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Dr. Rakefet Ackerman: Assistant Professor, Psychology, Technion: Israel Institute of Technology

October 15, 2013

Interviewer: Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Numbering: Issue 3.A, Idea: Women in Academia (Part Two)

Place of Publication: Langley, British Columbia, Canada

Title: In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Undergraduate Journal

Web Domain: http://www.in-sightjournal.com

Individual Publication Date: October 15, 2013

Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2014

Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing

Frequency: Three Times Per Year

Words: 2,625

ISSN 2369-6885

Dr Rakefet Ackerman

1. What academic positions have you held?  What academic positions do you currently hold?  What is your expertise?

During my Ph.D. studies, I taught Cognitive Psychology in the Open University of Israel and Human Memory in the University of Haifa.  During my post-doc, I did not teach.  At present, I am a faculty member at the Technion—Israel Institute of Technology.  This university is focused on science and engineering, and does not have typical social-science departments.  My position is in the Faculty of Industrial Engineering & Management, which is a highly heterogeneous faculty including engineers, mathematicians, computer science researchers, finance researchers, etc. and psychologists.  The group of psychologists includes three domains: marketing, organizational psychologists, and cognitive psychologists.  I am in this latter category.  At the undergraduate level I teach human-factors engineering, which combines my backgrounds as a system analyst in the software industry and cognitive psychology.  For graduate students I give metacognition class, which is my domain of expertise.

Metacognition is a set of cognitive processes that accompany each cognitive task we perform.  For example, when a student studies, beyond the transfer of information from the information source (e.g., a book, computer, or auditory source) into memory, the learning process involves regulation of the memorizing and comprehension processes.  The student asks herself how well she knows each particular paragraph and decides whether to move on or to restudy it.  In other words, during studying, she assesses her progress, and decides whether her progress is adequate or another learning strategy would better be applied.   Alternatively, seeking help is desirable.  Finally, she may consider taking a break or decide that the acquired knowledge is satisfactory for achieving her goals.  Similar processes take place with facing a test. Prior to answering each question, the student considers the question’s difficulty.  Whether a point exists in searching her memory for relevant knowledge or she knows too little about the solicited information. After providing an answer, she considers if the answer is good enough or more work is needed. Such knowledge assessments and regulatory decisions are metacognitive processes that take place in large variety of contexts, beyond learning. For example, when a doctor considers a diagnosis, she should consider whether she knows enough about the phenomenon or should seek more information, whether she needs additional blood tests for assuring her hypothesized diagnosis, and whether she is confident enough about appropriate medication.  Similar processes take place in every profession.  Take a daily example,  when baking a cake, you ask yourself whether you remember all the ingredients and procedures or better consult the cookbook.

The assessment of our knowledge, progress, or success, is called “Monitoring”, and the decisions we take in light of this monitoring are called “Control” or regulatory decisions.  The metacognitive research domain focuses on exposing factors and conditions that affect our monitoring differently than our actual performance – these discrepancies suggest that the monitoring processes are not always reliable.  Furthermore, we better acknowledge situations where monitoring is particularly biased and others in which it is more reliable.  This is important because people cannot know their actual knowledge or expected success without external feedback.  Thus, they take actions in light of their subjective monitoring.  If the monitoring output is biased, it is expected to mislead the regulatory decisions.  For example, if the student is overconfident about her knowledge and assesses her knowledge to be adequate she would cease studying even though her knowledge is too low to achieve her goals.  In one of our studies (Ackerman, Leiser, & Shpigelman, 2013), we found that undergraduate students who studied explanations how to solve very challenging problems were misled by non-informative illustrations incorporated in the explanations.  They assessed their understanding to be higher for the illustrated explanations than for the plain explanations, although their actual performance was in fact lower.  Their subjective assessment of comprehension was above 90% while their actual success rate was below 40%.  This means they exaggerated their assessment of comprehension in about 60%.  For the plain explanation versions, they exaggerated “only” in 30%.  In another line of research, we showed that studying texts from the computer screen results in larger overconfidence and lower test scores than studying the same texts on paper (Ackerman & Goldsmith, 2011; Ackerman & Lauterman, 2012).  In the examples above, such overconfidence may have clear undesirable outcomes like inadequate medical diagnosis or a messed-up cake.  Underconfidence is not desirable as well, as it may lead people to invest too much effort in a particular item while the time could have better be used to study other materials, or for going out with friends…

2. What was your original dream?  If it changed, how did it change?  Furthermore, what changed it? Where did you acquire your education?

In the high school, I studied in a program, which elaborated on computer science.  When I joined the Israeli army, as all Israeli boys and girls, I took part in a software development program, which involved two-year studies and four more years of service in a software development unit.  I started as a team member, and later on worked as a system analyst and led a software-development team.  As part of this program, we could start our Bachelor Degree in the university.  I saw my future in software development, but the degree had to include an additional course.  I was interested in psychology, and finally graduated in a combined degree: computer science and psychology.  After this, I worked for software companies and led international teams with up to 20 people.  I worked with systems that involved large databases and faced challenges that involved management of large amounts of data.  After more than 10 years in this industry, I arrived at a new point in my thinking.  I thought the software industry should be informed by cognitive science. The human memory system manages large amount of data with great efficiency. Thus, I thought that insights from its great data processing capabilities may inform the software industry.  At that point in time, I was already a mother to three young daughters, which made studying a new world, not an easy decision  Nevertheless, I decided that two years of M.A. studies might allow me to bring a fresh point of view to the software world.

As part of my search for studying about the management of the human memory system, I encountered the domain of Metacognition, and the lab in the University of Haifa, Israel, where leading researchers of this domain work.  Dr. Morris Goldsmith became the supervisor for my M.A. thesis.  As well, Dr. Asher Koriat, head of the lab, was a collaborator on another research project.  During graduate studies, I felt astonished by intriguing research questions studied in this domain and rigorous research methods employed to address these questions.  As a result, this two-year program was converted into a direct Ph.D. course. I realized that there was no way back to the industry for me.  I got caught in the research world.

The metacognitive research domain evolved as part of memory research.  This domain, called meta-memory, involves monitoring and decision control involved in memorization of word lists and answering knowledge questions by retrieving information from memory.  I am attracted to more complex cognitive tasks, such as reading comprehension and problem solving.  I learned more about these complex tasks from my post-doc supervisor, Dr. David Leiser, at the Ben-Gurion University, Israel.  Now, I see metacognition as ubiquitous, but hidden behind the scene, in every task people perform.  My mission is to contribute to the scientific understanding of the metacognitive processes involved in performing complex cognitive tasks and lay the grounds for developing methods for improving their quality.

3. What kinds of research have you conducted up to the present?  If you currently conduct research, what form does it take?

Mainly, my studies are performed in my lab, but some occur in classrooms or over the Internet.  The lab includes eight computer stations in a small room.  The tasks involve learning, question answering, or problem solving.  In all tasks, immediately after performing each task, e.g. solving a problem, the participant indicates how confident she is, on a scale of 0% to 100%, that her solution is correct, and then she moves on to the next item.  I measure accuracy of the response, confidence, and response time.  All my studies are experimental, which means that we manipulate a variable or two.  In the example above, we manipulated the presence of the illustrations in the texts.  This was manipulated within participants.  This means that each participant studied half the texts with illustrations and half without them.  Each text had a version with illustrations and a plain version.  The assignment of texts with and without illustrations was random for each participant for ruling out effects of particular texts and/or illustrations on the results.  In the media experiments, we manipulated the media for studying between participants – half the participants performed the entire task – learning, predicting their success at the test, and test taking – on the same media, either screen or paper.  This was done to avoid attracting participants’ attention to the media, which may contaminate the results.  In other studies, we compare working with and without time pressure, or manipulate motivation for success by assigning higher point value to some items than for others.

4. If you had infinite funding and full academic freedom, what would you research? 

As stated earlier, I see my mission in spreading the word regarding the proneness of the subjective assessments of knowledge to numerous misleading factors in all aspects of life.  The problem in this domain is that the research progresses slowly – we must be very careful and make sure that our studies are rigorous in order to draw reliable conclusions.  The study domain is still young, and we know little about the processes involved in performing complex tasks.  For example, what are the metacognitive processes involved in engineering work of designing a new machine?  Therefore, I need many collaborators and graduate students to share my ambitious to understand better the biasing factors and think together about ways to overcome these biases.  Up-to-date technologies, like virtual reality, eye tracking, fMRI, can contribute to this avenue.  My dream is to see educational systems and professional development programs incorporate in every activity acknowledgement in the potential metacognitive biases and the necessity to minimize these biases for effective performance of tasks.

5. What controversial topics exist in your domain? 

Examples of controversial issues in metacognition are:

  1. Is the metacognitive monitoring and regulation of cognitive efforts conscious or unconscious?
  2. Does the metacognitive monitoring only drive behavior, in a top-down fashion, or also informed by the behavior after it was done, in a bottom-up fashion?
  3. Is there a central monitoring mechanism with common characteristics for all cognitive tasks, or are there differences between the metacognitive processes that take place in the various tasks?

6. How would you describe your philosophical framework? 

A combination of focus and openness is my secret.  I realize, of course, that this sounds like an oxymoron.  As mentioned above, I see metacognition everywhere and keep analyzing the world from this point of view.  This is the focus side.  The openness side is that I see myself as a collector and integrator of ideas more than as an inventor.  I keep listening to people, seniors, and juniors.  In particular, I learn a lot from discussions with students.  I enjoy greatly their fresh minds and the original links they make between topics they study or from their personal life experience.  This attitude brought me to major leaps in my research programs.  One of my studies evolved from a private conversation with a junior (at the time) colleague who asked an intriguing “what if” question regarding the study I presented to him.  Another study evolved while I was standing in a traffic jam, and watched how people get into the junction and sometimes take risks just because they are tired of waiting for the junction to clear.  A collaborative study with Dr. Daniel Bernstein, from Kwantlen Polytechnic University, evolved from a short discussion during a coffee break in a conference.  Yet another example is a study in which our plan failed, but my graduate student suggested a new way of looking into the results we already collected.  This was then developed into a new study which provided us with highly interesting insights.  From a more general perspective, failures often provide opportunities to learn something new.  One of my papers in a leading journal (Thompson et al., 2013) was evolved from a failure in replicating a well-known finding.  The graduate student who her very first study was failed was so disappointed that she almost left the program.  However, we then considered an explanation for the failure, with the help of Dr. Valerie Thompson from Saskatoon and together came up with beautiful findings and a theoretical contribution.

7. What advice do you have for young Psychology students?

I think that the previous answer, regarding the combination of focus and openness tells the main story.  Most students do not know their focus yet.  Therefore, openness is the main thing, while it is clearly relevant for those who know their focus as well.  I suggest benefiting from the university period much beyond the studies per se.  Go to talks of guest speakers, go to other faculties if something there attracts your interest, interact with researchers from various disciplines, consider interesting questions, and search for answers.  For those who consider research as their future direction, get involved in research as early and as much as possible.  At the beginning, take part in experiments as a participant, and later on as a research assistant.  Take courses that involve developing research proposals and conduction of pilot studies.  This is the only way to understand this world and examine whether it attracts you.

8. Who most influenced you?  Can you recommend any seminal books/articles?

The papers that influenced me the most were writings by Tom Nelson, Louis Narens, Janet Metcalfe, Robert Bjork, John Dunlosky, Keith Thiede, Valerie Thompson, and Asher Koriat.  I recommend a recent review paper and a friendly book that summarize the domain nicely and point to its applied relevance.

Bjork, R. A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013). Self-Regulated Learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 417-444.

Dunlosky, J., & Metcalfe, J. (2009). Metacognition. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, Inc.

9. Where do you see Cognitive Psychology going?

I hope to see the cognitive psychology go beyond artificial tasks that can be generated only in the lab, into real-life tasks with larger variety than studied up until now.  This requires sophistication and development of research methods that support it without compromising on rigorous research methods.

References

Ackerman, R., & Goldsmith, M. (2011). Metacognitive regulation of text learning: On screen versus on paper. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 17(1), 18-32.

Ackerman, R., & Lauterman, T. (2012). Taking reading comprehension exams on screen or on paper? A metacognitive analysis of learning texts under time pressure. Computers in Human Behavior, 28, 1816-1828.

Ackerman, R., Leiser, D., & Shpigelman, M. (2013). Is comprehension of problem solutions resistant to misleading heuristic cues? Acta Psychologica, 143(1), 105-112.

Thompson, V., Prowse Turner, J., Pennycook, G., Ball, L., Brack, H., Ophir, Y., & Ackerman, R. (2013).  The role of answer fluency and perceptual fluency as metacognitive cues for initiating analytic thinking. Cognition, 128, 237-251.

License

Creative Commons Licence In-sight by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Copyright

© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-sight, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-sight with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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