The Eyes Have It


Like most professors, David Rosengrant hopes his students will remain focused on the important…

Georgia (Jun 8, 2012)

Like most professors, David Rosengrant hopes his students will remain focused on the important parts of his lecture topics. Unlike his fellow professors, however, Rosengrant, an assistant professor of physics education, can track a student’s eye movements and determine exactly where the student has fixed his or her gaze at any given time.

It’s not science fiction, but science fact. Rosengrant is conducting research using a new eye-tracking device called Tobii Glasses. When a student wears the glasses whatever he or she focuses on is automatically recorded. “It shows during a normal lecture what diverts attention away from being on task and what keeps a subject on task,” said Rosengrant.

His most recent research efforts have concentrated on students taking physical science lectures designed for future elementary school teachers. Interestingly enough, Rosengrant’s research has disproved the notion that attention span is highest during the first 15 minutes of class, then tapers off.

After earning his undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of Pittsburgh, Rosengrant taught high school for three years. His real-world experience in the classroom motivated him to attend Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey where he obtained a doctorate in science education with a research emphasis in physics.

Rosengrant’s earlier research dealt with the differences between how physics novices and experts go about solving problems.

“Though there had been a great deal of research about these differences,” he said, “there had been no research that focused on noticing exactly where experts and novices look while solving the problems.”

But unlike his previous studies, which had students poring over electrical circuit schematics on a computer monitor to answer physics questions, his new efforts are more streamlined and eliminate the need for subjects to focus on a computer screen.

Rosengrant said that “eye-tracking has been widely used for research purposes in fields such as linguistics and marketing. However, there are many possibilities of how eyetrackers could be used in other disciplines like physics.”

To help fill in the knowledge gap, he created a new technique called gaze scribing where subjects wear a headmounted eye-tracker while solving electrical circuit problems on a graphics monitor.

“I monitored both scan patterns of the subjects and combined that with videotapes of their work while solving the problems,” he explained. “This new technique has yielded new information and elaborated on previous studies.”

In his latest research, Rosengrant has moved his base of operations directly into the lecture hall and outfitted his student subjects with Tobii Glasses, which means “the students don’t have to wear or carry around a backpack-sized recording device,” he said.

The subjects wear the eye-tracker glasses for the entire lecture. The portable glasses record 70 minutes of data, combining audio and video with a dot representing where they are focusing.

What Rosengrant found was that students tended not to focus on the instructor for most parts of the lecture but rather the information, particularly new information presented on PowerPoint slides.

“Sitting in front of the classroom allows me to pay more attention and not daydream,” said Zack Philliber, a junior who has participated in the study. “However, that does not mean that daydreaming does not take place, but the more engaging and interactive the teacher is the more I pay attention.”

While there may be no one-solution-fits-all approach to maintaining attention in the classroom and increasing student achievement, Rosengrant advocates breaking up what could be monotonous lectures with different activities and using humor where appropriate.

“I hope this research leads to improved student learning by making our faculty better teachers,” said Charles Amlaner, vice president for research and dean of the Graduate College, “and that the results will be able to be disseminated more broadly to other academic institutions across the United States.

“This is the classic domino effect: the better the instruction, the better the learning outcomes are and students have a greater chance to be successful.”


-- Robert Godlewski


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