Where do I go from here?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Cognitive Processes in Engineering Education

Now that we have been thinking about memory, it is interesting to think about how we apply things that we know to different situations. This is known as transfer.

Transfer of information can occur in a couple of different ways. Information that was learned previously can be transferred to new settings, we can transfer what we learn in a classroom to things in our daily life such as work, and we can transfer new ideas to new situations.

There are several necessary components that help when transferring information from one context to another:

  1. For transfer to occur, there needs to be a certain amount of initial learning that has already happened. In other words, to be able to transfer information to a new context, there needs to be a certain amount of existing information that can be transferred.
  2. New learning is based on previous learning, experiences, memories, etc. When we learn new things, we relate that information to our previous learning and experiences.
  3. Information that is more abstract (less specific to a certain context) can help facilitate the transfer of information to new contexts.
  4. Transfer is a process. It takes time and intentionality and it can be challenging.

So what can educators do to facilitate transfer for our students? Well, we can try to explicitly connect what students are learning with what they previously learned. We can teach students more abstract concepts as opposed to specific, highly contextualized concepts. We can give students time to transfer that information to the new setting. And we can gauge students prior learning to help them correct any misconceptions or help them make new connections.

For more information, check out these resources:

  • Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn.
  • Simons, P. R. J. (1999). Transfer of learning: Paradoxes for learners. International Journal of Educational Research, 31(7), 577-589.

Now what was I doing?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Cognitive Processes in Engineering Education

There are many times when my memory seems to have failed me. Sometimes I walk into a room and don’t remember why I went into the room. Some days I can’t remember what I did the previous day. Sometimes I just block things from my memory and other times I wish I could block things from my memory but seem unable to do so. And sometimes I get the wrong idea in my head and it just sticks there.

Memory is a very interesting thing. It can be so helpful, but it can also be problematic at times too.

There are three different types of memory: semantic memory, episodic memory, and procedural memory. Episodic memory is memory related to experiences that we have had, semantic memory is the memory of facts and information about the world, and procedural memory is the memory of how to do things.

Memories get stored and we can later recall our memories, bring that information back up in a conversation, and sometimes we can even forget our memories.

So how do things get stored in long-term memory? First, information is encoded, meaning it is registered. This information is then stored for a period of time and can be retrieved at a later date.

But there are many different things that can affect our memory.

When information is first encoded, it may be related to other information that is already stored in memory. For example, when encoding information, I might explain the information in a way that makes sense to me and that is related to my prior experience and memory. But those connections may not necessarily be correct.

When information is stored, we may have problems recalling that information at a later time, especially in a different context. We have all experienced the lapse in memory when we go to say someone’s name (even if it is someone we know well), and their name just sits on the tip of our tongue without us being able to recall their name. The name usually comes back to us at some point, but there still is that period of time where we can’t remember the name.

And if we repeat things enough, we can sometimes develop misconceptions about a topic or idea. This video is an interesting demonstration of this idea.

Students are asked why we have seasons. Students give a variety of explanations based on their past experiences and through incorporating new information with existing information. However, when we tell ourselves these explanations over and over again, they can become ingrained and stored in our memory. Even if these ideas are not correct. And then these ideas become harder to correct the more they are enforced.

These challenges with memory can cause problems and frustrations for students. So how can we help correct any misconceptions and help students store accurate information in their long-term memory?

Here are a few tips:

  • First, find out what students know or believe at the beginning of a class/unit/week/day. This will help the instructor understand what students may be having a hard time with or what the students may have misconceptions about.
  • Have students connect the new knowledge to previous knowledge (warning! You don’t want students connecting new knowledge to incorrect existing knowledge. That is why it is so important to try to understand what students know about a topic in the beginning).
  • Have students reiterate what they learned at the end of each class period, and start out the next class period with a brief review.

For more information, check out these resources:

  • Matlin, M. Chapter 8: General knowledge. In Cognition (7th ed., pp. 239285). Wiley: Hoboken,
  •  Schacter, D. L. (1999). The seven sins of memory: Insights from psychology and cognitive neuroscience. American psychologist, 54(3), 182.
  • Tulving, E. (1984). How many memory systems are there? American Psychologist40, 385 398.

Where am I going? (Part 2)

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Cognitive Processes in Engineering Education

In the previous post, Where am I going? (Part 1), I mention automaticity and some of the challenges that come when students (or any of us) are on autopilot. But is automaticity all bad?

In a word, no.

Automaticity can be a negative thing in education when students go through the motions without thinking about what they are doing and why they are doing it. But automaticity can also help students focus on specific parts or more challenging aspects of a problem. In general, this automatic processing for a particular task doesn’t require an individual’s attention, doesn’t need the individual’s effort to do it, and is processed quickly. So if students can do some things automatically, they can focus their attention on other parts of the problem.

Let’s think about an example.

When I first learned how to ride a bike, I was not focused on the rules of the road and how to ride on the road with cars and not get hit (in fact I was very far away from any cars and roads and people). All I was focused on was how to not fall over. And that took a long time for me to get to the point where I didn’t fall. But once riding a bike was automatic, I could focus on other things like riding my bike to my friend’s house and figuring out the best route to get there. I didn’t have to focus on not falling over (usually) and I could focus on riding with traffic, obeying traffic laws, and other things that you should do when riding a bike. But I had to practice riding a bike first.

The same is true in educational settings. Students often need to practice simpler problems before we throw all the complexities at the student. But once some things are automatic, students can focus their efforts and attention on more challenging aspects of a problem.

Let’s think about a few more examples related to the education of engineering students.

  • When students have mastered topics such as algebra, they can focus their attentional resources in their upper-level math and engineering courses on the material that is specific to that class (be it differential equations, dynamics, design courses, etc.). This automaticity with the math concepts can help students focus their attention on other material which could help them develop expertise in these other topics.
  • In some situations, engineering students participate in design classes early on in their engineering education. These early design classes can give students opportunities to practice using a design process (identifying requirements, evaluating alternatives, researching information, etc.) that makes them familiar with the design process. Then in future design classes (or once the students begin working as engineers during internships or after graduation), students are already familiar with the design process and can focus their attention on other aspects of their work or project.

Practice can help students develop automaticity. Practice can help students be more efficient in what they do, can result in a shift in how students approach problems, and can help students be more knowledgeable about a topic which requires less attention to solve problems related to that topic. That is often why we have students practice things multiple times. This helps it stick, helps it get to a point where it requires less processing.

So automaticity can be a good thing if it is something that students have gained a lot of practice with and that allows those students to focus their attention and efforts on specific parts or more challenging aspects of the problem. However, as mentioned in the previous blog post, automaticity can be a bad thing if students go through problems and courses automatically without understanding what they are doing and without gaining expertise with that topic.

Here are a few suggestions to help students use their automatic processing to solve new and different problems without letting students use that automaticity to avoid thinking about difficult problems.

  • Have students explain what they are doing and why. This could help students better understand their own processing (whether it is automatic or not), and helps make that processing more explicit to both the student and the instructor.
  • Have students summarize key steps in a process, key ideas in a paper, key points in a chapter, etc.
  • Explain various aspects of a process being taught to students instead of just listing steps in the process.

Where am I going? (Part 1)

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Cognitive Processes in Engineering Education

Many times, I find myself on autopilot; just going through the motions without really thinking about what I am doing.

Automaticity, while there currently is not consensus about the exact meaning of the term, is this idea of processing information with little to no attention (Moors & De Houwer, 2006) – it is this idea of autopilot. We have probably all experienced this in our daily lives: we drive home after work instead of driving to the grocery store, we read something – a news article, a book – and have no idea what we read at the end.

Another place where we can see this automaticity is in the classroom. Students (myself included) can end up just going through the motions, following a script, without thinking about what we are really doing. Have you ever read something, gotten to the end of a paragraph or section, and realized that you have no idea what you read? Because I have. And students can do that too. Just going through the motions.

Another place where I have seen this “just going through the motions” is in students’ problem-solving. Novice engineering students, when solving problems, may just follow a series of steps because that was what was presented to them. Instead, we want students to be problem-solvers, not just recipe followers.

Let me give you an example. For solving statics problems, the statics for dummies cheat sheet (here) lists just a few necessary steps:

  1. Set up a free body diagram for the whole system
  2. Write equilibrium equations for the support reactions
  3. Write equilibrium equations for the internal forces
  4. Solve for the unknowns

Seems simple enough, right? But when students follow these steps, do they really understand the different forces that are at play or are they just going through the motions? Do they understand how to represent the free-body diagram and represent relevant forces? It may be hard to tell.

In addition to automatically following a set of steps to solve a textbook problem which has a defined answer, students can act automatically when solving ill-defined problems too. When solving these ill-defined problems, students often move through the problem formulation and idea generation phases quickly and move on to picking the best idea. With these ill-defined problems, it can be challenging to get students to really focus on the complexity of problems and the variety of possible solutions.

However, we want students to be able to solve a wide variety of problems and to be able to transfer the information that they learned in one context to another context. [For a more information about transfer, look here: Where do I go from here?]

To help students avoid falling into this trap of automatically going through the steps, here are a few strategies that can help.

  • Have students summarize what they read. Having students write a summary, even a really short summary, can help students avoid just going through the motions when reading a textbook or article.
  • Have students explain how they solved a problem. Teachers can ask students to both solve a textbook problem numerically and write an explanation for how they solved the problem. This can help the teacher identify if students are just following a series of steps exactly as they were presented, of if students are identifying the various nuances in the problem.
  • Have students solve a variety of problems that don’t necessarily look the same (but use the same principles)
  • For ill-structured problems: Have students identify the problem components, constraints, and criteria
  • For ill-structured problems: Have students generate multiple possible solutions
  • Give students cases or problems that differ in some meaningful way and have students compare the cases.

For more information, check out these resources:

  • Logan, G. D. (1988). Toward an instance theory of automatization. Psychological review, 95(4), 492.
  • Moors, A., & De Houwer, J. (2006). Automaticity: a theoretical and conceptual analysis. Psychological bulletin, 132(2), 297.
  • Schneider, W., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1977). Controlled and automatic human information processing: I. Detection, search, and attention. Psychological review, 84(1), 1.
  • Shiffrin, R. M., & Schneider, W. (1977). Controlled and automatic human information processing: II. Perceptual learning, automatic attending and a general theory. Psychological review, 84(2), 127.

F=m…m…mmm what’s for dinner?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Cognitive Processes in Engineering Education

In many classes that I took during my undergraduate career, I found myself paying close attention to what the instructor said, taking notes, organizing, color coding ideas, and following along with the instructor. And that usually lasted about 15 minutes.

Then my mind would wander. I would think about something else – my weekend plans, other homework, or just how much time was left in the class. I consider myself a pretty good student, but paying attention for 50, 75, or sometimes 180 minutes (yes 180 minutes!) straight can be pretty challenging.

In models of attention, which describe how we select information to pay attention to, only certain information makes it to the point where it is processed and stored in memory.

In Broadbent’s Filter model, sensory inputs are filtered early and only a subset of those inputs are then processed and make it to working memory. There are a lot of inputs around us, and there are a lot of opportunities for distractions as well. So how do we, as educators, help students keep their attention on what we want them to focus on?

Before I get to that ever important question, I want to go over a few more things. There are multiple models of attention, not just the one introduced above. And these models differ in where this filter is, the one that only lets certain inputs through, in the process of attention. These differing views are known as early selection models of attention and late selection models of attention. In early selection models of attention (like Broadbent’s filter model above), certain inputs are not processed because they are filtered out early. In late selection models of attention, inputs are assumed to be processed and then the information is filtered after it is processed.

So why does this matter? In these models, an individual receives many inputs, and only some of those inputs are processed and make their way to our memory. And our attention is affected by many different things, including our emotions, whether we are multitasking, the timing of a given task or activity, and our interests. So we have to remember this when presenting information to our students.

So despite your thoughts on when information is processed, we have this idea that only a certain amount of the inputs received are processed and then become available in our working memory. So, going back to my earlier question, how do we as educators help students keep their attention on what we want them to pay attention to?

Here are a few ideas to get started.

  • Try to make things interesting. Incorporate a real world example. Ask an interesting question that would be relevant to students. Connect the material in class to things that happen outside of the classroom walls.
  • Switch modes periodically. When I talk about modes, I am talking about the way that material is delivered. So lecture for 15 minutes. Then have students do an activity where they talk to their neighbor. Then ask a quiz question. Then lecture for another short portion. Then work a problem. Whatever you do, try to mix it up.
  • Highlight important parts of the material or problem. If you want students to focus on one part of the problem that makes that problem unique, you can point that out.
  • Have students select projects or problems that are interesting to them. It is easier to remain attentive if you are working on something that is of interest to you.

For  more information, check out these references:

  • Atkinson, R. C., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1971). The control processes of short-term memory. Stanford: Stanford University.
  • Broadbent, D (1958). Perception and Communication. London: Pergamon Press.