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Enabling Success on Science and Maths Problems; The Role of Local and Global Processing

Principal Supervisor: Dr Emily Farran (UCL Institute of Education)

Co-Supervisor: Dr Iroise Dumontheil (Birkbeck)

This studentship will be integrated into a recently funded multidisciplinary intervention project, UnLoCKE (Understanding Learning of Counterintuitive Concepts through Knowledge Interference Control in Science and Mathematics Education), in the emerging field of educational neuroscience. UnLoCKE involves the design and implementation of a primary school-based intervention aiming to develop children’s ability to inhibit perceptual information and pre-existing beliefs when solving maths and science problems (Diamond & Lee, 2011).

In the proposed studentship, the student will unpack the extent to which different maths and science problems require the inhibition of analytic/local vs. holistic/global processing and how this might influence how best to frame such problems for primary school children.

Local processing refers to the perception of the individual elements of an image or a situation, whilst attending to the image or situation as a whole is referred to as global processing. The student will investigate the relationship between success on maths and science misconceptions (e.g. naive conceptions, scientific misconceptions, perceptual bias, overgeneralisations) and: 1) the ability to inhibit local vs. global misleading information; 2) the ability to adaptively switch between local and global processing.

The development of inhibition is a limiting factor in cognitive development (Houdé, 2000) and there is specific evidence that executive function skills more broadly predict maths performance (Raghubar et al., 2010). However, to-date the impact of individual differences in local or global bias and in the flexible focus on local/global information (i.e. executive shifting skills) in the resolution of maths and science problems has not been addressed.

This studentship offers a chance to conduct novel research in this field and to be trained in cutting edge developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience methodology, analytic skills and the application of research into education, within a leading research environment.

The studentship will be located within a unique multidisciplinary setting. The student will have access to world-class expertise in the fields of education, psychology and neuroscience, giving a broad context to the proposed research. There will be the opportunity to benefit from behavioural data collection within an applied setting (UCL IOE), as well as to situating the research in the context of developmental cognitive neuroscience (Birkbeck).

The student will be exposed to an inter-disciplinary research environment, integrating a range of methodologies, including behavioural work, neuroimaging techniques, computational modelling, and genetics. The student will be part of Dr Farran’s Cognition, Genes and Developmental Variability lab (CoGDeV Lab) as well as the Centre for Educational Neuroscience (CEN) and the UnLoCKe research team. These groups will provide supportive forums for the development of the student’s research.

The student will also have associate registration at Birkbeck, where the co-supervisor, Dr Dumontheil, is a member of the Department of Psychological Sciences, currently rated as the equal 5th leading Psychology department in the UK (, and a member of the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (, a leading research centre using behavioural, genetic and neuroimaging methods to study cognitive and brain development.

Candidate requirements

The studentship is available to students who pay tuition fees at Home/EU levels. It will begin in October 2015 and will normally cover three years of full-time registration.

Candidates must have a first class or upper second undergraduate degree or a Master’s degree in a relevant scientific discipline, including but not limited to psychology, biology, neuroscience, or education (provided it includes a background in quantitative analysis).

Solid experience of cognitive psychology research, experience working in a research assistant post and good computer skills would be advantages.

Candidates must in addition have a clean Disclosure and Barring Services (DBS) check (formerly known as Criminal Record Bureau (CRB)).

If English is not your first language, you will need an IELTS score of 7.0, with scores of no lower than 7.0 in the reading and writing elements of the test.

The project will provide an ambitious and talented student with the opportunity to characterise the cognitive processes that limit scientific reasoning in childhood in the laboratory and the classroom, by integrating developmental psychology, developmental cognitive neuroscience research into the topic of the solving maths and science problems.

Key references

  • Baron-Cohen, S., Bolton, P., Wheelwright, S., Scahill, V., Short, L., Mead, G., et al. (1998). Autism occurs more often in families of physicists, engineers, and mathematicians. Autism, 2, 296-301.
  • Diamond, A., Lee, K., (2011). Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 years old. Science, 333, 959–964.
  • Houdé, O. (2000). Inhibition and cognitive development: Object, number, categorization, and reasoning. Cognitive Development, 15, 63-73.
  • Raghubar, K.P., Barnes, M.A., Hecht, S.A., 2010. Working memory and mathematics: A review of developmental, individual difference, and cognitive approaches. Learning and Individual Differences, 20, 110–122.

Further details about the project may be obtained from:

Principal Supervisor: Dr. Emily Farran,, (currently on maternity leave - please contact the co-supervisor in the first instance)

Co-Supervisor: Dr. Iroise Dumontheil,,

Further information about PhDs at the Institute of Education and at Birkbeck is available from:

Application forms and details about how to apply are available from:

Alison Freeman, Bloomsbury DTC Co-ordinator, Doctoral School, Institute of Education

Candidates are required to submit the following to Alison Freeman via email ( by 16:00 on Friday 13 March 2015:

  • Bloomsbury Colleges PhD Studentships Application Form (available from Alison Freeman)
  • A personal statement indicating how your qualifications, experience and research interests make you a suitable candidate for this studentship.
  • Covering letter and CV
  • Transcripts of your undergraduate and (where applicable) postgraduate qualifications
  • Two confidential references

Closing date for applications is 16:00 on Friday 13 March 2015