Jun Li, a graduate student in the Graduate School of Education, presents his research at the fifth annual Subway Summit on Cognition and Education Research Photo by Joanna Klimaski

The difference between a proven fact and a personal belief might seem obvious. But when trying to articulate this difference, it turns out that many people are in stark disagreement.

That is because the concept of “fact” is, in fact, very fuzzy, said Mitchell Rabinowitz, Ph.D., during the fifth annual Subway Summit on Cognition and Education Research, which was held on Jan. 27 at the Lincoln Center campus.

Rabinowitz, the chair of the psychological and educational services division in the Graduate School of Education (GSE) and associate director of GSE’s Center for Learning in Unsupervised Environments (CLUE), was among presenters from five area graduate schools of education at the daylong event.

Sponsored by CLUE, the conference gathered students, faculty members, and administrators from Fordham, Columbia, New York University, the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, and Rutgers to discuss their latest research in cognitive psychology/science and education.

Representing Fordham, Rabinowitz and his students shared the most recent results of their research about the perceived differences between facts and beliefs and what contexts cause people to disagree over the two.

Jun Li, a graduate student in GSE, attributed the vagueness between fact and belief to cultural differences.

Li presented 115 Chinese undergraduate students with a series of statements about general world knowledge, such as “Children are happy and carefree,” and “Dogs are animals,” followed by statements about learning strategies, including “Watching TV while doing homework will negatively affect learning performance.”

He then asked the students whether each statement was a fact or a belief.

In his presentation, “Distinguishing Facts From Beliefs: Cultural Differences,” Li compared the results of this study to Rabinowitz’s study with American students. He found that the Chinese students tended to perceive the given statements as facts while the American students tended to classify them as beliefs.

According to Li, the results seemed consistent with characteristics of Western and East Asian cultures. American culture tends toward individualism, while Eastern cultures favor collectivism and, hence, place a higher value on social standards.

“Chinese students may believe that knowledge is simple and certain and handed down by authority,” Li said. “American students may believe that knowledge is complex and evolving. Knowledge is other people’s belief. They may spend more time arguing whether the knowledge is true rather than absorbing it.”

Throughout the day, representatives from other graduate schools shared findings from their latest scholarly endeavors. Presentations included:

• “Improving Students’ Mathematics Performance and Metacognitive Monitoring,” by CUNY graduate student Darsh Ramdass, and
• “Math Strategies in Digital Storytelling: Effects of Multiple Pedagogical Agents on Learning Single-Digit Addition Strategies,” by Columbia graduate student Kara Carpenter and Herbert Ginsburg, the Jacob H. Schiff Foundations professor of psychology and education.

“I have no doubt that people take away ideas and are sometimes inspired to explore issues that are discussed at conferences like this,” said William Whitten, Ph.D., distinguished research scholar in GSE and director of CLUE. “The exact effects are often not easy to know over the short-term, but certainly this conference enriches graduate students and postdoctoral students since they learn about research programs beyond theirs and they meet faculty from other outstanding universities.”

The Subway Summit began in 2008 as a way to open a dialogue among New York City universities in the fields of cognitive psychology and education. Last year, the conference expanded to include its first non-New York school.

“They said it’s more of a subway and light rail series now,” said Cindy Hmelo-Silver, Ph.D., a professor of educational psychology at Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education in New Jersey. “It’s a really great opportunity for us and our students to find out what our colleagues across the river are doing, and share what we’ve been doing and get feedback.”

CLUE focuses on applied educational psychology research to optimize unsupervised learning, such as homework activities. The goal of the center is to improve comprehension and long-term retention during homework; enable teachers, textbook designers, and instructional designers to create more efficient and effective study tasks; and extend theories of learning, memory, and comprehension.

For more information, visit the center’s website here.