Communal Knowledge and Spaced Repetition

My name is Ben Naismith, and I am a fourth-year PhD candidate in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Pittsburgh. Prior to undertaking a PhD, I had spent 15 years in the field of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL), and it is this professional experience which has shaped my research interests in vocabulary pedagogy and development. Currently, I am collecting data for my dissertation research which focuses on language learners’ use of vocabulary in their writing, specifically different aspects of collocational proficiency (words that go together like conduct research or make an assumption). I am most interested in analyzing how the features that expert human raters notice compare to quantitative automated metrics.

In brief, the project I am involved with for the Humanities Engage Immersive Fellowship is the development of an educational app for an ed tech startup called Leto (Learning Together). This app is being developed based on the principles of spaced repetition and collaborative learning to increase long-term knowledge retention. To do so, users can create, share, and collaborate on slides containing units of knowledge, for example a fact, image, or sound. These cards are then transformed into study cards containing questions, gap-fills, and other task types. Users study these cards, assessing their own knowledge, and an algorithm is used to determine the optimal time for future review. Leto's goal is to create a community of learners that can collaborate to create open-access, high-quality study materials, improving on other study tools and websites like Anki and Quizlet.

During the immersive fellowship, I was able to successfully use many of the academic skills and much of the knowledge that I have gained throughout my time at Pitt. In giving feedback on product design and implementation, I was able to refer to findings and best practice from the fields of language teaching and general education to support my positions. My more technical computational skills were also of great use in collaborating with the computer scientists on the team and for experimenting with potential natural language processing applications. Even my linguistic knowledge was of use, helping to determine naming conventions which would be accessible and appropriate cross-linguistically. Overall, rather than gaining new skills, the immersive experienced demonstrated to me the applicability of my academic skills and humanist perspective outside of academia and outside of a school setting. In this sense, the project differed from my expectations in a positive way – I am now more prepared to work in an industry/tech context than I had anticipated, giving me a greater desire to explore career opportunities in this field after I graduate.

Reflecting on how my experiences might be useful to future humanist graduate students, my main suggestion would be for departments at Pitt. I was very fortunate to have a personal connection which allowed me to propose the immersive fellowship in the first place. However, for many graduate students, such an opportunity might never present itself. I would therefore recommend that whenever possible, departments foster relationships with companies that might be a good match for their students. These relationships could then lead to a greater range of potential pre-determined immersive fellowships to which all students could apply, regardless of their pre-existing personal connections or backgrounds. If such a system was put into place, I can only foresee it having a positive impact on the overall student experience, demonstrating the range of potential opportunities that graduate studies can lead to. Until that time, my advice for current students would be to not wait for an opportunity to arise, but to seek out companies with which they would like to be involved and to proactively lay the groundwork for collaborations.

Overall, I can definitively say that the immersive fellowship helped to advance my future academic and professional goals as a humanist seeking a doctorate. With respect to my dissertation, the project has reaffirmed the need for me to always bear my audience in mind – actual teachers and learners, and not just other academics. To this end, I will strive to make my research findings accessible by making the presentation of results as clear as possible, and by presenting versions of the results in spaces which are visible to practitioners, for example teaching magazines, conferences, and open-access journals. Professionally, the project has also made me aware of possible career avenues which previously I had not given sufficient consideration, highlighting the benefits of working in a small motivated team, striving for the same goals.

Ben Naismith
Department of Linguistics
February 2021
Learn about all the 2020-2021 Immersive Fellows and their experiences with their host organizations.