Student Research May Have Answers for Children’s Learning Challenges

April 16, 2012

OGDEN, Utah – Subject matter may not be the problem with a young child’s inability to succeed at math and reading; instead the difficulty may lie with the student’s memory. Now fun, free computer games and other memory-building activities could lead to significant memory enhancement.

That is what a Weber State alumnus, now Harvard graduate student, will tell lawmakers as she presents at the annual National Posters on the Hill event held on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., April 23 and 24. This is the seventh time in eight years a Weber State University student has presented at the prestigious gathering.

The Council on Undergraduate Research received 850 submissions nationwide this year, selecting 74 to actually present.

Paula Fiet, 43, a mother of five children, ages 6-19, spent a great deal of time tutoring elementary and junior high school children. She often witnessed children struggling with basic concepts. When she enrolled at WSU and studied memory in psychology courses, she began to suspect a link between memory and learning difficulty.

“I was making connections in class, and I just needed to follow what my mind was telling me,” Fiet said. “My mind was saying there is something going on here. You need working memory to learn, and it makes sense, you have to be able to hold enough information in your head to do arithmetic or to decode words as you try to comprehend what you’re reading.”

She discussed her ideas with a number of her psychology professors, obtained funding through the WSU Office of Undergraduate Research and devised a research project to test her assumption. First Fiet found a free, online memory game called Brain Workshop. Users test their recall by choosing whether or not blocks are restored to the area where they first flashed on the screen. Color and sound can be added to increase difficulty.

Fiet worked with groups of children for 20 minutes, three times a week for five weeks. She also had a control group who worked on another children’s educational website. At the conclusion of the five weeks, the test group had significant improvement in three out of four working-memory tasks and some improvement in the fourth area. Three months later, Fiet reassessed the children, and the memory improvement remained intact. The children in the control group showed no improvement.

“I was shocked. I thought there would be at least some decline in the working memory in the test group, but it had maintained with very little difference,” Fiet said. “However, transferring working-memory improvement to academics requires incorporating targeted working memory activities into curriculum that will strengthen a child’s ability to learn, not just any memory product.”

As a result of her outstanding research resume and academic record at WSU, this year Fiet was accepted into the master’s program at Harvard in educational psychology. She left her children at home in Syracuse, Utah, in the care of her supportive husband and extended family to continue her study and research.  

“At Harvard, I put together a working-memory screening tool, and I hope to add that to the kindergarten assessment,” Fiet said. “There needs to be some type of memory screening done to ascertain memory load capabilities to get an accurate starting point for learning, so children can learn at their most efficient intake levels. Some may be able to hold very small amounts in memory at one time and need added support, while some can hold larger amounts and are ready for added learning activities. If we wait until sixth and seventh grades, the research shows, memory does not catch up and fix itself for those who struggle. Working memory is foundational to learning and has to be strengthened while the children are young.”

WSU psychology professor Lauren Fowler said Fiet’s research delves into unexplored territory.

“I would never have done this research if Paula had not approached me with the idea,” Fowler said. “This is her research all the way. We’ve submitted it for publication. It invigorates me and teaches so much about the breadth of neuroscience and psychology. This work applies research to the real world in order to detect and help children much earlier than is currently done.”

Fiet will graduate from Harvard at the end of May and begin a doctoral program in learning sciences and cognition in the education psychology department at the University of Utah.

Fiet is the latest WSU student to represent the state of Utah at Posters on the Hill. She joins Amy Friend (2011)  Christian Petersen (2010), Lindsay Cole (2008),Kristena Kons (2007), Kalista Francom (2006) and Eric Gabrielsen (2005) on the list of WSU students who have been invited to present their research at the U.S. Capitol.

The annual Undergraduate Research Posters on the Hill event is sponsored by the Council on Undergraduate Research. The event provides a way to thank lawmakers for their support of federally funded scientific research and to demonstrate the results of that research at colleges and universities across the country.

Visit weber.edu/wsutoday for more news about Weber State University.
Contact:
Paula Fiet, WSU alumna
801- 430-3096 • pbf163@mail.harvard.edu

Lauren Fowler, psychology professor
801-626-7620 • lfowler@weber.edu

Brain Workshop: brainworkshop.sourceforge.net
Author:
Allison Hess, director of Public Relations
801-626-7948 • ahess@weber.edu

Weber State UniversityOgden, Utah 84408

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