Cognitive Program Research

Faculty in the Cognitive Program have specific research interests that provide broad coverage of topics within cognitive psychology, including:

  • Problem solving and reasoning
  • Learning and memory
  • Attention and executive control
  • Emotion and motivation
  • Social and collaborative processes in cognition


Three domains of investigation have particularly strong representation:

  • Language, reading, and text processing
  • High-level cognition, complex learning and instruction
  • Cognitive neuroscience


Overall, two features distinguish our program: an emphasis on crossing traditional research boundaries and an interest in bridging between basic and applied research.




The strong interdisciplinary perspective and the collaborative research activities of faculty in the Cognitive Program encourage students to cross traditional research boundaries.

Students and faculty in the program have their offices in the Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC). The LRDC is one of the world's leading centers for exploring the interface between education and cognitive theory. LRDC faculty have appointments in psychology, law, education, computer science, linguistics, and neuroscience.


Program faculty and students also participate in two other centers. The Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center is an NSF-supported research center involving researchers in psychology, computer science, and information systems, dedicated to the study of effective forms of human and computer-based learning environments such as intelligent tutoring systems. The Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC) involves researchers in psychology, neuroscience, neurobiology, biology, computer science, statistics, mathematics, and robotics who use a variety of methods to investigate the interface between cognition and neuroscience. Graduate students interested in cognitive neuroscience can participate in a joint training effort with the CNBC.


Finally, there are connections between the University of Pittsburgh and the adjacent campus of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Pitt students are able to cross-register for CMU classes. The Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center and the CNBC contain faculty and graduate students from both universities, and an annual symposium highlights the work of psychology graduate students in both universities.


The program is also rich in methodological expertise, another factor that broadens the perspectives and skills of its students. Collectively, the faculty in the program conduct research based upon traditional accuracy and reaction time studies of behavior, protocol analysis, functional neuroimaging (fMRI and PET) of brain cerebral blood-flow, computational modeling of cognitive processing, observational field work, event-related potential recording of brain electrical activity, neuropsychological studies in subjects with brain damage and abnormal cognition, and eye-tracking studies of word, text, and image processing. Students typically combine two or more methods in the course of their research training, and often work jointly with several faculty members.




Many members of the Cognitive Program have a component of their research that seeks to bridge basic and applied issues. They apply cognitive principles to complex real-world problems, and use the insights gained from such endeavors to inform theories of cognition. One broad bridge-building topic is learning and instruction.


Faculty in the program combine an interest in how knowledge in specific content areas (e.g., math, science, history, reading) is represented, how knowledge and skills change with the development of expertise, and how content in these areas can best be learned, in both formal (e.g., classroom) and informal (e.g., museums, the Internet) settings, and with both human and computer instruction. For instance, Michelene Chi has a research program that examines what effective human tutors in physics know and do not know about their student's knowledge, and the results of this research about performance and knowledge monitoring skills are fed into improving intelligent tutoring systems being developed at LRDC.


As another example, Kevin Crowley's research examines what kinds of informal conversations parents have with their children in museum settings and what children learn from those conversations, and this basic research is applied to the improved design of exhibits and signage in the museum. There are many other such instances at LRDC. A second connection is between normal cognition and issues in clinical psychology and psychiatry. The aims are to use knowledge about normal cognitive processes and supporting brain regions to better understand breakdowns in cognition and behavior, and conversely to make use of information about cognitive deficits and patterns of preserved performance to better inform cognitive models and theories of brain function. For instance, Greg Seigle's work focused on the interplay between emotional and cognitive processing. Imbalances between the brain regions that support cognitive and emotional processing are a prominent aspect of depression, and thus the lab also has an interest in understanding the causes and treatment of affective disorders.


As another example, neuroimaging work in Julie Fiez's lab challenges the traditional notion that verbal working memory relies upon a phonological store located in the inferior parietal cortex. To further substantiate these findings, the lab is now investigating the patterns of preserved and impaired working memory performance associated with damage to the parietal cortex.




Attention and executive control

Becker, Fiez, Luna, Schneider


Cognitive neuroscience

Becker, Fiez, Libertus, Luna, Perfetti, Schneider, Siegle, Tokowicz, Coutanche


Emotional and affective influences on cognition

Fiez, Luna, Siegle


High-level cognition, complex learning, and instruction

Crowley, Lesgold, Libertus, Perfetti, Resnick, Schunn, Tokowicz, Warren, Coutanche


Language, reading, and text processing

Becker, Fiez, Perfetti, Schneider, Tokowicz, Warren


Learning and memory

Becker, Fiez, Schneider, Coutanche


Problem solving and reasoning

Crowley, Libertus, Perfetti, Schunn


Social and collaborative processes in cognition

Crowley, Lesgold, Levine, Resnick