21 May 2020

'Self-referencing' study awarded grant of almost £500,000

Almost £500,000 of funding for unique Abertay-led learning project

A picture of Sheila Cunningham smiling

Experts at Abertay and Dundee Universities have been awarded almost half-a-million pounds of funding to pursue research into a unique method of teaching children by utilising memory boosting techniques. 

Initial evidence suggests that ‘self-referencing’ - linking information to yourself – helps people to solve problems and process text quicker and more easily.

The study will examine how the technique can benefit maths, language and general learning, and experts hope to produce a learning resource to advise teachers, parents and children.  

Around 500 children from across Scotland will participate.

Lead researcher Dr Sheila Cunningham (pictured), from Abertay’s Division of Psychology and Forensic Sciences, said: “We know that relating something to yourself benefits the memory in both adults and children so it makes sense to apply this to education.

“There are several different strands to this project looking at different aspects of learning. One, for example, looks at how self-referencing affects maths performance.”

She explained how the technique works: “Maths word problems are often text heavy. We all remember questions like ‘Billy has four eggs. Jane has three eggs more than Billy. How many eggs does Jane have?’

“Questions worded in this way can be a significant barrier for children. It means they have to keep track of the characters of Billy and Jane as well as the numbers, giving them extra information to retain and follow.

“Early evidence suggests that incorporating the child into the question makes it easier to solve. So we would say: ‘You have four eggs, and Jane has three eggs more than you’ instead.

“This reduces the amount of information the child has to retain, and also links the information to their sense of self, which supports memory.

Dr Cunningham added: “There are a number of proposed explanations for why this might work. One is that you can only keep a limited amount of information in working memory, so anything you can do to reduce that is a good thing.

“We also think there’s an effect on attention capture. If something is about you, it’s more engaging. For example, if you hear someone mention your name on the other side of the room it’s very difficult not to pay attention to whoever is talking about you. These cues attract our attention system.”

Dr Josephine Ross, of the University of Dundee School of Social Sciences, is a partner in the project.

She said, “This funding offers us a really valuable opportunity to connect with schools to support attainment.”

The grant for the three-year study has been awarded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), part of UK Research and Innovation.

 Dr Cunningham said: “It’s a significant grant, and we are delighted to have been awarded this money. We are extremely grateful to the ESRC for supporting this work.”

For more information about studying Psychology at Abertay, visit: https://www.abertay.ac.uk/course-search/undergraduate/psychology/

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