S5E37: Engineering Education Research Briefs with Dr. Ruth Streveler

Event Date: November 15, 2021
When is seeing not believing? Host Dr. Ruth Streveler interviews Dr. Jason Morphew, visiting assistant professor at Purdue, who tells us about his research in embodied cognition and learning.

Jason Morphew



Morphew, J.W., Kuo, E., King-Shepard, Q., Lin, R., Kwon, P., Nokes-Malach, T.J., & Mestre, J.P. (2020). Seeing and doing are not believing: When and how conceptual knowledge impinges on observation and recall of physical motion. Journal of Experimental Psychology:Applied

Lindgren, R., Morphew, J.W., Kang, J., Planey, J., & Mestre, J.P. (2021). Learning and transfer effects of embodied simulations targeting crosscutting concepts in science. Journal of Educational Psychology.

Episode Transcript

Ø  Dr. Streveler:  Welcome to the Research Briefs Podcast.  I’m your host, Ruth Streveler, Professor of Engineering Education in the College of Engineering at Purdue University. 

In Research Briefs, we’ll speak with engineering education researchers about what their lives are like, what they are finding out, and how their research is being used. 

My guest today on Research Briefs is Dr. Jason Morphew, a visiting assistant professor at Purdue University.  Jason has a dual appointment in the School of Engineering Education in the College of Education and the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education.  He conducts research on self-regulated and co-regulated learning with a focus on embodied learning in STEM.  

Today, I’ve asked him to tell us about his research on embodied learning – a topic I find particularly fascinating.  So, I’m very, very pleased to welcome you, Jason.  Thank you for coming to Research Briefs.

v  Dr. Jason Morphew:  Well, thank you for having me.  I’m excited to be here.

Ø  So, I should tell folks that we’re recording this on Zoom even though you and I have physical offices that are very close together. 

v  Yeah.  We could just be doing this right through the wall couldn’t we? 

Ø  We could be doing this through the wall, but we are not.  So, I’ve had a chance to meet you a bit, but the audience is not as lucky as me, or many of the audience aren’t anyway.  Could you tell us a little bit about how you became an education researcher? 

v    Yeah.  So, I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska and I took a physics class as a senior and the physics teacher was a person who was close to retirement, but he was bouncing all over the walls and he had all sorts of stories about going on trips and taking pictures where he wasn’t allowed to take pictures.  And he played the accordion and so it was just one of those things that just really got me interested in teaching.  

And my family has a history of being teachers as well.  My father’s a teacher, my aunts and uncles are teachers, my sister is a teacher as well now.  And so, teaching was just something I was kind of interested in.  Science and math tended to be the things that I was good at so that was kind of the direction that I went.  I didn’t know anything about engineering until much later.  I knew that it was a thing, but I had no idea what it was.  

So, I went to the University of Nebraska, mostly for football tickets, but also because it had a really highly ranked teachers college at the time as well.  But it was just one of those things.  So, I did that.  Nebraska had a really nice program when I was there where you could get a Natural Science Endorsement, so you were endorsed to teach all of the science courses.  So, it took a little bit longer, and I took every 100 and 200 level science course on campus I think, but it was certainly something that was kind of nice.  And so, I could really start to see the interplay between disciplines and domains and stuff like that.  And that part really got me interested as well, and so that ends up playing a big role in why I kind of liked to have my research focus on the intersection of domains and areas and research traditions.

So, I graduated from the University of Nebraska.  I was dating my current partner and they were in Ft. Collins, Colorado.  So, I did my student teaching in Ft. Collins.  I taught in a small school in Ault, Colorado which is about 25 miles east of Ft. Collins and it happened to be the first job that I knew the department had the collegiality, the mindset in terms of how to educate students that I would fit into.  So, I actually got my first job as teaching math.  There were two of us in the math department for the district and this was kind of interesting.  So, my first job was teaching math and we had a curriculum called, “College Preparatory Math,” and the idea was to situate everything in an activity.  So, every unit starts with an activity and then you spend the entire unit trying to come up with the math that underlies that activity.

And so, there was a lot of, as it turns out to be, a lot of engineering design challenges in these activities and we would then use the challenge to make measurements and then use the measurements to learn the math concepts.  And so that was really basically my first position.

And then my wife went to med school and so I followed her to Omaha and I taught in Arlington, Nebraska which is about 45 miles north of Omaha and there I taught science.  And so, again I was one of three science teachers for the district, and so I taught everything from Integrated 8th Grade Science to Physics, Chemistry, we did Robotics, we did Chemistry II, some Organic Chemistry, we kind of did a lot of things.  

At the same time, I was always wanting to come back to higher education.  To get a degree to work with pre-service teachers, that was my original goal.  And I found out I really couldn’t do that while teaching, especially in a small district, where you’re teaching four or five preps, you’re running two or three clubs, you’re doing something with sports.  I ran the concession stand.  And so, it was something where I had to do one or the other ‘cause I couldn’t do both well.

And so, when my wife went to residency in Wichita, I decided to go back and pursue the higher education.  So, I got a master’s at Wichita State in Educational Psychology.  And it was there that I kind of really developed a real enjoyment for doing educational research.  And so, we did a lot of stuff on nature of science beliefs and how the task that you give to students, or grad students, or scientists can impact their nature of science beliefs, but the task itself has to challenge belief in some way in order to see the belief change.  That’s kind of what we found there.

And so, after my wife finished residency, we finally got to have me make the next move, so we chose to go to Champaign, Illinois.  There I worked with Dr. José Mestré, he was my advisor; he was one of the people doing science research.  So, he was a dual appointment in the educational psychology and physics.  And so that kind of was the path that took me to education research. 

Ø  So, one of the things that you shared with me when we had our planning meeting that amazed me as well, was that you also had a couple of children while all of this was happening.  And what was it, you were bouncing the baby in one arm and typing your dissertation in the other?  

v  Yeah.  When I in Wichita I was working my master’s thesis and my wife was a resident, so she was 80 to 120 hours a week, and so I stayed home while I was writing my thesis and had our firstborn, and he would not take a nap if you laid him down.  You put him down he was awake.  But if you hold him, he’ll take an hour or two nap.  So, I basically did a lot of my typing of my thesis with one hand while I was holding him with the other hand.  

And then for my dissertation we had our second one and he was really young.  And so, he got exposed to measles right before he got his second shot for immunization, so he had to quarantine for almost a month, I think.  And so, that was another time where I was working on the dissertation, and we get to stay home with a little one.

Ø  You learned how to make your arm not fall asleep I would imagine, or how to type with your arm falling to sleep with the little baby, right?

v  Yeah, yeah.  You get to learn all of the tricks with extra pillows and all of that stuff.

Ø  So, the main thing I wanted to talk to you about today was this idea of embodied cognition and embodied learning and the fascinating things you’ve discovered.  Could you start out by telling us a little bit about what embodied cognition and embodied learning are? 

v  Yeah.  So, embodied cognition is really a broad field that kind of encompasses theories from several different research traditions.  And so, there are several research traditions that are kind of hitting on this idea of embodied cognition; they’re approaching it from different perspectives and so they’ve got different kind of theories that kind of all fall into this umbrella of embodied cognition.  

The theories of embodied cognition can range from having a very limited role for the body, in terms of cognition, to radical enactivism which is a position that really challenges traditional theories of brain-based cognition.  And so, that tradition really challenges the idea that knowledge is really stored as symbolic representations in the brain.  

So, however, all the different theories of embodied cognition really subscribe to two main premises.  They all kind of agree on these two things.  The first is that the actions of the mind or the brain can’t be dissociated from the body.  In other words, cognition isn’t really restricted to the brain; we can offload some cognitive functions to the brain.  Our perceptual system kind of impacts the ways our minds process information so there’s definitely some impact of the physical body on cognition itself.

And the second premise is that moving the body can be an act of cognition.  And so that means that movement can reflect cognition that’s verbalizable, and it can also reflect cognition that’s nonverbalizable.  So, it could be this implicit understanding, this kind of deeply held understanding of how something works that the person may not have the formalisms to be able to verbalize their understandings of things.  And so, that’s generally the two main premises that all theories of embodied cognition hold.  

My personal view, my personal theory of embodied cognition, has two additional premises.  One is that abstract conceptual understanding is grounded in an embodied experience.  So, for example, when we think about how we come to learn about electricity and electrical current, generally most of that understanding begins by making an analogy or thinking about water moving through a pipe is kind of the way that we begin to conceptualize electrical current.  And so, it’s really grounding in this other physical experience and through analogies and metaphors we can kind of construct this abstract conceptual understanding of something that’s maybe less tangible, less physical.  

And so, this implies that cognition surrounding abstract concepts is really driven by conceptual metaphors, perceptual simulations, rather than on symbolic manipulation within the mind, rather than solely on the symbolic manipulation.  So, there may be room for symbolic manipulation but there’s these other processes that seem to be more body based or more physical based that also appear to impact cognition.

Ø  So, Jason, how is embodied cognition different from embodied learning, or is it?  

v  And so, the field of embodied learning is going to be drawing on the theories of embodied cognition, so again that could take many different forms depending on which theory of embodied cognition that people are drawing on.  But the basic idea of embodied learning is that we can design learning activities and learning environments that are going to aim to make explicit connections between conceptual understanding and specific well-chosen body movements.

So, for example, we have a paper that just came out in the Journal of Educational Psychology, talking about a really large augmented reality science stimulation that we made at the University of Illinois when I was there that basically looked at teaching exponential growth.  We did it in a context of earthquakes, so the Richter scale is exponential.  And then acid and bases, the pH scale being exponential.  So, we interviewed lots of people, we figured out what gestures are kind of related to a really strong conceptual understanding of different mathematical things.  So, if we think about adding as a concept people generally say, “Well if I take one thing and I move it to a pile then I’m adding to that pile.”  So, that gesture of actually picking up a physical object and moving it becomes really connected to the concept of adding.

And for multiplying, most people that really understood exponential growth would talk about how if I have a pile of things in my hand, and then I make a copy and then fold it over, that’s doubling, for example.  And so, this idea of folding is really connected to this concept of what multiplication is.

And so, we’ve connected those body movements to these concepts, and we engaged then students in this science simulation and we found greater learning, greater transfer, and greater engagement than maybe more traditional ways to teach these topics.  And so, that’d be one example of what embodied learning might look like.  

Ø  Now, I believe in that article you found that there was a difference between looking at the acid-bases versus looking at the other conditions.  

v  Yeah, so we in that article we did find that acid and bases was a little bit more difficult for students in terms of giving the ideas.  Part of the reason is the scale flips, and so it’s a little less intuitive.  So, if I increase the hydronium concentrations per acid then pH actually goes down and so there’s a little bit of that that kind of works against people.  And the other part is the way that the simulation was created is we had just-in-time instructions by the researchers that were running the study and I think the ability to recognize when that just-in-time information was needed was a little bit weaker in the acid and base context.  Mostly because although the researchers weren’t necessarily trained as educators and so recognizing when to give that information, I think was a little bit weaker in the acid and base context.   

Ø  Do you think too that when you were talking about the Richter scale that earthquakes are things that you can feel, even if we’ve never been in an earthquake, we might be able to imagine what that would be like versus acid and bases that’s more invisible?

v  Yeah.  I do agree that the idea of acidity and basicity is a little less tangible than an earthquake, and so there may be something with the concept area that makes that particular simulation maybe more or less effective depending on the concept that they’re teaching.

But I will say that the growth that we found, the biggest advantage was in this really abstract idea of exponential growth.  And so, the actual content areas showed growth, but this idea of that connection to that really abstract idea of exponential growth is where we found the biggest gains for the simulation.  So, there was a connection to being able to have this physical manifestation of this abstract concept that was providing a big benefit.

Ø  And so, the gesture was really important to students to be able to learn about things.

v  Yeah.  And the fact that the gesture is connected to kind of an explicit embodiment of the concept, so this is different than maybe kinesthetic learning as broadly conceived by people that it’s not just about movement.  That the movement itself is not the thing that’s leading to the learning, it’s this being able to make a manipulable representation of the abstract ideas is really the key in embodied learning.

Ø  We have to have a very particular kind of movement that makes sense with the concept you’re trying to teach versus let’s just move around. 

v  Yeah.  And then the other piece I think that’s really important is the ability for the students to really explicitly reflect on that connection.  And so, the students being able to make that connection really broadly as opposed to having the student just make the move.  If they were to make the folding movement, for example, they may or may not have any benefit.  But it’s that ability for the student to make that connection that this folding movement is actually a manipulation of this concept is kind of the key.   

Ø  Cool.  How would an instructor get a sense of what those movements might be?

v  So, the first thing that we usually will do, is kind of in our group talk about what that abstract conceptual thing, what’s the key learning objectives, and then what are ways that we might visualize that in our group.  So, that would be the first step that we did.  Then the next step is to go out and interview a bunch of your target audience and ask them just on a one-on-one setting, “Explain to me what doubling is,” for example.  And we use something we call the show-me prompt.  So, they’ll be at a table with no resources, and we’ll just say, “Show me what doubling would look like.”  And so, they’re forced to kind of think about gestures and doing that.  And as they’re explaining this idea, this manipulable physical representation of their understanding seems to emerge.  And depending on how strong their conceptual understanding is, we may see different versions of that.  

So, we had a lot of symbolic representations when we asked about doubling.  So, they’d make an “X” with their finger and then hold up two fingers, so times 2.  That doesn’t really get at the concept; that’s just another symbol.  And so, it’s kind of an interesting thing that you can kind of see learning progressions through gesture.

Ø  Yeah.  That’s fascinating.  So, did you videotape the students while they’re doing this?

v  Oh yeah, so we’ll videotape students as we’re having interviews and we’ll go through and figure out which gestures emerge and stuff like that.  

One of the nice things about the simulation that we made is it used a one-shot gesture recognition system.  And so, what was interesting is we could have the students gesture a point of their conceptual understanding and train the system to recognize those gestures as opposed to training the student to make a gesture.  And so, we really made that connection between the conceptual understanding and the gesture really strong in that case.

So, we’d ask them when they came in to use a simulation, “Show me what adding looks like.”  And then we would have them train the system what adding or linear growth would look like.

Ø  Cool.  Very neat.  So, I have to ask you about the research behind an article which I told you I think is one of the best titles that I’ve come across, and my former students will tell you how much I love thinking about titles.  And that is that you have an article that says, “Seeing and Doing is not Believing.”  So, could you say a little bit about that particular experiment or study.

v  Yeah.  And so, when we’re thinking about embodied cognition, we’re thinking that there’s this interplay between kind of your body-based functions, perception, and gesture, and movement, and cognition.  So the conceptual understandings and that stuff, and brain representations and those types of things.  And so, there’s a connection between these areas and generally the traditional way of looking at it is that perception is we take in information and we use that then to build our concepts.  Embodied cognition really sees this as more of a dynamic situation, and so the idea that there are concepts that can impact your perception is kind of an interesting idea.  

And actually, this paper was originally a startup for two main things that started.  So, when I was teaching, I was teaching physics to 8th graders, so we always had the demonstration where we had a heavy object and a light object, and if I drop them at the same time which one hits first.  And of course, three-quarters of the students will say the heavy thing hits first.  And so, then you actually go up front and you do the demonstration and what really blew my mind is you drop the objects, they hit at the same time, and half of the class would say, “Yep, the heavy object hit first, we were right.”  And I couldn’t understand, “You just saw them hit at the same time how could you see something different.”  

And I would do that demonstration four or five times and still have about 15% of the class convinced that the heavy object was hitting first.  And so, there was something about that, just showing people the demonstration, or just having them do a lab wasn’t enough to really have them change their ideas, their conceptions about a particular topic.

And so, when I was at Illinois, my advisor was telling me a story about America’s Funniest Home Videos, and there was a video of a person riding in a boat, and there was a raft that was being pulled behind the speed boat, and it was clear that the distance between the boat and the raft was too much, nobody could make that jump, but because they were going really fast the person on the boat thought well if I just jump straight up the boat will move and then I’ll fall straight down into the raft.  And of course, what happens is he jumps, falls into the water, then gets run over by the raft.  So, it’s the same idea that if this expectation is really driving their perception of the situation.

And so, we decided we would look at something where people have a really strong and generally wrong idea about how something works, even though we experience it consistently through our lives and we are able to navigate successfully.  So, we’ve kind of cued on balance as if the idea that most people, unless you have inner ear issues or something like that can balance successfully.  As you’re walking around, you’re going to start to tip one way and you’re going to stop yourself from falling, and most people have that experience.  And if you ask them, “If I start to fall in one direction do I swing my arms in the same direction or the opposite direction to stop my falling?” most people are going to say the opposite direction, which is not how we balance; we swing our arms in the same directions to conserve angular momentum which causes our body to rotate back to balance.  And so, we have this really strong idea of how balancing works that’s wrong, that doesn’t match up with our experience.

And so we thought what if we just showed people a video of a person balancing and then we faked the video of a person balancing the wrong way and just have them try to decide which one is right.  And so, we did that, luckily Illinois has a green screen room that we were able to successfully make a video of a person balancing incorrectly.  And then we showed people that.  And it was about 10-15% of the people could identify the correct video.  The best we ever did was at a physics conference, and it was about 30% of the people that could identify the correct video.  And so, this really strong idea that we have an expectation for how something works, and it affects how we perceive the phenomenon.  

So, we decided well let’s take it one more step, let’s just show a video of a person balancing, the correct video, and all we wanted people to do was just watch the video and say which way do their arms move.  So, an extremely easy task.  Half of the people just watched the video and reported which way their arms moved, and the other half predicted which way their arms would move before they watched the video.  

And so, if we just show people the video of a person balancing about 95% of the people identified the arm movement correctly.  But if they predict which way their arms are going to move, that goes down to about 65 to 70% of the people are getting it correct.

And so, there’s this huge difference in perceptions based on whether we cue your expectations of the situation.

So, then we manipulated lots of parts of the experiment to see if we could improve that.  We found that if we made the video less ambiguous, so we only showed the first arm movement and then turn off the video, then people can observe the right thing.

Ø  So, what you have found contradicts what people are often told about what you should do with students to help them change their conceptions.  And the advice will be, have them think about what will happen, and then show them and they’ll see that they were wrong, and they’ll change their minds.  But what you’re saying is not only will seeing what’s really happening not necessarily change their minds, they might not even see it correctly, and that if you ask them to predict what’s going to happen you might actually be strengthening their inability to actually see what’s happening.  So, that’s kind of mind blowing in a way.

So, what should instructors do instead of the thing that they’re always told to do?

v  Yeah.  So, that’s a great point.  And I think Bill Brewer has some really good work on conceptual change and people’s response to discrepant information.  And he found that the last thing people want to do is conceptual change.  And so, if there’s ambiguous information, so in the balancing case, you move your arms to stop yourself from falling, and then you generally bring yourself back up to balance.  And so, that second movement is what people will cue on because that fits with their preconceived ideas.  So, that’s why if we stop the video halfway, they report the right thing.  So, we can reduce the discrepancy of the discrepant information.  

Dropping two things, a heavy and a light thing, the moment they hit is so fast that it’s inherently ambiguous.  And so, that becomes an issue where if you cue people’s expectations before something ambiguous, they can actually report the wrong thing.  Now there’s a big debate in the cognitive psychology literature on whether it’s the actual perception of the event that gets changed or how people interpret and code the event that happens.  But, from a teaching perspective, those end up being the same thing.

So, the other piece that I think instructors will want to do is that in addition to reducing ambiguity is to really build on this model-based cognition.  So, it’s not about just soliciting an expectation but soliciting what the model is for the student.  What’s the conceptual model the student’s using?  If we ask students then to say what information would change this conceptual model, would tell you that you need to change, and explicitly having students reflect on that it will kind of short-circuit this automatic process of rejecting information just because it doesn’t fit the conceptual model.  Or the individual’s reconceiving the perceptual information to fit their model. 

Ø  Interesting, interesting.  So, Jason, this is just such a fascinating field, I am thinking we might inspire some people to want to do some research in embodied cognition or learning.  What advice would you have for people doing this kind of research?

v  Yeah, I think that there are a number of things that someone who’s interested in this area would want to do and I think one of the biggest things is to really have real deep understanding of what specific contexts and concepts that you want to investigate.  So, getting at the really underlying conceptual metaphors that these concepts are built on.

So, for example, we have a grant that we’ve just submitted to the National Science Foundation (NSF) to look at statistics learning and using gesture.  And so, a lot of the things like variance or regression, analysis of variance, all of those things, are really built on this idea of distance.  And so, we’re looking at using enactments that enact these distances in ways that students are going to be able to distinguish between different types of measures.  So, that’s one thing that we’re looking at doing.  

And thinking also with the Covid context that we’re in, how do we take the types of everyday interactions that people have with instructors where there’s gesture and movement and that type of stuff and how do we make that translate into an online setting?  How do we recreate the in-person experience in terms of embodiment for an online setting?  

Ø  So, what ideas do you have about that last point?  Without giving away your ideas. 

v  Yeah, I think the idea that finding those conceptual understandings that connect to a particular physical movement and finding ways to cue those in more natural ways, kind of an online setting where we can really get at embodiment.  And so, there’s lots of research that looks at how cuing a gesture can help students make that change to a more aligned conceptual perspective.

I know there’s a lot of gesture research, so Martha Alibali, Susan Cook, Michelle Perry, and Susan Goldin-Meadow have done a lot of great work on gesture and gesture/speech mismatches.  And so, I think there’s room in this designing online experiences to try and capture those moments.  And what they’ve found is that with gesture/speech mismatch happens at a point where people are primed for conceptual learning.

And so, they have this implicit understanding, this embodied understanding, of something but they don’t have the tools to verbalize it or connect it to a conceptual schema.  And so, instruction at that point is really ineffective.  And so, in an online environment are there ways to identify those moments would be something else that I think would be really exciting to explore.  

Ø  Excellent.  So, I do also want to let the listeners know that we’re not just teasing them with these ideas but some of these very cool papers you’ve done that the citations will be on the engineering education website which is just at with Google, “Purdue Engineering Education podcast,” and it will come up with the website for this, which is different than the place you go to actually download the podcast, although you can do that on the website as well.

So, Jason, thank you so much for this.  This is just intriguing work, and I’m fascinated by it.  I think the listeners will be too.  And thank you so much for sharing this.  I can’t wait to see what else you folks do.

v  Yeah, thank you, yeah.  This has been really fun. 

Ø  Well, thank you very much. 

Research Briefs is produced by the School of Engineering Education at Purdue.  Thank you to Patrick Vogt for composing our theme music.  The transcript of this podcast can be found by Googling “Purdue Engineering Education Podcast.”  And please check out my blog, RuthStreveler.Wordpress.com