This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, in this interview blog we asked Dr. Xin Wei, a senior quantitative researcher at Digital Promise to discuss her career journey. Dr. Wei’s current IES-funded study uses statistical and machine-learning techniques to understand the test-taking behavior of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) grade 8 learners with and without disabilities.
How did you become interested in a career in education research?
As a child, I aspired to become a teacher, and in college I decided to pursue a degree in child development. During my senior year of college, I worked as a research assistant on a project studying statistical and psychometric methods used to analyze learning differences among children. This experience sparked my interest in education research and revealed the potential for statistical analysis to inform and enhance teaching practices.
Graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Stanford University helped me gain a deeper understanding of quantitative methods in education research. Through applying and improving quantitative methods, I discovered how national and state longitudinal datasets can help us understand the learning, social, and emotional needs of students with disabilities and which policy interventions can help us achieve better outcomes. This opportunity helped me understand the challenges students with disabilities face in the education system and deepened my appreciation for secondary data analysis and its power to inform intervention research.
Currently, my research focuses on analyzing log/process data to understand how digital learning and assessments can facilitate student learning, accurately measure progress, and improve outcomes for students with disabilities. Through this work, I am committed to advancing the education research field at the intersection of special education, learning analytics, and psychometrics.
What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered, and how did you overcome the challenge?
When I came to the United States to pursue a graduate degree at the age of 23, I faced a host of challenges that forced me out of my comfort zone. Navigating a new culture and adapting to academic expectations and research demands was overwhelming. Additionally, understanding U.S. K-12 education policies and practices was no easy feat. However, I was fortunate enough to have incredible mentors, professors, peers, and colleagues who provided me with guidance, support, and patience when I needed it most. These individuals played a crucial role in helping me grow as a researcher.
The most important lesson I learned from the challenges I faced was the value of continuous learning and growth in my career. These experiences have strengthened my commitment to making a positive impact in education and helping others who may be facing similar obstacles.
How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of researchers from underrepresented groups?
The student population in the United States is diverse, and it is essential that the education research community reflects that diversity by including scholars who bring unique perspectives and experiences.
One way to do this is by actively seeking out and valuing diverse voices in research, teaching, and leadership positions. This includes promoting diversity in conference panels, as well as actively recruiting and hiring researchers from underrepresented groups. By creating a culture of inclusivity, the education research community can better support the careers and scholarship of researchers from underrepresented groups.
Another way to better support the careers and scholarship of researchers from underrepresented groups is through mentoring programs, summer internships, and postdoc positions. These opportunities can provide valuable professional development and collaboration opportunities. In addition, research grants specifically targeted toward underrepresented groups can also help support their work and advance their careers. It is essential to widely advertise these opportunities and make them accessible to ensure that all researchers have an equal chance to participate.
In your area of research, what do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to address diversity, equity, and inclusion and to improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?
To address diversity, equity, and inclusion in education research, it is crucial to adopt an asset-based approach when working with neurodiverse students. By shifting the focus from deficits to strengths, we can recognize and leverage their unique abilities, promoting more equitable educational practices. Additionally, targeted support should be provided to address the specific challenges underserved students face, ensuring inclusive learning environments. For instance, my research findings indicate that students with autism exhibit strengths in visuospatial reasoning and are drawn to STEM fields. However, autistic students may benefit from extra support to develop perseverance and improve their weaker areas (such as word problems) in math.
Furthermore, there is a need for more research focusing on understanding how students with disabilities or other underserved groups engage with and benefit from digital learning and assessment systems. This entails investigating their cognitive processes, level of engagement, needs, and barriers within these contexts.
To address this gap, I am currently analyzing the NAEP process/log, performance, and survey data to study the impact of digital tools (such as text-to-speech) on student performance. This line of research is crucial and should be expanded to gather new insights on inclusive and accessible learning possibilities as technologies continue to develop.
In addition, research efforts should extend beyond traditional methods and incorporate the analysis of multimodal data. By considering a range of data sources, including behavior log/process data, speech, facial expressions, and eye-tracking data, we can gain deeper insights into how students interact with digital learning and assessments. This comprehensive approach enables us to capture nuanced aspects of their experiences and informs the design and implementation of effective educational interventions and digital learning platforms.
What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that are pursuing a career in education research?
First and foremost, seek out a great mentor and research team. Having someone to guide and support you in the field can be tremendously beneficial to your career. Look for someone who shares your research interests, is supportive of your goals, and is committed to helping you succeed. Learning from others in your team is a great way to improve your skills and knowledge.
Second, don’t be afraid of change. The greatest opportunities often require stepping out of your comfort zone and exploring new research areas or methodologies. Be open to feedback and new perspectives that can help you grow as a researcher.
Third, be brave! It is important to recognize that your unique experiences and perspectives are valuable assets to the research community. Do not be afraid to share your ideas and contributions with others. Being proactive about your work can be a great way to build your network and collaborate with other researchers in the field.
Lastly, know that you have the potential to lead a research team yourself. Keep working hard, stay focused on your goals, and do not be afraid to take on leadership roles when the opportunities arise. Pursuing this career as an emerging scholar from an underrepresented or minoritized group can be challenging but also incredibly rewarding, and you can make a meaningful impact in the field and inspire others to follow in your footsteps.
Dr. Xin Wei is currently a senior quantitative researcher at Digital Promise. Prior to joining Digital Promise, she held the position of principal research scientist at SRI International for a duration of 15 years. She specializes in using applied experimental design, statistical and machine-learning techniques to evaluate and improve instruction, interventions, assessments, and policies. In addition to her current IES study, Dr. Wei has designed and directed statistical analysis of more than 26 grants funded by federal agencies.
Produced by NCER program officer Wai Chow (Wai-Ying.Chow@ed.gov) and Virtual Student Federal Service intern Audrey Im.