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Jennie Grammer Honored with the Harold A. and Lois Haytin Faculty Award

By Joanie Harmon
Jennie Grammer, UCLA associate professor of education. Courtesy of Jennie Grammer

Research at UCLA Lab School aimed at neuroscience and its role in real-life and remote teaching and learning. 

UCLA Associate Professor of Education Jennie Grammer is the 2021 recipient of the Harold A. and Lois Haytin Faculty Award, given to recognize innovative research at UCLA Lab School that will positively impact classroom practices there and at other schools as well. 

Grammer, who also won the Haytin Award in 2017, has recently been conducting a study on the effects of context on the neural correlates of attention in classrooms, using portable electroencephalography (EEG) to take measurements of neural oscillations in order to evaluate the effects of learning context on student attention. 

A similar study conducted by Grammer in college classrooms, was recently featured in the journal, Nature’s Science of Learning.

The results of Professor Grammer’s studies suggest that attention, as indexed by lower alpha power as well as higher beta and gamma power, is stronger during student-initiated activities than teacher-initiated activities. EEG data revealed different patterns in student attention as compared to standardized coding of attentional behaviors. Grammer and her research team concluded that EEG signals are a powerful tool for understanding differences in student cognitive states as a function of classroom instruction that are unobservable from behavior alone.

The Latest had a conversation with Grammer on working around the limits that the COVID-19 pandemic imposes upon hands-on research; attention and motivation among students from kindergarten to college; and helping teachers to keep the attention of a wide range of learners.

What is your current study?

In our initial study at UCLA Lab School, we were looking at the relations to executive functions and motivation using EEG methods. But what was different is that historically, we have pulled kids out of class and set up a lab in the school. But the more recent work we were doing pre-COVID was involving collecting EEG data directly in classrooms. We would set up mock lessons and activities and kids [had] their brains recorded while learning in real time.

Unfortunately, the study had to be delayed because of COVID-19 regulations, but we were interested in were to know how kids’ attention and executive functions operated with and around other people. It’s one thing when you're just with me [as] an experimenter and we're doing something very controlled in a lab. It’s another thing you're trying to use those same skills, but you've got a bunch of other kids around you and something exciting is happening. So, the whole idea was that we were looking at these processes in groups, which is unique, but then COVID prevented us.

How will you be able to continue the study with the limitations imposed by the pandemic?

The study we've been working on is actually funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Because it's a federally funded grant, we had to find a way to continue the project, even though we didn't want to impact schools. One of the one of the challenges of COVID is that I might have this brilliant design of a study, but schools are just getting back into the swing of things. They’ve got a lot of things to overcome, and classroom-based research is definitely secondary at the moment.

What we’ve done is we’ve pivoted the project and now we’re focusing on children's learning and what is the current real world for many kids - learning online. We’ve taken the same paradigm and the same approach and we're looking at how kids learn when they're doing interactive instruction online, [watching] video lectures, or learning from someone right next to them, like a tutor or a parent. This simulates in a lot of ways the same types of experiences that kids have had for the past year during remote schooling. 

We’re allowed to work in our lab now. Because of COVID, it’s obviously quite scaled down. Part of the project is we're interested in how kids with attentional difficulties are doing in these scenarios. It's a little bit more controlled than what we were doing in schools so in a way, it's easier. But when we went to the NIMH and our program officer with our new design, they were really excited because this is still an open question: how does this look [and] how do we talk to educators about how to engage kids online?

How does EEG measure attention and motivation?

It turns out we actually don't know a lot about how people [pay attention] in real time because it is hard to measure reliably by watching people’s behavior. But now, with advances in mobile EEG equipment, we're able to look at some of these processes using EEG measures in real settings. This way we can see in real time what is happening in student’s brains – and examine features in the EEG data that are known to be associated with attention.

This advancement allows us to answer basic questions like how long can students sit and pay attention. When does their attention start to decline? We have a lot of anecdotes – for example, at 15 minutes and students are maxed out - but we don't have any data to support many of the claims. If I'm a teacher and I'm trying to structure my lesson, how do I know how often to break that up? How do I know how often to use group work? We don't have a lot of data on that, so that’s what we’ve been trying to hit. 

Do you think the current environment of online teaching and learning – with its higher levels of distraction – is going to result in shorter attention spans? 

That’s a great question because I taught online all year. But I also had an undergraduate class which I turned fully asynchronous to meet the needs of students learning remotely. This means that my students were watching videos of my lectures. And I talked with a lot of my students about how online learning was going for them.

A lot of students had two tales of experience. Students are reporting in some cases, that they couldn't focus - that they just couldn't sit there. All of my lectures were in seven to 15-minute intervals of time, to kind of keep that pace and momentum so you could have a break, and then you get back into it. Other students were saying the opposite, which is that while they couldn't attend [in real time], they were trying to do other work to compensate, which they wouldn’t do normally. If you're in a lecture, you're just sitting and listening and then it's over. That's it, you're done.

But a lot of my students were watching again and again and again, and you would hear this about their other classes too. This meant that many students were spending three times as much time watching lectures as they would in real time, but not feeling like they were getting as much out of it. So, you could see students trying to create new strategies for how they were going to focus and learn, but they weren't really able to figure out things that really worked for them.

We think in a lot of ways that students, especially in college, but even K-12, are constantly learning new strategies for how to orient [themselves] in an academic environment. They described feeling really tired, feeling really stressed. A lot of that directly impacts or can be impacted by having to really engage attentionally in a different way.

Do multiple intelligences play into looking at attentional studies?

In our work, we think about the kind of cognitive skills that students have a little bit differently. You might have a profile or a set [of skills]. You may be really strong at attending to particular types of information or you have good strategies for that. Or maybe you have difficulties - maybe it's just really hard for you regardless of the environment, but you've figured out a way that works. 

That’s been more our focus: what is the fit between characteristics of the  learner and their learning environments. And by types of learners, I don't mean types of intelligence. I mean the profile of cognitive skills and strategies that you bring to the table.

Former UCLA undergrads Annika Daug ('20, B.S., Psychobiology) and Riley Fox ('21, B.A., Psychology) took part in a study on student attention, led by UCLA Associate Professor of Education Jennie Grammer. Courtesy of Jennie Grammer

How are you helping teachers – both in K-12 and college - to use this thinking in their classrooms?

I was working with teachers at Lab School while we were developing the study to figure out how do they think about student attention and what they are already doing in their classrooms to support the development of these skills, what are they already doing; what are the moves that they're making. We’re trying to take what we're doing in our mock lessons and our experiment is modeled off what might be happening in regular classrooms. 

It’s tricky, but part of our goal of studying attention is to figure out, , what teacher moves drive student attention. For example, is it the transitions that they’re making or are those problematic for some learners? We know that time spent in elementary school in transition can be really hard for students with lower attention skills. But we also are encouraging teachers to mix up what they're doing in the classroom – so how can we make specific recommendations that reconcile those ideas, and help teachers continue to develop their understanding of the environments that work best for individual students?

In our Lab School experiment and also in the college student experiment, what we have are lessons that are 15 minutes of traditional didactic lecture and a similar amount of time of viewing an educational video - students report loving videos. Then, we have group work and individual work. 

And, at least with our college students, what we’re finding when we look at our EEG data is that group work is really where they're paying the greatest amount of attention, which makes sense because they're interested in what the other person is saying. They’re focused, they're listening. And it doesn't look like it behaviorally, but that's what they're doing. 

I will say in terms of talking with  instructors in higher education that people are really interested, in part because [attention] just hasn't been empirically tested.  We make a lot of suggestions about how to teach but we don't necessarily have some of the background for some of these suggestions. The idea that attention lasts for 15 minutes is a great example of this – it was published many years ago in a higher education textbook but was never actually examined. Recently someone did a review about this – asking where this idea came from – and no one seems to know!

There is a whole movement in the cognitive sciences around that is beginning to be infused in higher education. For example [in] how we set up instructional tasks, how we structure learning opportunities, the frequency and type of testing we use. All of this evidence has been growing people are starting to realize, “When I do this in my classroom it helps students learn.” 

There are a lot of other questions that we can begin to answer now that can collect EEG in real-world settings. We’re going to continue to do it with college students because there are a lot of studies of learning in this developmental period on which to base our work. We can also ask this developmental question: how does what college students do versus high school versus middle school versus elementary school, and what are the variations there?

Former UCLA undergrads Annika Daug ('20, B.S., Psychobiology) and Riley Fox ('21, B.S., Psychology) took part in a study on student attention, led by UCLA Associate Professor of Education Jennie Grammer. Courtesy of Jennie Grammer

What are the variations that you’ve uncovered so far?

One of my colleagues, (UCLA Professor of Psychological Studies in Education of Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine) Connie Kasari, often says to take a child’s age, and that's the number of minutes, they can sit still and pay attention – and that’s probably really close to the truth, but it is also testable!

There are questions about that - some kids just know how to sit still and look like they're paying attention. So, can we disentangle that [and] help educators understand the behavioral cues of engagement and attention a little bit better?

One of the things that motivates this work is recent evidence that teachers’ ratings of kids’ executive functions and skills like attention can be biased. Large-scale studies have shown that teachers rate kids as having lower skills in this domain on dimensions of gender, race, ethnicity, and their own perceptions of children’s socioeconomic status.

All of that is really intriguing to us. Take, for example, if I have a six-year-old boy in my classroom, I might have a stereotype about his behavior in advance, as that relates to his learning. But the bigger concern is that if those stereotypes persist, I might do something different instructurally with that child if I don't think he's paying attention or because I don’t think he's as cognitively engaged. Maybe you don't spend as much time working academically with that child because you perceive that he has a behavior issue and you can't really change that.  

Other teachers would take a different tact. They may say, “Well, here's a kid who I need to restructure things for. I need to find a way to engage them and maybe set up my lessons differently.” Promoting opportunities for success. We're hoping that some of the work that we're doing now, by bringing biological science and neuroscience into it, will help teachers understand and disentangle these kinds of associations they have between behavior in the classroom - especially from little kids - and cognition. 

As students get older, the dynamics change. In college classrooms, a lot of my students know how to look like a student. They come in, they sit down, they know how to hide if they're looking at their phone and not listening to me. They know how to look like they're not like using their laptop to search Google and not take notes.

These are behaviors that we’re socialized to, but they also impact me as the instructor [in that] I think that student knows what they're doing. If I'm going to just look at that student’s behavior, I’m going to potentially miss something.

How will the pandemic learning environment affect your study of students’ attention?

I think we've learned a lot. It allowed us to have this break so we can go back with more targeted questions when schools are back  to business as usual. We have also had a lot of time to dig into the technical specifications of the work. This is the silver lining of COVID: we can answer these online learning questions which are really important. Regardless of whether or not we want it to be the case, we’ll be doing remote instruction for a long time, and even if it's not at the K-12 level, it will be at the higher education level. I think people have realized this is an alternative modality we can use, and we need to understand it better before we continue to use it.

Studying cognition is hard because you can't see it. I can measure how many words you know or know your behavior when you're sitting down to do a task, or how fast or accurate you are at something, but I can never really see that process in real time. And so having these types of methods, electrophysiology and other methods, helps us with that. Hopefully, once everybody's happy for us to come back, we can continue to ask these questions because we're really excited about them. Researchers are [excited], but I think educators are too because it's a new way of thinking about [students’] cognition.

Photos above:

1) Jennie Grammer, UCLA associate professor of education. Courtesy of Jennie Grammer

2) Former UCLA undergrads Annika Daug ('20, B.S., Psychobiology) and Riley Fox ('21, B.A., Psychology) took part in a study on student attention, led by UCLA Associate Professor of Education Jennie Grammer. Courtesy of Jennie Grammer