Eye-tracking: Striking the Balance of Insight and Intervention

Eye-tracking: Striking the Balance of Insight and Intervention

As a STEM education researcher, I’m interested in understanding and studying the physiological responses of students to pedagogical interventions.

To gain deeper insight into learning, education researchers need to open up to nuanced research designs that use objective assessment technologies and instruments, other than standardized tests, to measure cognition and cognitive processes. And to gain deeper insights into all data available while learning, educators and educational researchers could become receptive to exploring why some pedagogical interventions work, as well as why others don’t.

Perhaps, harnessing our energy and resources into technological innovations that grant insight into the physiological responses of students will yield advances in knowledge. But first, let’s compare two approaches.

Teacher-Centered vs. Student-Centered Interventions

The entirety of education and many pedagogical strategies implemented in the 20th century and too far into the 21st century is based on a specific type of behavioral and physiological response. What do these practices have in common? They are educational practices rooted in behavioral responses linked to the dominion of others for obedience and control. In observation of these strategies, the question arises: who is benefiting most from these teaching strategies, teachers, or students? Worse—what effect does fear-based teaching have on students?

Teacher-Centered Instructional Strategies

We know quite a bit about fear and the powerful influence it has on our nervous system modulated through the brain’s amygdala and hippocampus. A careful study and knowledge about the theoretical underpinnings of certain pedagogical practices make clear that most of these strategies are based on the physiology of negative behavioral responses.

The execution of contemporary didactic instructional methodologies can be synced with dominion and control, with the teacher being the authority and the student a passive participant. These instructional strategies are referred to as teacher-centered.

In teacher-centered instruction, often, students do not experience or practice accessing or controlling cognitive and non-cognitive variables critical for complex problem-solving. Thus, at the beginning of the 20th century, educators began to promote the infusion of student-centered pedagogical strategies to improve learning through increased engagement. The reason is that empirical evidence revealed that rote memorization and didactic instructional strategies don’t foster critical thinking for complex problem-solving.

Student-Centered Instructional Strategies

Student centered instructional strategies like inquiry-based pedagogy, experiential-based learning, problem-based learning, and case-based learning, based in constructivist theories, show promise in advancing students’ abilities to solve complex problems and to think critically. Student-centered pedagogical strategies foster freedom, autonomy, and intellectual fulfillment. Thanks to groundbreaking advances in technology, we’ve only recently been able to study and measure physiological responses to student-centered learning environments and instructional methodologies.

At the forefront of these technological advancements is EyeTracking.

The Introduction of Eye Tracking Technology

In our Eyetracking distance learning research, we’ve employed EyeTracking technologies to understand the impact that blended learning classroom environments (a.k.a. flipped classrooms) have on students’ performance, as well as perceived self-regulation skills. In action, we use EyeTracking software to analyze heat maps, gaze points, fixation, and fixation durations.

Our research has unlocked critical insight to determine:

  1. If students focused on the appropriate AOI (Area of Interest) while doing nomenclature word problems.
  2. How students’ focus shifted before, and after spending a semester in a traditional lecture or blended learning classroom environment.

We compared this data to their self-regulation survey scores and their overall performance on a posttest versus a pretest that served the same purpose. The findings of this comparison were remarkable.

Although all students reported that they were easily distracted and discouraged by challenges, we found that students in the blended classroom were still able to perform better on the posttest. Additionally, they had more fixation and fixation duration in the appropriate areas of interest, according to the generated heat maps (Blackmon & Castillo, 2019).

We uncovered this new knowledge. Blended learning classroom environments can serve as a modulator of students’ learning behavior, especially for students who are otherwise prone to distractions.

And this is only the beginning of the new knowledge we can expect to generate with EyeTracking. Now that we know somewhat at the meso-level why blended learning environments work, we are focusing our data analysis on measuring pupil dilation.

The Future of Our Eyetracking Research

If poets believe the eyes are the window to the soul, can education researchers use the eyes to gain access to the brain? We think so, and there is a science to support it. The activity of the eyes gives an indication of the functioning of the locus coeruleus (LC). The LC controls the production of noradrenaline and other neurotransmitters. Through millisecond measures of eye movements, we can measure neuroactivity.

The LC is the primary source of noradrenaline. It belongs to the ‘reticular activating system’, an area critical for arousal and wakefulness. The activity of LC neurons also varies with specific cognitive processes, resulting in the concerted release of noradrenaline in multiple target areas, and very complex effects, depending upon local parameters.

The neuromodulatory system is the key that can unlock critical functions, including stress response, attention, emotion, motivation, decision-making, and learning and memory.

In our next study, we will measure the test performance and pupil dilation of students in a blended learning environment and contrast their performance and pupil dilation with students who’ve been in traditional lecture environments.


We are on the ground floor of using EyeTracking technology to better understand pedagogical interventions based on constructivism. The future is vast and promising. Not only can EyeTracking provide invaluable insight into educational research and learning, but EyeTracking education research may also help reduce anxiety while learning. It is already being used to diagnose Autism Spectrum Disorder, ASD, in children younger than 18 months. With early diagnosis, children with ASD can receive necessary treatment, assistance, and support experiences in both school and home learning environments to support optimal cognitive development.

Another motivation for doing this work is to become more familiar with EyeTracking technology, and its potential. Familiarization will lead to refinement and, ultimately, greater impact in learning environments for neurotypical and neuro-atypical learners. EyeTracking technology allows researchers to strike a balance between insight and positive pedagogical interventions.


Blackmon, A. T., & Castillo, B. (2019, July). Using Eye Tracking Systems to Assess the Impact of a Hybrid Problem-based Distance-learning Environment on Chemistry Students’ Problem-solving Skills.Paper presented at the IAFOR European Conference on Education.