Author: Ziyang Chen

Over the course of the last few weeks, I had my first experience of running a user study with younger children, particularly children age 6 to 7 from PK Yonge Blue Wave After School program. My PhD mentor, Alex Shaw, and I went through a week of recruitment and a week of study running at the PK Yonge facility. To me, the recruiting process was quite interesting. At first, I wasn’t exactly sure how to approach potential participants’ parents and give a concise introduction about our study. Knowing that I had to spark parents’ interest in our study without being overly aggressive, I observed how my mentor, Alex, carried out the recruiting process and adapted his techniques. I felt that highlighting the potential benefits, emphasizing the low-risk nature of the research study, and pointing out the timeliness of our study are the three factors that most effectively encouraged parents to allow their children to participate. Another thing I learned is that recruiting is a lengthy process. I was little disappointed at first to only receive few responses back, but being patient and keeping a positive attitude during recruitment eventually gave parents enough time to return the consent forms.

On the other hand, running the study was quite challenging for me at first. Prior to the actual user study, Alex and I ran two pilot studies with other members of the INIT lab, but the real deal was little different. I was nervous during the first study, mumbled my words through and made a mistake on the data entrance: I stopped the timer before the participant finished and submitted the wrong time. Luckily, we have the study recorded and I was able to go through the timestamps and save the data manually. I became much more comfortable and the study process was much smoother in the later studies.

A few things I learned from this study include: since we are running the study with younger children, it is important to clearly present the instructions and make sure the participants fully understand them. I realized that during the fine motor skills assessment from the NIH Toolbox®, the participants tended to use both hands or the wrong hand while the instructions said not to. So, I made sure to emphasize those parts of the instruction to keep the data as accurate as possible. Also, I learned that younger children get bored easily: since the study lasts around 30 minutes and involves many repetitive tasks, there are certainly times when fatigue comes into play and children want to quit the study. In order to avoid those situations as much as possible, I found that spending a few minutes when taking the children to our study room asking how their day is going, asking them a few questions to keep them engaged, and showing them the small prizes we will give out can get them more engaged and keep them excited to participate. Encouraging breaks in between study tasks and keeping a friendly atmosphere during the study also helps.

Overall, I felt the recruiting and the study running process was challenging at first, but it became much easier after the first few times and I actually enjoyed the process. Looking at the data we’ve collected also gives me a sense of accomplishment. Our next step is to analyze the data to answer our study’s research questions, which we will be able to talk about soon. We are also planning to conduct study sessions with younger children at the Baby Gator daycare facility. I’m excited and looking forward for the process.

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Since I joined the INIT lab, I have been working on preparing a study related to the Understanding Gestures project. The goal of the project is to examine the relationship between previous findings about children’s touch and gesture interactions and their cognitive development. Our lab’s previous work has shown that children’s gestures are not recognized as accurately as adults’ gestures and that there are significant differences in articulation features related to gesture production time and geometry. We have received inquiries from readers of our prior publications regarding the cognitive development of the children we collected data from, which led us to pursue this project on understanding how children’s cognitive development is related to the way they interact with touchscreen devices. We believe having this new information will help us gain a more comprehensive understanding of children’s touchscreen interactions.

Cognitive development is a field of study in neuroscience and psychology focusing on a children’s development in terms of information processing, problem solving, and decision making [1]. In our Understanding Gestures project, we are mainly concerned with children’s fine motor skills and children’s executive function, both of which exhibit variance across early ages of childhood and between genders. Fine motor skill measures the coordination of small muscles such as those in the finger and hand [2]. Executive function measures the ability to focus attention and execute tasks [3]. We plan on measuring these two aspects using NIH Toolbox®, a “comprehensive set of neuro-behavioral measurements that quickly assesses cognitive, emotional, sensory, and motor functions” [4]. The creators of the app, the National Institutes of Health, maintain a representative database for comparing children’s performance on the tasks based on their demographic information (e.g., age, gender, etc.). We are excited to be collaborating on this project with Dr. Pavlo Antonenko from the College of Education. We are looking forward to drawing connections between children’s touchscreen interactions and their cognitive development from this study.

I am a third-year undergraduate student majoring in Computer Science, and this is my first full semester in the INIT Lab. The process of preparing a study has been challenging but very interesting. I have always wanted to learn how to run a study and been curious about the work that goes into a research paper. As we prepare for the study, I have performed in-depth independent research on potential topics of exploration regarding children’s cognitive development. I have gained a great sense of accomplishment by playing a role in building the study from scratch, and I am looking forward to continuing my work on the study.



1. Ali, Ajmol & Pigou,Schacter, Daniel L (2009). PSYCHOLOGY. Catherine Woods. p. 429. ISBN 978-1-4292-3719-2.

2. Deborah & Clarke, Linda & Mclachlan, Claire. (2017). Review on Motor Skill and Physical Activity in Preschool Children in New Zealand. Advances in Physical Education. 7. 10-26. 10.4236/ape.2017.71002.

3. Team, Understood. “Understanding Executive Functioning Issues.”, issues/understanding-executive-functioning-issues.

4. Weintraub, Sandra et al. “Cognition assessment using the NIH Toolbox.” Neurology vol. 80,11 Suppl 3 (2013): S54-64. doi:10.1212/WNL.0b013e3182872ded

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