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:


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


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


Crossing Traditional Research Boundaries


The strong interdisciplinary perspective and 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 the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC), which includes researchers from Pitt and CMU in the fields of 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 CNBC has faculty and graduate students from both universities, and an annual symposium highlights the work of psychology graduate students in both universities.


The program is rich in methodological expertise, another factor that broadens the perspectives and skills of its students. Collectively, the faculty in the program conduct research based on 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.


Bridging Basic and Applied Research


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., the Internet) settings, and with both human and computer instruction. For instance, Melissa Libertus’s work focuses on how numbers are represented in the brain and how these representations change with age. At the same time, she studies how these representations are related to children’s and adults’ math abilities and the ways in which parents and teachers instruct children in math.


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, FiezSchneider


Cognitive neuroscience

Becker, Coutanche, FiezLibertus, Luna, Perfetti, Schneider, Tokowicz


Emotional and affective influences on cognition



High-level cognition, complex learning, and instruction

Coutanche, Fraundorf, Lesgold, Libertus, Perfetti, Rottman, Schunn, Tokowicz, Warren


Language, reading, and text processing

Becker, Dickey, Fiez, FraundorfPerfetti, Schneider, Tokowicz, Warren


Learning and memory

Becker, Coutanche, Fiez, Fraundorf, Rottman, Schneider


Problem solving and reasoning

Libertus, Perfetti, Rottman, Schunn


Social and collaborative processes in cognition