Cogbites Interview Series: Brendan Schuetze

Welcome back to our cogbites interview series, where we interview cognitive scientists by asking them a few questions about their interests in science and what keeps them engaged both in and out of the lab.

As a reminder, you can learn a little about our team of contributors by reading their bios (either on our author page or at the bottom of each post), but this is a chance to get to know some early-career scientists even better. Our last interview was with Monique Crouse, a cogbites contributor and PhD student at UC Santa Cruz.

This week we interview another one of cogbites’ own contributors, Brendan Schuetze. Brendan is finishing up his third year of his Learning Sciences PhD at University of Texas at Austin, where he works with Dr. Veronica Yan and other Cognitive and Educational Psychologists, including Drs. Diane Schallert and Katherine Muenks. As an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, he worked with Dr. Sean Kang conducting research on how retrieval practice benefits memory precision.

Brendan Schuetze.

Brendan’s current research targets cognitive processes as they impact education, primarily learning, memory, and belief revision. Most of his work has focused on effective study strategies, such as retrieval practice (i.e., practice testing) and interleaving (i.e., mixing topics during learning).

Brendan has been a frequent contributor to cogbites since its inception, writing and editing posts on a variety of topics. For example, he’s written about whether students should use laptops in the classroom, what fire extinguishers can tell us about memory, and how perceptual interventions can help students learn algebra. You can view all the posts he’s written for cogbites here.

Learn about Brendan’s research on refutation texts, his love of road biking, and more in this week’s interview:

Why did you decide to pursue cognitive science?

Brendan: I have always been fascinated by the interdisciplinary study of the mind. In undergraduate I chose to major in cognitive science — as opposed to a pure psychology major — because it allowed me to take classes in a variety of departments, from education to philosophy and computer science. The computer science classes have come in handy as I program most of my experiments in JavaScript, which is the web-based programming language. I also analyze and clean all of my data in the statistical programming language R, so I find myself programming quite frequently!

What are you currently working on?

Brendan: Together with several of my colleagues, I recently published a review on an intervention known as “Refutation Texts”. Refutation texts generally have three components, the presentation of a misconception (e.g., “the world is flat”), a refutation cue (“but this is not true”), and the presentation of the currently accepted scientific explanation or counterclaim (“ancient astronomers showed that the world is in fact spheroid by observing the shadows cast on the moon during lunar eclipses…”). By explicitly identifying misconceptions that learners may hold, these texts are aimed towards enabling learners to realize their misunderstandings and understand how these misconceptions conflict with scientific consensus. Writing this review was an exciting experience because I was able to partner with literacy and argumentation researchers to think about how we might improve these interventions using basic findings from the research on basic memory processes.

I also just finished my qualifying exams, which are the last major step before my dissertation proposal, so I am currently trying to figure out exactly what I want to focus on for this stage of my graduate school career!

What’s the most exciting concept in cognitive science?

Brendan: I am most excited by the progress being made towards methodological reform in the social sciences, particularly efforts towards increasing transparency through pre-registration, data publication, and code sharing. I recently completed participant recruitment for a study sponsored by the Center for Open Science’s SCORE program, which is aimed at determining the factors that influence the replicability of social scientific findings. Interestingly, for projects sponsored the SCORE program, proposal methods are peer-reviewed before you recruit participants and examine the data. This is in stark contrast to the traditional peer review process, which only occurs after data has been collected and submitted for publication. I think this sort of methodological innovation, if broadly adopted, will make for a much stronger psychological science in the future, as it allows you to catch mistakes and improve your study’s design before resources have been invested into recruiting participants.

In terms of empirical psychological findings, I am endlessly fascinated by the development of learning strategies that make use of fundamental memory processes, including retrieval practice, interleaving, and spacing!

What sparked your interest in science communication?

Brendan: My interest in science communication grew out of my perception that there is a need for increased nuance in popular science writing. I am interested in writing science communication pieces that include the good and bad parts of the research. When someone reads my pieces, I want them to understand the limits of what was found and where there may be possibilities for further inquiry. In my opinion, the pandemic has shown quite clearly that there is a need to have honest conversations concerning the tentative state of knowledge at the boundaries of human inquiry. Scientists agree on quite a bit, but they also disagree frequently, and I want that to come through when I summarize recent research findings.

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

Brendan: I am a frequent road biker. The summer before last, I spent many of my weekends exploring Texas by bike. If you’re ever around Austin, I highly recommend biking around Lady Bird Lake or the Veloway, both of which are great bike trails for seeing a little bit of what Central Texas has to offer.