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Working MindsReview - Working Minds
A Practitioner's Guide to Cognitive Task Analysis
by Beth Crandall, Gary Klein, and Robert R. Hoffman
MIT Press, 2006
Review by Maura Pilotti, Ph.D.
Nov 21st 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 47)

Textbooks that introduce research methods to undergraduate and graduate students of psychology generally do not miss the opportunity to discuss the distinction between basic and applied research. However, the coverage of these two approaches to psychological inquiry is often limited and seldom followed by a thorough examination of their relative contributions within specific areas of psychological inquiry. As a result, students frequently hold simplistic views of the defining properties of each approach and they remain somewhat unaware of how findings arising from both approaches can be combined to uncover the "secrets" of the mind. Not surprisingly, the ubiquity of the distinction between basic and applied research in textbooks devoted to methodology does not generalize to textbooks devoted to the findings of cognitive psychological research. In such textbooks, the most extensive coverage pertains to findings of basic research, which may lead some students to doubt that applied research approaches can make any substantial and noteworthy contribution to our current understanding of cognition.

Working Minds: A Practitioner's Guide to Cognitive Task Analysis provides a decisive and informative reply to reservations regarding applied research. The authors, Beth Crandall, Gary Klien, and Robert R. Hoffman, offer readers an insightful and comprehensive account of a branch of cognitive psychology that is concerned with psychological and behavioral processes in naturalistic settings and that focuses on solving practical problems. Artfully, the book combines findings from laboratory and field research and shows readers how the two sets of findings can be successfully applied to the solution of practical problems. Unapologetically, the book addresses some reservations that readers may have regarding the quality of the evidence produced by applied research efforts. Mainly, whether the less controlled naturalistic settings of most applied research can indeed yield findings that are to be trusted (i.e., reliable and internally valid), and whether applied research's focus on practical problems implies research efforts and consequently findings that are largely devoid of sensible theoretical frameworks.

One of the best contributions made by Working Minds is that it leads readers to conceptualize "cognitive task analysis" as involving three equally relevant research-related components: knowledge elicitation (i.e., data collection), analysis (i.e., organization of the data into a meaningful set of ideas) and knowledge representation (i.e., communication and dissemination of ideas that have received empirical support). Of course, Working Minds is built as a manual for individuals with some knowledge of research methodology in the psychological arena and some understanding of task requirements (i.e., the relationship between specific tasks given to individuals in natural or laboratory settings and some identifiable perceptual and cognitive processes). Consequently, it cannot be lauded for its exhaustive coverage of useful techniques, areas of investigation, and findings of applied cognitive research, but it can be praised for its ability to offer each chapter as a tempting appetizer that gives readers the opportunity to prepare for a menu of yet-to-be-known main courses. The content of the book is neither boring nor pretentious. Not surprisingly, it aims at being informative and engaging. More specifically, the authors present methodological and theoretical issues, and discuss the findings of numerous investigations in a rational (i.e., empirically based) and critical manner. By relying on this presentation format, they force readers to engage in a careful examination of the methods and findings of what the authors call "cognitive task analysis" and thus to see both the strengths and the shortcomings of this approach to the study of cognition. Overall, the discussion of different subject matters is coherent, transparent (e.g., filled with examples), empirically driven and temperate (e.g., mindful of the possible limitations of the available knowledge). Clearly, this is a book written by professionals who have spent a considerable amount of their professional time explaining "cognitive task analysis" and its outcomes to individuals who may be both unfamiliar with the field of cognitive psychology and mainly interested in the practical solutions of real-life problems.

Working Minds is organized into three, mutually dependent, components, which are likely to appeal to readers with different background knowledge. Part I is devoted to a presentation of methods for conducting "cognitive task analysis". This is clearly a section that methodologically savvy readers may find informative but of little use without an in-depth description of the possible cognitive processes that underlie the use of each technique. For instance, such readers may judge the list of techniques of "knowledge elicitation" as rather pointless because they may expect each technique in the list to be accompanied by a thorough and critical account of the perceptual/cognitive processes that can be assumed to be involved in its use. In contrast, readers who know less about psychological methodology may be grateful for the schematic nature of this section of the book, simply because it provides them with an easy way of organizing their newly acquired knowledge. Part II is, in my opinion, the most intriguing section of the book for novices to "cognitive task analysis". It carefully describes how the scientific study of cognitive processes can be accomplished in real settings and critically examines the challenges that such study can present to researchers. In particular, this section may be of interest to laboratory-oriented researchers who have developed and/or used techniques in their laboratories to uncover perceptual and cognitive phenomena with little attention to whether these techniques and hypothesized processes would be used in more realistic environments. Part III should be the most entertaining for individuals who are ready to see how "cognitive task analysis" can successfully confront real-life problems in different areas of application. All the problems selected are intriguing regardless of the specific interest of readers.

In summary, Working Minds is a book that combines modesty of exposition with a witty, critical examination of how the techniques and evidence of cognitive psychological research can be applied to the understanding of cognition in natural environments. For obvious reasons, the book does not portray "cognitive task analysis" as a panacea for unresolved issues in cognitive psychological research. Neither does it pretend to provide conclusive answers to questions regarding cognition in naturalistic settings, nor does it deny the contribution that laboratory-based studies can make in answering such questions. Indeed, many of the techniques used by "cognitive task analysis" are tools developed and used in the laboratory and the findings of such studies cannot be ignored when attempting to understand cognition in more naturalistic settings. Instead, Working Minds prudently provides a much-needed face lift to applied research by offering to readers a balanced and informative treatment of such research in the cognitive psychological arena. This fact by itself should be a sufficient justification for adding Working Minds to the reading list of undergraduate and graduate courses in cognitive psychology and research methods in psychological research.

 

© 2006 Maura Pilotti

Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Dowling College, New York.


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