Clayton Stephenson

Associate Professor (Teaching) of Psychology
Clayton Stephenson
Pronouns He / Him / His Email Office SGM 526 Office Phone (213) 740-9019

Research & Practice Areas

Working Memory,
Principles of Learning,
Sex Comparisons in Cognitive Abilities


  • Ph.D. Cognitive Psychology, Claremont Graduate University, 8/2010
  • M.A. Cognitive Psychology, Claremont Graduate University, 12/2005
  • B.A. Psychology, Fort Lewis College, 12/2002
  • Summary Statement of Research Interests

    My research focuses on cognitive training programs that improve critical thinking skills and intelligence. More specifically, I am investigating the impact of improving working memory capacity on fluid intelligence. My goal is to eventually determine whether improving working memory capacity improves real-world skills such as taking notes, taking tests, and everyday memory.

    Another area of my research is applying the science of learning to help improve learning and instruction for adult learners. I am currently creating a multimedia document with an undergraduate student. The document will contain a list of 15 principles of learning that can be applied to teaching psychology courses.

    Research Keywords

    Working memory capacity, fluid intelligence, n-back task, principles of learning, superstitious beliefs, magical thinking, sex differences in cognitive abilities

    Detailed Statement of Research Interests

    My research investigates how to improve instruction and learning for young adults who are in college or training for a job.  I approach this line of research from a cognitive psychology perspective that uses quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods.  Based on previous literature and my own teaching experiences, I believe it is possible to improve a person’s ability to learn through explicit instruction of how to learn or how to critically think, and it is possible to improve thinking through cognitive training programs that target executive functions. 

    A primary interest focuses on improving complex cognitive abilities, such as working memory capacity (WMC), fluid intelligence (Gf), and critical thinking.  WMC is the ability to store information in memory while processing incoming information, whereas Gf is the ability to reason abstractly while solving a novel problem without using prior knowledge.  For example, results of a recent study (Stephenson & Halpern, 2013) showed that when cognitive training has a visuospatial component, scores on Gf improve.  These results suggest that it is possible to improve reasoning abilities that are tested using visuospatial matrix reasoning problems, people rely on visuospatial abilities in completing tests of Gf, and that the tests are not measuring the single construct, Gf.

    I plan to build on these results to determine why and how increasing WMC improves Gf, to provide further evidence that WMC and Gf are different constructs, and to examine the effects of cognitive training on “real-world” academic performance and critical thinking skills.  Work in this area is still new and controversial; therefore, more research is needed to substantiate the findings.

    Many issues are being investigated:  First, I am investigating whether training improves scores on comprehensive tests of intelligence, such as the Woodcock-Johnson III.  Second, I am examining which specific mechanisms (e.g., visual search and visual attention) in a dual n-back task that lead to improved scores on tests of intelligence.  Third, I am studying whether improvements in scores are due to improved memory for question type or improved ability to solve the problems.  My fourth line of inquiry is to examine whether training improves critical thinking and “real-world” abilities, such as taking notes in class and decreasing mind wandering, to improve individuals’ GPAs.

    My second line of research involves applying the principles of learning to instruction.  My passion is driven by the desire to help faculty who teach psychology and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses improve their teaching practice by applying evidence-based principles of learning in the classroom.  An additional goal is to improve instructors’ and learners’ use of multimedia methods and technology.  Investigating the application of multimedia technology to teaching practice can begin to clarify the sensory processing stages of acquiring information and how this impacts the acquisition and understanding of material.

    These principles are rooted in in Gestalt psychology.  For example, the segmentation is related to two Gestalt principles:  proximity and similarity.  The principle of segmentation states that when presenting information, the information should be provided in small enough bits of information that can easily be processed.  However, the trick is to not present “sound bytes” but instead, present the information in small enough chunks to avoid overloading working memory and to allow the learner to form a coherent conceptual understanding.  This can typically be achieved by limiting the amount of text, or replacing the text on a PowerPoint with a quality image or graph that shows the concept while the instructor verbally provides the information.  Providing information using the dual modalities can help facilitate learners’ understanding of the material.  My goal is to develop a research program that investigates the use of learning principles that impact the processing information at the sensory level to help people acquire, remember, comprehend, and apply learned material within and outside of the classroom (i.e., near and far transfer, respectively).

    I am currently developing an interactive model of 15 principles of learning that will be displayed in a Prezi.  The model has three components for teaching a psychology course.  First, the model will contain an explanation, evidence, and references for the principles of learning.  Second, a written example that illustrates how each principle can be used will be provided.  Third, a multimedia example (i.e., video or audio) that demonstrates how the principle can be elaborated in a psychology course will be displayed.

    Typically, I am also involved in several smaller projects that I start with students or I work on as a personal interest.  One area is the investigation of gender differences in cognitive or sensory functions.  For example, I am creating the materials for an experiment to test whether there are true gender differences in naming colors.  Previous studies used equipment and techniques that are out of date.  However, new software that measures precise reaction times may provide opposing evidence to this claim.  In addition to the new software, my approach and experimental design is innovative for investigating this specific topic.  Another topic I am investigating is how decision-making is influenced by superstitious beliefs.  I am currently developing a new measure of superstition that can be used to predict a wide range of human behavior.  Finally, I have always been interested in the chemical sensory functions (i.e., smell and taste) and how the contextual or environmental cues influence individuals’ perceptual experience of taste, flavor, and smell.  I have collaborated with a three students on three different research projects and will continue to collaborate with students on any of my projects as long as they are interested in the topic.  Students who collaborate with me are working on projects with potential for publication or posters for conference presentations (e.g., Western Psychological Association).

    I intend to continue to develop my primary research interests into a sustainable research program that includes undergraduate students as research assistants.  The benefit of my two primary research interests is that the topics involve improving thinking and learning and are not mutually exclusive.  Another advantage is that both topics can be investigated as basic or applied research.  Finally, the two topics are prime topics to collaborate with other researchers within psychology and across other disciplines such as education.

  • Book Chapters

    • Stephenson, C. L., Halpern, D. F. (2015). Pedagogical Issues in Teaching the Psychology of Perception. Cambridge Handbook of Applied Perception Research pp. 16. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

    Journal Article

    • Stephenson, C. L., Halpern, D. F. (2013). Improved Matrix Reasoning is Limited to Improving Working Memory Capacity Using Intensive N-back Tasks with a Visuospatial Component. Intelligence. Vol. 41 (5), pp. 341-357.
    • Stephenson, C. L. (2010). Beliefs about cognitive gender differences: Accurate for direction, underestimated for size. Sex Roles. Vol. 64, pp. 336-347.
USC Dornsife faculty and staff may update profiles via MyDornsife.