Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Learning for the first time all over again

A new year has started. This means two things for PhD students - we again have to fight for car parks, and we have a new batch of first year students that “volunteer” to participate in our experiments.

I’ve been looking forward to this fresh batch of participants because I have a fresh batch of experiments I want to collect data for. The problem that I faced today, however, is that for the past few months of uni holidays I’ve only been testing a handful of my friends in my experiments. My friends participate in a lot of my experiments so I don’t need to spend too much time explaining the tasks... After testing the first few fresh students, I quickly found out how much I take my friends’ participation experience for granted.

For some of the participants who showed up for my experiment today, this may have only been their second day at university ever. Wow. I can’t even remember my first week of uni - I can’t imagine how I would have dealt with having to participate in an experiment that challenges my basic perceptual abilities...

And I realised that for someone who has never thought about cognitive psychology (and I can admit that’s probably 95% of everyone), participating in one of my experiments is probably outright weird. I ask my participants to rest their chin in a chin rest and to rest their head against a headrest that mostly immobilises head movements. Oh, and I turn off the lights so participants are in darkness. I then tell them to stare at flickering images on a computer monitor for about 30 minutes, pressing one of two buttons over and over again. I’m halfway through my PhD and even I find this completely abstract.

But I rediscovered one of the joys I take in testing completely naive participants - working out how to explain my seemingly abstract concepts in a way that any person can understand. This is a huge challenge for anyone doing research. You can’t use any lingo or jargon, you can’t talk about other researchers, and you can’t talk about statistics. Most importantly, being able to communicate clearly to an average Joe or Jane requires that you know exactly what you are doing and why.

I think it’s important for our participants to get something out of their participation, even if it’s just a basic understanding of a methodology. So with the new uni students who are learning how to do experiments for the first time, I am re-learning how to test new students!

Hopefully my participants don't end up feeling like Little Albert:


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