I’m sometimes asked to contribute articles at MuseBreak and this week I’m sharing my most recent article there here since it touches on art in education and Harvard’s Project Zero.  You can read my article here.


First day of classes.  A whole new world before you.  You step up onto campus and take a look around.  How are you feeling?  The day rolls along and you get a few classes under your belt, maybe even managed to find a map of campus.  How are you feeling?  If it was anything like my experience ‘lost’ would be a good word for it.  Everything about the life beyond high school is incredibly different than all that’s come before.  So what’s contributing to this sense of disorientation?  Why does it feel so different?

Well, there was more than just a cursory glance made when a student first steps on to campus.  There are many social cues that students use to gauge whether they belong or not, such as numerical representation (Murphy, Steele, & Gross, 2007; Sekaquaptewa, & Thompson, 2003), number of friends (Walton & Cohen, 2007), interpersonal behavior (Logel, et al., 2009), or even physical objects (Cheryan, Plaut, Davies, & Steele, 2009).  All of these are little indicators to an individual about how familiar their surroundings are.  The more familiar they are with them the more confident they are likely to feel.

Of course, we’re talking more than just what’s happening in the classroom here.  Involvement in extracurricular activities and interactions with peers counts for a lot. Getting into clubs or groups that kept people on campus and working with one another leads to greater gains in critical thinking, writing skills, science reasoning, and degree plans for higher education (Pascarella, et al., 2004). In comparison, Pascarella et al. (2004) discovered that non-course related activities which reduced students’ time on campus, such as work responsibilities, volunteer work, and intercollegiate athletic participation, had a more negative impact.

What might be going on here?  There’s a sense of belonging, sure, but what do students feel they belong too? They may also be receiving instruction in the “college student” role (Collier & Morgan, 2004, p.426). This role comprises mastering the ability to understand instructors’ expectations and applying students’ existing skills to meet the expectations of the education system. In essence, that they belong to the entire life that is college or university.

Dumais (2002) noted that while schools require students to have the ability to recognize, receive, and internalize the values of the dominant culture, they do not necessarily provide students with opportunities to do so. Instead, ‘‘the acquisition of cultural capital and subsequent access to academic rewards depend upon the cultural capital passed down by the family, which in turn, is largely dependent on social class’’ (Dumais 2002, p. 44). Some of us, however, never had that.  I know I didn’t and it turns out that the number of students who don’t have family to guide them through this social labyrinth is rather high.  How high?  Over one third of college students fall into this category (NCES, 2012).  So you’re in good company because even if you’ve never had that it bears no reflection on your intellect, capability, and enthusiasm.

This means that you simply have one extra step in getting the most out of your college education.  That step is to get out there and find those college connections which will provide what the other students might already innately have.  You will need to join many clubs, selectively be discriminating as to which of those are the best for you.  You will need to examine the student organizations and try hard to take part in them because there are important networks to be made with other students to ensure your success.  And you will need to work closely with your professions and guidance counselors, putting aside any fears about visiting their office hours regularly and making strong connections with people who are getting paid to be there to help you.

It is a common fact among professors that their office hours go largely unused by the student body and yet many teachers are actually waiting to make connections with their students on a professional, encouraging level.  From my research into first-generation students, building a sense of belonging to the culture of the university is imperative.  If this sense of belonging is not met, first-generation students are less likely to participate in clubs, student organizations, or to develop close relationships with peers and faculty (Billson & Terry, 1982; Richardson & Skinner, 1992; Terenzini et a., 1994).  If a university seems to be lacking in offering you easy ways to get into these experiences the best thing you can do is take it upon yourself to reach out and make the connections one at a time. Try to add this into your evening and weekend schedules.

These are pivotal life skills that you may need if you are attending an especially large university or one that is undergoing massive system change and I feel that they are essential for every student to know, not just because I experienced them myself but because as an educational psychologist I understand the importance of keeping high student retention for both the individual and for the institution’s benefit.


Billson, J. M. and Terry, B. T. (1982).  In search of the silken purse: Factors in attrition among first-generation students.  College and University, 58, 57-75.

Cheryan, S., Plaut, V. C., Davies, P. G., & Steele, C. M. (2009). Ambient Belonging: How Stereotypical Cues Impact Gender Participation in computer Science.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97 (6), 1045-1060.

Collier, P. J. and Morgan, D. L. (2007). Is that paper really due today?: Differences in first-generation and traditional college students’ understandings of faculty expectations.  Springer High Educ 2008 (55), 425-446.

Dumais, S. (2002). Cultural capital, gender, and school success: the role of habitus.  Sociology of Education, 75 (1), 44-68.

Logel, C., Walton, G. M., Spencer, S. J., Iserman, E. C., von Hippel, W. and Bell, A. (2009).  Interacting with sexist men triggers social identity threat among female engineers.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 1089-1103.

Murphey M. C., Steele, C. M. and Gross, J. J. (2007). Signaling threat: How situational cues affect women in math, science, and engineering settings.  Psychological Science, 18, 879-885.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Condition of Education, 2012. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. 2012.

Pascarella, E., Pierson, C., Wolniak, G. and Terenzini, P. (2004).  First-generation college students.  Journal of Higher Education, 75 (3), 249-284.

Richardson, R. C. and Skinner, E. F. (1992).  Helping first-generation minority students achieve degrees.  In L. S. Zwerling & H. B. London (Eds.), First-generation students: Confronting the cultural issues (New Directions for Community Colleges Series, No. 80, pp. 29-43). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sekaquaptewa, D. and Thompson, M. (2003). Solo status, stereotype threat, and performance expectancies: Their effects on women’s performance.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 39, 68-74.

Terenzini, P. T., Rendon, L. I., Upcraft, M. L., Millar, S. B., Allison, K. A., Gregg, P. L., and Jalomo, R. (1994).  The transition to college: Diverse students, diverse stories.  Research in Higher Education, 35, 57-73.

Walton, G.M. and Cohen, G.L. (2007).  A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 82-96.

Over the past week I found myself in a conversation that tied in rather well with the previous Study Remix post on choosing a major.  I recently found out that the university I had been attending was making career counseling a mandatory requirement for their master’s in psychology degree program.  Students go to school, after all, in hopes of fostering skills that will allow them to sustain themselves in the world at large; these days that translates in to being able to find a job.  But there’s something more to it than that given where we are in history as a nation.

America is coming out of a recession that is second only to the Great Depression (or where I grew up we called them the ‘Dirty Thirties’).  This makes career coaching extremely relevant to the aspiring therapist; over the past years of study and practice I repeatedly heard concerns about work as a topic of training sessions in my counseling classes.  So we’re talking about damages to the American psyche sustained from a very real and emotionally trying period of our history.  Career counseling, even in good times, is pivotal to the formation of identity but right now I could see why this course became mandatory to the degree program.  In today’s climate that identity has been and may still be constantly threatened.

The recession is…well, receding, but this is an intangible situation, hard to document and therefore there is still a lot of fear and doubt out there.  That’s going to cause tension and stress.  What’s more, these sorts of tensions can often be insidious as work is something deeply ingrained into the American psyche.  When you meet a person one of the first questions that is often asked is, “So what do you do for a living?”  Americans equate work with identity so much that doing it all the time isn’t seen as a problem.  For example, workaholism is not cited in the DSM as either an addiction or as a compulsive behavior.  Work, therefore, could be said to be the virtue in American society; something of which there can never be enough.

In which case there is something major that can be done with career counselling skills at this particular junction in our history.  People need hope and guidance to ease a great deal of the strain they’re under.  Jobs do exist out there but the fear is that they do not.  So where is that fear coming from?

I’m not going to just put this down to media sensationalism, but that does have something to do with it.  Every month two reports come out from the federal government about the state of the job-market.  The first is the Current Population Survey, which comes out on the first Friday of every month.  The numbers in it are sometimes disheartening, but it’s essentially measuring the monthly net change in the size of the work force.

The second report to come out is called the Job Opening and Labor Turnover.  Same department, different numbers.  Different picture too.  For example, J.O.L.T. reported that in the month of February 2014 4,587,000 people found work.  What’s more, 4,173,000 vacancies remained unfilled at the end of the same month.  That’s a net total of 8,760,000 available jobs in the month of February 2014 alone.

With figures like these we would have to revisit the issue and realize that there are jobs out there.  It’s important to take time and research the job market so that any sense of desperation is abandoned.  By becoming more informed you will go a long way in conquering the anxiety of not knowing just what’s out there.  Knowledge is power and therefore career counseling skills, such as these, are a good first step in to becoming an empowered member of the work force.  I also understand that this can be very difficult to juggle along side the demands of attaining a university degree, but I feel that it’s worth while whether it’s a mandatory course at your university or not.  I personally knew too many students who had no idea what they were going to do with their degrees once they graduated.  It’s important, therefore, to scaffold these career considerations right into the design of your degree program.  Ultimately most of us have gone through higher education to be something on the other side and we can’t lose sight of our final goal, which ultimately results in employment.

So are career counseling skills really necessary?  Yes.  Embrace knowledge of the job market now and empower yourself.

All puns aside choosing a major is pretty adequately named.  It’s a big deal!  With a wide future ahead of you there’s an incredible pressure to make the right decision.  Carpenters, however, have something right here: Measure twice, cut once.  This week, let’s look at some of the major points that can help get the right fit.

First off, this is a process of discovery.  Even a hundred years ago it was pretty common practice for high school students to be sent on a world tour; not as some graduation pub crawl but as a chance to experience the world and what it had to offer.  Today we might not have to go so far (literally), but the internet and the local library are as good a start as any.  The subject should be interesting.  If you can’t stand studying it you’re probably not likely to enjoy spending the next twenty or so years of life trying to earn a paycheck at it, no matter how lucrative you’ve been told that paycheck will be.

Secondly, let that interest fuel you.  The first thing you find might seem right but sometimes you need to go a bit deeper before you find something that really resonates with you.  For example, English, Art, and Psychology might not look like they have much in common at first blush but each explores the personal experiences of humanity, a private worldview, a point of view shaped and shared.  They all deal with thoughts, feelings, and expression.  You may find your love of English and Art is actually a love of Psychology as well.  Getting into a topic will reveal other topics, helping you refine your search to something that is a right fit for you.

Next, remember it really is all about you.  By that I mean, it seems like a safe bet to go for the popular jobs and build your degree around that, but trends change from month to month and year to year.  Personal interests last a lifetime.  What’s more is the power that passion brings to your eventual job search.  Employers are more likely to want you if you’re fired up about what it is you do rather than coming into their offices desperate for anything they’ll give you.  Merriam-Webster defines a major as, “relating to a subject of academic study chosen as a field of specialization.”  A specialization is an opportunity to define yourself and some of your greatest skills.  Therefore, personal interest counts for a lot.  A major should reflect more than just what you do, but who you are.

Finally, remember that you don’t need to get it right the first time.  As said before, sometimes you can’t find your field until you’ve dabbled in it some.  So don’t be afraid to dabble; they’ll be transferable skills for you at the very least.  Once you’ve dabbled in it, dive in with both feet and find every edge of the medium until you know it as well as you possibly can.  You will begin to find that the boundaries of one discipline are not absolute and will bleed into the boundaries of another discipline, and these discoveries make for significant, adult insights that will benefit any career.  You cannot know everything without the space and time to observe everything.  For example, I didn’t discover my love of psychology and education until I had completed both a liberal arts and an extensive fine arts curriculum.  That took ten years but now I am an educator with considerable transferable skills to my benefit.

In addition, find people in the field and get to know them and their work.  See if it excites you.  Read articles online, in magazines, or from books at the library.  The first education you can give yourself will be, “Is this right for me?  Why/why not?”  Sometimes finding out why something doesn’t fit is just as important as why it does.  With the sheer number of choices available to students today, narrowing down the options will be a real life saver.

And on that note I’ll leave off on some advice from Richard Bolles, author of the best selling job-hunting book What Color Is Your Parachute:

One final word of caution here: if you’re just graduating from high school, don’t go get a college degree in some career field just because you think this will guarantee you a job!  It will not.

I wish you could see my e-mails, filled with bitter letters from people who believed this myth, went and got a degree in a field that looked just great, thought it would be a snap to find a job, but are still unemployed two years later.  Good times or bad.  They are bitter (often), angry (always), and disappointed in a society that they feel lied to them. ….explore the career you’ve chosen down to the last inch, find out if you love it, and then go get your degree.

Of course this might sound hard to do in the face of that pressure to make something of your life and to do it yesterday but stop for just a moment and remember: this is your life we’re talking about here.  You’re worth a bit of time and consideration to get it right.

Bolles, R. N. (2014). What Color Is Your Parachute. New York: NY. Ten Speed Press.

Howard Gardener’s theory of multiple intelligences has seen some fair time in the spotlight.  While it might still be considered a theory it has gained wide acceptance from parents, students, and teachers.  The big thing I’ve not seen a lot of discussion about is how to make a multiple intelligences model work within a classroom setting in a way that doesn’t overburden the teacher.

Fortunately, I have seen a great example in a recorded interview between Philip Harris of Schools of Thought and David Lazear, a director of New Dimensions of Learning.  Lazear recalled speaking with a junior high teacher from Oklahoma who was having difficulties getting his students to get engaged with his unit on the parts of speech.  He decided to employ Gardner’s mulitple intelligences to change that.  Here’s what he did:

He began by breaking the class down into small groups, each assigned with a part of speech so that there was the Noun Group, the Verb Group, etc.  He gave each group a definition of their part of speech (linguistic intelligence).  The groups were then supposed to talk with their own members to ensure that everyone understood the definition (verbal linguistic).  The teacher then asked each group to make up a song that taught the definition to the rest of the class (musical-rhythmic and harmonic intelligence).

Once everyone had sung their definitions to each other the groups were then asked to make a physical movement that represented their part of speech (bodily-kinesthetic intelligence).  Verbs, for example, starting taking actions like jumping or running.  The conjunction group reached out and took hold of their neighbor’s arm. The nouns got out of their seats and started pointing to things in the classroom, naming them.

Then he asked each group to make a flag and a motto for their part of speech (visual-spatial intelligence).  After they had gotten this far he asked the groups to come up with ten examples of their part of speech (logical-mathematical intelligence).  The class then had to gather up the examples and arrange them into sentences, the only rule being that the parts of speech had to be used properly.  To top it all off he turned the infamous “So what?” question back on the students by asking them each to submit a reflection log that discussed why the parts of speech were important to them (intrapersonal intelligence).

So how did this little classroom experiment turn out?

He said they learned more about the parts of speech than he had ever seen. He did not have to review for the whole rest of the year…

And what was some of the feed back on why the parts of speech were important?

One little boy wrote, “The parts of speech are important to me because, with them, I can make things that were not before.” With language we invent the world…

Not bad for a single session in the classroom.

My personal work in the field of educational psychology has focused on motivation and student retention.  These days access to even higher education has become less of an issue than keeping students there long enough to graduate.  Research has shown that at the heart of this there is a fundamental question that often arises and remains unanswered: “Why am I doing this?”  With the sheer volume of information that we have at our fingertips this question of “why” has become even more imperative to answer.  Even a quick skim of advice on how to write an effective blog ends up with “Why is this important?” as the prime question to be answered.  So this week let’s look at how we can answer that.

For example I personally had a horrible time with math in highschool.  (Sound familiar to anyone else?)  At the heart of why I disliked it lay the question of context. I couldn’t find any real world application for the topics that were being covered.  Even asking my father for help, who worked as a designer and engineer, he often replied that he was uncertain why I was taking these classes as he’d never used the math I was studying in his entire career.  Things that helped me balance my checkbook?  Great!  The rest of it?  …not sure.

It wasn’t until I pursued art history as a personal interest years later that I finally found a reason to brush up on my math skills.  What did art have to do with it?  The ancient Greeks had developed all sorts of sophisticated methods of artistic composition, namely figuring out how to divide a blank space into particular shapes that could be filled in effective and aesthetic ways.  This required knowledge of geometry and ratios.  But it wasn’t just art that brought about geometry.  Our old friend Pythagoras belonged to a caste of individuals whose job it was to ensure that the lords of ancient Greece could properly manage their lands.  Anyone who has walked through a field or a patch of parkland will quickly see that nature doesn’t parcel things out in nice, neat little squares.  It takes talented surveyors and civil engineers to find those squares in between the other odd shapes that topography can have.

At long last I had found a reason for why I would need geometry, but I found it through a love of art and a long standing frustration with making sure my images wouldn’t unintentionally start leaking into others or oozing off the edge of the page.  I could even set these up with a compass and straight edge; no computers required!

Let’s give a second example from literature.  I’m a big fan of the Sherlock Holmes story, The Musgrave Ritual.  For those of you unfamiliar with it, Holmes is searching for the location of a noble family’s lost relic because the traditional directions give for it had been long hidden due to the loss of an elm tree on the property that acted as a landmark.  The text follows:

Well, at least I knew that if Brunton could do it, I could also. Besides, there was no real difficulty. I went with Musgrave to his study and whittled myself this peg, to which I tied this long string with a knot at each yard. Then I took two lengths of a fishing-rod, which came to just six feet, and I went back with my client to where the elm had been. The sun was just grazing the top of the oak. I fastened the rod on end, marked out the direction of the shadow, and measured it. It was nine feet in length.

Of course the calculation now was a simple one. If a rod of six feet threw a shadow of nine, a tree of sixty-four feet would throw one of ninety-six, and the line of the one would of course be the line of the other. I measured out the distance, which brought me almost to the wall of the house, and I thrust a peg into the spot. You can imagine my exultation, Watson, when within two inches of my peg I saw a conical depression in the ground. I knew that it was the mark made by Brunton in his measurements, and that I was still upon his trail.

What was the skill that Holmes used in all this?  To quote his client, Sir Musgrave: “When my old tutor used to give me an exercise in trigonometry, it always took the shape of measuring heights. When I was a lad I worked out every tree and building in the estate.”

They found the relic and gave context to trigonometry lessons of the past and without trigonometry they would have had a far more difficult time finding what they were after.  The discipline of trigonometry became relevant to the characters and meaningful to the readers so acutely that the memory of this short story stands out among others to me to this day.

Those topics that appear in classrooms originally had a reason to be worked out.  There is still a reason to know these skills or else they wouldn’t be offered in classrooms across the nation.  In which case the solution may lie with a definition of the problem before spending too much time on the answer.  There’s a good chance that students have a good reason to know these skills within their own interests or personal experience even if sometimes it requires looking in an interdisciplinary way to see it.  They require context and context creates meaning and meaning can be the seed for motivation.  Context and meaning are often unique to the individual, although like in the case of the Musgrave Ritual above sometimes we can be motivated by someone else’s problem.

Doyle, A. C. (2012).  Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes: Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual [Project Gutenberg version].  Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/834/834-h/834-h.htm

So now that I’ve talked a little bit about where educational psychology comes from it’d probably be a good idea to talk about what exactly I do as one.

Teachers have spent a good deal of time and money to become knowledgeable about their field of study. As was mentioned in last week’s post psychology and pedagogy are related but they are not the same set of skills.  Time is of the essence for teachers already and their time is dedicated to the needs of the students.

Today’s world is a world of specialization.  The sort of distinction we’re talking about is actually to be expected, but that is also why an educational psychologist is useful as an adviser or consultant.  We have specialized skills in the application of psychology to educational settings.  We can see patterns of learning behavior and study how the human mind learns and integrates information.

For example, is the doodler scribbling idly in the margins or are they processing information in a visual fashion?  How could a teacher incorporate new technologies in to a classroom to facilitate learning objectives or ease of access to students with disabilities?  Are educational tests truly assessing the students’ and the teachers’ capabilities or is there a better mode of communication that could happen?  How can a school system engage students that just seem completely disinterested in certain subject matter?

These are the kinds of questions that an educational psychologist is trained to answer through empirical data gathered first hand on the specific needs of a classroom.  These sorts of answers likely won’t be budget busters either, just adjustments to goals and priorities to make for a more efficient work flow.  An educational psychologist works in partnership, side-by-side with administrators and teachers rather than remotely with only theory.

For as much as technology is moving ahead there are still humans behind the wheel.  It takes a specialist that knows how to work with diverse populations of learners to help everyone work together to the best of their abilities.  And that is an educational psychologist at work every day.