Transfer of learning in children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder




McInerney, Robert John

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Objective: Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is a permanent developmental disorder that can occur if women drink alcohol while pregnant. Despite substantial variability in FASD as a population, anecdotal evidence and clinical reports suggest that affected individuals have difficulty learning from experience and generalizing information from one situation to another, and tend to make the same mistakes over and over. Consistent with research in cognitive and educational psychology, these difficulties were conceptualized as impairments in “transfer of learning.” This dissertation sought to measure transfer of learning using three experimental transfer measures and an exploratory parental transfer questionnaire. In addition, performance on the experimental transfer measures was investigated in relation to aspects of executive functioning, because abilities thought to underlie successful transfer bear much resemblance to aspects of executive functioning. Participants and Methods: The sample included 16 children diagnosed with FASD and 16 age- and gender-matched control children. Children were screened for intelligence and excluded if their performance on both Vocabulary and Matrix Reasoning from the WISC-IV fell below the 9th percentile. Children completed three transfer tasks: (1) a novel, experimental modification of the Tower of Hanoi involving nested plastic cups and Tupperware containers; (2) a variation of Chen’s (1996) Bead Retrieval Problem; and (3) the Purdue Pegboard. Participants also completed three executive functioning tasks that were selected to measure concept formation and flexibility: (1) Picture Concepts from the WISC-IV; (2) the D-KEFS Color-Word Interference Test; and (3) the Visual-Verbal Test. In addition, parents or caregivers completed an exploratory questionnaire designed to assess children’s transfer of learning abilities in everyday life, along with the ABAS-II, a standardized measure of adaptive functioning. Results: Children with FASD displayed significantly weaker performance on the Transfer Condition of the Tower of Hanoi, even after controlling for intelligence. Group differences were not observed on the Bead Retrieval Problem or on the Purdue Pegboard. On the measures of executive functioning, control children outperformed those with FASD on all measures before controlling for intelligence. In addition, there was a significant relationship between the Tower of Hanoi and the Visual-Verbal Test; the latter was the only executive functioning task related to transfer of learning. This finding, however, did not persist when intelligence was accounted for. After controlling for intelligence, significant group differences also were found on parental ratings of everyday transfer ability and on more complex aspects of adaptive functioning. Conclusions: Two out of four newly created measures in this exploratory dissertation provided partial support for weak transfer of learning in FASD. This was observed on the modified Tower of Hanoi, which shared an identical structure between conditions but differed in surface appearance. Parental ratings also indicated weak transfer of learning, although in children with FASD, these reports did not correlate with transfer abilities on the Tower of Hanoi. Children with FASD also demonstrated weak executive functioning, but this weakness was moderated significantly by intelligence. The relationship between transfer of learning and executive functioning appeared to be driven primarily by cognitive flexibility, although this relationship also was moderated by intelligence.



FASD, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, Transfer of Learning, Generalization, Executive Functioning, Flexibility, Concept Formation, Inhibition