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This Psychology course allows students to participate in hands-on research projects


The 2018-2019 cohort of students in PSYC 395 pose with Jennifer Coffman and Peter Ornstein. Photo by Taylor Thomas. 

A UNC psychology class is enhancing students' educational experiences by allowing them to spend more time researching than in the classroom. 

In a section of PSYC 395, undergraduate students assist two professors in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience: research assistant professor Jennifer Coffman and F. Stuart Chapin Distinguished professor emeritus Peter Ornstein. The professors are conducting an ongoing study of what parents and teachers do to support children's memory and their achievements in mathematics and academics.

Ornstein and Coffman started working together in 1998, while Coffman was a graduate student. In 2002, the pair began receiving grants for the study. Since then, different students have been helping with the study’s research each year during the PSYC 395 course, which can span one to two semesters.  

“The reason that I use that course and like that course so much is that it provides an opportunity for undergraduate students at Carolina to engage deeply in ongoing research projects,” Coffman said. “Students can get academic credit and research experience at the same time.”

The Institute of Education Sciences funds the study, which assesses how North Carolina students in kindergarten through second grade perform, how teachers speak during class and how these children converse with their parents at home. 

This multi-level approach, Coffman said, is useful in figuring out what teachers naturally do to help their students learn effectively. 

“The goal, in the long-run, is to develop programs for teachers to give the science back — to help them understand what they could be doing in the classroom to help their students,” Coffman said. “And for us, that's the goal: to create training opportunities and professional development opportunities for teachers in the classroom.” 

In PSYC 395, students learn how to research for this particular study, collect data and read and write papers about different research articles. They eventually write their own mini grant proposal in which they explain research questions that interest them.

Jennifer Shelton, a recent UNC graduate who is now working on an additional bachelor's degree, took the course her junior year. Shelton said that as an undergraduate student, she appreciated the direction the course gave her. 

“I learned through working with the children that I wanted to have that personal interaction,” she said. “I didn't want to go get my PhD and then just be writing papers. I wanted to have that constant interaction.”

Shelton, who has continued to work on the study as a research assistant, said that finding a community is one of the most important things a student can do.

“I've been with this lab for going on three years now, so I think it's a great environment,” she said. “I really love working with my supervisors just because they're so helpful. They want me to do the best that I can and they want to help me in any way that they can.”

Abby Ward, a full-time research assistant who has worked on the study for two years, trains undergraduate students to administer different memory, mathematical or achievement tasks to the elementary school students. She also helps with data collection. 

As a somewhat recent UNC graduate, Ward said she recognizes how difficult it is to find hands-on research opportunities at the University. She said small classes like these are important to get research experience and make connections.

“I think it's really important to build those relationships and get those recommendations and have someone who can talk to you about applying to grad school and really help you figure out what you want,” Ward said. 

Coffman said she values this course not only for research assistance, but also for the community it provides students.

“I think it's an academic home, but it's also, hopefully, a positive community where students can feel like they have resources — in more senior students in the lab, and in people who are having a similar experience and [are] excited about the same sorts of opportunities,” Coffman said. 

This community-building spreads beyond the University. 

Coffman, who is also an associate professor of human development and family studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, said these classes are becoming an inter-institutional opportunity, fostering connections between UNC-Greensboro and UNC students.

“I think that combination of real live, active participation in research, coupled with a strong academic experience is a really unique opportunity for undergraduate students to understand the power of research in an academic context,” Coffman said.


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