Retrieval-practice makes perfect? My UROP project investigating the retrieval-practice effect for long-term learning and educational practice.

The retrieval-practice effect is a well-established phenomenon whereby after an initial study period, testing is more effective than re-studying the material for long-term retention (Roediger & Korpicke, 2006). This finding has been replicated sporadically for more than a hundred years, using a variety of different materials and across different contexts.

For my UROP placement, I have been investigating an area of research which remains relatively understudied; whether the retrieval-practice effect can be generalised to procedural learning; that is, the long-term retention of skills and specifically, problem-solving skills.

In the project, I have used worked examples of a Physics formula, Ohm’s Law, for my study material. Participants were required to learn a simple formula and then apply it to novel problems. Participants were placed in one of two conditions; a study-only condition, where participants are presented with worked examples and told to study them and a retrieval-practice condition, where participants are required to solve the problems themselves.

The effect of retrieval practice was examined upon two learning outcomes; exact memory for the content of the examples and performance on new examples. The findings of the two have been compared.

This comparison will allow us to establish whether participants are better at remembering the specific problems that they have encountered before, in terms of surface features, as opposed to the procedural knowledge of how to solve the problem.

We hypothesise that participants in a testing (retrieval-practice) condition will not perform significantly better than their counterparts in a study-only condition when tested on their accuracy solving novel problems of the same problem type. In addition we predict that participants will demonstrate superior recognition for problems which they had previously encountered when presented alongside new problems.

A superior ability to remember a particular problem encountered before rather than the procedural knowledge of how to solve a novel problem may indicate that the retrieval-practice effect does not apply to procedural learning.

This, of course, will have implications within educational practice, particularly applying to mathematics and science education.

Throughout this project, I have worked alongside Dr. Philip Beaman, who is practiced in the field of cognitive psychology and memory. He initially gave me some previous research in this domain to study (Van Gog and Kester, 2012). I took the initial findings from this research, developed the methodology used and considered the potential avenues for future research suggested to supplement the research findings.

I developed new material and produced a new experimental design, recruited participants and tested them myself. It was exciting to see my created experiment put into practice and to see the results it generated. At times it was frustrating; the initial material I developed caused a ceiling effect, whereby the tasks were too easy, so everyone did well. This would not allow me to establish any differences between conditions. So I had to change the material that I used.

Overall I have found this experience hugely insightful and inspiring and it has definitely given me the buzz for research.

Lastly I would like to thank everyone involved in the organization of UROP for this opportunity.

By Anna-Louise Smeed

Human Osteology in Archaeology: Medieval Limb Atrophy

I am a student at Reading I have now completed my second year of study. Over my summer I chose to undertake an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (UROP) within the department of Archaeology. My area of research, which is an area of archaeology that I am very interested in is osteoarchaeology – the study of human skeletal remains from past societies.

Within our department there is a collection of the skeletons which were excavated from St Oswald’s Priory in Gloucester. This population is the focus of some of the research undertaken by my supervisor, Dr Mary Lewis whose specialism is in palaeopathology and the study of health, particularly in childhood in the past. The purpose of the research I have been undertaking is to find out whether limb atrophy, the wasting of a limb or a number of limbs (arms and legs) was prevalent within the Medieval and/or the Post Medieval population of this area of Gloucester. The Medieval population were living in the countryside and primarily agriculturalists compared with the Post Medieval industrial changes which would have had an impact on lifestyle and health. A very interesting part of placement is trying to discover what the cause of the odd length limbs might be: could it be natural asymmetry or handedness from differences in loading on limbs, or the pathological Poliovirus, Chickenpox or even poor midwifery practice and difficult causing this damage during childbirth including paralysis of the upper arm through Erb’s Palsy.

During the first week I set up the spreadsheet and collated some of the data which had already been collected. At this point I was introduced to the topic, and began getting into the palaeopathology literature to get an idea of what published journals related to this topic were all about. After this I got stuck into finding my way around the laboratory and navigating the store room where the skeletons are kept. I was then made familiar with the osteometric board and the digital calipers which I have been using for taking the relevant measurements including the total length of each long bone and the anterior-posterior (front to back) and medial-lateral (inside to outside). The placement so far has helped with cementing my knowledge of these techniques, also the siding of all of the long bones including those of adult and non-adults, and knowledge of what is involved in undertaking research and lab work both alongside a supervisor and independently.
In addition to the data collection I have been looking at some interesting pathologies that have been found within the population at St Oswalds such as those people that were infected with tuberculosis and syphilis long enough for the damage caused to be seen on the bones. There is also the occurrence of osteoarthritis, healed fractures and DISH (diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis) or Forestiers disease. Although interesting to study, the skeletons whose long bones have been severely affected by such trauma and pathologies cannot be used to take measurements for an underlying cause of limb atrophy because the obvious pathology is a clear cause of their odd shapes and appearances. What we are looking for in the population are the more subtle causes which may have been overlooked in other studies.
The next step in this research is some statistical analysis and then the interpretation of this data using excel and then taking a closer look at the skeletons which may be pathological, which I will soon be getting onto after reading further into the clinical literature to provide a background when discussing interpretations of the findings with my supervisor.


Independant Components Analysis and its applications in EEG

Hey, I’m Sam, and I’ve spent the last month researching and analysing the efficiency of Blind Source separation algorithms and their applications in EEG’s (Electroencephalograms), these EEG’s use electrodes to pick up signals being released by the brain. The plan was to attempt to create the first online BCI (Brain Computer Interface) procedure at which the data would be analysed and the artefacts removed prior to an event occurring. The challenge works a little like this; You’re at a party, and you want to hear what S(t) is saying at the other end of the room. The music W(t) is loud and all you end up hearing is a little of both, W(t)*S(t). You’re memory of this event we’ll call X(t). Now let’s say lots of people we’re trying to hear what S(t) was saying, together using mutual independence you can work out from various X(t)’s what the music was and what S(t) was saying. This is similar to ICA (Independent component analysis). ICA breaks down multivariate signals (X(t)) into their independent components. Now picture the Brain as the party, Neurons are firing off everywhere and there’s eye blinks going on all the time. Eye blinks are one of the most devastating transformations that can occur within an EEG signal. An eye blink is orders of magnitude larger in voltage than the brain signals and can through off your data considerably due to their proximity to the electrodes and embedded nature. Using ICA you can break down the EEG data you got and selectively remove the eye blink component of that data. Then by putting all the components back together produce the reconstructed clean signal. The risk of doing this however is that there’s a chance you’ll add more artefacts than you’ll remove. Regardless, it’s a risk that must be taken in order to obtain comprehensible data. I hope this gives you a little insight into the nature of EEG data and the types of pre-processing that must be done before analysis of data. Safe to say it can be a long process.

UROP: Study Advice and Students’ Attitudes to Masters Education

My name is Scarlett and I have just finished the second year of my undergraduate degree in History and Politics, and I just felt like this summer would be the perfect opportunity to get some experience on my CV!

At the beginning of June, I started my placement with Study Advice and the purpose of the research was to look into Masters education but from the perspective of final year, undergraduate students. Study Advice had already researched what skills and strategies would be needed by Masters students, but spoke to students who were at the end of their Masters degree. By speaking to prospective Masters students before they start their degree, this new round of research wanted to assess the perception versus the reality of doing a Masters. It is from looking at the skills gap of prospective Masters students, that Study Advice can make their support more specific and pitch messages in ways that Masters students will be more receptive to it.

At the start of the project I had to fill out a form and really think about the ethical considerations that should go into my research; writing out the ethics form was an invaluable experience as it made me realise the type of scrutiny any research project should be under, right from the start. Once we had contacted and got enough participants for our focus groups and telephone interviews, the questions had to be formulated in a way that they were not leading but specific enough for the brief.

For me, the telephone interviews got better as the week went on. I gained confidence after each telephone call and could make it more conversational and less scripted, which actually improved the type of responses that were given by the participants. It felt the same with the first focus group; it was a bit nerve-wracking as it was a totally different experience. However, once the focus group started I gained more confidence and when I got to the second focus group I felt confident enough to be able to lead it alone. It was an enriching experience to be able to handle and then analyse the raw data.

I had to then compile a report that would discuss the research and make recommendations. I really felt like my report would make a positive contribution to how the University delivers support to Masters students. Being able to think about the learning development of others has made me questions my skills and think about different strategies I should use.

This UROP placement could be one of the most valuable things that I could have done (obviously beyond my degree) since studying at Reading. When I graduate next year, I can go into the job market confident in myself and what I want to do.

UROP in the Centre for Information Design Research

This year Peter Loveland and Melissa Towriss (myself) took part in an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Placement for the Centre for Information Design Research in the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication. We aimed to analyse how quickly people read and how well they understood information presented in different styles. We also looked at what style people preferred and perceived as suitable for different circumstances. Working alongside Professor Alison Black we created a study in software called Superlab to gather our data.

The applications of this study could be relevant to future learning materials, as we will be able to see what kind of style people will prefer against how they actually perform. The findings could be used in the design of textbooks and other resources to help the audience perform better with memory retention or read faster as well as retaining information.

Throughout the course of the 6 week placement Peter and I have had many tasks to set up the study which we then took around the general public of the University of Reading campus. As designers, we developed the texts that were to be used, ensuring good consistent typography. The text was about PAYE (Pay As You Earn) and was kindly supplied by Government Digital Services as they showed an interest in our study. We worked together in designing the documents, which were to be shown on screen for our study.

Participants first read the text in one of four design styles. They then saw paired comparisons of different styles of the same information (a simple, structured text, as used currently on GOV.UK; a version designed to clarify text structure; a third visualized, with images relating to the text). We asked participants to make preference decisions based on different scenarios (i.e. which style do you think is the fastest to read, which do you think is best for memory retention?). Once the participants had answered the questions they answered multiple choice questions based on the text they read in initially (the preference task acted as a distractor) and we were able to judge how well they had read/remembered the text.

The placement brought a lot of experience and Peter and I highly recommend it to any future students considering taking their degree into research after graduation. It gives a true insight and scope into what stages are involved in research and when you find results at the end it feels very rewarding. Peter and I had the opportunity to work together which is uncommon for a UROP placement but it brought up a new friendship as well as first hand experience of a new world. As designers we are keen to apply what we have learned from this study to our future projects to ensure that our designs are not only aesthetically pleasing but also function in a manner which aids the audience. We hope this research is used to improve instructional materials to benefit others in society.

Sample texts used in the study: designed to clarify text structure and visualized with additional images

typo image 1

typo image 2