College & Pre-College
Teaching & Learning

College & Pre-College Teaching & Learning

The Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) is an internationally renowned center for research on learning and education, from basic academic domains of reading and mathematics to innovative research in educational technology, social and motivational aspects of learning, and cognitive neuroscience. We are a component of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Teaching and Learning, which builds on current research and faculty expertise to create an effective teaching and learning environment for all students.

Since the Center’s founding in 1963, classroom-based research on instructional practice coupled with analyses of teacher knowledge and teacher learning has been a mainstay of LRDC’s educational research, though primarily centered in grades K-12. In addition to current studies of college readiness, a wide range of other factors have come to light that affect academic outcomes -- both getting to college and staying there. The researchers described below are studying precisely those factors that contribute to success, factors that are a little more nuanced that good grades in physics or calculus. For example, a consortium of researchers studies how organizational and policies decisions can affect a student’s sense of belonging in academic settings. With more and more first generation and historically under-represented groups going to college, a sense of belonging there can have a significant impact. The use of technology within educational settings has been growing for a number of reasons, however, integrating new technologies into learning environments poses many challenges. Work at the Center aims to identify and mitigate these challenges. Writing, the bedrock of a humanities education, is an arduous task for both professors and students. LRDC researchers have found students’ reviews and critiques of each others’ writing can help them improve their own.

Research Projects

Barriers to College Attendance

There has been a long-standing recognition that issues of college cost and affordability stand as barriers to college access, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds or students who would be first in their family to attend college. More recently, a growing body of work has charted the path from college consideration to actual college enrollment and has shed light on patterns illustrating that low-income students are falling behind their better-off peers every step along the way. Much of my recent work draws on the fields of educational policy, economics of education and behavioral economics to design, implement and rigorously assess – through large-scale randomized controlled trials – innovative strategies for improving students’ transition to and through postsecondary education. I have implemented interventions that rely on semi-customized, automated text-based communication to nudge students towards improved rates of timely application for financial aid and to mitigate summer melt, the phenomenon that college-intending students fail to transition successfully from high school to college. Currently, I am working locally to investigate the impact of the Pittsburgh Promise on students' postsecondary choices and success, and nationally to investigate the impact of the Dell Scholars program, which provides primarily first-generation college students with a combination of financial and other supports to dramatically increase their chances of college success and bachelor’s degree completion. More information can be found at Dr. Page’s website.

Lindsay Page
Assistant Professor, School of Education
Research Scientist, LRDC

Constructive Debate

A bedrock assumption of democratic societies is that free expression of ideas is not only an inherent right of citizens but also stimulates constructive debate, which has positive societal consequences. All too often, however, debate on controversial issues is anything but constructive. For example, rather than thinking carefully about opposing arguments and reassessing their own position, people on different sides of controversial issues frequently dismiss opposing arguments out of hand, adopt increasingly extreme positions, and make negative attributions about opponents’ values, motives, and abilities. Such defensive reactions not only reduce the potential intellectual benefits of debate for those involved but also undermine the mutual trust and respect necessary for collaborative decision making. Defensiveness in the face of contradictory viewpoints can have serious negative consequences in many domains, including politics, science, education, and religion. Given the level of controversy in contemporary society and the fact that efforts to resolve such controversies often generate more heat than light, there is a clear need for systematic research that clarifies when and why debate has productive cognitive and social consequences and suggests ways to apply this knowledge outside the laboratory. Our research uses controlled laboratory methods to clarify the conditions under which debate on controversial issues (e.g., the causes of important historical events) facilitates cognitive growth and promotes positive social relations. We assume that debate is useful to the extent that it elicits “epistemic motivation,” which stimulates open-mindedness, critical thinking, trust, and mutual respect. We posit that this motivation is influenced by characteristics of (a) the debate topic (e.g., the extent to which it has a demonstrability “correct” answer); (b) the participants (e.g., their commitment to their position, their relative status); and (c) the goal of the debate (e.g., to present one's own arguments vs. refute opposing arguments). More information can be found at Dr. Levine’s website.

John Levine
Professor, Department of Psychology
Senior Scientist, LRDC

Developing Research Skills

My research on college teaching and learning focuses on learning within the psychology major, and in particular, learning about research methods. Research Methods is a course that all psychology majors must take in order to declare psychology as their major and to take more advanced courses. Some of the challenges of this course are helping students deeply engage with primary-source literature, understand how statistical techniques are chosen and used to support research questions, and understand how different study designs support different conclusions and are subject to different weaknesses. One of the strategies that I am studying for all of these challenges is framing the goal of research as primarily about uncovering causal truth. I am interested in how causal diagrams (similar to Structural Equations Models) can be used to help students with all these challenges. I am also interested in understanding how interactive online tutorials can help students better understand statistical principles through simulation. The long-run goal is to encourage students to be more skeptical, and to develop skills so that they can independently read and critique research articles for making decisions for their own lives and their future careers. More information can be found at Dr. Rottman’s website .

Benjamin Rottman
Assistant Professor, Psychology
Research Scientist, LRDC

Diagramming Argumentation Texts

Ashley’s group has focused on the pedagogical potential of supporting pre-college and college students in annotating and diagramming argumentative texts in terms of argumentation concepts such as claim, evidence, reason, and counterargument. Does practice help students to learn how to employ these argumentation concepts in their own argumentative writing? The group is developing convenient technology for students using laptop or tablet computers to annotate texts through highlighting and constructing argument diagrams based on annotations, the diagram to the right is an example of this technology. More information can be found at Dr.Ashley’s website.

Kevin Ashley
Professor, Law
Professor, Graduate Program in
Intelligent Systems
Senior Scientist, LRDC

Digital Literacies

Successful learning in 21st-Century digital literacy environments requires students to explore, select, evaluate, and learn from multiple forms of informational sources they find in digital media. As current curricular reform movements (e.g., Common Core State Standards) make clear, these digital literacy skills are among the core competencies students will need to be better prepared for college and career. My research focuses on secondary school learners’ digital literacies as they engage in and negotiate with a variety of digital sources to achieve certain goals, such as information gathering, knowledge building, and perspective development. Specifically, my research examines (1) foundational cognitive processes involved in selecting and comprehending multiple Internet sources, (2) role of metacognition and executive control in higher-order comprehension of digital sources, and (3) interaction of readers’ epistemic beliefs, meaning-making processes, and critical learning within online-text environments. My research is theoretically informed by digital literacies, new literacies, and multiple source comprehension, and uses mixed-methods analysis of multiple data sources (e.g., reader-generated verbal reports, behavioral measures, outcome assessments). My goal is to build detailed models of digital reading which may inform effective instruction and assessment for digital readers across content areas, including social studies and STEM subjects. More information can be found at Dr. Cho’s website.

Byeong-Young Cho
Assistant Professor, Department of Instruction and Learning
Research Scientist, LRDC

Increasing Interest in Psychology Courses

One area of my research aims to improve instruction in large (400-student) Introduction to Psychology courses. One focus of this research is to increase grades by increasing students’ perception of psychology for their lives. In previous research, such interventions have been associated with an increase in student exam grades (Hulleman, Godes, Hendricks, & Harackiewicz, 2010), and preliminary analyses indicate that this intervention was also successful in my classes. This intervention involves asking students to write a letter to a friend or family member describing the way that a topic from class is relevant to that person. Planned analyses will examine (1) whether students who participate in the utility intervention show greater improvement in exam scores than would be expected otherwise, (2) whether some students benefit more from the intervention than others (e.g., students who are performing more poorly prior to the intervention), and (3) whether certain characteristics of the essays predict better exam improvement (e.g., essay length, quality of the description, and number of personal pronouns used). Another focus of this research is to expose these students to primary research literature and to demonstrate that these articles are often misrepresented in the popular press. This focuses on increasing interest in Psychology courses, demonstrating the relevance of Psychology to the students’ lives, and increasing the students’ ability to read and understand relevant aspects of research articles. More information can be found at Dr. Tokowicz’s website.

Natasha Tokowicz
Associate Professor, Department of Psychology
Senior Scientist, LRDC

Intelligent Learning Technologies

Advances in natural language processing (NLP) and artificial intelligence (AI), as well as the availability of unprecedented amounts of educationally-relevant text and speech data, have led to an increasing interest in using NLP and AI to address the needs of teachers and students. Educational applications differ in many ways, however, from the types of applications for which NLP systems are typically developed. My lab’s research has focused on the design and evaluation of intelligent learning technologies that are motivated by principles of learning and teaching. Our work has been applied to subjects ranging from STEM to ELA, in both pre-college and college contexts. Recent projects have focused on: 1) Teaching Argumentative (Re)Writing with AI-Supported Diagramming and Peer Review, 2) Integrating Natural Language Processing with Mobile Technologies, 3) Studying Text Based Classroom Discussions, 4) Scoring Writing at Scale, 5) Tutoring Students via Natural Language Dialogue Systems, and 6) NLP-based Learning Analytics. More information can be found at Dr. Litman’s website.

Diane Litman
Professor, Intelligent Systems Program
Professor, Department of Computer Science
Senior Scientist, LRDC

Language Learning and New Technology

Our group does research on reading and language processes in English and in second language learning. Most relevant for college and precollege learning is our work on college foreign language learning. We have studied international students learning English, and English-language students learning Chinese. Our studies in Chinese learning have included both laboratory and classroom research.
Learning Chinese is especially a challenge for speakers of English and European languages, both as a spoken language and as a written language. In learning to read Chinese, three different challenges face the learner: 1) the unfamiliarity of the characters’ visual form; 2) no elements in the character correspond to phonemes, in contrast to alphabetic languages; instead each character corresponds both to a spoken syllable and a meaning bearing morpheme, 3) whose interpretation depends on context within the word (another character). 4) no spaces occur between printed words. These challenges have led to an instructional principle we call “feature focus”: Directing the learner’s attention, in the face of complexity, to specific features that distinguish the form and meaning of characters. Our basic research on learning Chinese has demonstrated a number of specific examples of this principle, including the value of writing characters as a means of learning them, along with other visual attention activities such as highlighting and animation. Our neuroimaging studies suggest that learning through writing modifies the brain’s reading network for Chinese, areas that support spatial memory and sensory-motor processes into the network. In collaboration with researchers in Taiwan, we are involved in instructional interventions aimed at helping students learn character form and meaning together. We also study basic reading and reading comprehension skill in college students using behavioral, EEG, and neuroimaging methods. We have been part of teams that have developed on-line interventions for vocabulary learning at the middle school and pre-college level that could be applied to college student learners seeking to strengthen general academic vocabulary. More information can be found at Dr. Perfetti's website.

Charles Perfetti
Distinguished University Professor, Department of Psychology
Director, LRDC

Mindfulness Training to Support Learning Goals

I study qualities other than intelligence that predict healthy development. I focus in particular on self-control. Known colloquially as willpower, self-control refers to the ability to voluntarily regulate attention, emotion, and behavior in service of personally valued goals despite conflicting impulses and urges. Self-control, in other words, is about working toward important goals even when tempted to do otherwise. I have discovered that self-controlled high school students are more likely to enroll—and stay enrolled—in college, independently of their scores on IQ tests. And despite connotations of terms like willpower, self-controlled students do not constantly use brute force of will to accomplish their goals. Instead, I have also discovered that self-control operates through beneficial habits. For example, more self-controlled high school and college students develop adaptive routines for studying so that, paradoxically, they make better progress on their academic goals while expending less energy resisting temptation. My research has also shown that certain types of beliefs influence whether a student will exercise self-control when it’s called for—students who believe that they have what it takes to do well in school and that doing well is important, for example, are more likely to pay attention and resist distractions in class, and less likely to procrastinate on assignments. Finally, I have found that self-control can be improved through trainable skills, including mindfulness. For example, in my recent work, I have shown that even brief (15 minute) periods of mindfulness training help college students manage strong cravings to check social media. More information can be found at Dr. Galla's website.

Brian Galla
Assistant Professor, Psychology in Education
Research Scientist, LRDC

Persistence, Engagement, and Achievement

In the Developmental and Motivation Lab, we study (a) what student engagement in learning entail, (b) what sociocultural and motivational processes engage students in learning, and (c) what contextual and psychological resources make students more resilient to failures? Our research is multi-disciplinary and uses a range of methodological approaches (e.g., surveys, interviews, observations, behavioral and psychophysiological measures) to better understand the interplay of learning processes across both academic and social domains in adolescence, and situate these processes within different ecological contexts. We look at the achievement motivation topic from a developmental perspective, but also from a cultural perspective. For younger kids, for instance, the focus is to create a psychologically safe and enriching environment for them to explore things. For older kids, on the other hand, the key is to help them have a more positive mindset when they experience failure. The other focus of our research is culture and motivation. There are some universal principals that motivate kids, like making learning materials real-world. However, there are also certain learning theories that apply uniquely to different groups of people. For African American kids, for example, we want to account for the historical context that they’ve been experiencing, especially the racial stigma, which plays a huge role in their learning. Currently, we are working on a project using psychosocial approaches to develop an easy-to-implement intervention for promoting African American kids’ persistence, engagement, and achievement in STEM learning. In addition to this, we are involved in a project with multiple public school districts to help bridge the school to prison pipeline effect that is present due to a high rate of school suspensions. The unique bottom-up approach of the project is a means to change the school climate, look for alternative, positive disciplinary practices, and help the kids be better engaged and reduce suspensions. More information can be found at Dr. Wang's website.

Ming-Te Wang
Associate Professor, School of Education
Research Scientist, LRDC

Promoting Knowledge Transfer

Our research group examines human learning and problem solving with an aim to understand, predict, and promote knowledge transfer. Transfer is the ability to use prior knowledge and experience to solve novel problems. Specific topics include: 1) identifying the cognitive processes underlying transfer success and failure, 2) exploring the relations between motivation, cognition, and transfer, 3) examining the social and ecological processes that support or inhibit transfer, and 4) investigating the effects of mindfulness meditation on cognition, learning, and transfer. An overarching goal is to develop theories of learning and transfer to drive interventions to promote knowledge transfer for both children and adults across a range of formal and informal learning environments. We are particularly interested in creating and testing forms of instruction that integrate psychological theories with technology innovations (e.g., intelligent tutoring systems) to achieve this goal. Over the last decade our work has expanded to examine how people learn and transfer with others and the role that social, motivational, and environmental factors play in those processes (Nokes-Malach & Mestre, 2013). Our work has also become more action oriented in order to facilitate positive change in learners’ everyday lives. This can be seen in both our close collaborations with teachers and administrators in conducting research to improve the learning and motivational outcomes of students at the middle school, high school, and college levels and by giving professional development workshops on lessons learned from cognitive science for education. A major goal of our group is to help translate cognitive and learning science discoveries to improve people’s lives broadly. More information can be found at Dr. Nokes-Malach's website.

Timothy Nokes-Malach
Associate Professor, Department of Psychology
Research Scientist, LRDC

Smart Machines and School Curricula

I’ve spent most of my career studying how people learn stuff that is hard to learn, including reading, medical expertise, teaching, and repair of complicated equipment systems. Some of that work involved development of intelligent coached apprenticeship environments to prepare technicians to diagnose one-of-a-kind failures of complex electronic testing equipment and computer chip making machines. Other work was on the development of high levels of medical diagnostic skill – what happens in the 6th to 20th years of medical practice. Recently, I’ve taught a class in learning and thinking for physicians who lead residency programs in teaching hospitals. Broadly, much of my work has focused on learning by doing and what kinds of supports facilitate that kind of learning and avoid the difficulties that arise when learners operate at the limits of their cognitive capacity. Currently, I’m trying to understand the implications of the age of smart machines for what should be taught in our schools. Will the most successful people simply be quick studies who can periodically re-invent themselves, or people who can deeply empathize with other people who are willing to pay for human attention, or people who can develop even more intelligent systems? The implications for guesses about that for what should be in school curricula are rather great. More information can be found at Dr. Lesgold's website.

Alan Lesgold
Former Dean, School of Education
Professor of Education, Psychology, and Intelligent Systems
Senior Scientist, LRDC

Supporting Postsecondary Attainment

Nationally, concerns have been growing about alignment between the expected labor force needs over the coming 25 years and the preparation of the workforce. In particular, rates of postsecondary education attainment are far lower than what is projected to be required to meet the needs of the U.S. economy. Researchers and policy-makers work on this from a variety of angles, including efforts to better prepare high school graduates, improve college matching, reform developmental courses, make college more affordable, and many others. I have been working on this problem in several ways. First, I have studied a local innovation, The Pittsburgh Promise, that is intended to support college-going and catalyze systems change in the region. This college scholarship program is one of many such place-based programs that have been rapidly proliferating across the U.S. I have devised a monitoring and evaluation infrastructure that has been used to inform decision-making and to shape the measurement infrastructure used by similar programs across the country. Second, I have led a research-practitioner partnership aimed at identifying problems of practice within the college-going ecosystem in Pittsburgh and generate research-based solution possibilities. This improvement-focused work helps shed light on how systems can be shaped to better support postsecondary attainment. Finally, I have partnered with colleague Lindsay Page to evaluate the impact of the Pittsburgh Promise on college going behaviors and trends. More information can be found at Dr. Iriti's website.

Jennifer Iriti
Director, Evaluation for Learning Group
Research Associate, LRDC

Transitioning to College

The transition to college can be difficult for anyone. It typically involves leaving home, joining a new social network in a new city, and taking more difficult courses in large lecture settings where neither teachers nor classmates know one another. Many students, regardless of their background, find this transition stressful and challenging. However, for students from particular backgrounds, transitional difficulties can take on special significance. For students from traditionally underrepresented and “at-risk” backgrounds (e.g., first-generation college students, students from negatively stereotyped ethnic groups) transitional stress might be seen as more than just the typical freshman struggle. Members of these groups also have a ready explanation for their difficulties: “Perhaps people like me do not belong here.” Researchers have termed this belonging uncertainty and have linked it to a variety of critical college outcomes, including GPA and graduation rates. In short, belonging uncertainty at college may adversely impact the educational outcomes of at-risk students because it hinders important behaviors students needed to be successful, including perseverance in the face of challenge. To help limit the effects of belonging uncertainty on the outcomes of at-risk students, Pitt has joined a multi-campus collaborative seeking to test new ways to mitigate belonging uncertainty and, by extension, improve the educational outcomes of at-risk students. As part of the multi-campus College Transition Collaborative, we hope to improve student outcomes while testing novel theoretical and practical implications of a sense of belonging on campus. More information can be found at Dr. Binning's website.

Kevin Binning
Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology
Research Scientist, LRDC

Writing and Peer Review

Written communication is a core skill of value to all 21st Century careers, and it also a particularly powerful way in which students reveal what they know and are able to do with complex ideas. Yet, university students in most departments are given very few opportunities to write in their coursework, primarily because traditional methods require overwhelming time investments to evaluate and provide feedback on written products. Peer assessment is an approach to this problem that can be adapted to all courses, from advanced placement classes in high schools to large lecture introductory courses in the university and on to small seminars on advanced content at even the graduate level. With simple web-based technologies, peer assessments can be made in anonymous, efficient, and accountable, enabling even lecture classes of many students to write multiple papers without supporting teaching assistant labor. Research at LRDC has revealed that providing structured, constructive feedback to peers has large learning benefits for the feedback providers, in addition to producing reliable evaluations and useful feedback to authors. Ongoing research with Diane Litman, Kevin Ashley, and Amanda Godley explores the addition of new tools that further improve the quality of peer comments (e.g., by automatically flagging reviews that are unlikely to be helpful), and supports students more systematically by drawing out lessons for their own writing from the peer assessments they provide and receive. Regularly studied disciplines include English, Psychology, Law, Engineering, and Physics. More information can be found at Dr. Schunn's website.

Christian Schunn
Professor, Department of Psychology
Senior Scientist, LRDC