjected to this analysis understandably because they had no models to imitate and learn from on how to achieve successfully the tasks subjected to them. Immediate imitation and deferred imitation were not analyzed as scoring for both sets were different. Analysis of immediate imitation data revealed that 18-year old had greater number of targeted actions over the 12-months old children. Less than 50% of the 12-month old children passed the tasks compared to more than 50% of the 18-month olds passed the tasks. More than 50% of the 18-month olds however find Spacemen and screwtoy tasks difficult to perform in immediate imitation.

Approximate deferred imitation was further done where the reiterative and sequentially coordinated actions considered lower forms of imitations and where such forms somehow were equivalent to simple/single action level. The 18-month old children significantly had higher performance in post-tests reiterative tasks and Cylinder and doll task of the sequentially coordinated actions. Interaction between age and treatment conditions showed that at 18-months, treatment group achieved the Spaceman task, screwtoy task, Cylinder and doll task, but not on block task and xylophone tasks. At 12 months, treatment group achieved Spacemen task and Xylophone task but not the Screwtoy, Blocks, Cylinder and doll tasks.

The study concluded that there are developmental differences achieved in learning between ages 12-months and 18-months, through imitation, whether through immediate or delayed information. The hypotheses of the research were not supported by the results as only few of the 12-month olds demonstrated complete deferred imitation on simple/single actions and less than 50% of the 18-month olds were fully successful with the three action tasks. It further concluded that the children’s performance in both deferred imitation and immediate imitation were the same by comparing treatment and control groups for immediate imitation analysis. The research further confirmed the study conducted by McCall et all. that 18-months old have internalized action sequences and means-ends relations although the current research acknowledged that spatial and serial properties of actions were difficult for these children. The researcher explained about the children’s possible difficulty of recalling order for the Blocks task. It finally concludes that imitative ability is a developmental phase by the start of the second year of a child and fluency to make observational learning and deferred imitation during the second year.

Analysis on the Article

The use of a control group in the study was not necessary. McCall et al, whom the researchers referred to in their study, did not employ control group. The researchers themselves have recognized that imitation and observation learning were facts of human functioning. Thus, learning the tasks as demonstrated by reproducing the targeted actions were better when somebody models how the task was to be accomplished than when children were left to find out for themselves how to accomplish the task.

The analysis done on deferred imitation for the control group was subjecting the children in a problem-solving task by their own rather than learning via observation. The employ of control group sidetracked the researcher from the objective of establishing learning through observation in this group, precisely because the subjects in this group did not use observation in learning the tasks. All the control group did was to establish that indeed the use of models significantly facilitated accomplishment of the tasks. This was rather not necessary as previous researches have already established this.

The use of control group in the analysis has rather made confusing interpretations and conclusions on the study. Such was done when the researcher made a conclusion on the immediate imitation by comparing the control and the treatment group that deferred imitation had no particular advantage over immediate imitation (p. 621, paragraph 2). This was rather an erroneous conclusion since control group cannot represent immediate imitation nor deferred imitation in any way. The researchers themselves have acknowledged that immediate imitation and deferred imitation cannot be analyzed because of the differential scoring used by the two sets of data but a conclusions made was to infer on this.

The representational materials used in this study were carefully selected so that the objects give the platform by which actions (i.e, simple/single, reiterative, sequential coordinated) can be elicited. When disparity in the results existed for reiterative tasks (i.e., Spacemen, blocks and screwtoy) and sequential coordinated tasks (Cylinder and doll, and xylophone), the researchers have attributed this to difficulty in recall (p. 621, paragraph 1) for the Block task and spontaneous performance (p. 620, paragraph 1) for Xylophone task.

The Block task was a measure for reiterative action and which was to be accomplished by the child by stacking the cube block, disc block and pyramid block on each other on that specific order. The child, in this task, was not however required only to do a simple action repeated more than once (i.e., reiterative) but also required to demonstrate memory recall on how the order of the blocks should be. This requirement was different from the other reiterative tasks (i.e., Spacemen and Screwtoy) where the targeted action was essentially repetitive ones and did not require some recall of order of how things should be arranged, which was the case for the Block task.

This additional requirement for Block task made it in disparity of results with the other reiterative tasks. Block task, in order to elicit only one requirement, which is to demonstrate singular repetitive action, should have used same-shaped blocks. This takes away the requirement for a recall of certain order of blocks, which was rather not a concern of this particular study. It is therefore suggested that the Block task be modified by using the same-shaped blocks or this is taken out all together as there were already two reiterative actions tasks, which were Spacemen and Screwtoy tasks.

The disparity in the results of sequential coordinated action tasks, which are the Cylinder and doll task and Xylophone task, was attributed to spontaneous performance. The Xylophone task involved removing one tube loosely attached to the base of the xylophone and striking each of the other two metallic pieces. The researcher’s explanation on spontaneous performance of the Xylophone task implies on the novelty of the task. Making the task as novel as possible was necessary in order to seclude memory recall on possible actions done outside the experiment. If the child have already played xylophone, his/her demonstration of the task may have been a direct recall of how he played a similar toy.

A recall on actions outside the experiment would mean lack of control of extraneous variable. To keep extraneous variable to enter into the experiment, the tasks formulated should be novel as possible for the children. Spontaneous performance on Xylophone task as demonstrated by the control group was evidence to this (p. 620, paragraph 1). This explanation by the researcher was rather acceptable, but it should have been suggested that Xylophone task was removed as a measure for sequential coordinated action task in the future study, and suggested to be replaced by another task.

Analysis on approximate deferred imitation was not necessary nor called for in the study. The study implied only on differential imitation and immediate imitation to answer the research question. Analysis done on this only confused interpretations and results relative to this were not incorporated nor integrated in the discussions or in the conclusions. The results derived from this analysis were like a free agent that was left to float, without particular beginning, that is, it was not part of the research question, or an end, since it was not integrated in the conclusions. Such kind of analysis should have been left out.

Essentially, the research has done well in proving that the children in the second year of their life were advancing in their learning through imitation, whether deferred or immediate. It contributed to the theoretical base for developmental psychology by establishing that imitative ability starts at the second year of a child’s life and continues to develop as the child advances in age towards the end of its second year. The finding that modeling contributes to learning was not novel but was rather reiteratively established from previous studies and researches (p. 614, paragraph 1).

If a replicate of the study has to be done, the use of control group, which is not to employ models, is suggested to be deleted. The use of Block task should utilize same-shaped blocks (i.e., three cubes or three discs or three pyramids). The Xylophone task should also be replaced by another sequential coordinated action that requires a novel task or introduces a novel material. Suggested tasks would be: Doll and little umbrella, where the targeted action is for the child to place the plastic doll in a sitting position on a table, to open a little umbrella and to place the umbrella beside the doll.

This task required three sequential actions: placing doll ® opening umbrella ® placing umbrella. Doll on bucket, where the targeted action is for the child to position the bucket upside down and to put a plastic doll on a sitting position on the bucket. This task required three sequential actions: positioning the bucket ® placing the doll. The principle is therefore clear, that the task should be novel as possible and requiring at least two different actions done in some particular order.


Abravanel, E. & Gingold, H. (1985). Learning via observation during the second year of life. Developmental Psychology, 21 (4), 614-623.

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