I aim to conduct application-inspired basic research that contributes to our general understanding of human cognition and learning, while also being directly relevant to decision-makers, educators, and students in organisations and universities.
With this philosophy in mind, my research focus is on understanding basic learning mechanisms with an eye to improving educational and training practices in disciplines such as forensics, art, geology, and biology. At the core of these seemingly diverse fields of study is the process of learning to generalise from one instance to another: a new example of that finger, person, artistic style, biological species, statistical concept, or geological structure. Better understanding how people generalise from their prior experiences to new contexts has been the subject of much of my published work so far, and is a central theme in my broader programme of research on category learning and perceptual expertise.
Perceptual Expertise in Forensics
As a PhD student, I researched the nature and development of perceptual expertise in the context of fingerprint identification. Fingerprint examiners spend their days visually comparing pairs of fingerprints, and judging whether they belong to the same finger or two different fingers. This visual discrimination task tends to be challenging for novices, and expert examiners are not infallible. Mismatching fingerprints can often look highly similar, due to the use of computer algorithms to help speed up the search, and matching prints can also look very different, due to variation in surface, pressure, movement, and moisture as a print is left behind.
The results of my experiments suggest that a distributed memory for instances underlies expertise with discriminating fingerprints (Searston, Tangen & Eva, 2016). For example, we used a novel person discrimination task to show that fingerprint experts are significantly more accurate than novices at detecting family resemblance, structural or stylistic information across a person’s fingerprints, despite lower confidence (Searston & Tangen, in press). Like other domains of perceptual expertise, fingerprint expertise also seems to be domain-specific, but surprisingly flexible to changing task demands (Searston & Tangen, in press).
Perceptual Expertise in Art, Ornithology, and Faces
As a postdoc at UQ, I extended this work to other domains, including art (e.g., Cubist and Impressionist paintings), ornithology (e.g, hawks, and owls), and faces (e.g., females and males), testing people’s ability to discriminate, remember, and learn visual categories with varying amounts of image-level information.
Category Learning in the Natural Sciences
As a McKenzie Fellow at the University of Melbourne, I am now working to better understand how people learn fundamental categories in natural science disciplines (e.g., geology, biology) in the context of higher education. In particular, I’m examining the benefits of abstracting rules and redundant information for improved generalisation or transfer. I’m also investigating the importance of sampling highly varied, independent or disparate instances across the entire category (as compared with sampling more similar or prototypal instances) for category learning in these domains. An overarching goal of this research project, and my continuing line of experiments on perceptual expertise in forensics, is to develop a domain-general theoretical framework for creating expertise with concepts and categories.