Think-aloud protocols

Kerstin Jonasson
Table of contents

Think aloud protocols or TAPs represent an experimental method of collecting data on mental or, more specifically, cognitive processes taking place in intellectual activity. In these experiments human subjects are asked to verbalise their thoughts while performing a certain task. The verbal reports are tape-recorded and then transcribed and analysed by the researcher. The aim of the method is to elicit a spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness type of account from the subject and was used as early as in the 1930s by the Swiss psychologist Claparède (1934) in his description of how hypotheses emerge during problem solving. Ericsson and Simon (1993 [1984]) provided the theoretical framework for TAP experiments with concurrent and retrospective verbal reports in cognitive science and human information processing. Their verbalisation theory is based on the analogy between the human mind and the computer and the assumption that human cognition can be described as information processing. They further assume that information is retained in different memory types. Recently acquired or processed information is kept in short term memory (STM), which is easily accessible but has a small capacity and a short duration, whereas long term memory (LTM) contains information we consider useful and think we may need again. It has a great capacity and information can be stored there for a long time but it takes long to access. According to Ericsson and Simon (1993 [1984]), only processing that takes place in STM can be verbalised. Information from LTM must first be brought back into STM before being verbalised. Cognitive processes may also be inaccessible for another reason, namely if they have been performed so often that they have become automatized, unconscious ‘routines’ and therefore impossible for the subject to report. Yet another situation when verbalising cannot be carried out is when the cognitive task is so complex that the limited capacity of STM does not allow for any other cognitive activity, since it is all taken up by the primary task. Verbalisation, however, only seems to interfere with information processing in slowing down the performance.

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