Highlighting Faculty Member Catherine Sandhofer
Date published: 3/10/2017
My research focus is on basic processes behind the acquisition of words and categories, and how these processes are differentially instantiated and promoted by the learning environment.
Learning what words mean is hard when you are two years old. Even seemingly simple words like “dog” involves a process of discovery. Children not only have to learn and remember the particular examples that they’ve heard labeled “dog” (e.g. the family pet, the neighbors’ poodle, Clifford), but they also have to correctly generalize the meaning of the word to new examples, so that they can confidently cry out “doggy” when they see someone walking a cocker spaniel down the sidewalk, but not when they see a field of cows. And they have to remember the word-category correspondence for years. Despite all the complexity, by the time children are six years old they typically know somewhere between 8,000-10,000 words.
My research focus is on basic processes behind the acquisition of words and categories, and how these processes are differentially instantiated and promoted by the learning environment. One way in which word learning may differ from other types of learning is that children need to remember word-category correspondences for long periods of time. My lab studies how different ways of distributing and presenting information affects word learning and memory. The goal of our research is to understand the role of the learning environment in creating development – specifically, how the learning context may differentially engage different psychological processes and lead to different developmental outcomes.
My laboratory uses a variety of methods to try to understand how children learn words and categories. We conduct training studies, in which we might teach children words they’ve never heard before using different ways of presenting the information to observe how specific types of input affect acquisition. We also conduct longitudinal acquisition studies in which we observe how children’s understanding of real words and categories develops over weeks and months. To conduct these studies, we either visit children in their preschools or bring families into our laboratory. If you see preschoolers and their families walking around Franz, chances are they are visiting my laboratory.
In addition, because understanding how it is that children acquire words requires understanding the types of natural learning situations in which children inhabit in the real world, we also study the language input and real world learning environments available to children.
I’ve lived in a lot of different parts of the United States. I was born in Northern California, but growing up, I lived in San Diego, Chicago, IL, Oak Ridge, TN and Springfield, IL. I received my B.A. degree in Psychology from the University of Chicago. While at the University of Chicago, I became interested in questions about language development and learning and cognition. I did my Ph.D. work at Indiana University where I received a dual degree in Cognitive Science and Psychology. After a brief postdoc at Indiana University, I joined the UCLA Department of Psychology in 2004.