Using scientific research to inform pedagogical practice

Jalisha headshot.jpgJalisha Jenifer aspires to use research on teaching and learning to support teaching and learning outcomes. “It’s very meta,” she jokes about her career plans. Jenifer, who grew up in Dover, Delaware, has wanted to be a teacher from a young age, in part because she had so many instructors who she admired.

In high school, a psychology class that explored the science of learning inspired her to pursue an undergraduate degree in psychology at Princeton University. As an undergraduate, she held a number of internships, including as a research assistant in the Human Working Memory Lab, where she studied how factors like bilingualism affect intellectual capability and memory capacity. She also spent two years as a learning consultant at Princeton’s McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, where she helped other students learn time management skills and coursework strategies to help them navigate their own academic careers. “It was a great opportunity to mentor others and learn about the challenges students face in rigorous academic environments,” she says.

Following her graduation in 2016, she matriculated at the University of Chicago in a doctoral program in psychology as an Institute of Education Sciences Predoctoral Fellow, which is a fellowship supported by the U.S. Department of Education and the University’s Committee on Education. Since matriculating, she has also been awarded the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship.

Good advice

Jenifer chose UChicago in part because of the work of Susan Levine, the Rebecca Anne Boylan Professor in Education and Society; and Sian Beilock,  former Stella M. Rowley Professor of Psychology  and current president of Barnard College.  Beilock and Levine, who became her advisors, both conduct research into the psychology of education. “In our department we often co-advise students,” Levine says. “It ensures they develop into great independent scientists.”

In her application she expressed an interest in studying the relationship between student’s math attitudes, study strategies, and academic outcomes. Levine and Beilock, who continues to advise Jenifer from Barnard, apply their research in real-world settings. That was very appealing for Jenifer, who aspires to translate the psychological perspective to the classroom. “I was excited about the applied aspect of their research,” she says. “It’s why I came here.”

She was also drawn to the interdisciplinary culture of UChicago. “One characteristic that is really exciting about this university is the opportunity to learn from people outside of your department, to understand how they think about problems in different ways,” she says. “Seeing multiple perspectives informs my work.”

Math anxiety and test prep

Now in her fourth year, Jenifer has been researching how math anxiety, or negative feelings of tension and apprehension towards math, affects the way students study for exams. She’s been working with students on UChicago’s campus, online participants on Mechanical Turk, and with local high school and middle school students to explore the effects of math anxiety on various populations.

Her most recent results found that math anxious students will avoid doing difficult practice questions to prepare for a test, opting instead to read about the mathematical process.

It’s an interesting finding, notes Levine. “Reading about how to solve a problem is not as engaging as solving it,” she says. “Until you do it yourself, you don’t know if you can.”

Jenifer is now focused on how to make math anxious students feel more comfortable tackling practice problems so they can be better prepared for their tests.

Her results from an additional research project exploring the link between math anxiety and math avoidance will be published in an upcoming issue of Science Advances. She also hopes to write her dissertation about the findings and how schools can use these insights to better support math anxious students.

The future is bright

Jenifer expects to graduate in 2021 and plans to become a research professor while also staying involved in teaching pedagogy through organizations like the University’s Chicago Center for Teaching, where she is a fellow. “Grad students and post docs are all expected to have great teaching skills, but it’s not something you are born with, it’s something you develop” she says. She wants to help future generations hone their skills so they can be as effective teachers as they are researchers.

Levine also has high hopes for Jenifer’s future. "She has all the skills needed to be a great academic - in terms of research as well as teaching.'