William Paterson University Chemistry Professor and Psychology Professor Embark on Interdisciplinary Study in the Name of Student Success

Janet Ahn and Jay Foley work together in Science Hall East

Why do some students in class keep trying to succeed while others walk away?

William Paterson University psychology professor Janet Ahn and chemistry professor Jay Foley are teaming up on a research study to help answer that question. Information about students in hand, they will then enact different teaching methods to see which ones best keep all students motivated and persistent in their quest for academic success.

A chemist and psychologist collaborating on research is rare.

Ahn and Foley first met in 2017 as part of a WP contingent at a National Science Foundation conference. As discussions of research and student success ensued, the professors quickly realized their respective expertise had some overlap, and combined, could expand the boundaries of university pedagogy.

They started working together the following semester.

In their joint research, Professors Ahn and Foley hypothesize that “abstractionists,” those students who look at underlying principles and draw from that understanding, have better outcomes in advanced science courses than “exemplars,” those who rely on the skills and tactics they had success with in other courses.

Ahn notes that the abstractionist and exemplar categories of learners are not usually studied in psychology. She and Foley first learned of these categories when reviewing the chemical education literature and came across another team of chemists and psychologists who had pioneered the study of those behaviors in lower-level chemistry courses.

“What behaviors are associated with being this type of learner or that?” she asks. “How do they act in terms of persistence, and how can professors affect that?”

Those are among the questions she and Foley hope to answer.

To start, the professors have collected two semesters’ worth of pilot data from Foley’s Quantum Mechanics course. They will experiment with various teaching methods in that same course.

“It’s the type of class where you have to keep re-approaching the problems and keep looking at them from different angles,” Foley explains. “Sometimes you have to walk away from it for a while and then come back.”

He and Ahn subsequently thought such a course would be a good place to measure and analyze students’ “growth mindset,” a concept in psychology that refers to the level of which students believe their abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.

Foley says he knew very little about growth mindset before his work with Ahn.

Foley was one of 24 scientists nationwide to earn a 2019 Cottrell Scholar Award, presented by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, for leadership in integrating science teaching and research. He has been involved in many curricular developments on campus, and is currently developing a suite of interactive simulation tools to help chemistry students learn about light-matter interactions. His research collaboration with Ahn, Foley says, was part of his application for the Cottrell award.

Ahn has previously conducted research on students’ growth mindset in science courses.  Published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, her work demonstrated that exposing high schoolers to the “struggle stories” of brilliant scientists such as Albert Einstein and Marie Curie led to improved learning outcomes. When students see that some of the greatest minds have struggled, they are more likely persist in the face of their own struggles, Ahn says.

Over the coming weeks, she will analyze the academic, demographic, and personal data from Foley’s students to find the relationship between their learning style, growth mindset, and persistence.

The professors hope to experiment with some new teaching methods in Foley’s class this spring.

“I would think our findings would be generalizable to other courses where abstract thinking is important,” Foley says. “Quantum mechanics isn't unique in that regard, it just represents a good example of such a course.”