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Cognition in Context

Program overview 

The Cognition in Context specialization combines basic research in cognition with research exploring learning and performance in real-world contexts. Our core focus is upon cognitive process as they unfold in context, and our faculty all operate within a psychological science framework that emphasizes experimental analysis of cognition using behavioral and brain-based methodologies. A key feature of the program is that it encompasses a wide range of contexts, ranging from conversations to informal and formal education, and focuses on the cognitive processes that underlie everyday knowledge and foundational skills. In all cases, we combine research on basic processes with an interest in how cognition supports real-world performance and change.

Faculty in the program have close ties with Developmental Science, Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience, Educational Neuroscience, and Learning, Teaching, and Diversity PhD programs. Specific program research strengths include: language, neuroscience, visual cognition and learning, representation, the cognitive and brain basis of math learning, learning in media and technological settings, social cognition and learning, cognition in the arts.

Requirements in the program follow traditions in the cognitive sciences and therefore avoid lists of prescribed courses to offer students the maximum flexibility in achieving excellence in research, while also providing a basic grounding in research and theory on cognitive change and learning. Course requirements include the basic requirements met by all PhD students in the Psychological Sciences. In addition, students are required to attend a weekly research forum. Finally, an important part of the program is explicit inclusion of a student-designed program of training in mentorship, teaching, and dissemination. This involves a selection from among several possible activities including: completing Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching certificate program, participating in a vertically integrated research team working on a project that adds to the student’s primary research focus, and/or disseminating research to the public.


Core faculty in the program include:

Deon T. Benton (Ph.D., Carnegie Mellon University, 2019). Neural Network Models of Cognitive Development.

James Booth (Ph.D., University of Maryland College Park, 1995). Brain mechanisms of the development of reading, math and scientific reasoning in typical and atypical populations.

Sarah Brown-Schmidt (Ph.D. Brain and Cognitive Sciences, University of Rochester, 2005). Language production and comprehension, conversation, context, memory and language.

Lisa Fazio (Ph.D. Psychology, Duke University, 2010). Math learning, memory, role of prior knowledge in learning.

Daniel Levin (Ph.D. Experimental Psychology, Cornell University, 1997). Visual cognition, conceptual change, technology-based learning.

Laura Novick (Ph.D. Psychology, Stanford University, 1986). Reasoning and problem solving, diagrams in learning.

Bethany Rittle-Johnson (Ph.D., Developmental Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University, 1999). Mathematical problem solving, spatial diagrams, knowledge change.

Craig Smith (Ph.D., Psychology, Stanford University, 1986). Emotion, stress, coping, and long-term adaptation to chronic illness.

Sophia Vinci-Booher (Ph.D. Indiana University). Introduction to Statistical Analysis

Duane Watson (Ph.D., Cognitive Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2002) Language production, comprehension, prosody and disfluencies.

Eric D. Wilkey (Ph.D., Vanderbilt University). Cognitive Aspects of Human Development.

Cristina Zepeda (Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh, 2018). Adolescent Development