UChicago’s Summer Immersion programs for high school students offers undergraduate-level courses, with personalized attention from faculty, researchers, and other scholars who will lead students through labs, workshop discussions, field observations, research projects, and other hands-on activities.

In Psychology of Learning, students focus on humans’ ability to learn from and teach others as a feature that sets our species apart. Students investigate learning across the lifespan. Lectures and activities explore engagement, memory, analogical reasoning, executive function, social-emotional components of learning, mindset, “grit”, insight, stereotype threat and more. Students observe learning in formal (e.g., classrooms) and informal settings (e.g., museums) and then conduct their own study of learning with human subjects. Students write an APA-style research paper and formal presentation as their final project and leave with evidence-based tips to improve their own learning.

The course is taught by Kate O’Doherty, a lecturer in Psychology and the College. She joined the Psychology Department in 2015. O’Doherty’s courses include Social Cognitive Development and Child Development in the Classroom seminars as well as larger courses such as Developmental Psychology. She also teaches in the College’s Mind series. She earned her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from Vanderbilt University and is broadly interested in young children’s learning through direct and indirect (e.g., overheard conversations) social interactions.

Dialogo talked with O’Doherty about the course as the summer session was drawing to a close.

Dialogo: This course is part of the UChicago Immersion program, which is open to high school students. What about this program do you enjoy most? How is it different from teaching a College course?

O’Doherty: I love working with the high school students! The group is typically very diverse and includes many international students. We have many different perspectives brought to the classroom, and that enriches our discussions. I enjoy the high school students' enthusiasm and excitement for the future, particularly when they begin collecting and analyzing the data for their research project. They work so hard to finalize the methodology and when they put it into practice and see the results they are thrilled. 

The content and assignments are actually quite similar to my college courses, what differs greatly is the timing. Having a full day of class 5 days a week for 3 weeks straight is really different from the school year and very fun. I get to know the students very well over the short period of time.

Dialogo: These students are learning about learning. Is teaching a class about learning different from teaching a class about other subjects? If so, how?

Katherine O’Doherty: I enjoy teaching them information about learning that they can put to use as they finish their high school years and enter college. For example, we discuss research that indicates retrieval practice (quizzing oneself) is better than re-reading notes for long-term retention of course material.

Dialogo: What are some of the course activities, both in the classroom and out?

O’Doherty: In the classroom we have a variety of activities from lectures to large and small-group discussions to simple recreations of research methods, such as trying out executive function and memory tasks that are often used in research.

Outside of the classroom, we tour the UChicago library and learn how to use online databases to find peer-reviewed academic journal articles. We also visit the Museum of Science & Industry and meet with Dr. Patricia Ward, who is the Director of Science Exhibitions and Partnerships to learn about designing exhibits to support the "informal learning" that takes place outside of the classroom.

Dialogo: How do you introduce students to the research aspect of the class? What is expected from them for this research paper?  What are some of the past projects, and what current projects are students researching?

O’Doherty: The research project is the major assignment for this course. On the first day of class, we start by learning the major components of a psychology research paper: Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion.  We then break the project down so that each component is due progressively. We meet with each group individually before each section is due to make sure they are on the right track, offer advice, and answer questions. At the end of the course they have a complete APA-style research project and paper.

Students are expected to learn the research "cycle" through this project. They review past literature to developing a research question that addresses a gap in the literature. Then, they find valid measures to answer that research question and to collect and analyze data to drawing conclusions while noting limitations, and posing follow-up questions for future research.

In previous sessions, students have investigated topics such as

  • The link between math anxiety and math performance in Chinese and US high school students
  • How visual diagrams support analogical reasoning in high school students and whether the usefulness of visual supports varies according to students' executive function abilities
  • How physical vs. cognitive distractors affect students' working memory skills
  • Gender bias in perceptions of academic success for students (e.g., is a High School valedictorian male or female?) vs. professionals (e.g., is a Nobel prize winner male or female?)

Dialogo: What skills and knowledge do you hope the students leave your course having learned?

O’Doherty: I hope students have learned the importance of carefully considering the evidence used to support claims. Among other questions I help them know to consider: is a claim based on a randomized-control experiment? A correlational study? An in-lab study with a small sample? An in-school study with a diverse sample? Etc. 

Students are also taught to carefully read primary research studies that are presented in academic journals. They consistently practice pulling out key information such as the main research question, the independent and dependent variables, the results and the author's main conclusions. Students then gain practice concisely critiquing these articles via brief response papers.

Students also gain knowledge on a variety of factors that influence learning from cognitive factors such as memory and attention to physical factors such as sleep and exercise to social-cultural factors such as stereotype threat.

Dialogo: What will your summer hold now that the course is finished?

O’Doherty: I am a Chicago native so I love having a few weeks off to spend with my kids (ages 8 and 6) enjoying Chicago summers: we go to the beach, parks, read books, and hang out with grandparents and cousins. This year we are taking a vacation to visit family in London as well!