Cogbites Interview Series: Annie Ditta

Back in January of this year (2021), cogbites celebrated its 2nd anniversary! During our two years, we’ve had posts on a variety of topics in cognitive science, including learning, attention, perception, creativity, development, and neuroscience. Our readers (over 7,000 in total) span over 130 countries – thanks for being one of them!

Science Bites Galax.

Cogbites is part of the science bites galaxy, with the common goal of sharing scientific information translated by experts. Our goal is to make research findings in cognitive science accessible to all through our engaging summaries. Our authors also aim to provide information about the process of scientific discovery – how we know what we know, the people behind the findings, and what other questions have been identified.

Throughout the past couple years, we have had over 20 early-career scientists contribute to the blog. You can learn a little about each contributor by reading their bios (either on our author page or at the bottom of each post), but we are also kicking off a new interview series so you can get to know some early-career scientists even better. We’ll be interviewing cognitive scientists by asking them a few questions (with the occasional follow-up) about their interests in science and what keeps them engaged both in and out of the lab.

Our first guest is one of cogbites’ own contributors, Dr. Annie Ditta. Annie is in her second year as an Assistant Professor of Teaching at the University of California, Riverside. Her position involves teaching psychology courses, conducting research on teaching, and generally supporting teaching of faculty and graduate students within and across departments on campus.

Recently, much of her efforts have been focused on creating guides and video tutorials (along with her departmental colleague, Dr. Liz Davis) to help support the transition to online learning. Early in the pandemic, the videos were focused on how to teach in Zoom, and now the videos focus on how to use Canvas (UCR is making the switch from Blackboard). Though tutorials of this kind exist already, there is something special about having a colleague guide you through the difficulties of online learning! All video tutorials can be found on Dr. Liz Davis’s YouTube channel.

Dr. Annie Ditta

In addition to her teaching work, Annie conducts research investigating the interplay between memory and creativity—particularly how people are able to produce new ideas and avoid getting fixated on old or unhelpful ones. She uses her knowledge of fixation and experience teaching at the undergraduate level to help inform studies of undergraduate learning, with the ultimate goal of designing better methods of instruction for large lecture courses at universities. 

Annie has been involved in cogbites since its inception, writing and editing posts and helping to develop our “cogbites in the classroom” page. You can view all of her posts here. Without further ado, here’s our interview with Annie:

Why did you decide to pursue cognitive science?

Annie: Ever since I took my first psychology course (AP Psychology in high school), I’ve always found myself drawn to the cognitive side of psychology (e.g., memory, learning). In college at UC Irvine, I decided to declare my major in psychology, but didn’t realize that there were two psychology major tracks in place there. By a happy accident, I ended up declaring the more cognitive-science-focused track and never looked back—that was what I would have chosen on purpose if I had realized the difference in the majors! All of the cognitive courses I took just “clicked” with me.

When I was faced with the question of what to study in graduate school, I took a bit to reflect on the types of things I enjoyed doing in my free time—I was trying to capitalize on the idea that if I could make my work relevant to something I enjoy, that would be the best path forward. During this self-reflection process, I came to the conclusion that I liked to spend my time working on creative hobbies (reading fantasy-fiction, writing, drawing, etc.) and started to wonder what it was that lets humans be creative in these ways. I realized as an undergraduate that I had never heard any research about creativity from the cognitive perspective, so I started looking it up on my own, and the rest is history! 

What are you currently working on?

Annie: I am currently working on several exciting projects! The first has to do with understanding the ways in which mental fixation (i.e., getting stuck on old or unhelpful ideas) prevents creative thinking with concepts taught in courses. More specifically, I am interested in understanding how the use of examples when teaching may impact students’ ability to generate their own examples with the course concepts. For example (ha), when teaching students about any type of statistical analysis, it is customary to provide students with an example research question that could be analyzed with that test. Students latch quickly onto these examples to help them understand the concept. But ultimately, the goal of teaching is to help students be able to creatively use the material that they have been taught in new ways that apply to their own lives (i.e., transfer the knowledge)—not just reiterate the example research questions that the instructor provided. We know from prior work on creative thinking that being provided with examples can fixate people and cause them produce ideas that are less creative and more similar to the examples than they would have otherwise, so how do these dynamics play out in the classroom? How can we teach with examples for understanding, but still help develop students’ transfer of knowledge and creative thinking abilities? These and related questions fascinate me.

Beyond this project, I have other lines of work investigating: 1) how to increase student motivation to learn in courses where motivation tends to be low (e.g., general education courses, statistics in psychology), 2) what happens to student memory when they take photos of the lecture slides during class, and 3) how best to teach statistics to students for conceptual understanding of the material (i.e., hand calculations vs. programming languages like R). I look forward to sharing my work in the future!

What’s the most exciting concept in cognitive science?

A drawing Annie made in graduate school. It’s a joke about memory, get it? 😉

Annie: Mental fixation! I find it incredibly fascinating to think about the ways in which our creative thinking can get blocked by old or unhelpful ways of thinking. If we can understand all of the ways in which mental fixation occurs, we can discover ways to combat it, or perhaps even use it to our advantage!

What sparked your interest in science communication?

Annie: As a teaching-focused faculty member, I’m always trying to think of new, engaging, and level-appropriate ways of explaining difficult concepts to students. Most of the time, this explanation happens in-person (or in “zerson” on Zoom, now, as a colleague likes to say!) during lecture, but it is important to have the same communication skills with the written word. Writing for cogbites seemed like a great way to practice these skills and share my passion for my field with a broader audience.

Is there anything else you want us to know about you?

Annie: My hidden talents include always knowing what time it is (even without a clock/watch nearby) and being really good at difficult platforming video games (e.g., Crash Bandicoot). In my free time, I enjoy reading tome-sized fantasy books (e.g., Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive). In fact, it’s reading such fantasy books that got me interested in studying creative thinking back in college! I also occasionally dabble in drawing.