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A scientific lab on reaction time and complexity

J Undergrad Neurosci Educ. Published online 2010 Oct 15. Abstract Students are rarely given an opportunity to think deeply about experimental design or asked to develop experimental protocols on their own.

Without participating in these endeavors, they are often unaware of the many decisions necessary to construct a precise methodology. This article describes an on-line reaction time program, and how I have used this program as a teaching tool for students to explore experimental design. Comments from several students, who did the written assignment, are included to provide a sense of their thoughts and considerations. When students are given a simple method, such as the measurement of reaction time, it allows them to focus exclusively on developing precise methodology, which taps into types of thinking that they are not often asked to exhibit in other science classes.

Many students are not familiar with how to develop a testable hypothesis or they may believe that they do not know enough about scientific methods to design an experiment. Indeed, student misconceptions and inaccuracies regarding randomization, sample size, and proper controls have been described at the college-level Anderson-Cook and Dorai-Raj, 2001 ; Hiebert, 2007graduate-level Zolman, 1999as well as in professionals publishing in the life sciences Festing, 2003.

However, by using a simple experimental measure, students can become engaged in the process of scientific inquiry, and in turn, begin to think deeply about experimental design.

As an example of the power of this approach, this article describes how I have used an on-line reaction time program with diverse groups of students as a means to have them explore issues surrounding experimental design.

The measurement of reaction time has been used for many years in physiological psychology. Measurement of reaction time has recently come to the forefront of our cultural consciousness. In turn, neuroscience research is beginning to uncover evidence that our brains are not as adept at multi-tasking as many people may think or believe themselves to be Clapp et al. In this article, I describe how I have used an on-line reaction time program as a teaching tool for students to explore experimental design.

I also share quotations from several students who reflected on the process of using the program to conduct their own experiments outside of the classroom. On-line Reaction Time Program The on-line reaction time program that I use consists of a virtual red-yellow-green traffic light http: At the start of each trial the yellow light is illuminated.

To begin, the subject must click an on-screen button to the right of the traffic light. Each time this button is clicked, the red light is illuminated for a variable amount of time, up to seven seconds. The program runs five trials, and displays both the raw data values for each trialand computes the average reaction time to a thousandth of a second.

The program is easy a scientific lab on reaction time and complexity use, and is readily available to anyone with internet access, which makes it ideal for use both inside and outside of the classroom. On the web page, just below the reaction time test, the person who developed the program Jim Allen includes a statement of permission for general use, along with several tips and caveats for its use. Demonstration I use the on-line reaction time program as part of a whole class demonstration and discussion.

I have done this demonstration six times over the past two years with different groups of students: Before starting the demonstration, we discuss the concept of reaction time in a way that corresponds to the scientific level of the audience. For more scientifically sophisticated students, I have the class outline the neural pathways involved - from visual stimulus to voluntary motor response.

The key is that I adjust the explanation to the scientific level of the audience so that students are given just enough background to be able to use the program as an experimental measure.

Next, I ask the class to choose one variable to test and together we construct a specific hypothesis. Then, we outline how to conduct the experiment. Within this basic framework, there is a great deal of improvisation since different factors associated with experimental design come to the forefront with each group of students.

However, certain issues are always touched upon, including: The depth and scope of the demonstration are also affected by the amount of time I have to work with. For example, when I have had a generous amount of time 90—120 minsI divided the students into small working groups, and asked each group to devise their own hypothesis and experiment.

These working groups then reported their ideas to the class, and the class chose a single variable for the demonstration. However, when I have had less time 50—60 minsthere was no small group work beforehand; I solicited ideas from the entire class before we decided on a single variable to test. In this way, the demonstration is adaptable to meet the needs of the students, and the amount of a scientific lab on reaction time and complexity available to the instructor. In my experience, each group of students responds differently to the challenge of choosing a variable for the demonstration.

Students in my Neurobiology class were quite vocal, offering many reasonable suggestions, so the issue was simply deciding on a single variable to test. In contrast, students with less science background summer students from local community colleges and non-majors in Introduction to Biology seemed more reluctant to respond to such an open-ended request.

When a class was particularly quiet, I found it helpful to ask questions about their interests and habits — focusing on qualities that might have an effect on reaction time. How many students are left handed or right handed?


How many students play video games? If so, which types of video games — action or strategy? When do students use their cell phones? Are they ever talking on their cell phones while they engage in another activity requiring their attention? By asking specific questions, student responses can serve as a spring-board to selecting a variable to test. However, regardless of the variable chosen and the process by which it was chosen, I have noticed that even the quietest groups of students become vocal and engaged with the demonstration once they were asked to outline how they would conduct their experiment.

As the class develops its methodology, I guide the students by asking questions. The specific questions are based on the chosen variable and hypothesis, which differs for each class. This process flows into having several test subjects student volunteers run through the experiment in front of the class. This is an important part of the demonstration.

This process alone is an eye-opening experience for them, as they are rarely asked to work out the details of a method in their other science courses. After running several test subjects, together we look at both the raw data and the average reaction time values determined by the program. This leads to a discussion of variability individual and groupand the magnitude change necessary for a variable to have an effect on reaction time.

The students are usually surprised by their preliminary data, especially when they differ from their initial predictions. For example, students had expected to see large differences in reaction time between the dominant and non-dominant hands of individuals, but our preliminary data did not support this conclusion. However, when another class tested whether experience with action-type video games affected reaction time, our preliminary data suggested that avid video game players were consistently faster than subjects who did not play video games.

Another variable with a large effect was verbal distraction answering a series of random questions aloud ; this condition drastically increased the reaction time of individuals compared to when the same subjects did the test without verbal distraction.

While I do not do statistical analysis as part of the demonstration, it would be easy to do so, either during class or as a homework assignment.

The beauty of using a simple and quantitative method, like measuring reaction time, is that it can be tailored for the purpose of the instructor. While my interest is in having students explore experimental design, if another instructor were interested in having the students think deeply about data analysis and interpretation, the same demonstration a scientific lab on reaction time and complexity be adapted to focus on that aspect in more depth.

Overall, I feel that the keys to implementing this demonstration successfully in the classroom are 1 clear goals, and 2 time management. My focus has been on methodology. As a consequence, I typically have only enough time to run 2—3 subjects during the demonstration, which means we cannot examine our data in any depth. This could be accomplished several ways: Alternatively, the instructor could use one class period for the students to develop their hypothesis and methodology, and the next class period to collect data from a large enough number of subjects to permit detailed data analysis Hiebert, 2007.

Written Assignment I have taken the reaction time demonstration a step further in my Neurobiology class. This is an upper-level elective for Biology majors, with an enrollment of 70—80 students.

Their written assignment a scientific lab on reaction time and complexity a 300—500 word scientific abstract, which includes introduction, method, results and conclusions within a single paragraph. Overall, the student work has been very good; they were able to choose a single variable to test, and were able to devise a precise methodology using the on-line reaction time program. Most notably, I found that even students who performed poorly on the course examinations could do well on this assignment.

Therefore, last year I required the students to submit brief written responses, along with their abstract, which described: Interestingly, many students reported struggling with issues that I had hoped they would have to confront regarding the precision and consistency of their methodology.

I have selected several apt quotations from student responses that I feel speak directly to this particular issue. Hypothesis is the easy part though even that has to be developed correctly so as to be testable. Then there is the development of the methods and getting the right people in the right places for testing and carefully interpreting data. An experiment that is not well-controlled or organized will yield data but the data itself may not be useful.

Although the online test was, in fact, online and while that makes for convenient subject recruitment, it also introduces another variable: This ensured that it was a neutral setting with no preference. And by using a simple experimental method, they can focus their thoughts almost exclusively on how to conduct their experiments in a controlled, reproducible manner.

By doing this they are forced to confront their assumptions, and examine their data with care in order to determine whether their predictions were supported or not. Too often in our courses the methodological details are worked out beforehand. While this aids in the execution of experiments in a timely manner, it removes an important learning component as students struggle intellectually to develop their own methodology Anderson-Cook and Dorai-Raj, 2001 ; Hiebert, 2007.

The approach outlined in this article brings experimental design to the forefront.

  1. The role of self-focus, task difficulty, task self-relevance, and evaluation anxiety in reaction time performance.
  2. Reaction time has been widely studied, as its practical implications may be of great importance to every day events, such as response time when driving a car.
  3. The computer will also display the number of responses that the subject made on the left and right keys indicated by 'X' and 'Y' so as not to bias the subjects. Henry Holt, New York.

While I have focused on the measurement of reaction time, the same approach could be adapted for any simple method, such as determination of the blind spot in each eye or two-point touch discrimination. The key is to use a method that is as simple as possible, so that students can turn their attention to how, precisely, to perform the experiment.

This exercise provides a meaningful and lasting learning experience for science students of all levels. The Online Reaction Time Test. An active learning in-class demonstration of good experimental design.

Mechanisms of working memory disruption by external interference. Teaching simple experimental design to undergraduates: A literature review on reaction time. The New York Times, July 19.

Hooked on gadgets, and paying a mental price. The New York Times, June 6. Teaching experimental design to biologists.