Route-learning in a real-world environment

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Participants were asked to learn two different routes on the campus of the University of Reading. Each route was 1 km long and each included 20 junctions where people had to make a decision to turn left or right or to go straight ahead. Participants included 20 individuals with Williams syndrome (WS), 20 participants with moderate learning difficulties (MLD) matched to the WS group by Performance IQ and chronological age (CA) and a group of 20 typically developing (TD) participants matched to the WS group by CA.  

Each person was led along a route once, and then they were taken back to the start and asked to retrace it from memory. We noted the number of errors they made at junctions as a measure of their route knowledge. As people retraced the route we also asked them to stop at various points and point to landmarks in the environment that they could not see directly. This was to assess their ability to work out the relationship between different places (relational knowledge/ cognitive map).  

Participants experienced two different routes. On one route they were just guided along the route during the first experience (the ‘non-labelling condition’). On the other route people were given verbal information about the route as they walked it the first time (the ‘labelling condition’). In this way we could find out if being given relevant verbal information helped people remember the route. After retracing a route once some people then retraced it again so that we could find out if repeated experience of the route improved people’s knowledge of it.

Individuals with WS were able to learn a route. Even at the first retracing of the route (non labelling condition) the participants with WS recalled over half of the turns, and with practice and verbal support (the second retrace in the labelling condition) the participants with WS recalled, on average, all but about 2 of the 20 turns. This finding indicates that participants with WS have the potential to learn a new route through an unfamiliar environment, and can do so after quite limited exposure to the route, even though they may take longer than TD people to achieve optimal performance. Route knowledge in WS could be improved by verbal coding of the route, and by walking it more than once. The extent of this improvement was comparable to the improvement in both CA matched TD controls, and MLD controls. This ability does have some limitations as the WS group and the MLD group did not show an understanding of the relationship between landmarks on the route (relational knowledge). This implies a limited ability to deviate from a learnt route. It was not possible to determine from this study, whether relational knowledge develops in WS as an environment becomes more familiar. Despite these difficulties with relational knowledge, the finding of relatively good route knowledge in WS has important practical implications because we demonstrated that, given some verbal support and practice, people with WS are capable of learning a complex real-world route.




Farran, E.K., Blades, M., Boucher, J. & Tranter, L.J. (2010). How do Individuals with Williams Syndrome Learn a Route in a Real World Environment? Developmental Science, 13, 454-468.

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