Three students and assistant professor probe into eye movement

Using the University of North Georgia’s (UNG) eye tracker, Dr. John Dewey and a trio of seniors pursuing psychology degrees are searching for the answer to a question: How much information can you gain from a person’s gaze?

That simple question leads to more. For example, if someone looks at one element on a computer screen for a long time, is it because the person is processing the information better or is confused? Or if a person quickly looks away, is it because the person is bored or has learned the information quickly?

Dewey and his research students — Siena Dittrich, Tassie Garrett and Mads Baek-Larsen — aim to answer a few of those questions by monitoring volunteer subjects’ eye movements as they watch a video about Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS). The eye tracker allows the research students to see where a person’s eyes focuses on the screen.

Psychological science faculty use SPSS to teach students about how to use statistics. Dewey, assistant professor of psychological science at UNG, said the program is popular among faculty who teach statistics and research methods.

“It’s more user-friendly,” he said. “Using SPSS, you can point and click and do the statistics tests.”

By determining where a person’s eye focused and how long it lingered over a specific portion, student researchers could reconfigure the video to improve learning.

“We could improve the presentation by simply having a laser pointer guide people’s eyes to the point where they need to look to learn the information,” said Baek-Larsen, a 22-year-old from Copenhagen, Denmark.

Dewey said if the hypothesis proves true, it will have several educational applications.

To prove their hypothesis, researchers conducted experiments to find out if the hypothesis is accurate. The experiment involved several steps. First, they determined the volunteer participant’s dominant eye. Second, the eye tracker monitored and recorded the eye movements as the SPSS video played. Finally, the volunteer was quizzed about the video.

“We wanted to correlate their eye movements with their quiz performance,” Dewey said. “We wanted to discern if they were looking where they were supposed to, to learn the information.”

To collect the data and analyze it takes time. But Baek-Larsen said that has been the most interesting part of the project.

“Running of participants through the test can be dull, because we are watching their eyes,” he said. “But in the fall 2019 semester we came up with new questions to ask them after the video. And we figured out why these questions were appropriate and why we needed to throw other questions out.”

Dewey said students learned valuable lessons from each step in the process. He said they learned how to process participants and collect data.

“We’ve finished data collection on the first experiment, and I’ll look at the data with the students in the spring,” Dewey said, explaining the students plan to present their findings at the annual Southeastern Psychological Association conference April 1-4 in New Orleans.

Garrett, who never completed undergraduate research before this project, already saw how the project increased her technology knowledge and skills.

“I am more confident in working with Excel spreadsheets,” the 21-year-old from Athens, Georgia, said. “And I like working with the eye tracker because it’s a piece of equipment that not everyone has access to.”

For Dittrich, she got a crash course in crafting the video that the volunteers watch.

“It was nerve-racking making the videos and teaching someone how to use the program,” the 21-year-old from Peachtree City, Georgia, said. “But it was a really great experience, because I was fully immersed in the project.”

Dewey is pleased to see his students benefiting from the undergraduate research project.