Eudaimonia, multidisciplinarity, and arousal

When people ask me what was the most difficult part of my PhD, I tend to answer: the multidisciplinarity of it. Yet it is a love-hate relationship, the most challenging part and at the same time the most rewarding. Now in a literal sense as the dissertation just won the Eudaimonia prize for its multidisciplinarity. According to Wikipedia, a common translation of the Greek ´eudaimonia´ is happiness, which on the one hand describes what I felt when I learned of the prize, and on the other hand is the overarching term I use to describe my PhD years in Oulu.
Eudaimonia, multidisciplinarity, and arousal

Another way of describing the emotion of the prize is precisely one of the keywords from my thesis: arousal, that acceleration of heart beats, that feeling of electricity in the body. According to several theories, arousal is an essential element in defining emotions. We might not be familiar with the term, but we are definitely familiar with its everyday manifestation. The racing heart as we are about to ask a question in a group, the sweating hands of nervousness or anxiety, the extra energy pushing us to accomplish our deadlines, the “force” pushing us to the edge of our sofa as we watch on TV that high-stakes sports competition or a suspense film. Arousal basically refers to an energetic state of our body, which has a well-known relationship to our performance.

In my thesis, under the guidance of my supervisors, I explored the (similarities and differences of the) arousal levels of students working collaboratively to solve science problems. We all recognize the importance of collaboration in all spheres in life, as well as the challenges involved in working together with others. This has been largely studied scientifically from the perspectives of many disciplines. Still, there is plenty of work to do in the development of methods, especially real-time ones, which could lead us to creating tools for effective collaboration. My thesis’ contribution was in that direction. Students need more support in learning to collaborate. We know that just putting them to work in groups does not do the job automatically.

The thesis used novel methods to explore some of the dynamics of students collaborating in the classroom. It was a combination of theories, methods, analyses and literature in general from different fields such as (educational) psychology, data sciences, physiology, computer science, behavioral sciences, sociology, ergonomics, and business research. It all came together with a thorough literature review.

During my PhD years, literature reviews would bring me over and over to the library for books decades-old which would not be available online. Sometimes those books would not even be available in the campus library and therefore had to be requested to the Finnish National Repository Library. Often, if not always, I would find those works (or their specific section/chapter of interest to my research) not only enlightening, but also inspiring (again, arousal).

The measures I used, particularly sweat as a witness of arousal, were made possible thanks to the equipment of the LeaF laboratory, especially wristbands with several sensors. Wristband sensors provide great flexibility and opportunities for taking measures in a way that does not disrupt students’ work on a task. I hope that those sensors empower further research on the processes at work during collaboration and that they inspire more multidisciplinary research.

There is much to be learned by synthesizing theoretical advances and methodologies from other fields into a unified framework. I thank the Eudaimonia Institute for stimulating and recognizing multidisciplinarity; in other words, for boosting the transfer and reusability of knowledge across disciplines.

The Eudaimonia Prize

The 2020 Eudaimonia prize was awarded to Héctor J. Pijeira Díaz for a dissertation with the title Electrodermal activity and sympathetic arousal during collaborative learning. The dissertation was examined in 2019 in the field of Education. The selection criteria are high scientific quality, the dissertation’s scientific and societal significance, and the multidisciplinary nature of the dissertation.

The Eudaimonia Prize is awarded every year to an outstanding doctoral dissertation in multidisciplinary human sciences. With the prize, the Eudaimonia Institute wants to honour the excellent and high-quality research done by early-career researchers in human sciences at the University of Oulu.

This year, the award was granted for the third time. The prize winner was selected by Professor Emerita Liisa Keltikangas-Järvinen from the University of Helsinki.

Héctor J. Pijeira Díaz works as a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Educational Development and Research at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. He is interested in learning analytics.