Psychology Research Hits Close to Home


(l-r) Psychology faculty Dr. Leah Zinner, Dr. Justin Wise, Dr. John Carton, and Dr. Lisa Hayes

Research has long been a vital component of the psychology curriculum at Oglethorpe, and this year, with the support of a new on-campus research grant, four professors are working collaboratively to take their research full throttle. Dr. John Carton, chair of the behavioral sciences division, and his colleagues, Drs. Lisa Hayes, Justin Wise, and Leah Zinner, remain active scholars, pursuing personal research projects while providing opportunities for students to gain research experience in their areas of interest. Recently, they combined their own academic interests and expertise with initiatives in Oglethorpe’s strategic plan to begin an unprecedented three-pronged, long-term psychology study, in which Oglethorpe students will play various roles.

The grant supporting the study aims to strengthen the research component of the Atlanta Laboratory for Learning (A_LAB). Founded in 2013, the A_LAB helps students to identify opportunities, both in Atlanta and around the globe, to put their classroom education into action out in the real world through study abroad, civic engagement, professional development and internships, and undergraduate research. A call for proposals for the grant, the first of its kind to be offered at Oglethorpe, stipulated that the potential research projects should support one of those areas.

Six grant proposals were received and after a competitive review process by the Offices of the President and Provost, and the Center for Civic Engagement in the A_LAB, the psychology department’s proposal, Fostering Academic Achievement and Student Retention, was selected. “When the A_LAB grant opportunity was announced,” says Dr. Carton, “rather than each of us submitting individually, we thought we would propose a study that allows us to take advantage of the good working relationships that we have already and accomplish something on a grander scale.”

“The A_LAB is all about enhancing deep learning experiences for our students and working with our faculty on undergraduate research is a key piece of that.”
— President Larry Schall

This study aims to assist minority students in identifying their strengths to help them cope with stereotype threat, a self-confidence issue faced by many, but particularly minority groups. Prior studies have shown that when a student belongs to a group that is affected by a stereotype (for example, a certain gender or ethnicity is not “supposed” to excel at a particular subject), their academic achievement can be negatively affected as a result. “One goal of this values affirmation study,” explains Dr. Zinner, “is to reduce the negative effects of stereotype threat by reminding people about the values that are important to them, why they are important, and when they have been important in their lives.” The intervention has been shown to help to raise students’ grades, reduce performance gaps between majority and minority students, and improve retention. The research will involve 250 middle school students from nearby partner schools and 250 new Oglethorpe students enrolled in a First-Year Seminar (FYS) course, plus OU psychology students, who will help to administer the study.

Academic achievement and student retention are topics that hit close to home, and their research has the potential to directly inform Oglethorpe’s policies and positively impact student success. The project includes three different, but related studies, and five goals (see study abstracts below).

Goals of the Studies
1. To foster student achievement among children (grades 5-8) at Oglethorpe’s partner schools in Atlanta
2. To foster student achievement among Oglethorpe students, particularly those who are most at risk (under-represented minority students and first-generation college students)
3. To understand more completely and potentially increase retention rates among Oglethorpe students
4. To connect classroom learning to experiential learning opportunities in the community by providing Oglethorpe students with a high quality research experience
5. To enhance the undergraduate research experience for Oglethorpe students

A clinical psychologist by training, Dr. Carton’s interests lie in understanding the causes and treatment of mental health issues, the effects of rewards on motivation, and the measurement of people’s abilities to send and receive non-verbal communication. With a background in developmental and educational psychology, Dr. Lisa Hayes is interested in examining the impacts of mental health problems and stress on academic achievement, and is especially looking forward to interacting with middle school students and teachers. Dr. Leah Zinner is a social psychologist by training and enjoys studying areas of prejudice and stereotypes. Dr. Justin Wise’s expertise lies in developmental psychology with a specialization in pediatric neuropsychology. He is currently serving as a methodologist and statistician for a number of studies being conducted at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Emory University, and Georgia State University. “The department has selected its faculty to be teacher-scholars,” says Dr. Carton, “and together we cover all of the main areas of the science.”

ALAB Psych IMG_1129This study (which coincidentally shares a name with one of the professors) will measure differences in student achievement based on different types of instructor feedback given on assignments. It will involve 100 upper- level psychology students at Oglethorpe. Two groups of students will receive feedback on an assignment—either wise feedback (a way of giving feedback that assuages mistrust by emphasizing high standards and assures students that they are capable of improving with effort and meeting those standards) or neutral feedback. They will then be given the opportunity to revise and re-submit. A blind grader will determine if there is a difference in the improvement of the assignments based on the type of feedback the students received.

“We love to teach and motivate our students in the classroom environment and watch the light bulbs go off,” he says, “but we equally love the opportunity to work one-on-one with students. In psychology, that’s often in the lab, and now we’ll also be able to work with students in other majors who may be looking at this research through a different lens.”

In collaboration with Oglethorpe’s director of institutional research and effectiveness, this study will analyze years of collected student data to look for patterns that may reveal reasons for student attrition. “This study has the potential to shed light on why some students stay at Oglethorpe, why some leave, and when to intervene,” says Dr. Carton. The psychology research team plans to share the results of their studies not only with the professional psychology community, but also with fellow faculty members and Oglethorpe administration in an effort to inform future improvements to the student experience. “I think that if we can show a positive impact on retention, even in a very small way, through any of these three studies, it’s a great thing for Oglethorpe,” says Dr. Wise

Oglethorpe students from all majors will be invited to be involved in the studies. “We’ll cast a broad net with the A_LAB’s help,” says Dr. Carton. “Anyone who would like to try out a psychology study and see what it’s like from an insider’s perspective will have a chance to participate.” Indeed, Dr. Carton and his colleagues are looking forward to working with students from other disciplines as well.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email