Research on improving undergraduate education and student outcomes has traditionally focused on cognitive factors, those competencies related directly to an individual’s intelligence or knowledge (e.g., problem solving, working memory, etc.) However, a growing body of literature has established the importance of considering non-cognitive factors, those skills and dispositions which are not associated with the development of knowledge or cognitive functioning (e.g., fear of failure, growth mindset, coping style, etc.; Farrington, 2019). By combining content and methods expertise from the fields of psychology, education, and statistics, I work with diverse STEM educators to leverage psychosocial frameworks to both characterize the most effective instructor practices at the collegiate level and to inform classroom activities and interventions which use such noncognitive factors as leverage points to improve instructor and student outcomes. The following research statement is organized as follows: 1) Brief descriptions of past research that informed my research identity and provided specific skills, 2) Information on my current postdoctoral research, 3) Discussion of future research goals and expectations.
Doctoral research: Exploring developmental adjustment in underserved adolescents and developing statistical skills
As a doctoral student, I worked on several projects which explored the developmental trajectories of underserved adolescents by extending research methods beyond the traditional paradigm. For example, my dissertation explored relationships between sleep problems and internalizing and externalizing adolescent behaviors. I added to the literature in this area by including measures of sleep consistency (Acebo and Carskadon, 2002; Wolfson and Carskadon, 1998) in addition to the traditionally used sleep duration, and I modeled bidirectional relationships wherein sleep behaviors predict adjustment outcomes which, in turn, are related to sleep behaviors (Alvaro, Roberts, and Harris, 2013).
While the specific focus of my research has shifted in recent years, as described below, my graduate research experiences continue to affect me in two large ways. First, undertaking sophisticated developmental science studies like my dissertation allowed me to develop rigorous research design and statistical skills which aid me in conducting educational research. Specifically, I have fostered quantitative skills relevant to creating and working with large, longitudinal data sets and high proficiency in using SPSS, SAS, and MPlus statistical programs to conduct a variety of analyses (e.g., regression, moderation effects, mixed models, structural equation modeling). In addition, I developed project management skills and the ability to train researchers. Secondly, conducting social science research with urban samples in Birmingham, AL helped me to develop a habit of considering the implications of my research for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) concerns. For example, the individuals I worked with primarily identified as African-American, so my dissertation results had particularly significant implications, given that African-Americans report overall poorer sleep and African-American adolescents are more likely to experience adjustment problems (Cukor et al, 2016; Lanza, Vasilenko, Dziak, and Butera, 2015).
Prior Education Research: Increasing Graduate Student Confidence for Code-Based Statistical Analyses
As a doctoral student, I designed and conducted a multi-year study testing the impacts of a series of exercises I created for the graduate-level statistics lab I taught. This course was based in Statistical Analysis Software (SAS), which is operated by writing and running code in the command line. I noticed that my students rarely used error messages provided by the program to troubleshoot their code. Instead, they simply asked for help. I created the “Make it Work!” exercises to encourage students to engage in the valuable troubleshooting process by providing structured practice opportunities. These exercises consisted of a section of code that was intentionally “broken”, which students had to fix using information from error messages. I evaluated this activity by asking students to rate their overall confidence using SAS and in conducting, troubleshooting, interpreting, and creating various types of analyses at both the beginning and end of the course. Dependent samples t-tests indicated that students reported more confidence in using the SAS program overall and in all four domains of conducting statistical analyses when the “Make it Work!” activities were present for a topic (compared to when they were not). Students also viewed the activities favorably, indicating through open-response questions that they enjoyed them as a part of the course and found them useful. This project first introduced me to the idea of building a research program to study classroom activities and behaviors in order to improve undergraduate education.
Current Research: Helping Students Succeed by Embracing Failure
My current research stems from the NSF-funded research coordination network, FLAMEnet–Factors influencing Learning, Attitudes, and Mindsets in Education network. FLAMEnet exists to support the development of the next generation of resilient, innovative, and challenge-engaging scientists. We do this by bringing together STEM instructors, psychologists, and education researchers to build upon non-cognitive psychological frameworks (e.g., fear of failure, coping, growth mindset to 1) gather information on instructor practices and student viewpoints, 2) garner buy-in for change among instructors and institutions and 3) create and disseminate network resources, including effective classroom activities to improve instructor and student outcomes (Henry, Shorter, Charkoudian, Heemstra, and Corwin, 2019; FLAMEnet Strategic Model 2020). Since launching in 2017, FLAMEnet has recruited over 50 active members who create, implement, and disseminate classroom activities. Our current interventions have impacted approximately 2000 students. FLAMEnet members come from a diverse range of institutions: public and private; research, liberal arts, and comprehensive; 2-year and 4-year; and minority serving institutions (MSI), Hispanic serving institutions (HSI), and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU). Disciplines across STEM, including psychology, are represented, along with academic administrators.
As a founder and member of the FLAMEnet steering committee, my work has been essential to FLAMEnet’s growth and success. My main responsibilities for FLAMEnet center around the following areas: 1) network assessment and statistical consultation — I communicate with STEM instructors around the country who are conducting FLAMEnet research and manage a cohesive network-wide assessment plan involving data collection at multiple timepoints across
the semester. As requested, I also work with individual FLAMEnet members to create assessment materials, design statistical analyses, and help interpret results; 2) communications and project management — I keep FLAMEnet members updated on progress, important deadlines, and announcements via the network’s website, email address, and social media accounts. I also take a key role in the grantsmanship of the network. To date, we have received $575,000 over two grants from the NSF Research Coordination Networks in Undergraduate Biology Education (RCN-UBE) program; and 3) professional development facilitation — FLAMEnet seeks to offer its members multiple opportunities for professional development. At the shift to online-only education at the beginning of the COVID-19 health crisis, I created one of the most impactful of these resources. Initially begun as a biweekly social hour, FLAMEnet community hours have evolved to provide a time for members to share research findings, seek feedback, and discuss common topics of interest (e.g., balancing structure and flexibility in online courses). In organizing these community hours for the network, I am responsible for recruiting facilitators, scheduling meetings, and handling all technical aspects of the Zoom meeting room.
Current Research: Validating Assessment Tools
Recognizing the critical importance of using appropriate assessment tools in educational research, I took the initiative to start a separate line of research using confirmatory and exploratory factor analyses to validate two survey measures FLAMEnet has used to assess our psychosocial variables of interest (i.e., fear of failure and coping). While these assessment tools have undergone validation protocols, neither have been validated specifically for STEM contexts. Our work suggests that the current forms of these surveys do not best represent the experiences of undergraduate students in STEM. Using exploratory factor analysis and cognitive interviews, we have derived revised versions of each measure to be used in STEM undergraduate contexts. Critically, while the revised versions show an improved fit for all STEM undergraduates, this appears to be especially true for PEER (persons excluded because of their ethnicity or race; Asai, 2020) students. Mean comparisons demonstrate that, prior to our revisions, these measures significantly underestimated STEM undergraduates’ levels of fear of failure. Again, this difference was particularly significant for PEER students. This research, then, demonstrates my strengths in psychometrics and provides tools that can be used for more accurate educational research.
Future Research Goals and Expectations
Moving forward, I aim to continue to work interdisciplinarily to integrate psychological frameworks and best pedagogical practices, improving the well-being and success of both students and instructors within undergraduate educational systems. I am especially passionate about discovering how we can help underserved and traditionally underrepresented students succeed in undergraduate education, in general, and in STEM disciplines, in particular. Below, I briefly describe a representative set of research ideas I would be particularly excited to explore at Agnes Scott
Building on current research — FLAMEnet has synthesized existing literature to create an interactional model expressing how undergraduate students might approach and respond to failure (Henry et al., 2019) This model has not yet been fully assessed. Further, my work
with FLAMEnet thus far makes it evident that a clearer understanding of precisely how undergraduate students define “failure” and “success” in academic contexts is necessary. Through iterative cycles of qualitative interviews, survey measurement, and structural equation modeling and factor analyses, I will fully investigate the proposed relationships among non-cognitive factors believed to affect college students’ approaches and reactions to failures and challenges in academic contexts (e.g., fear of failure, coping style, etc.). This may involve continuing to improve measurement of existing constructs for college academic contexts, or it could lead to the conceptualization of an entirely new construct that better accounts for the variance in students’ behavior. Regardless, the end result will be a comprehensive, valid, and parsimonious operationalization of what I have tentatively conceived of as the “failure mindset”.
Broadening current research – Once the “failure mindset” is fully conceptualized, I will investigate the effects of various educational interventions, existing and to be developed through FLAMEnet’s continued work, on failure mindset. The end result will be recommendations of best practice for instructors and others wishing to improve students’ failure mindset and improve academic outcomes.
Beyond current research — Developmentally, the transition from high school to college is one of the more difficult adjustment periods for individuals, with many first year students, especially high achievers, finding it difficult to adjust to the more frequent challenges and failures of college (Bennett, 2017). The possibility that one’s approach and reaction to failure could be either a risk or protective factor related to college success, both in the short-term (first year GPA) and long-term (graduation), and both independently and in interaction with other variables of interest for academic success (e.g., gender, ethnicity, first generation status, SES) is of extreme interest to me. Once the true nature of the “failure mindset” variable is clarified, I hope will explore the developmental changes in this construct, especially as these might influence interventional efficacy.
Given my previous success in securing funding for FLAMEnet as a primary writer of two funded NSF proposals, I am confident in my ability to support my research program. The NSF Improving Undergraduate Science Education (IUSE) program recently reiterated their commitment to supporting research aimed at improving higher education. In addition, the fact that psychosocial adjustment for individuals in high-risk environments continues to be a high research priority for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development suggests that later stages of this research agenda will also be attractive to funding agencies. Finally, I anticipate this research program will be both interesting and effective for undergraduate students seeking training opportunities. I have already recruited several undergraduate students from Emory’s Psychology and Chemistry departments to assist me with my postdoctoral research, and they express a passion for the research topics that closely echoes my own. Altogether, my past research experiences and current interests combine with my personal passion to make me highly qualified to carry out an ambitious research program as a faculty member. Not only is this research poised to be a valuable addition to the psychology department, but it has far reaching potential implications for improving today’s post-secondary education and the quality of tomorrow’s scientists and global citizens.
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- Alvaro, P. K., Roberts, R. M., & Harris, J. K. (2013). A systematic review assessing bidirectionality between sleep disturbances, anxiety, and depression. Sleep, 36(7), 1059-1068.
- Asai, D. J. (2020). Commentary: Race matters. Cell, 181, 754-757.
- Bennett, J. (2017, June 24). On campus, failure is on the syllabus. New York Times. Retrieved December 28, 2018, from http://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/24/fashion/fear-of-failure.html
- Cukor, D., Ver Halen, N., Pencille, M., White, M. F., Primus, N., Kaur, K., . . . Salifu, M. (2016). Sleep health in a black community sample. Sleep Health, 2(2), 136-142.
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- Henry, M.A., Shorter, S., Charkoudian, L., Heemstra, L. M., & Corwin, L. A. (2019). FAIL is not a four-letter word: A theoretical framework for exploring undergraduate students’ approaches to academic challenge and responses to failure in STEM learning environments. CBE-Life Science Education, 18(ar11), 1-17).
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