Ruth S. Day / Duke University /

Research Basic Cognition Everyday Cognition

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Ruth Day teaching

  The teacher is one
who makes two ideas grow
where only one grew before.
I've known countless people
who were reservoirs of learning,
yet never had a thought.
    --E. Hubbard   --W. Mizner

Current Courses Other Courses Guest Lectures Teaching Awards
Course Evaluations Students Teaching vs. Research


Courses focus on human cognition. See the Duke University online listing of courses (ACES) for information on what courses are available in a given semester, prerequisites, and other details. Course numbers and enrollment limits are shown below.

Cognitive Psychology
A broad overview of cognitive processes including:
  --pattern recognition
--problem solving
Basic research findings plus application to many everyday situations such as reading maps, remembering names and faces, and understanding individual differences in cognition. Demonstrations of cognitive phenomena are included in most class sessions. [PSY-92, 100 students]

Psychology of Language
Everyone uses language, but how does it affect our perception, memory, comprehension, and problem solving? After studying the effects of linguistic structures on such cognitive processes, we examine:
  --animal communication
--biological bases of language
--nonverbal communication
--linguistic universals
--language development
--language pathologies
--language-thought relationships
Both empirical and theoretical research form the basis for these discussions, as well as everyday language phenomena (such as speech errors). Demonstrations of language phenomena are included in most class sessions, illustrating both classic laboratory experiments and phenomena developed specifically for this course (e.g., the "jelly bean" demonstration). Knowledge of cognitive psychology (e.g., PSY-92) and/or linguistics is useful for this course. [PSY-134, cross-listed with Linguistics, 30-35 students]

Great Ideas in Psychology
Ideas in psychology drawn from a wide range of content areas and methodological approaches, such as:
  Content Areas
--biological bases
Methodological Approaches
--laboratory experiments
--quasi experiments
--structured interview
--longitudinal vs. cross-sectional
--computer modeling
We will examine what makes ideas good, great, and mediocre, and devote a session to "bad ideas" in psychology. Implications for evaluating ideas in any academic discipline. [PSY-176S, 15 students.]

Everyday Cognition
Selected cognitive concepts (e.g., encoding, retrieval, representation, information load) and their application to everyday settings/situations, including:
--grocery stores
--athletic fields
--construction sites
--dance floor
For each situation we consider successful vs. mediocre performance, cognitive processes involved, cognitive task analysis, potential problems and errors, experimental tests, and implications for both cognitive theory and everyday life. Class sessions include presentations by the instructor, brief talks by students, general discussion, and appearances of individuals from the everyday world (e.g., pharmacists, archivists, waiters, legislators, judges, claims adjusters, construction workers). [PSY-238S, 15 students.]

Research Practicum for Undergraduates
Introduction to research in the
Day Cognition Lab. For possible topics see Independent Study below. Includes involvement in on-going projects, usually data collection and analysis, readings, and discussion in general lab meetings. Prepares student for possible Independent Study project and possible graduation with Honors. Available to individual undergraduates, with consent of instructor. [PSY-103, half-course credit]

Research Practicum for Graduate Students
Advanced research on cognitive topics of mutual interest, such as
medical cognition (how both doctors and patients understand, remember, and use medical information), courtroom cognition (how judges, lawyers, and jurors understand, remember, and use legal information), memory for movement (how dancers and athletes remember sequences of movement), perception of faces in virtual reality, linguistic codability (the ease with which people can name colors, smells, tastes, faces, and movement, and the effects of naming on cognition). Includes regular lab meetings with research students and staff in the Day Cognition Laboratory. Available to individual graduate students, with consent of instructor. [PSY-349, 350, 355, 356]

Independent Study
Research on cognitive topics such as
medical cognition (how both doctors and patients understand, remember, and use medical information), courtroom cognition (how judges, lawyers, and jurors understand, remember, and use legal information), memory for movement (how dancers and athletes remember sequences of movement), perception of faces in virtual reality, linguistic codability (the ease with which people can name colors, smells, tastes, faces, and movement, and the effects of naming on cognition). Includes regular lab meetings with research students and staff in the Day Cognition Laboratory. Available to advanced undergraduates, with consent of instructor. [PSY-191, 192, 193, 194]

Cognition and Teaching
Note: There are two versions of this course, one for graduate students and one for faculty. The faculty course is for professors in all academic disciplines throughout the country. It is offered as part of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Chautauqua Program and consists of two 3-day courses, "Cognition and Teaching: Part 1" and "Cognition and Teaching: Part 2."

Abbreviated versions of this course have been given to many universities (e.g., Brown University, Reed College, University of Chicago) and professional organizations (e.g., American Academy for the Advancement of Science, American Association for Higher Educations). See Cognition and Teaching Presentations for details. See also the Cognition and Teaching research page.

The description below is a semester-long course for graduate students in all academic disciplines.

Many professors are delightful outside the classroom. They are fluent, clear, and engaging. However, some undergo a peculiar transformation when they enter the classroom. In the worst cases, they may become confusing and even downright boring. Why? Although many factors may be involved, we will examine cognitive aspects of college teaching. We examine key phenomena and concepts in cognitive psychology (especially processes of attention, memory, comprehension, representation, and problem-solving) and their implications for the teaching-learning process at the college level. We also examine many common teaching concerns such as the role of notes in teaching, alternative ways to display information, knowledge vs. knowledge structures, getting class discussion, using in-class demonstrations, and teaching lectures vs. seminars. Although there is no one "best" way to teach, instructors who understand cognitive processes (both their own and those of their students) and have appropriate cognitive tools can better achieve their own teaching goals. [PSY-333, 15 students]
For: Graduate students in all disciplines with experience as a Teaching Assistant or Instructor (past, present, or near future). All levels of teaching "ability" are welcome. Past students have been from many disciplines including physics, chemistry, psychology, religion, English, and art history.


Cognitive Classics
Classic papers in cognitive psychology. What makes papers classics, near-classics, and non-classics. Papers that should be classics but are not; papers that are but should not be classics. Creating classic ideas and papers - existing conditions and subsequent effects on the field.

Cognitive Laboratory
Laboratory studies of cognitive processes, especially memory, comprehension, language, problem solving and other higher mental processes. Students learn to design experiments, conduct them, analyze data, and write empirical research reports. [Note: separate lab meetings are provided for students doing research in the Day Cognition Laboratory]

Language and Cognition
Previously taught to faculty and students at the Linguistic Society of America Institute. Some course material is included in PSY-92 (Psychology of Language) and PSY-220 (Psycholinguistics).

Selected topics in psycholinguistics, such as linguistic vs. pictorial representation, individual differences in language processing, oral vs. written expression, and language in everyday documents (such as pharmacy leaflets).

Individual Differences in Cognition
Previously taught at Yale University. Systematic individual differences in cognition, across a broad range of cognitive processes (e.g., attention, memory, comprehension, problem solving). Implications for cognitive theory as well as everyday life.

Previously taught at Stanford University. Types of attention (e.g., selective attention, divided attention). Theories and research paradigms developed to study them. Conditions that enable attention mechanisms to succeed or fail.

The Psychology of Human Error
"To err is human." How do we detect errors in various situations, what conditions increase or decrease their likelihood, and what do errors tell us about the basic nature of human cognition? Implications for both cognitive psychology and everyday life. Course under development.

Introductory Psychology
Previously taught at Yale University. A broad overview of psychology, including major content areas and methodological approaches. In-class demonstrations and other techniques provide considerable in-class interaction, despite the large course size (up to 400 students).


Guest lectures for courses in other departments and/or universities include:
--liberal studies
--public policy
--medical pharmacology


Teaching awards include:
  --Teaching Innovation Award (Yale University)
--"10 Best Teachers" (Yale University Course Critique)
--"Best Teachers" (Duke University Teacher-Course Evaluation Book)
--Distinguished Teacher Award (Trinity College, Duke University)
--"All-Star Teacher" (Smithsonian Institution/Teaching Company)
--"Great Teacher" (Brenzel, Inc.)


Teaching evaluations provide useful and sometimes surprising information. For example, many students gave spontaneous positive comments about the value of the simple schematic diagrams used in class (such as the one in the teaching vs. research section below). Based on such comments, I have developed more schematic diagrams to capture and enhance important ideas. Letters from former students reveal that such diagrams can facilitate memory and comprehension of course material long after the course is over. Both quantitative ratings and written comments are generally useful and have affected teaching strategies. Some written comments are quite amusing (e.g., one student compared excitement in our classroom to Duke basketball games). See sample course evaluations for more details. Thanks to students for their honest appraisals -- subsequent students have benefited from them.


Former Students
I have had the pleasure of teaching thousands of bright and delightful students at Stanford, Yale, Carnegie-Mellon, and Duke. Many keep in touch and often report that they continue to use coursework in their current lives, both personal and professional. Some have gone on to careers in academia, while others are in a wide variety of careers (doctors, lawyers, writers, photographers, systems engineers, stock brokers, actors, publishers, food critics, consultants, health-care analysts, etc.). For example, one has developed the most widely-used software for writing film/TV scripts, based on principles discussed in the Cognitive Psychology course. Another works with "" companies to make websites more cognitively accessible, based on her thesis work in our Cognition Lab.

Contact from former students is always welcome, especially about where they are now, what they are doing, what they remember about our course (or research experience), and whether course material has been useful in their subsequent life. Email is the best route ( to send either an informal hello or the "5-year letter" distributed at the end of each course.

Thanks to all former students (Stanford, Yale, Carnegie-Mellon, Duke). I enjoyed the pleasure of your company and still remember much about our time together. I hope all is well and send best wishes.

Current Students: Research Opportunities
Current students often inquire about research opportunities in cognitive psychology. Below is an overview of how this works in my lab, both for undergraduate and graduate students.

Cognition Lab
Students are an integral part of the Day Cognition Lab. Typically there are 6-8 students in a given semester (undergraduates, graduates, law students), in addition to other personnel (research assistants, postdoctoral fellows, etc.). We have weekly lab meetings to discuss research projects in Basic Cognition, Medical Cognition, Courtroom Cognition, Memory for Movement, and other topics. Therefore students get exposed to a wide range of research issues, not just those involved in their own projects.

Research Goals
Together, we map out some mutually acceptable research goals, including:
1)   Topic / problem
      --select one that really interests you (and fits in with general cognition lab interests)
--shape it into manageable form (not too big, not too small, clear and focussed)
--ask a specific question and translate it into experimentally testable form

2)   Research skills
    Learn how to:
      --design and conduct an experiment
--learn how to select/use other types of methods (e.g., naturalistic observation)
--code and analyze data
--display results in alternative ways
--interpret results and draw conclusions
--conduct relevant literature searches
--write a research report (as if for a journal article)
--give oral presentations of your research

3)   General skills
      Take away the ability to:
--use experiments as a thinking tool (whether or not you conduct them in the future)
--communicate effectively both orally and in writing
--evaluate many types of data (from both academic and everyday worlds)

4)   Also
      --have fun
--discover something

Research Avenues
There are several routes to gain research experience for both undergraduates and graduates. Most students begin with relevant courses in cognition (such as Cognitive Psychology, Psychology of Language, Cognition Lab, Everyday Cognition), linguistics or and/or computer science. Then they participate in research for course credit (see both Research Practicum for Undergraduates and Graduates, as well as Independent Study courses above), Honors degree, or Work Study. Some advanced students become Research Assistants during the summer or after graduation.


There have always been academic debates about teaching "versus" research. Typically they are treated as part of a hydraulic system - if one goes up (e.g., in time/effort), the other must go down by the same amount. My experience is quite different, as illustrated below.

Teaching and research continually provide positive benefits to each other. Preparing complex material to teach students in a clear and engaging manner sometimes provides new insights. Questions in class can also stimulate new ways of thinking about basic concepts and even stimulate new research questions. Some approaches developed for the classroom facilitate communicating research to colleagues, in both oral and written form. Students can also get a better sense of how new knowledge is developed when the instructor is involved in research, not just "telling" about a field.

A colleague once said, "The rewards for teaching are infinitesimal," especially at research universities. No matter what extrinsic rewards are - or are not - provided at a given institution, there are many wonderful intrinsic rewards. It is a pleasure to interact with bright, inquiring minds and research can easily benefit in the process.