Jennifer Coane, Ph.D.

Top Psychology Blog Author

Associate Professor of Psychology - Colby College, Author of The CogBlog

Interview with The CogBlog and Author Dr. Jennifer Coane

About Dr. Jen Coane: Dr. Jen Coane received her B.A. (2001) and M.S. (2004) degrees in psychology from Illinois State University, and PhD in Cognitive Psychology at Washington University in Saint Louis in 2008. She joined the faculty at Colby College in 2008 and is an associate professor of psychology. At Colby she teaches Introduction to Psychology, the course on Cognitive Psychology, a Cognitive Aging seminar, and a Seminar and Collaborative Research in Memory. Dr. Coane is the director of the Memory and Language Lab, where she does research on false memory, effective study strategies, and cognitive aging. She lives in Waterville with her almost 7-year-old son and a dog of indeterminate age and breed.

[] When and why did you originally start a blog discussing recent research in cognitive psychology?

[Jen Coane, Ph.D.] I started the CogBlog in the spring of 2013. I was teaching a 200-level course (mostly majors, a mix of students, from first years to graduating seniors) and I wanted a new writing assignment that would allow students to demonstrate their knowledge of the discipline in a creative and engaging way. In previous semesters, I had used a very common assignment in many scientific disciplines of having students write a research paper – either a literature review, a research proposal, or a summary of an empirical research article. Because many students had limited prior experience reading and writing about original research papers, it was difficult to evaluate their product – for example, a student who had completed the research methods course had more experience than a first year student or a student from a different major.

Students also struggled with identifying topics or multiple sources, and sometimes were not as interested in what they writing with as I hoped. Thus, I thought about having them write “about” original research and identifying aspects of the research that was personally interesting to them. By giving them the opportunity to choose a topic from a very broad area, they can find their own personal connection to course content. Another reason I wanted to develop this blog was to give students the opportunity to develop and practice an important type of writing – writing for an educated, intelligent, but naïve audience. Science communication is a critical skill for students to develop – it can help them talk with others about their knowledge and become more sophisticated consumers of scientific information.

[] What do you hope to achieve by maintaining The CogBlog?

[Jen Coane, Ph.D.] Several things, really! First, I hope to help students and readers understand how many of our day-to-day activities, behaviors, and thought processes are affected by and determined by our cognitive processes – and how many of these processes are outside of our conscious awareness. Second, I hope that student authors and the audience will appreciate how important it is to communicate scientific findings effectively and to a broad audience – and that one does not need to be a PhD level scholar to appreciate the knowledge we gain from research. Third, I hope that people will realize how fascinating research into cognition is – and how many different ways there are to study things like memory, attention, and language. Finally, I like the ways in which many students identify real-life applications of very basic cognitive phenomena.

[] We have highlighted the post “Brain adaptations to stressful childhood environments” as an in-depth resource on understanding the influence of childhood experiences on a person’s present cognitive functioning. In your opinion, why do you think research on cognitive psychology is important to our society?

[Jen Coane, Ph.D.] So much of our everyday life depends on our abilities to engage in very basic cognitive processes – we need to be able to recognize the faces of people we meet, to read quickly and extract key information from complex text, to remember meetings and appointments, and so on. We often are performing such tasks under pressure, with multiple demands on our attentional resources. One of the concepts I emphasize in my teaching is that we are often not aware of HOW we do many of these necessary behaviors and that our cognitive resources are limited.

To give a concrete example, many states ban the use of hands-held electronic devices while driving – but research from cognitive psychology suggests that, with the exception of texting, what matters is where the driver’s attention is, not where his or her hands are (David Strayer from the University of Utah is the cognitive psychologist who has spearheaded a lot of this work). Similarly, forensic applications of the science of memory, face recognition, and other cognitive processes emphasize the potential inaccuracy of eyewitness testimonies. In my own research, I have studied false memory – or memories for events that never happened, and we are learning how malleable and fallible memory is. In educational settings, understanding how cognitive functions work can help learners and educators create more meaningful and lasting learning by integrating the science of how we remember.

[] This blog is one of the few on our top blogs list in which students contribute most of the content. How do they generate ideas for new posts?

[Jen Coane, Ph.D.] I have used two approaches to help students select their content. The original assignment – from 2013 through 2016 – asked students to identify an empirical research paper from the previous 2-3 years and write about it. I intentionally gave them a rather free rein – they could identify research studies in many sub-disciplines, from clinical to nutrition to advertising – as long as there was a cognitive component to the research (turns out, cognitive processes are involved in many things!). This allowed students to really find ideas they were interested in – I had students write about post-traumatic stress disorder, the use of sex and violence in advertising, and energy drinks. For the most recent batch of posts, I modified the assignment and gave them a list of over 200 cognitive biases and asked them to pick one, select three or more original paper that discussed the phenomenon, and write about the bias. This gave them the freedom to write about a topic that interested them but also provided a more coherent and cohesive “set” of posts that could be connected to one another.

[] Do you use your blog as a teaching tool for your students? If so, how?

[Jen Coane, Ph.D.] Definitely! It started as an assignment for my 200-level course and I have also used it in upper-level seminars, where students write about a topic within our seminar (for example, one semester I taught a course on cognitive aging and students wrote about research in the field on the blog). The assignment has multiple purposes: First, as I mentioned above, it allows students to appreciate in how many ways cognitive processes influence behavior; second, it provides students an opportunity to read and understand original sources; third, as a writing assignment, it gives students a chance to practice expressing their understanding of course content; fourth, it requires them to integrate course content into their post and explain core concepts to the reader; and fifth, it allows them to write in a form that is quite different from “typical” scientific writing and to write for a diverse – and real! – audience. I also require students to read and comment on their peers’ posts – this gives them a chance to learn something new and integrate it with their prior knowledge or the material we are learning in class.

[] What do you find is the driving force behind pursuing a career in psychology or cognitive science? Could you provide any advice for students who seek to enter one of these fields?

[Jen Coane, Ph.D.] I’d say curiosity is key – to me cognitive psychology provides a window into understanding how our world works. Even if I don’t understand broad economic policies, or political decisions, I can apply my knowledge of how the human information processing system works to help me understand events. My students sometimes laugh when I say it’s all about cognitive – but I think it is, to a certain extent. Understanding how we remember, what we pay attention to, how quickly we forget or adjust our memories (because we do!), can make us more understanding of others. Much of our field depends on an understanding of research and the scientific method – psychology is not always seen in the public sphere as a science, but cognitive psychology is definitely heavily steeped in the scientific method. So, I’d say being curious, and being willing to accept that many of our naïve notions of how the mind works are not fully accurate, and applying the principles of scientific exploration to understand the mind are key elements of being a successful psychologist!

[] Some of the blog posts read like research papers which could really help the reader dive into the topic at hand. Have you and your students conducted any research influenced from the authors referenced in the blog?

[Jen Coane, Ph.D.] Not yet – but I hope we will sometime soon! One of the cool things about the blog is that it allows students (and me!) to learn new content and new findings, many of which are outside of my specific area of expertise.

[] Is there anything else you’d like to add?

[Jen Coane, Ph.D.] I love reading my students’ posts. I taught two sections of my course this past spring and had 57 students – and reading their posts was actually fun (something we rarely associate with grading!). When students write about a topic they are interested in, and are given the freedom to step outside of the formality of academic writing, their voices come through and they get to show off all their strengths as learners and writers. Students also tell me they enjoy this assignment – and it comes across in their work.

Thank you, Dr. Jen Coane. Learn more about The CogBlog on our Top Psychology Blogs list.