Dr. James Algina
UF Department of Educational Psychology
2008-2009 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
One of the many positive aspects of teaching at the University of Florida is that the reputation of the University helps to attract graduate students who have a history of academic success and, for many students, a history of professional success. The greatest challenge facing these well-qualified students is often completing the dissertation successfully.
My approach to working with a student is to promote the student’s immersion in a body of literature that is ripe with research potential. Through this process a student can find a research question that will be valuable to the field and in which the student will have an abiding interest. Both characteristics are important, but I view the second characteristic as critical. The path to finishing a dissertation can be arduous and, without interest to sustain the journey, students may founder. Moreover, for students who are interested in obtaining a university position, a critical goal of graduate school is finding an area of expertise and interest that will support progress towards the standards for success in a university.
The immersion can take place in a number of ways. An invitation to participate in a research study can be the avenue for one student to become fully engaged in the literature. Independent studies and class papers are time-honored methods to promote interest and direction. For a student who has not completed a Master’s degree in the area, a master’s thesis can provide the vehicle for immersion. But the process almost always starts with conversation aimed at uncovering a student’s incipient interests, and that, in some cases, moves to encouragement to expand horizons. One of my recently graduated students, who had been attracted to UF by a Minority Opportunity Fellowship, had worked as an undergraduate on validating an instrument to predict cheating on tests. In our first conversation, the student told me about that experience and indicated an interest in continuing with that work. However, the student also mentioned assisting, as an undergraduate student, other students and faculty in analyzing data. The techniques the student had used, and had learned largely independently, were quite sophisticated. My impression was that the data analyses were more engaging to him than was the research on cheating. Over the first semester we talked about these issues a number of times and I told the student that prediction of cheating could be the basis for a dissertation, but I encouraged exploring the other area. Subsequently the student applied for and was awarded anNIH Fellowship to investigate methods for analyzing incomplete multivariate data, completed a postdoctoral fellowship in statistical genetics, and is currently an assistant professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. These achievements are perhaps far from what one might have envisioned for a student who arrived with a plan to investigate predictors of cheating.
Often several of these approaches will be required to spark a student’s interest and bring about the focus necessary for dissertation research. For example, to one of my recently graduated students, I suggested a literature review on the performance of a data analysis method about which I had been asked to consult and that happened to be appropriate for a course the student was taking from me. The next semester I suggested additional work through an independent study. The student completed the work and claimed the area as the dissertation focus, but did not seem keenly interested in the problem. I then suggested an independent study on a related area. This time the outcome was different. The student’s interest was fully engaged. Why was the outcome different the second time around? In part the better outcome was simply the result of completing the process twice. But in part it was due to our interactions, over a year and a half, aimed at encouraging the student to develop of a more critical stance in regard to the literature, build a strong and coherent argument for the importance of the research question, and take responsibility for ownership of the dissertation.
The process unfolded differently for a third student. This student arrived with a keen interest in using psychometric methods to improve educational and psychological measurement and in measurement of social-emotional characteristics. Because of his interests and background, I facilitated a co-supervised experience in which I supervised technical data analysis issues and a colleague, who is preeminent psychologist in the area of socio-emotional assessment, supervised content issues. The result of this collaboration was a paper for which the student received an American Psychological Association award and that has now been published. Also, this student arrived with a large data set on attachment of adolescents to parents that had been collected by colleagues in his country. In two courses I was able to suggest several projects, for him to select among, that would be appropriate for the data and would extend his skill in psychometrics. After the course was completed, my role was to assist him in some of the technical aspects of the data analysis methods he had selected and to review the paper he and his colleagues had written. These efforts resulted in conference papers and another award. Near the end of the student’s second year, this student began to talk to me about a possible dissertation project. The area the student selected was related to all of the work we had done together, but was not a suggestion I had made to him. This student shared the following with me from a letter he had written: “First of all, Dr. Algina always encourages students to find their own academic interests and gives students freedom to choose their own dissertation topics. The self-exploration and academic independence are very important for the long-term professional development of graduate students, especially for me, a student with traditional Chinese (teacher-centered) educational background.”
Of course, promoting interest is not a sufficient basis for completing a dissertation. The student must develop the ability to critically review literature, to identify important research questions, to write clearly and precisely, to adapt and design research methods, to evaluate data, and so forth. These skills are developed by the cycle of submitting work and receiving constructive feedback. But these skills are more easily developed when the student is intrinsically interested in the projects, interest that will bolster the student through these cycles and help develop the resilience and persistence that are the hallmarks of many excellent researchers.