I have never liked open-ended projects. The ones that ask you to “pick one concept and explore it” or “pick something that interests you and expand on it” always overwhelm me. How can I pick just one thing to focus on from a semester-long course that I took for the explicit reason that I was interested in all of the subject matter?
Last spring, I was faced with one of these final projects in my cognitive psychology course. We were asked to pick one of the central concepts in cognitive psychology, identify a question and hypothesis related to it, and design an experiment to test it. The first thing I did was read over my notes from the semester to try to find something I was particularly interested in but…plot twist…I was interested in pretty much everything, so I needed to come up with a different strategy.
I decided to reverse engineer my search for a topic. What is a question I want to answer? What would I be interested in learning about right now? What is relevant to me at this moment? Well, at the time we were coming up on finals season, so naturally studying was all I could think about. How could I most efficiently study for all of my upcoming exams? Luckily, learning and memory are fundamental concepts in cognitive psychology so I was on my way to developing a successful, interesting, and relevant project. A project that not only appropriately connected to the material in the course, but one that I could apply to my day to day life.
I decided to ask the following question: Are stimuli best remembered after multiple short exposures or a single, longer exposure? Because answering this question was important to me personally, I was excited to work on the project. I would even develop my experiment rather than working on more pressing assignments. I designed an experiment using an online platform in which participants would be shown images of different colorful geometric designs either four times for one second each or one time for four seconds and be tested on their memory of the images after the study phase. I even enthusiastically worked on troubleshooting problems with the online program—technical difficulties that I usually avoided until last minute on previous projects in the semester.
This is just one of the many research experiences that have revealed to me how important it is to engage with questions that are personally relevant and meaningful to you. Coming up with a research question that you are actually motivated to find out the answer to is half the battle—the research process itself is always grueling with many slips and snags—but if you’re passionate about answering your question, pushing through these hiccups just becomes part of the process rather than the end of the world.
So, next time you’re asked to come up with your own research project, be it a final project, R3, or independent work, I challenge you to come up with a question that you genuinely want to find the answer to, not just a question that your professor wants you to answer. I have found that this is the best way to make the oftentimes frustrating research process as rewarding as it can be.
Using my concerns about studying for finals to inspire my project allowed me to develop better study habits. By answering my research question I learned how to learn better. For more complex stimuli one long exposure is best, but for simpler stimuli memory is improved with many shorter exposures. I learned how to study more efficiently and how to apply these psychological concepts of learning and memory to improve my day to day life. The experience taught me to see research as a process that can be both personally and academically valuable. If you take the time to look outside the subject matter itself it is remarkable how easy it can be to relate your course work to your personal life and add to both by asking the right questions.
— Ellie Breitfeld, Natural Sciences Correspondent