Changing one variable at a time while controlling others is a key aspect of scientific experimentation and a central component of STEM curricula. However, children reportedly struggle to learn and implement this strategy. Why do children’s intuitions about how best to intervene on a causal system conflict with scientific practices? Mathematical analyses have shown that controlling variables is not always the most efficient learning strategy, and that its effectiveness depends on the “causal sparsity” of the problem, i.e., how many variables are likely to impact the outcome. We tested the degree to which 7- to 13-year-old children (n = 104) adapt their learning strategies based on expectations about causal sparsity. We report new evidence demonstrating that some previous work may have undersold children’s causal learning skills: Children can perform and interpret controlled experiments, are sensitive to causal sparsity, and use this information to tailor their testing strategies, demonstrating adaptive decision-making.
- Causal learning
- Causal sparsity
- Scientific reasoning
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
- Developmental and Educational Psychology
- Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)