American Psychological Foundation

Insight — that spontaneous moment of inspiration that helps solve difficult problems — may be one reason that gifted students excel in academics more than their peers, says Matthew McBee, PhD, who will study that issue with a $50,000 Esther Katz Rosen Early Career Research Grant.

"That's counter to what you're trained to do in school, which is to always keep trying, rather than taking your attention away from the problem to allow insight to happen," he says. "If you're engaging in insight, you won't get any closer to the solution until it pops into your mind."

McBee, an assistant professor of experimental psychology at East Tennessee State University, will recruit 40 students from a local high school in Johnson City, Tenn. — half from a gifted student program and half from general classes — for his study. The students will be tested on compound remote association problems, a word association task that measures insight in problem-solving. One problem, for example could ask students to think of a word related to three other words, such as "bank," "book" and "pad." (The correct answer is "note" to produce "bank note," "notebook" and "notepad.")

The study participants also will answer questions about their mood, frustration level and progress on solving each problem. McBee will monitor their heart rates during the test to see if their heart rate jumps just before an "aha moment" of insight, a result found in previous studies by Norbert Jausovec, PhD, at the University of Maribor in Slovenia. Such a finding would provide an objective way to measure insight that could be more reliable than participants' subjective reports, says McBee, who previously worked as a statistician at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

McBee also will equip study participants with a head tracker technology — a baseball-style cap with a video camera on top — to measure how often students look away from the computer screen to focus on something other than the test problem. Such breaks, known as incubation, allow for the possibility of insight, McBee says. He expects to find that gifted students have more incubation experiences and less frustration than students who are not gifted. The results may inform educators on better ways to reduce frustration for both gifted and non-gifted students during difficult tasks, he says.

Meanwhile, Carlton Fong, a doctoral student in educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, wants to help educators design better programs for gifted students through research funded by a $25,000 Esther Katz Rosen Graduate Student Grant. He will conduct a meta-analysis of the effectiveness of programs designed to help underachieving gifted students by boosting their self-esteem, increasing their motivation, or improving their study habits and time management skills.

"A lot of these psychosocial interventions have had very powerful effects," Fong says. "Hopefully, this study will offer a push for more collaboration in this area to get the most effective results."


For more information on the Esther Katz Rosen Fellowships for research on gifted children and adolescents, go to Esther Katz Rosen Early Career Research Grant.

Brendan L. Smith is a writer in Washington, D.C.