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Fortune Favors the Bold (and the Italicized):
A Study of Fluency in Classroom Environments

Adviser: Daniel M. Oppenheimer

Connor L. Diemand-Yauman

Psychology

“My thesis experience was the definition of collaborative.”

diemand-yauman-connor-lawrence

The discovery of my thesis topic came as a complete surprise. In the spring of my junior year, I decided to save money by not purchasing any of the books for my classes. Instead, I borrowed them from my friends and photocopied the required reading (despite Princeton’s incredible financial aid, I still found myself pinching pennies whenever possible). Once I collected the stack of books for that semester, I began the daunting task of copying each page, one by one, meticulously placing each on the copier to ensure clear, crisp copies. Unfortunately, after hours of photocopying, I noticed that I had somehow managed to cut off the last word, or portions of the last word, on every line.

When I returned to my dorm room and began reading the poorly copied passages, I was surprised to notice that I was concentrating and retaining the material better than usual. What could account for this phenomenon? We all intuitively know that clearer, more cohesive, and comprehensive information is the ideal, so what could explain the cognitive effects of my copying flub?

Lucky for me, during this time I was knee-deep in discussions with my soon-to-be thesis adviser Daniel Oppenheimer about my junior paper topic. I had no idea if any of my ideas for the paper—including my copy machine observation—had any real promise, so I set up a meeting with Professor Oppenheimer to discuss them. In our meeting, he explained that I had come across a powerful cognitive phenomenon called “disfluency,” or the subjective experience of difficulty associated with a mental task. I learned that by leaving out information (such as the last words on the page) or changing superficial features of information such as the ease with which it can be read, individuals can engage in higher levels of processing and consequently better learn the material.

In our discussions, I learned that the Oppenheimer laboratory had extensively researched the mechanisms behind disfluency and revealed a number of its cognitive benefits, such as improving performance on memory tasks and promoting more abstract thought. I also learned that Professor Oppenheimer was one of the leading researchers of fluency in the world. We began discussing different experimental ideas involving fluency for my thesis.

We realized that fluency manipulations were yet to be tested in less controlled, real-world settings. He and I decided that I would design an experiment testing the effects of disfluency in a classroom setting for my junior paper, which I would then conduct for my senior thesis. I left his office that afternoon with a topic for my junior paper and senior thesis in one fell swoop, which shows that it pays to be open to ideas from unexpected places.

Once I decided on my thesis topic, I began to study every research paper and study related to fluency that I could find; I had never studied anything in such depth. During my studies, I learned that when people perceive something to be more difficult, they feel less confident about their mastery of the material. This difficulty then serves as a cue that higher, more deliberate processing strategies are required, which often results in significant cognitive benefits. But disfluency research has shown that the material does not necessarily need to be objectively more difficult to engender the same beneficial processing strategies. In other words, making people feel like something is subjectively more difficult (e.g., reading a sentence in a difficult font) can yield the same cognitive benefits that accompany a cognitive task that is objectively more difficult (e.g., 523 multiplied by 62). Building on this previous research (much of which was conducted by Professor Oppenheimer), we predicted that students exposed to disfluent fonts would perform better on their assessments than those in the control. As I learned more about fluency, I felt more empowered as a researcher and excited about my experiment.

In theory, the experimental design I eventually submitted was relatively simple: Divide a population of high school students into two groups, alter the font of the reading material of one of the groups so that it is disfluent, and analyze the assessments of the two groups to determine whether or not a difference exists between them.

In practice, my design was the most challenging scholastic undertaking of my life. Before I even started, I was forced to run the obstacle course that is the Institutional Review Board (IRB), experiencing the grueling cycle of revisions that all researchers wishing to use human subjects must endure. I soon learned that getting approved by the IRB was just the beginning. After my study was approved, I had to find high school administrators who would give me permission to conduct a study at their school. Once I received this approval, I had to individually contact each of the teachers at the school to see if they would be amenable to participation in my study. However, even after I found a willing high school principal and teachers, I still needed consent forms from every student and their parents. But after weeks of searching and exchanging nearly 11,000 consent forms (individually licked by yours truly), I finally found my school and narrowed down my subject pool to 222 high school students from six classes. I was ready to begin my study.

The next phase of my thesis was equally challenging but infinitely more rewarding. I loved interacting with the teachers, adapting to the different challenges that each classroom presented, and watching my experimental design come to life. Most of all, I loved being the ultimate authority on my study. Yes, Professor Oppenheimer was always there to give advice, point out my mistakes, or double-check my recipe, but the project ultimately belonged to me. For the first time in my life, I was contributing to the findings of professionals in my field of study.

At the conclusion of my study, Professor Oppenheimer and I analyzed the data and were floored by the results. The students who were exposed to the disfluent font performed significantly better than those in the control on the assessments administered by their teachers. When I first saw the results, I remember being so surprised that I had actually helped make such a fascinating, counterintuitive, and practical finding. It was at this moment that I felt like a real academic.

Working on the design and implementation of this project was unlike anything I had done before. Up to that point, my academic experience had never been so in-depth and hands on. It was as if until my junior year I had been sampling a buffet of meaty and delicious disciplines, piling them high onto my plate and then taking them back to consume from the comfort of my table in the Rockefeller College dining hall. Professor Oppenheimer was asking me to leave my table, put on an apron and join him in the kitchen.

Before we even decided to work together, he warned me that he was a tough adviser, one who pushes his students to produce concise, complex, and scholarly theses worthy of the Princeton brand. But it wasn’t as if he was pushing me into the kitchen by myself; my thesis experience was the definition of collaborative. Throughout my senior year alone, my adviser and I exchanged 520 e-mails. This works out to about two e-mails a day, every day, for the entire year (including breaks). Let me remind you that Professor Oppenheimer is a tenured professor at Princeton and one of the leading scholars in fluency research. Our closeness and level of collaboration was integral to the success of my thesis, so be sure to give yourself ample time to meet with different advisers to find the right fit. Going into my independent work, I knew that I wanted a lot of contact with my adviser, and Professor Oppenheimer assured me that he was extremely attentive to his advisees.

I was consistently surprised by his ability to make me feel like a priority despite his multiple research projects, courses, advisees, graduate students, and lecturing trips around the world. He always made me feel comfortable coming to him for guidance. At times, it was easy to forget to whom I was speaking; most of our meetings in his office began with us talking about a television show we had just seen, an interesting story in the Daily Princetonian, or how much he likes chocolate chip cookies. I mention this because over time, he came to feel more like a friend than adviser, which gave me the confidence to let my guard down, take chances, and more fully immerse myself in research and academic discussions that once felt beyond my reach. Interacting so closely with such a well-established scholar was one of the most memorable and rewarding memories of my time at Princeton (yes, even more than many of my adventures on Prospect Avenue).

Upon reflection, I’ve noticed that my thesis experience was ultimately defined by surprises. I was surprised by the difficulty of the work, the challenges that I encountered, and the amount of satisfaction that I felt knowing that I had contributed a real piece of scholarship to the field of psychology. Most importantly, however, I was surprised that I had it in me to complete such a monumental undertaking.

Many, if not all students are extremely intimidated by the thought of writing a thesis. And who wouldn’t be? For many of us, the thesis is our first opportunity to get up from the table and go into the kitchen of academia. My advice is to not let this fact intimidate you, but rather, to let it empower you. Be open to the possibility that your thesis could be a defining part of your Princeton career, one that gives you an opportunity to view the world through the eyes of a true academic. If you do, you may just surprise yourself.

Fortune Favors the Bold (and the Italicized):
A Study of Fluency in Classroom Environments

Connor L. Diemand-Yauman

Daniel M. Oppenheimer

Associate Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs

“It shows true mastery of your topic to be able to make your points succinctly.”

The most common mistake that students make on their independent work is thinking that it’s supposed to be done independently. You see, independent means “independent from any classes you’re taking,” not “going it alone.” The best senior theses are the result of a true collaboration between the student and the adviser.

But too many students get tricked by that word, “independent.” They think they have to come up with their topic before they meet with their advisers. But that means that they may pick a topic that their adviser isn’t expert in, or isn’t interested in (or both!). And if the adviser doesn’t know the area and/or finds it dull, then the adviser isn’t going to be all that helpful. Then the senior thesis really is “independent.” It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Contrast that with my collaboration with Connor Diemand-Yauman. He came to me in January of his junior year to start talking about research ideas. He didn’t know what he wanted to do; he chose me as his adviser because he found my research interesting and thought we would work well together. It took more than a month for us to find a topic we were both excited about. When we did, it was a topic that he had devised, but which piggybacked nicely on a grant I had recently submitted. In other words, his senior work was related to the research already going in my lab.

That meant that he could use methods and materials that had already been developed and exhaustively tested. It meant that I was strongly invested in the success of his project—it wasn’t just the research of a student I happened to be advising, it was my research too. It meant that when he ran into problems or setbacks—as all senior theses inevitably will—they were often problems that I had dealt with before, and could help him overcome.

Don’t get me wrong, Connor didn’t ride on the coattails of the lab. He put in a lot of a work. A lot of work. Which is why when we submitted a paper based on his thesis for publication, he was the first author. But that work was done in collaboration with his adviser.

Which brings me to the second biggest mistake students make: worrying about looking stupid in front of their advisers. Too many students won’t ask a question when they hit a snag because they think it’s an admission of ineptitude. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you don’t run into problems that are too hard for you to solve without talking them through with your adviser, then you aren’t working on a sufficiently challenging topic. Asking questions isn’t a sign of incompetence; it’s a sign of engagement with the project. And in order to be really creative in your problem solving, you need to be willing to make mistakes.

Connor was never shy about asking for feedback, which meant that he always had multiple perspectives informing his research choices. And sure, during our brainstorming sessions he occasionally came up with some impractical ideas; but he also came up with a lot of really clever ones. You can’t have one without the other. Connor and I spent hours upon hours in meetings and exchanged countless e-mails, hashing out theoretical, methodological, and practical issues.

And on the topic of practical issues, the third most common mistake students make is writing too much. This isn’t high school, and we aren’t impressed by your ability to fill pages. In fact, quite the opposite. At this stage we’re impressed by your ability to write concisely. Too many theses ramble on for pages about tangential material, repeat the same point multiple times, or are vague, meandering, and imprecise. It shows true mastery of your topic to be able to make your points succinctly.

Connor’s thesis was 23 pages. No, that’s not a typo. When he won the highly competitive Miller-Schroeder prize for his thesis, one of the things that particularly impressed the committee was how efficient his writing was. Faculty put a premium on conciseness. Most people never talk to their advisers about the expectations for how a thesis should be written—in fitting with the theme of this essay, that’s a big mistake. Connor got extensive feedback on multiple drafts of his thesis, and it showed in the quality of the final product.

For students such as Connor, who take full advantage of the opportunity, independent work can be one of the most engaging and fruitful educational experiences that Princeton offers. Princeton is the only major research university that I know where every single student works one-on-one with a faculty member on a research project (and Princeton faculty are the very top researchers in their respective fields). But in order to get the most out of that individual attention, students need to overcome the notion that the work is supposed to be independent. And they need to be willing to ask questions and make mistakes. That’s how learning happens.

Take ownership over your project, but don’t think that you have to do it on your own.