Dr. Patricia Ashton


UF Department of Educational Psychology

2002-2003 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner

The mentoring relationship between adviser and doctoral student is one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of teaching. When it is successful, the student-teacher relationship evolves into a collaboration in which the student becomes peer and often teacher. Benefiting from the experience of the mentor, the student adopts and adapts the standards of excellence and the enthusiasm and commitment to scholarship, teaching, and service that contributed to the mentor’s achievement. Through the process of guiding and caring for the intellectual development of the student, the mentor transmits a professional legacy to the future. Negotiating this delicate process requires mutual trust, respect, and sensitivity to each other’s needs.

I have supervised 19 PhD graduates, including two who have become deans, thirteen who have become successful faculty members at universities and colleges across the nation and around the world, two research and evaluation consultants for Florida school districts, an executive director of a social service agency, and a mother bringing up three beautiful and brilliant children. To achieve the goal of helping doctoral students develop a professional identity committed to advancing research and teaching in educational psychology, I tailor my supervisory strategies to match their career goals and personal characteristics.

I begin the process of mentoring doctoral students’ development as researchers by encouraging them to model the thinking of successful educational psychologists. Guided by the ecological theory of Urie Bronfenbrenner who recommended that to understand educational and developmental processes, we should try to improve them, I require students to write proposals in which they identify a problem in education, examine relevant psychological theory, and propose an experiment based on theory to promote more optimal human development. To increase the quality of students’ proposals, I provide detailed feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of their work. When appropriate, I encourage students to carry out the proposed research, as the beginning of a program of research leading to the dissertation. When I have been most effective with this approach to fostering scholarship, students have written theses and dissertations that describe a significant educational problem and an approach to solving it grounded in psychological theory and demonstrate success in addressing the problem, as evident in Michele Gregoire’s research on strategies for promoting change in students’ understanding when they hold beliefs that conflict with accepted scientific concepts, in Narendra Kumar’s use of expressive writing to reduce stress in preservice teachers during their first teaching internship, in Hsiu-jen Lin’s approach to reducing anxiety that interferes with learning from test feedback, and in Jenny Bergeron’s research on the effect of intrinsic motivation in enhancing the learning of children with ADHD. My goal is for students to derive deep satisfaction from this research approach that will motivate a life-long dedication to improving education and human development.

To foster students’ commitment to excellence in teaching, I involve them in teaching our department’s child development course in the College of Education’s preservice teacher education program. They begin by observing my undergraduate class, reviewing my tests and instructional materials, and thinking about how to develop preservice teachers’ ability to apply psychological theory and research in their classrooms to enhance their students’ learning. This work culminates in teaching their own classes and collaborating with me in improving our instruction. Four of the students with whom I have worked have won the University’s Graduate Student Teaching Award. In addition, my classes have benefited from insights about teaching effectiveness that I learned from these outstanding teachers.

To help students develop a professional identity in the discipline, I teach a course in the history of educational psychology in which they explore the philosophical and historical origins of the discipline. My focus in this course is to help them understand their debt to earlier researchers and their responsibility to researchers in the future. To encourage them to understand their research interests in the context of the history of the discipline, they write a paper in which they review research on a topic in their area of specialization and compare it to related work of major theorists from the past. In their analysis, students focus on similarities and differences in assumptions, methods, and conclusions, and propose directions for future study.

When students ask me to serve as their supervisor, I emphasize my high expectations, and I explain that doctoral study takes fortitude, but if they are willing to persevere, they will experience an exhilarating success that will enable them to achieve their career goals. With this understanding, we design a program together to meet the student’s individual interests and needs, and I adopt an approach to mentoring that builds on the student’s talents. To illustrate my approach, I offer two examples of how I individualize my work with students:

(1) A doctoral student from Taiwan had sophisticated insights about educational psychology, but she had difficulty expressing her ideas in English. To address the problem, I met with her weekly throughout the summer. At each meeting, she presented a key journal article in her area of interest, and we discussed its implications for future research. With the time I was able to give her in the summer, she improved her ability to present her research ideas and complete the dissertation process successfully. I am following a similar approach with another Taiwanese student.

(2) With our department’s first Presidential Fellow, my primary role was to provide extensive opportunities for her to expand her skills and to make presentations and connections that would enable her to assume a leadership position in the field. By encouraging her to engage in interdisciplinary work with faculty in psychology, she developed expertise in technology, instructional design, and cognitive-developmental research in mathematics that culminated in an invited presentation at the Carnegie-Mellon Symposium on Cognition and Instruction. By advising her to develop her interest in quantitative and qualitative methodology, she acquired research skills far beyond what is typical for students in educational psychology. By nominating her for a Spencer travel fellowship, she was able to work with a nationally recognized scholar in her research area and benefit from seminars with a select group of doctoral students in educational psychology. Finally, by providing emotional support in times of frustration, she persevered and accumulated an impressive record of research.

In summary, my mentoring style is (a) to develop graduate students’ ability to ask important questions and generate innovative alternatives for improving education and advancing the discipline of educational psychology and (b) to promote the development of their skill, enthusiasm, and commitment in transmitting their knowledge and research to future generations guided by the highest standards of ethics and excellence.