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Research News at Vanderbilt

Study gives new meaning to ‘let your fingers do the walking’

by | Posted on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013 — 9:06 AM

When you are typing away at your computer, you don’t know what your fingers are really doing.

That is the conclusion of a study conducted by a team of cognitive psychologists at Vanderbilt and Kobe universities. It found that skilled typists can’t identify the positions of many of the keys on the QWERTY keyboard and that novice typists don’t appear to learn key locations in the first place.

“This demonstrates that we’re capable of doing extremely complicated things without knowing explicitly what we are doing,” said Vanderbilt University graduate student Kristy Snyder, the first author of the study, which was conducted under the supervision of Centennial Professor of Psychology Gordon Logan.

Logan Snyder Ulrich

Jana Ulrich, left, Kristy Snyder, and Gordon Logan. (Joe Howell / Vanderbilt)

A description of the research will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Attention, Perception & Psychophysics, which recently posted it online.

The researchers recruited 100 university students and members from the surrounding community to participate in an experiment. The participants completed a short typing test. Then, they were shown a blank QWERTY keyboard and given 80 seconds to write the letters in the correct location. On average, they typed 72 words per minute, moving their fingers to the correct keys six times per second with 94 percent accuracy. By contrast, they could accurately place an average of only 15 letters on a blank keyboard.

The fact that the typists did so poorly at identifying the position of specific keys didn’t come as a surprise. For more than a century, scientists have recognized the existence of automatism: the ability to perform actions without conscious thought or intention. Automatic behaviors of this type are surprisingly common, ranging from tying shoelaces to making coffee to factory assembly-line work to riding a bicycle and driving a car. So scientists had assumed that typing also fell into this category, but had not tested it.

keyboard test

Participant filling in as many key positions as he can in 80 seconds. (Joe Howell / Vanderbilt)

What did come as a surprise, however, was a finding that conflicts with the basic theory of automatic learning, which suggests that it starts out as a conscious process and gradually becomes unconscious with repetition. According to the widely held theory – primarily developed by studying how people learn to play chess – when you perform a new task for the first time, you are conscious of each action and store the details in working memory. Then, as you repeat the task, it becomes increasingly automatic and your awareness of the details gradually fades away. This allows you to think about other things while you are performing the task.

Given the prevalence of this “use it or lose it” explanation, the researchers were surprised when they found evidence that the typists never appear to memorize the key positions, not even when they are first learning to type.

“It appears that not only don’t we know much about what we are doing, but we can’t know it because we don’t consciously learn how to do it in the first place,” said Logan.

Evidence for this conclusion came from another experiment included in the study. The researchers recruited 24 typists who were skilled on the QWERTY keyboard and had them learn to type on a Dvorak keyboard, which places keys in different locations. After the participants developed a reasonable proficiency with the alternative keyboard, they were asked to identify the placement of the keys on a blank Dvorak keyboard. On average, they could locate only 17 letters correctly, comparable to participants’ performance with the QWERTY keyboard.

According to the researchers, the lack of explicit knowledge of the keyboard may be due to the fact that computers and keyboards have become so ubiquitous that students learn how to use them in an informal, trial-and-error fashion when they are very young.

Ashitaka and Shimado

Kobe University collaborators Yuki Ashitaka, left, and Hiroyuki Shimada. (Courtesy of Kobe University)

“When I was a boy, you learned to type by taking a typing class and one of the first assignments was to memorize the keyboard,” Logan recalled.

Co-authors on the study are Vanderbilt research analyst Jana Ulrich and Yuki Ashitaka and Hiroyuki Shimada at Kobe University in Japan. The research was funded by National Science Foundation grants BCS 0957074 and BCS 1257272.

Contact:
David Salisbury, (615) 322-NEWS
david.salisbury@vanderbilt.edu


  • dem0n0cracy

    I relearned how to type in Dvorak last year after being very proficient with QWERTY just to see if I could do it and because its a superior typing language. It was fascinating to me how it took about 3 hours to learn and remember the entire keyboard, and then I never needed to look at it again. The interesting thing was learning how to type words again. Things like ‘thought’ was hard because you had to remember first how to spell the word, then how to put those letters together, and then remember the entire word as just a new sequence. It took some practice, but eventually you relearn your entire vocabulary and can type quite quickly. abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz.

  • Tyler Langley

    This is very interesting. Learning by trial and error was exactly how I learned to keyboard.

  • Rebecca Anne

    Touch typists have known this for years.

  • http://www.breakglasslabs.com/ Travis Mathis

    it’s all muscle memory, and it’s why when I interview as an engineer I always have a hard time when they ask me questions like, “What command in linux lets you see running process’” I know the answer is ps aux, but i gotta ask my fingers.

    When learning typing you don’t memorize the keyboard.. you memorize muscle positions. AAAA, BBBB, CCCC, DDDD through repetition. I could have told them this without a study.. It’s also the same with music and many other things.

  • Jake Monahan

    If you gave the participants a sentence with all the letters of the alphabet and told them to pretend to type out on the blank keyboard before hand, I think the number of letters correct would go up. People would just be able to know which letters are where by just what felt right with there hands on the keyboard.

    I know it would be redundant. I just think it would be interesting to see what the out come would be.

  • westendres

    I am a secretary and this article is right on. I type without thinking about it and then I start thinking about how I’m not thinking about it while I’m doing it.

  • farticustheelder

    At my school, the typewriters had blank key-caps. The aim was to teach touch typing, and I don’t remember any tests that required knowing the position of letters on the keyboard. I became convinced, and still am, that errors were detected in my wrists. I know that’s silly, but that is where errors are localized for me.

  • Skynet Emulator

    This study seems flawed in that most keyboards have letters on the keys, meaning you don’t need to recall them from memory. That being said, typing feels more like muscle memory than actively knowing where each key is on the keyboard. But the letters are there if you really had to look.

  • Andy Dabydeen

    If this is true for humans, what about other species? Hmm …

  • Lindaur

    The reason you don’t know where the keys are is because you are NOT taught to memorise them. You are taught to type asdf, then sad, then train. Each step is about your fingers learning the correct location. Not your brain.

  • Jerry David Hardin

    I just find this humorous, and sadly appends my age, as I not only had to take a keyboarding class in high-school (where we’d giggle when the teacher would exit windows to go to dos to try to adjust the volume), but when I went to another school in a neighboring county, they MADE me take their keyboarding class despite my arguments. Joke was on them when I used visual basic to make a program to type for me (final joke on me when next friday’s progress report came out and I was show to have a gwam of ~2800 words per minute). But really, I’m pretty sure I can type out the alphabet on a keyboard and be pretty accurate for over 3/4 of it, hence the “showing my age” bit that kind of depresses me :(

  • Nina Halliday-Thompson

    I love these types of studies.

    Women of my generation were secretaries. I took business courses in High School. I did not want to make one typing error with those 10 carbon copies or those telex messages (morris code) to headquarters in Toronto or New York. The input with those machines was slow, deliberate and methodical. This of course is before the various typing machines.

  • johnwerneken

    Practice..practice…practice again. Then practice some more. People get PAID to report findings like this?????

  • Jon Miller

    First, I read the entire study and it’s interesting. It was the choice of words in the study release article above, most of which were not discussed in the study, that caught my attention. Perhaps that was the intent…

    I’m not familiar with the theory of automatic learning. It seems that in the beginning all of us consciously look at the new keys and learn where they are. I assume that since they didn’t learn the key letters that infers a conscious process wasn’t used? Not sure I understand the statement that ‘we don’t consciously learn how to do it in the first place’.

    I’ve never heard the term use it or lose it with respect to the fine details, normally it is used with the broader skills – and I can state for certain that use it or lose it, when it comes to broader skills, is absolutely verifiable and real when it comes to physical performance. Ask any athlete to perform under pressure after not practicing for a year and see if they retain their prior skill level. They most certainly will not, even in sports where mental skills are emphasized and physical skills are minimal. Although mostly this applies to more physical skills I would bet you a locally brewed beverage of your choice it applies to typing as well.

    The term “know it” is likely too vague to be useful and should probably be avoided unless it’s specifically defined. Often in sports, terms such as learn (or understand) it versus know it are used to delineate between someone that is merely book smart (they’ve learned it) versus someone that can perform (they know it). This can even be reversed depending on who you’re talking to (know it referring to book smart vs understand it referring to performance skills).

    One last thought: the collection of many minor, or fundamental skills (knowing where the keys are), was never important to begin with – only their value in creating words was important. This broader skill was always the end goal and they “know it” quite well. No one told them to learn where the letters are. They were provided a tool and told to use it to create words. Is consciously remembering where the letters are much different than providing them with a different tool such as a pencil, then showing them the muscles of the hand and asking them what muscles they used to create words?

  • Jon Miller

    First, I read the entire study and it’s interesting. It was the choice of words in the study release article above, most of which were not discussed in the study, that caught my attention. Perhaps that was the intent…

    It seems that in the beginning all of us consciously look at the new keys and learn where they are. I assume that since they didn’t remember which letters applied to which keys that infers a conscious process wasn’t used? This doesn’t appear to be a valid assumption.

    The term “know it” is likely too vague to be useful and should probably be avoided unless it’s specifically defined.

    The collection of minor skills (knowing where the keys are), was never important to begin with – only their value in creating words was important. This broader skill was always the end goal and they “know it” quite well. No one told them to learn where the letters are. They were provided a tool and told to use it to create words. Is consciously remembering where the letters are much different than providing them with a different tool such as a pencil, then showing them the muscles of the hand and asking them what muscles they used to create words?

  • Heather K.

    I thought the point was missed here, too, as some other comments have mentioned. Typing is virtually never *taught* by first looking at the keyboard and memorizing the placement of the letters. Therefore, there isn’t a visual pattern for the study participants to recall. It is fundamentally different than driving or tying one’s shoelaces, as those are visual tasks.

    My husband, who never had a formal typing class (the poor soul!), does not touch type and therefore has developed quite a speedy proficiency at tapping out the keys by looking for them first, then punching what he needs. He would no doubt score well in the study’s visual testing, b/c that’s how he knows the keyboard.

    I would disagree that our fingers are smarter than our eyes and/or brains. Seems foolish to speak of our intelligence that way, to me.