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Our Studies

We have multiple on-going studies in the lab. These studies are all aimed at understanding how young children learn and how they use different kinds of information available to them when reasoning about various problems. Below you can find brief descriptions of some of our projects.

 

Development of Semantic Knowledge and Category-based Reasoning

Category-based reasoning is central to mature cognition and underlies much of our learning and functioning in the world. For example, upon learning that crocodile embryos do not have sex chromosomes we may conclude (without explicitly being told so) that alligator embryos also lack sex chromosomes, because crocodiles and alligators are similar kinds of animals. Our research points to substantial individual variability in category-based reasoning in preschool-age children and profound age-related differences in the ability to spontaneously engage in category-based reasoning. At present, it is unknown why these individual and age-related differences arise. We are exploring the possibility that these difference are due, in part, to learning-driven changes in the organization of semantic knowledge and maturational changes in the functioning of the prefrontal cortex. This line of research is supported by the James S. McDonnell Foundation 21st Century Science Initiative in Understanding Human Cognition – Scholar Award (https://www.jsmf.org/grants/20140002/).

 

Development of Selective Sustained Attention

Selective sustained attention underlies our ability to process some parts of the environment at the exclusion of others over a period of time. Therefore, it is a crucially important process enabling one to process relevant information and ignore information irrelevant to the task at hand, be it language comprehension, categorization, or problem solving. However, the mechanisms of regulation of this important ability are not fully understood at present. One of the challenges in investigating the mechanisms of regulation of selective sustained attention is the paucity of appropriate experimental paradigms. This line of research is aimed at developing and testing experimental tools that make it possible to study the mechanisms of regulation of selective sustained attention in young children. This research is supported by The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Development (http://www.nichd.nih.gov/). If you would like to download the software used in these studies please follow this link: http://www.psy.cmu.edu/~trackit/

 

Classroom Visual Environment, Attention Allocation, and Learning

Loss of instructional time due to off-task behavior is a well-established problem in educational settings, and a negative relationship between off-task behavior and learning outcomes has been documented in many contexts. Prior research suggests that elementary school students spend up to 50% of instructional time off-task. Yet, designing effective, easy to implement, and scalable interventions to reduce off-task behavior has been challenging. Many existing interventions may be unsuccessful because they do not take into sufficient account the factors that lead to off-task behavior. Despite considerable prior research on off-task behavior, these factors and their impacts are not fully understood. Institute of Education Sciences recently funded our project that aims to study in depth one such factor – the classroom visual environment. There are two key reasons to focus on this factor. First, there is a paradox in the relationship between current knowledge about cognitive development and current practice in the design of classroom visual environments. It is well-documented that distractibility decreases markedly with age; however, younger learners (i.e., K-4 students) frequently learn in classrooms containing large amounts of potentially distracting visual materials not relevant to the on-going instruction (e.g., colorful posters, alphabet charts, maps, etc.). The second key reason to focus on classroom visual environment is its malleability. Unlike many other factors that have been linked to learning outcomes (e.g., socio-economic status, aptitude, etc.), classroom visual environment is a highly malleable factor. Therefore, our findings will have the potential to support the design of classrooms that are better suited to promoting focused attention and learning. This line of research is supported by an award from the Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences (http://ies.ed.gov/).

 

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