Ask A Researcher #11 – Dr. Ayanna Thomas

There is a gap between those researching practices in education and those implementing that research (teachers). This gap doesn’t really serve anyone and only adds to the disconnect between researchers and classroom teachers. Both ‘sides’ would greatly benefit from listening to the other. A teacher is a veritable treasure trove of expertise. Why would those conducting experiments to better education not want that important experience to drive and shape their research? A researcher’s knowledge of proper experimentation and understanding of outcomes could only stand to benefit the classroom teacher. 

This series (Ask A Researcher) is my attempt to close that gap a bit. By providing an opportunity to know a little more about those conducting the research, I hope teachers may feel a little more at ease with reading research articles and writing to those conducting the research…asking questions, seeking clarification, providing assistance. This obvious partnership could really improve both research/experimentation, classroom instruction, and education, overall.

Dr. Ayanna Thomas is a Professor at Tufts University, who takes a translational approach to the study of memory and age-related changes in cognition. Her primary agenda is to translate basic science findings to applications in eyewitness memory, education, and cognitive aging.  Professor Thomas’ research group uses a variety of methodological techniques (e.g., behavioral, physiological, neurocognitive) to better understand the cognitive and biological mechanisms that result in successful memory and cognition. She is a fellow of the Psychonomic Society, a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, an APA MFP fellow, a founding member and president of the SPARK Society designed to increase Diversity in Cognitive Psychology, and the recipient of the 2018 Dalmas A. Taylor Award for Distinguished Contributions.

Without further ado, let’s ask a researcher:

1. What is the focus of your research?

I am primarily interested in how people exercise control over their own memory and cognitive processes. I think that examining the relationship between metacognitive control and cognition is both theoretically interesting and has a great deal of practical significance. For example, student learning and critical thinking is dependent on effective use of strategies during the learning process. How do students know that they have understood a concept? More recently, my team has begun thinking about these questions in the context of spatial and environmental learning. This area of research is particularly exciting, because we are starting to understand the factors that contribute to successful control over environmental learning, which seems to differ from standard verbal learning.

2. What are you currently working on?

We have a number of ongoing projects that focus on stress in the classroom, eyewitness memory control, and older adults’ memory regulation. You might be interested in hearing about a large-scale project that my smaller team is working on in collaboration with learning scientists, engineers, and computer scientists. Our long-term goal is to build smart learning platforms. This can be within in-person classrooms or virtually. The environments will be developed to personalize learning so that learning is optimized for the individual learner. Think of the student who becomes extremely anxious in anticipation of giving a presentation. Our goal is to identify the specific triggers that result in the subjective feelings of anxiety by measuring specific biomarkers, and monitoring speech. By taking these metrics in the moment, we can then develop effective interventions and teach students strategies to identify triggers and to reduce anxiety. A second interesting goal for this work is to examine learning efficiency in group problem solving tasks. Here too, we plan to measure specific biomarkers associated with arousal to determine if arousal during group problem solving has downstream consequences for comprehension. The project requires the cognitive scientists to develop the methods for measuring learning outcomes and identify the specific biomarkers to be measured, the computer scientists to develop algorithms that process speech markers, the learning scientists to determine which speech markers should be assessed, and the engineers to build the sensors. This is a fun, innovative, and exciting project.

3. What work have you done that you believe most applies to the classroom?

I do a fair bit of work directly in the classroom. These field-based studies looking at the effectiveness of retrieval practice, spacing, and collaborative learning have demonstrated that when students engage in low stakes quizzing in a collaborative fashion, there are benefits for individual comprehension. Presently, I am developing a project to test the value of what has been termed “ungrading”. If you are unfamiliar with this concept, ungrading is the practice whereby grades are not given by the instructor. My plan to test is to develop a method whereby students grade themselves, learn to assess each other’s work, or are traditionally graded by the instructor. My interest is in whether ungrading results in motivational changes (from performance to mastery), changes in acute and long-term anxiety in the classroom, and how it impacts long term retention and comprehension of material. 

4. What do teachers need to know about being a researcher as it relates to education?

This is a great question. I think teachers already are aware that robust educationally relevant research require early stage basic research where may external variables that usually are uncontrolled in the classroom, are controlled in the laboratory. Although teachers may be aware of this, I think it is important to emphasize that this stage of research is important as it lays a strong foundation for the field-based work in live classrooms. I think it is also important for teachers to understand that scientists are constantly and consistently working to better understand learning and comprehension. Because of this, some aspects of what teachers may have been trained to use and what may have been recommended may change. The techniques we presently use and endorse may change as we accumulate new evidence.

5. What can teachers do to work with the research community?

I think it is important that teachers receive the resources to continue their own education. Scientists and policy makers cannot expect teachers to remain on the cutting-edge of evidenced-based practice without giving them the time and financial support to hone their craft and collaborate with researchers in the scientific community. I also think that teachers should be given the resources to work directly with the research community. We need to build numerous resilient bridges between research and practice. Such bridges will foster a greater reliance on evidence-based practices and help to dispel myths associated with learning.

I first ‘met’ Dr. Thomas through her research. I believe I was looking for research on the impact of stress on retrieval of information. From there, I found her on twitter, and I’ve loved keeping up with her work. I am thrilled to have her as a researcher featured with this series.

So, what can you do? If you’re a teacher, simply write an email of gratitude or inquiry to an author. It’s that easy. You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised how appreciative they are. If you’re a researcher, find classroom teachers on twitter or just email a local school. I assure you, we’d love to be included in the process.

Create the relationship. Close the gap. Improve education.

Are you a researcher interested in being featured in this series? Please feel free to contact me.

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