Psychology professor gives class FitBits to teach curriculum

By Shayal Vashisth | 03/01/2018
The Chronicle

While most students bring their assignments back home in a notebook, some are wearing their classwork on their wrists.

For his Statistical Methods in Psychological Science course, Gregory Samanez-Larkin, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, has distributed FitBit devices to each student for the duration of the semester. Data collected from the devices—which track the wearer's physical activity—will be utilized as a part of the class's curriculum. 

“I can teach you in the clearest way how some statistical test works and you might learn it, but in two weeks, you couldn’t care less because the application is unclear,” Samanez-Larkin said. “By using our own data and analyzing it, I hope that leads to better understanding and keeping people motivated about both the work we are doing in class and living a healthier lifestyle.” 

Rather than applying for a Trinity course enhancement grant to purchase the FitBits, Samanez-Larkin used funds from his lab and a Bass Connections project—both of which are beginning projects over the summer in which subjects’ physical activity is monitored continuously. 

“They were purchased for research purposes, I just bought them earlier than I thought I would,” Samanez-Larkin said. “It’s been useful for our lab to have this big pilot project even though data from this class stays in the class.” 

The collected data will be used to teach the statistical tests of the curriculum. The data will be anonymized so each student can analyze the entire class’s data. 

“Throughout the semester, we’re going to be analyzing our data and as we learn various statistical tools and measures, we will get to use them on our class data to test various hypotheses,” junior Katy Grant said. “We’ll see if Duke students are actually different from the general 19 to 22-year-old population in some way.” 

So far, the data analyses have indicated that Duke students are, on average, walking 11,000 steps a day and sleeping around seven hours a night. Eventually, Samenez-Larkin hopes to compile all this data into a project beyond the classroom. 

“My dream for this is that we as a class get some interesting data that makes a unique scientific contribution to the literature,” Samanez-Larkin said. “My vision is that we publish a paper with every single student as a co-author.”

Samanez-Larkin intends to tailor the format of the class’s exams to suit a final paper. During exams, students will complete the results and discussion sections of a scientific paper written by Samanez-Larkin, eventually leading into a final class paper. 

“Ideally, I’ll have written an intro and methods, and students will individually write their results and discussion,” he said. “I’ll take actual student writing and drop it in to create one manuscript that takes the best of what everyone wrote, and we’ll submit that to a journal.” 

Instead of paying students like he would in a typical research study, Samanez-Larkin is permitting students to keep the FitBit if they demonstrate a significant amount of usage. He said he expects many devices returned, but anticipates about half of the students will keep them. 

“If a student gets really deeply engaged with a device like that, I’m more than happy to have that be a permanent thing,” he said. “If you're using it constantly all semester, I want you keep that thing because it seems like it's working for you.”

Samanez-Larkin noted that although FitBit activity is high now, he expects usage to drop off later in the semester. Junior Alice Chen, a member of the class, echoed this sentiment, indicating that her current measurements may not be entirely accurate. 

“It does kind of skew it, because I feel like having the FitBit makes me want to exercise more and get more steps,” Chen said. “I have friends who will actively take the stairs instead of the elevator because they want to get the steps in. I think it’ll be good once the novelty wears off, because that’s when you’ll get more accurate data, since you won’t be taking stairs to get more steps.”