Sara Cordes

Sara Cordes (Peter Julian)

Boston College faculty members Sara Cordes, Joshua Hartshorne, and Jaclyn Ford of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience have received National Science Foundation grants to support their research projects that focus on different aspects of human learning and memory.

•Cordes, an associate professor, was awarded two grants: $870,968 for “The Developmental Emergence and Consequences of Spatial and Math Gender Stereotypes,” and $479,009 for “Collaborative Research: Social Influences of Math Learning.”

•Hartshorne, an assistant professor, received $706,549 for “CompCog: A Challenge Suite for Statistical Word Segmentation.”

•Ford, a research assistant professor, received $635,528 for “Age Differences in When—Not Whether—Sensory Regions Are Recruited During Memory Retrieval.”Department Chair Professor Elizabeth Kensinger said the grants were a testament to the innovative research BC Psychology and Neuroscience faculty is undertaking. “These projects showcase the breadth of methods—neuroscientific, computational, and behavioral—that our faculty are using to understand how humans learn throughout the lifespan, from childhood through older age.

Joshua Hartshorne

Joshua Hartshorne (Peter Julian)

“The broadly overlapping themes of these grants emphasize that the research being led by different faculty interrelates and, together, will provide a more holistic picture of human learning and memory, with the potential to transform how we think about the human ability to learn from instruction and from experience,” said Kensinger, who is co-principal investigator on the memory retrieval project with Ford.

One of Cordes’s research projects addresses the heretofore little-explored area of children’s attitudes about spatial abilities and how these, along with views on math skills, may affect female participation and career-attainment in STEM fields. A series of behavioral studies will examine the emergence of and assumptions behind spatial- and math-gender stereotypes; the real-world impacts of spatial-gender stereotypes on STEM participation and achievement in childhood; and the malleability of these stereotypes in hopes of identifying ways to ameliorate their impact early in development.

"[The research] will provide a more holistic picture of human learning and memory, with the potential to transform how we think about the human ability to learn from instruction and from experience.”
professor elizabeth kensinger, chair of the psychology and neuroscience department
Jaclyn Ford

Jaclyn Ford (Christopher Soldt)

Cordes’s other NSF-funded project scrutinizes the impact of social contexts in learning difficult mathematical concepts among young children (four to nine years old). This will entail assessing how social framing affects children’s learning of two traditionally counter-intuitive concepts, proportions and negative numbers; exploring factors that facilitate the transfer of knowledge between math concepts in informal scenarios in daily life (for example, sharing) and more formal, symbolic-based contexts (such as division); and determining how socio-contextual influences promote or hinder children’s learning.

“The culmination of this work should paint a broader understanding of social influences on math learning, pointing to new directions for math education practices,” she explained in her proposal.Hartshorne’s work tackles the scientific puzzle of how children manage to acquire language despite limited and inconsistent explicit feedback. “Numerous mathematical results seem to suggest that acquiring a language should be impossible,” he wrote in his grant proposal, “The fact that children do it every day reveals a deep gap in the science of learning.” While research has suggested that an innate ability to detect patterns assists children in learning about language, according to Hartshorne, it is unclear what methods of pattern-detection are used in such situations.

His project will involve creating a “challenge suite,” or dataset, to systematically evaluate and compare the pattern-detection methods; in the process, he said, it will determine whether challenge suites are beneficial for the science of learning while providing valuable resources and training to the research community.

Ford and Kensinger will examine whether researchers systematically misinterpret age-related changes in memory by not giving older adults sufficient time to complete tasks during testing situations, therefore leading to ineffective strategies and solutions for their care. The project builds on recent findings that aging may hinder—but not strip away, as has been generally believed—older adults’ ability to engage sensory processes in the service of memory.

“With the population aging and older adults staying in the workforce longer,” they note in their abstract, “the need to understand memory changes that occur with aging is more urgent than ever.”

Sean Smith | University Communications | February 2020