Project Options

1. Undergraduate metacognition: Using a motivational lens to identify barriers to changing learning behavior

Co-mentors: Emily Rosenzweig (Educational Psychology) and Julie Stanton (Cellular Biology)

Even when undergraduate science students have developed metacognitive skills, they do not always use their metacognition to take the actions needed for learning. For example, some students are aware of concepts they don’t understand and the best learning strategies for obtaining the understanding they lack, yet they avoid acting on this knowledge due to discomfort. In addition, students may choose not to use effective study strategies because of concerns about how they will be perceived, or concerns about whether a particular study strategy is worth the time and effort. Using a motivational lens this project will explore the barriers students experience when enacting their metacognition, and the ways they overcome those barriers. In-the-moment data and interview data will be collected and analyzed to answer research questions such as: (1) How do students weigh the costs and values of engaging in approaches to learning that are helpful, but require more time and effort? (2) To what extent does self-efficacy for change affect students’ ability to use their metacognition to take action despite discomfort and other concerns?

Mentorship: We will provide interdisciplinary mentorship and training on metacognition in life sciences students (Dr. Stanton’s expertise), and motivational theory and research methods from educational psychology (Dr. Rosenzweig’s expertise).

2. Instructional sequences and collaborative problem-solving in biochemistry

Co-mentors: Logan Fiorella (Educational Psychology) and Paula Lemons (Biochemistry & Molecular Biology)

This project will test how different instructional sequences affect collaborative problem-solving in biochemistry. Proponents of the instruction-first approach argue that explicit instruction should precede problem solving because it reduces cognitive load and avoids unnecessary errors or confusion. In contrast, proponents of the problem-solving-first approach argue that engaging in exploratory problem solving prior to explicit instruction activates students’ existing knowledge and motivates students to repair knowledge gaps. However, results from prior studies are mixed, and little is known about how these instructional sequences uniquely affect specific student interactions during problem solving. This project will systematically examine the quality of student discourse during collaborative problem solving before or after explicit instruction and its relationship with subsequent learning outcomes. It will focus on two foundational topics in biochemistry: noncovalent interactions and metabolic pathway dynamics. The primary goal is to identify potential cognitive, metacognitive, and/or motivational mechanisms of student interactivity that support student understanding. Specifically, the project will consider the quantity and quality of ideas students generate, co-construction of knowledge across group members, openness to errors and exploration, and other indicators of self-regulatory and motivational processes during problem solving. Overall, this project will determine the optimal instructional sequence for fostering productive interactivity among students and how these interactions relate to student understanding of challenging concepts in biochemistry.

Mentorship: Fellow will receive interdisciplinary mentorship and training on discipline-specific instructional and assessment issues in biochemistry (Dr. Lemons’ expertise), as well as instructional design theories and experimental research methods from educational psychology (Dr. Fiorella’s expertise).

3. How does instructor thinking about racial equity influence instructional practices and student motivation to persist in STEM?

Mentors: Tati Russo-Tait (Cellular Biology), Michael Barger (Educational Psychology), Tessa Andrews (Genetics)

Project Description: Instructional practices contribute to the learning environment for students, which may foster or undermine a student’s motivation to persist in STEM. Student motivation is impacted by the culture of the classroom and this culture is largely cultivated by the instructor. Instructors make decisions about curriculum, instruction, norms, expectations, rules, and habits of the classroom based, at least in part, on their conceptions of equity and the responsibility they take for advancing equity in biology. This project will investigate how instructors think about racial equity, how they translate these ideas into instructional practices that can exclude or include students of color, and how students perceive the impact of those instructional practices on their personal motivation to persist in STEM (Figure 1). The connections between instructor beliefs and practices and students’ experiences have rarely been investigated, nor has the varied motivational experiences of students in the same classroom over the course of a semester. Thus, this project will rely heavily on exploratory, contextualized, qualitative investigation, with supporting quantitative measures as needed. The project will draw on critical frameworks such as color-evasion, anti-Blackness, and critical racial consciousness to analyze how instructor thinking about racial equity inform practices that affect course culture and student experience. We will also use an integrative motivational framework to analyze student identity-based motivation, incorporating students’ sense of belonging, competence, and values.

Figure 1. Conceptual framework of the project. Instructor beliefs about racial equity influence instructional practices (e.g., policies, curriculum, pedagogy, class climate). Students perceive instructional practices, which influences their motivation to persist in STEM (e.g., competence, belonging, value, identity).  

Mentorship: Fellow will receive interdisciplinary mentorship and training on theories, research literature, and research methods in the areas of faculty thinking and practices related to racial equity and justice (expertise of Drs. Russo-Tait and Andrews) and student motivation in STEM (Dr. Barger’s expertise).

4. Communication, expectations, and burnout: How research cultures reduce or exacerbate graduate student burnout in the life sciences

Co-mentors: Malissa Clark (Psychology) and Erin Dolan (Biochemistry & Molecular Biology)

An increasing number of studies and national reports indicate that STEM graduate students are experiencing burnout during their graduate education experience. Yet, there is little research on the causes of STEM graduate student burnout. Furthermore, there are few studies that shed light on the individual or contextual factors in STEM doctoral research training that may increase or decrease students’ likelihood of experiencing burnout. Research from organizational psychology has revealed that norms around communication and expectations of being “always on” contribute to employee burnout in the workplace. The postdoctoral fellow working on this research will collaborate with co-mentors Clark and Dolan to test hypotheses related to causes of doctoral student burnout in the life sciences, including the extent to which research advisor behavior and research group culture moderate any observed effects. If time permits, the postdoc may also collaborate on the design and implementation of an intervention study aimed at protecting STEM doctoral students against experiencing burnout level. Overall, this project will apply theories related to burnout, overwork, and mentorship, and study design and methods from psychology to the domain-specific challenges of STEM graduate education.

Mentorship: Fellow will receive interdisciplinary mentorship and training on discipline-specific research training environments and graduate education in the life sciences (Dr. Dolan’s expertise), and on theories and research methods from industrial and organizational psychology (Dr. Clark’s expertise).

5. Psychometric evaluation of biology education interventions

Co-mentors: Matthew Madison (Educational Psychology) and Paula Lemons (Biochemistry & Molecular Biology)

The evaluation of intervention effects is a critical area of educational research. One way that educational systems can improve is through the systematic implementation of products, policies, practices, and programs that research has identified as successful. In biology education, the quantitative evaluation of instructional interventions has typically involved traditional statistical models (e.g., multiple regression) that do not account for measurement error, potentially leading to biased results, loss of statistical power, and limited interpretations. Additionally, methods for evaluating interventions should allow for more nuanced narratives by accounting for contextual effects. Through a secondary analysis of a data set from a biology education intervention study (Lemons, He, & Fiorella, 2023), the postdoctoral fellow will explore different latent variable modeling frameworks such as structural equation modeling and item response theory for evaluating interventions, and their respective benefits and limitations specific to biology education interventions. This project will also involve making these methods more accessible for biology education researchers through training and targeted outreach. The postdoctoral fellow will collaborate with co-mentors Madison and Lemons to learn about different psychometric and latent variable modeling frameworks and their application in biology education research.

Mentorship: The postdoctoral fellow will receive interdisciplinary mentorship and training on latent variable models and their application in educational interventions (Dr. Madison’s expertise), and on discipline-specific instructional and assessment issues in biochemistry (Dr. Lemons’ expertise).

6. Implementing drawing activities in biochemistry

Mentors: Logan Fiorella (Educational Psychology) and Paula Lemons (Biochemistry & Molecular Biology)

This project will test how to effectively implement drawing activities in biochemistry courses. It will focus on how drawing affects students’ understanding of two foundational topics in biochemistry: noncovalent interactions and metabolic pathway dynamics. Prior research suggests drawing supports learning in science by helping students organize their knowledge and reason about the structure and function of complex systems. However, drawing activities are also cognitively demanding and time consuming, and students and instructors may have unproductive beliefs about the utility of drawing. This project will systematically examine instructional methods intended to optimize the unique benefits of drawing on student understanding while overcoming potential cognitive and motivational barriers. Specifically, the project will consider the role of instructor modeling, scaffolding, guided practice, feedback, and student collaboration as tools for supporting high-quality drawings that result in student understanding. It will also examine ways to integrate drawing activities with existing instructional methods, including instructor-provided visualizations, animations, and models. Overall, this project will determine the unique costs and benefits associated with implementing drawing in biochemistry courses, providing insight into cognitive mechanisms underlying learning and yielding practical guidelines for how instructors can support active cognitive engagement.

Mentorship: Fellows will receive interdisciplinary mentorship and training on discipline-specific issues related to incorporating active learning in biochemistry courses (Dr. Lemons’ expertise), as well as learning theories and experimental research methods from educational psychology (Dr. Fiorella’s expertise).

7. Fostering high quality PhD mentoring relationships in the life sciences

Co-mentors: Erin Dolan (Biochemistry & Molecular Biology) and Justin Lavner (Psychology)

Research on mentoring in the workplace and in higher education highlights the importance of shared beliefs, values, and interests between mentors and mentees. This “psychological similarity” is associated with productive, high quality mentoring relationships. Psychological similarity has also been shown to be more important than other forms of mentor-mentee matching for fostering persistence and success of both undergraduate and graduate students in the sciences. Conversely, interpersonal mismatch can undermine the quality and effectiveness of research mentoring relationships. Fortunately, recent evidence indicates that relatively brief interventions can promote feelings of psychological similarity in student-faculty mentoring relationships. This project will develop a novel intervention to foster psychological similarity between life science PhD students and their research advisors. The postdoctoral fellow will collaborate with co-mentors Dolan and Lavner to design and test the intervention, and learn how to apply theories, study designs, and methods from the social sciences to the domain-specific challenges of life science graduate education.

Mentorship: The postdoctoral fellow will receive interdisciplinary mentorship and training on discipline-specific research training environments and graduate education in the life sciences (Dr. Dolan’s expertise), and on theories, study designs, and research methods from psychology related to the study of relationships (Dr. Lavner’s expertise).

8. How do STEM departments develop evidence-based, equity-minded, and improvement-oriented teaching evaluation practices?

Mentors: Tessa Andrews (Genetics), Paula Lemons (Biochemistry & Molecular Biology), and Co-mentor (To be identified)

Project Description: Persistent national and global challenges make transforming STEM higher education both urgent and essential. New scientific knowledge, skills, and technologies and greater public trust in science and technology is needed to promote human and environmental health and wellbeing for all. Meeting these needs requires institutions of higher education to build cultures and practices that value teaching alongside research and that prioritize equity and inclusion to more fully cultivate and leverage the STEM talent pool. Systemic changes in departments and universities are necessary to accomplish this. This project will investigate the processes and outcomes of systemic change efforts within STEM departments and the larger university context, with a particular focus on reforming teaching evaluation to be more evidence-based, equity-centered, and improvement-oriented. Using data from interviews, surveys, and meeting recordings, this project will investigate the roles that leadership and buy-in play in departmental reform, and the impacts of a long-term project to advance departmental teaching evaluation practices. The postdoc will collaborate with co-mentors to apply theories related to organizational change to the specific context of STEM higher education, and will have opportunities to develop qualitative and quantitative methodological skills.

 Mentorship: Fellow will receive interdisciplinary mentorship and training on theories, research literature, and research methods in the areas of organizational change, leadership, and teaching evaluation. Co-mentor will be identified based on the Fellow’s interests.