Motivation, Self-Regulated Learning, and Graduate Education

I have been working on revising our grad handbook, and leading some revisions to our graduate curriculum this year in my role as grad studies chair. One process I looked at was the end of the year report. We have grad students submit annual evaluations. These annual evaluations were used to give students a rating of “satisfactory”, “excellent”, or “unsatisfactory”. Starting next year, to be in line with the OSU grad school, we are changing the ratings slightly so that they are “reasonable progress”, “excellent”, and “warning”. As part of this change, I wrote up some guidelines for what reasonable and excellent progress might look like for graduate students.  My thinking was that students might want to see what would be needed to achieve these categories. My colleagues reacted negatively, in particular, to the “excellent” progress guidelines.  Thus, I began to reflect on this question – what motivates graduate students?

photo credit: angietorres via photopin cc

photo credit: angietorres via photopin cc

I started my search for the answer with a search of the literature. I  found almost nothing on motivation or self-regulated learning among graduate students. Indeed, it seemed that there was virtually no literature on the topic. Lucky for me, I have two new fabulous colleagues in my college that are experts in self-regulated learning – Chris Wolters and Shirley Yu. I had coffee with both of them, and they agreed with my assessment – there was virtually no research on motivation and graduate students.

Thus, I was on my own. I discussed with both Chris and Shirley about strategies that work with regard to grad students and motivation. The first thing I learned was that intrinsic motivation is much better for achievement than extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation exists within the self, and stems from a personal interest in the task itself. Extrinsic motivation is externally motivated, and usually stems from an external entity setting the goal. That is, the motivation to do the task is that the outcome is desired, not that the task is inherently interesting to the individual. Intrinsic motivation is related to greater achievement.

As I thought more about motivation, that lead me to the concept of self-regulated learning. There has been much written on self-regulated learning as it applies to undergraduate education. What is self-regulated learning? According to Zimmerman (1990), “self-regulated learners plan, set goals, organize, self-monitor, and self-evaluate at various points during the process of acquisition” (p. 4-5). Sounds like the perfect graduate student, right?

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Designing an (Interdisciplinary) Graduate Seminar: The Crowd-Sourced Syllabus

Designing syllabi for graduate courses is a lot of work, particularly when they are seminars, and particularly when you are in an interdisciplinary program.  In an interdisciplinary program, you might want to teach a seminar on a topic, say intimate relationships, but may only know the research in the discipline (e.g. clinical psychology) you were trained in.  This is one instance where crowd-sourcing can really help.medium_5120100

Here is my story. I teach a graduate course in family theory and research. There are several constellations of family relationships (i.e. couple relationships, sibling relationships, parent-child relationships, in-law, grandparent-grandchild, etc.), as well as several theories related to the study of families. Thus, putting together the syllabus for this course the first time was overwhelming.

I began by looking at a syllabus for a family theory/research course I enjoyed that I took in graduate school in HDFS at Penn State taught by Catherine Cohan, HDFS 525 for you Penn State HDFSers. Next, I googled “sociology of the family”, “economics of the family”, “family communication”, “family psychology”, and “family theory”, and variations on these, with the word syllabus to try to find syllabi that might be relevant. In writing this post, I looked back at my folder of syllabi, and I have several sociology, HDFS, economics, and psychology syllabi related to the family that I used to get ideas of what important readings I might want to include.

Next, I put together an initial draft. I circulated the initial draft among 12 faculty outside of my home institution and my colleagues at Ohio State. I sent the following message:

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Don’t take my word for it: Crowdsourced Advice for Students Applying to Graduate School


photo credit: TwOsE via photopin cc

I did a presentation a few years ago for prospective graduate students at the National Council on Family Relations annual conference. In preparation, I gathered advice for students applying to graduate school.  You can see the contributors below.  Do you agree with the advice? What is missing?

Contributors: Elizabeth Adkins-Regan, Paul Amato, Mitchell Bartholomew, Alan Booth, John Casterline, Jeff Dew, Karen Fingerman, Gary Gates, Elizabeth Hay, Claire Kamp Dush, Tina Kauh, Andrew Martin, Lauren Rinelli, Karina Shreffler, Katherine Stamps Mitchell, Miles Taylor, Alexis Walker, Nick Wolfinger

What SHOULD an undergrad or graduate student who is applying to graduate school or a Ph.D. program do?



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Should I go to graduate school?

As part of my job as grad studies chair, I have received several inquiries into our graduate program. Individuals emailing me are interested in graduate school for a variety of reasons: they love Ohio State and want to teach at OSU, they love teaching and want to teach college students, they love Human Development and Family Science and they want to teach HDFS, they have a lifelong goal of getting a PhD, etcetera.

photo credit: CollegeDegrees360 via photopin cc

photo credit: CollegeDegrees360 via photopin cc

In my opinion, there really is only one reason to get a non-clinical or practice oriented PhD – you have a research topic, or even a discipline, you are passionate about, and you think that you will be able to self-motivate yourself to study it in depth for the next several years. Often times, students are not emailing me that they are passionate about an area of research related to child development, adolescent development, family science, prevention science, family demography, couple and family therapy, or some other area that our HDFS faculty members study. Instead, they are passionate about teaching, or really liked their undergraduate experience in our discipline. Now they want to pass that passion on to college students. Because PhD programs are primarily grounded in research, a passion for teaching college students will not necessarily be nurtured and rewarded, in the research intensive universities where most PhD programs reside.

Graduate school is long and challenging. The job market for PhDs, at least the academic job market, is very competitive, and research and publications land people jobs, even at teaching-focused universities. So individuals considering graduate school should give some serious thought as to whether a PhD is what they really want. I ask students to google “should I get a PhD” and read some articles, and if they are still interested and have a research topic they are passionate about, they should get back to me. If not, there may be other meaningful ways they could spend the next 5 to 6 years, and less expensive too I might add.

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Going it Alone: The Problem with Graduate Education in Disciplines that Value Solo Authorship

Working with students to get their publications ready for submission can take hours. I have recently been working with a superstar student from the Sociology department here at OSU. This student is bright, eager, motivated, and deliberate. We are working on a paper together, and the student is first author. We had our first formal meeting about research ideas in May 2012. By my count in my Outlook calendar, about 55 meetings later, in December 2013, we submitted a paper with the student as first author, me as second author, and my colleague as third author to the Journal of Marriage and Family [note I had a maternity leave during that year if that seems like a long time]. The longest meeting we had was scheduled for 2 hours.  I did a little work on the paper outside of our meetings, but primarily, most of my work on the paper was done side by side with the student.

photo credit: raganmd via photopin cc

photo credit: raganmd via photopin cc

The paper has received a revise and resubmit, and the student immediately started working on the revision (this student is awesome, right?).  By my count, we have met 12 times about the revision (the letter is almost done) and we still have to finalize the revised manuscript, which hopefully can be accomplished in maybe three or four more meetings (positive thinking!).  I estimate that we have had about 16 hours of meeting so far about the revision.

I review this to make the point that it takes a lot of work to get a manuscript from idea to completion. I have spent many hours with this student reviewing results, coding in Stata, creating datasets, examining output, and finally, co-writing. The co-writing probably takes the longest. Good academic writing takes much time to learn. The co-writing the student and I have done, including reading every section of the paper out loud and jointly rewriting and clarifying, has hopefully been very helpful for the student. I certainly believe the students’ writing has improved since we started working together, and the student is very appreciative of my time.

But, would I have done this if I were in a Sociology department, or some other discipline that values solo authorship?

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Do Your Homework

My final year of graduate school, I went on the academic job market. I received four invitations for on-campus interviews [aka flyouts], and I attended each.  Unfortunately, I did not receive a job offer from any of these universities. The following year, the first year of my postdoc at Cornell University, I applied for only two jobs, received a campus interview for one of the jobs (Ohio State), and I landed the job. Very little changed on my CV in terms of publication and presentations between those two years. I had the postdoc and had finished my dissertation the second year, and the first year I was pregnant, so those things could have made a difference in why I got the job offer my second year and I did not my first. But, one significant thing did change over that time – my behavior and preparation – and I believe that is why I got the job the second time around.

photo credit: John-Morgan via photopin cc

photo credit: John-Morgan via photopin cc

The first time I was on the job market, I read over the CVs of people in the department prior to the interview, and I had a generic list of questions that I asked individuals I met with based on their rank. For instance, I asked assistant professors about their experiences on the tenure track, I asked department chairs about their vision of the department, etc. I felt pretty confident going into these interviews – they wanted me! Yet, just because you are a department’s first choice (I was told this by one of the departments) does not mean you are going to get the job. Our job when we are interviewing you is to flatter you and sell ourselves and our location. We are going to make you feel special. However, we are evaluating you from the time you step off of the plane.

As I was preparing for my interview at Ohio State, a colleague of mine who had recently moved from a small liberal arts college to Cornell gave me this advice. Do your homework. Read the scholarly publications of everyone that you are meeting with. Really get to know what they work on, and show genuine interest. When you meet with them, engage in some small talk, but then ask them about their research. Share your thoughts on their research, and show how it connects to your own research.  He shared with me how he had meetings with faculty members, and they would say “Ithaca is a great place to live” and he would respond with “that is great, but actually, I read your paper, and I was really fascinated by XX, and I wanted to ask you about YY.”

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Writing Group

As the mother of four (2 sons born in grad school, 2 sons born on the tenure track), people are always asking me “how do you do it?”  [Note, my husband never gets asked this question, which is a whole other blog post on gender attitudes.] My go to answer is always “high quality husband, high quality childcare”.  This is true. But, I have also been interested in productivity for a while. I have read several books on the subject, including books designed for academics like Advice for New Faculty by Robert Boice and How to Write a Lot by Paul Silva, and those designed for a general audience like Leave the Office Earlier by Laura Stack. I also participated in the National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development’s Faculty Success Program with Kerry Ann Roquemore, which I really enjoyed.

Recently a friend posted on Facebook that he and his wife, who are both on the tenure track, were going to need some tips for success with multiple children.  So, my friend Dave’s comment is inspiring my next series of posts.  I am going to post a few tips that I have found have helped me be productive.  Most I have implemented in the past five years or so, and I really think they have helped up my productivity.

The first tip I want to share is on my writing group.  After reading How to Write a Lot, my colleague Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan and I started a writing group with our graduate students. We started out simply; I remember that our first semester one of our tasks was to read How to Write a Lot.  We devised a schedule for the quarter (though Ohio State is now on semesters, so we now devise our schedule by semesters), and each person in the group took a week to share a piece of writing with the group. We usually distribute a draft of a paper, though sometimes it might just be an idea for a paper, or a conference proposal. Sarah and I both take turns in addition to the graduate students. The group helped boost our productivity by creating deadlines for the students, and for us.  For instance, if a student presented a paper at a conference in the fall, we would encourage the student to put the paper on our schedule to read in the spring.  This is very important because publishing is key for both tenure, and what I call the “first tenure track” – grad school.  The job market is so competitive, and to stand out at all, students need to make sure they are submitting their work for publication early and often. We found that writing group was successful and resulted in several submissions.

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