Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Investing in Scholars: NCSER Early Career Development Awardee Jennifer Ledford

Featuring Jennifer Ledford, Vanderbilt University

By Liz Berke, NCSER Intern and Kristen Rhoads, NCSER Program Officer

Welcome to our second blog post featuring the Principal Investigators of the inaugural NCSER Early Career Development and Mentoring program grants.  This week we are excited to feature the work of Dr. Jennifer Ledford from Vanderbilt University and former Special Education teacher from Georgia.

Picture of Jennifer Ledford, Vanderbilt University

Dr. Ledford is being mentored by Dr. Joseph Wehby (Vanderbilt University), Dr. David Gast (University of Georgia) and Dr. Kevin Ayres (University of Georgia).  In her IES-funded project, she is further developing and testing a small-group intervention designed to improve the academic and social skills of children with autism.  Dr. Ledford is using single case designs to study whether the intervention improves child outcomes and teachers can effectively implement it. 

We had the chance to sit down with Dr. Ledford and ask her about the challenges she faces as well as get advice from her for others like her who are early in their research careers.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you face as a young researcher? How do you hope this award will help you overcome those challenges?

Early career research in education is hard for numerous reasons—not yet having established relationships with teachers and schools, relative inexperience with balancing research with other tasks (i.e., teaching, advising, service), and, of course, lack of funding. The early career award actually helps in all of these areas. It is much easier to establish relationships with schools when you are an early career researcher if you have a well-considered and funded series of studies and if you’ve aligned yourself well with more advanced researchers. In addition, the funding potentially allows you to reduce time spent on teaching and other activities, so that you have additional time to contribute to research efforts. Funding student support has been especially crucial in running my complex single case studies that require considerable personnel resources. Finally, the mentorship and training associated with grant have provided a flexible but structured framework for improving my ability to conduct high-quality research.

What advice would you give to young researchers?

I’m not sure I feel ready to give advice to fellow early career investigators! I think taking advantage of the knowledge of senior researchers has been key for me—both in my official mentee role and just in the day-to-day conduct of research outside of this grant.  

What is your favorite aspect of working with your mentors?

It is great to have a structured and focused mentoring program—it makes it easy to forge a relationship and to continue working with your mentor over time. Without this structure, I think it may have been easy to let the mentoring take a back seat to other responsibilities. It’s great to have an excuse to meet with and learn from experienced and invested leaders in the field.

What made you decide to apply to for the early career development and mentoring award? Is there anything you wish you had known before you applied?

When I read the RFA for the new competition, I think my first thought was probably something like “I might actually be competitive for this grant!” The training and mentoring components and competition with other early career investigators makes it a less daunting prospect.  While I was applying, I wish I had realized and taken advantage of the potential value of the Program Officer during the application process and the tremendous benefit of asking for input from colleagues. 

Comments? Questions? Please write to us at IESresearch@ed.gov.

The Month in Review: July 2015

By Liz Albro, NCER Associate Commissioner of Teaching and Learning

Summer Conference Season

Many IES-funded researchers have been sharing the findings of their studies at academic conferences this past month.  Want to learn more? Lists of presentations describing IES-funded research at the Society for Text & Discourse and Society for the Scientific Study of Reading annual meetings are available on our conferences page.

A Busy Month for IES Research in the News

Have you visited our IES Research in the News page lately? It’s a great way to learn more about IES-funded research.  Not only can you read more about the new awards that have been recently made, you can learn about findings from recent studies. We do our best to keep up, but if we’re missing something, send us a note at IESResearch@ed.gov.

More Recognition for ED/IES SBIR Products

ED/IES SBIR supported games by Triad Interactive Media (PlatinuMath) and Electric Funstuff won Gold at the Serious Play Conference.  And ED/IES SBIR awardee Fluidity Software won 1st Place in the “Best Performing Office Add-On” category, for their FluidMath app, which teachers and students use to create dynamic math and physics formulas.

Summer Research Training Institute on Cluster-Randomized Trials in Education Sciences

Congratulations to the 29 participants who completed the ninth Summer Research Training Institute on cluster-randomized trials (CRTs) in education sciences!

The purpose of this training is to prepare current education researchers to plan, design, conduct, and interpret cluster-randomized trials. A tenth Institute will be held in summer 2016, so be sure to follow us on Twitter or subscribe to the IES Newsflash to get application information as soon as it is available. 

Please send any questions or comments to IESResearch@ed.gov.

Congratulations Dr. Donald Compton and Colleagues at Vanderbilt University for Winning the Albert J. Harris Award!

By Sammi Plourde, NCSER Intern; Kristen Rhoads, NCSER Program Officer; and Becky McGill-Wilkinson, NCER Program Officer

IES-funded research by Dr. Compton and his colleagues was recently awarded the International Literacy Association’s (ILA) Albert J. Harris Award!  ILA is an advocacy organization that publishes current research on literacy and provides resources for practitioners, students, and leaders involved in facilitating literacy development across the world.  The Albert J. Harris Award is given annually to a recently published journal article or monograph that contributes to better understanding of prevention or measurement of learning disabilities or reading disabilities.

Picture of teacher reading a book to four children

The winning article by Jennifer K. Gilbert, Donald L. Compton, Douglas Fuchs, Lynn S. Fuchs, Bobette Bouton, Laura A. Barquero, and Eunsoo Cho entitled “Efficacy of a First-Grade Responsiveness-to-Intervention Prevention Model for Struggling Readers,” features findings from a NCSER-funded measurement study focused on identifying and intervening with struggling readers as early as first grade.  The article describes effects of intensive intervention within a multi-tiered prevention model. Struggling readers who were randomly assigned to receive an intensive, small-group intervention had better reading gains compared to students who received classroom instruction as usual. However, some students continued to struggle despite receiving the intensive intervention.  Those students were then randomly assigned to receive the intensive intervention in a one-on-one format or to continue in a small-group format. Results indicated that no differences in performance existed between the two formats.  They also found that more than half of the students who participated in the intervention failed to achieve average reading scores by the end of third grade.  These findings suggest that students with persistent reading problems need intervention as early as possible that spans multiple years.  They also suggest that instruction for the students should be tailored to meet individual needs.  

Dr. Compton and his colleagues are continuing this research with IES.  They were funded by NCER to conduct a follow-up research study to identify characteristics of children who begin elementary school with typical reading development but are then later identified as having a reading disability. This work will provide information on how to guide instruction for students who have these characteristics.

Congratulations to Dr. Compton and his colleagues for making such an important contribution to identifying, preventing, and treating reading disabilities!


Questions? Comments? Please send them to IESResearch@ed.gov

 

 

Researching Minority-Serving Institutions

By Katina Stapleton and James Benson, NCER Program Officers

A core problem for research on minority-serving institutions (MSIs) is that they have been defined inconsistently. Through the IES-funded Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment (CAPSEE) at Teachers College, Columbia University, researcher Valerie Lundy-Wagner is leading two research projects that aim to provide the definitional and contextual information necessary for carrying out more comprehensive and rigorous research on MSIs and the ethnic/racial and low-income students they disproportionately serve.

We spoke with Valerie about her motivation for studying MSIs and the challenges that face MSI researchers.

How did you become interested in studying minority-serving institutions (MSIs)?

Photo: Valerie Lundy-Wagner

My interest in MSIs was brought about by two experiences in graduate school. While in a master’s program at Stanford University, I met ten African American students pursuing doctoral degrees in one of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. I quickly learned that nearly all had one thing in common—they had attended a historically Black college or university (HBCU) for their undergraduate degree. I was intrigued by this and began to wonder about the extent to which their having attended an HBCU contributed to their undergraduate success and subsequent decision to pursue higher education beyond the baccalaureate.

MSIs also came up during my first year of the doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania where I was assigned to a qualitative research project focused on the contribution of MSIs to the preparation of African American women in STEM fields, and specifically at Spelman College (Atlanta, Georgia)—one of two all-women’s historically Black colleges. Based my master’s research, I had some ideas on the academic, psychological, financial, and structural reasons why students failed to persist in STEM; yet, until that project, I had not seen the numbers. In preparation for our site visit, I ran the descriptive statistics on HBCUs—in particular, their Black undergraduate enrollment but also the number and percentage of degrees they conferred to African American students each year by gender. The disproportionate contribution these institutions were making was surprising. Since then I’ve been interested in learning more about how these and other MSIs (e.g., Hispanic-serving institutions, tribal colleges and universities, predominately Black institutions, Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institutions) contribute to postsecondary access and completion by minority and low-income students. Now that I am working on this CAPSEE project, I am especially interested in understanding how these institutions might be meaningfully incorporated into higher education research and into policy interventions that will help close postsecondary attainment gaps by ethnicity/race.

How are MSIs important in the postsecondary system and why should researchers and policymakers be interested in research on MSIs?

Based on the extant research, MSIs are a critical part of the postsecondary system. According to some reports, these institutions comprise 20% of all colleges and universities, and on average, 70% of their undergraduate enrollment are ethnic/racial minority students. While poor K-12 preparation and achievement are significant factors in this reality, the fact that many MSIs are open-access institutions makes them an important site for students seeking a chance at increasing proficiency and pursuing higher education credentials. For researchers, we have the opportunity to better understand how these institutions are successfully transitioning underprepared students into high achievers, but also how their lack of resources may be contributing to less-than-ideal outcomes.

What are the greatest challenges in conducting research on MSIs?

There are at least two major challenges in conducting research on MSIs. First, the institutional status or designation of an MSI has not been consistent over time. What many people do not realize about MSIs is that some were established by the federal government to acknowledge and help address historical and ongoing inequality in access to education (e.g., historically Black college and universities) while others were established to address contemporary inequality (e.g., Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institutions). Second, and in a similar vein, MSIs have become a large and growing topic of higher education research, yet this body of work largely discusses institutions eligible for MSI designation and those that are actually funded under a federal program as though they are one and the same. In effect, including institutions simply eligible for MSI status with those that have deliberately made an effort to better support an ethnic/racial minority group by applying for and receiving MSI-specific funds convolutes the contribution of the federal MSI programs. This complicates a researcher’s ability to make relevant comparisons between institutions disproportionately serving minority students but also work seeking to compare MSIs to non-MSIs.

Your current IES-funded research project on MSIs utilizes data from NCES’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). What kind of questions about MSIs can IPEDS help answer?

IPEDS is an important and critical resource for postsecondary education research. In the descriptive analysis of this project, five annual IPEDS surveys are being used to help provide basic aggregate-level information on the characteristics of postsecondary institutions and the students they serve. Some of the questions IPEDs will help answer include, “How does percent Pell receipt among undergraduates vary among institutions eligible for and designated as MSIs? And how does this compare across MSI designations and to non-MSIs?” In effect, these questions seek to identify the extent to which there is a relationship between institutional characteristics and minority student outcomes among MSIs and non-MSIs. IPEDS will also provide me with an opportunity to clarify differences and similarities between MSIs and non-MSIs at the institution-level. This is necessary for subsequently developing more rigorous research on the effect of MSI status or funding on minority student outcomes.

Given the projected increases in postsecondary enrollment of minority students, do you see MSIs becoming more or less important to the postsecondary system in the future?

Yes.  Despite the technical issues associated with identifying which set(s) of institutions are MSIs, the fact of the matter is that there are a growing number of institutions that are disproportionately educating students of color and low-income students. Given the gaps in postsecondary access and attainment by ethnic/racial minority students, stakeholders in research, policy, and postsecondary institutions must better understand the challenges and the mechanisms for success occurring at these institutions, as well as how successful initiatives and reforms supporting similar students at predominately White institutions could be brought to MSIs. 


Interested in learning more about this topic? CAPSEE and the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania recently published On Their Own Terms: Two-Year Minority Serving Institutions, a report that looks at the role of two-year Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) in improving postsecondary access and degree completion for disadvantaged students in the United States.

Comments or questions for IES? Please send them to IESResearch@ed.gov.  

Supporting STEM Transfer Through Research at the Intersection of Cognitive Science and Education

By Erin Higgins, NCER Program Officer

Wait, have I already learned that?  Can I use what I learned in math class to help me solve this physics problem? Students struggle with these types of questions every day – unsure how to identify situations where their knowledge is transferrable. Even when they do recognize opportunities to use knowledge learned in one context in a different situation, they may not apply their knowledge appropriately. This is especially true in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines. To improve student outcomes in STEM, we need instructional strategies and curricula that help students and teachers with this enduring challenge of transfer.

At the Association for Psychological Science’s 27th Annual Convention, I put together a symposium that highlighted emerging research that addresses this complex issue. Four researchers funded through NCER’s Cognition and Student Learning topic discussed findings from their ongoing research. Each is approaching this issue from a unique perspective regarding factors that help or hinder transfer, and each is examining this issue with different learning tasks, content areas (science, math) and age groups.

Jennifer Kaminski presented research conducted in collaboration with Vladimir Sloutsky (The Role of External Representations in Learning and Transfer of Mathematical Knowledge) that demonstrates that both undergraduate and elementary students who learned a mathematical concept in a simple symbolic format were more likely to transfer their knowledge than those who learned the concept in a more contextualized and perceptually-rich format. This finding is particularly interesting given the widely-held belief that students learn mathematics concepts better with concrete objects, and suggests that there may be many instances where teaching students in a more abstract way facilitates later transfer. This research team is continuing this line of work in their more recently funded IES grant, Facilitating Transfer of Mathematical Knowledge from Classroom to Real Life.

Charles Kalish presented research with elementary-aged students and adults showing that the structure of the math practice problems students encounter affects the memory representations built in response, which then determines whether students can successfully transfer their knowledge in mathematics (Promoting Discriminative and Generative Learning: Transfer in Arithmetic Problem Solving). For instance, in a study with elementary-aged students, 2nd graders practiced arithmetic by playing a computer-based ice cream game, where they had to make ice cream flavors for monsters by combining different types of ice cream. Students who received “grounded” practice interacted with the math practice problems in a way that highlighted the underlying quantities in the arithmetic problem while students who received “symbolic” practice were given standard arithmetic problems to solve. Students who received the grounded practice showed higher performance on a later test on arithmetic problems involving quantities not seen during practice. In light of the research presented by Kaminski in this symposium, this research demonstrates that the issue of transfer in mathematics is extremely complex, and it may be the case that there are circumstances where a more concrete, grounded approach to instruction is best and other circumstances where a symbolic, abstract approach will lead to the best transfer.

Kenneth Kurtz presented research on a technique called category construction, which is a sorting task intended to teach students the conceptual principles that underlie different examples of the same science concepts (Enhancing Learning and Transfer of Science Principles via Category Construction).  Compared to students who engaged in the more standard approach of completing worksheets about science concepts, students who engaged in category construction were better able to apply the newly learned science concepts to novel situations.

Finally, Holly Taylor presented research exploring the effects of a spatial thinking program for elementary-aged children on both spatial thinking and STEM performance (An Elementary-age Origami and Pop-up Paper Engineering Curriculum to Promote the 3-D Spatial Thinking and Reasoning Underlying STEM Education).  Based on origami and paper-engineering activities, the program trains 2D to 3D spatial transformation and diagram interpretation skills. This research is ongoing, though preliminary results suggest that students’ spatial reasoning skills are improved when they engage in this program. Future research will evaluate the extent to which this intervention improves STEM achievement.

Together, these four presenters’ lines of research demonstrate the value of applying traditional cognitive psychology and cognitive development theories to challenges in education practice in order to improve education outcomes for students. By aligning instructional approaches to the ways in which the mind works (e.g., by addressing how different memory models affect how we use information, how spatial reasoning impacts math and science problem solving, and how our perceptual system impacts how we represent information in our minds), we can begin to develop approaches that more effectively impart knowledge to students in ways that will allow for the broadest and most successful transfer.

Additional summaries of the research presented at this symposium can be found at: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/06/03/findings-show-ways-students-can-transfer-math.html and http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/inside-school-research/2015/06/sorting_improves_science_transfer.html

Questions? Comments? Please send us an email at IESResearch@ed.gov.