EPIC’s Research Programs

A major question that challenges educational researchers is which knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs are most important for students to learn in schools? And of those areas, which will benefit students the most outside of the classroom environment? 

For decades, research in education has focused on teaching subject matter, student achievement and academic skills.  There is no doubt that these areas are important. Vital outcomes, such as admissions to high quality universities, are based in large part on the assessments of students’ subject matter performance.  The foundational belief of EPIC research program is that even high-quality instruction may yield disappointing results if students give up when they encounter failure or undesirable outcomes. When children in the United States experience failure early in their school career, all too often the child gives up and performs poorly throughout school thereafter. To benefit maximally from school and in life beyond K-12, students need to utilize the information that comes from both success and failure, as well as learn how to use that information to achieve later in life.  Very few educational research articles have focused on the idea that failure is an integral part of the learning process. EPIC’s research focuses on what failure means to children and adults from various backgrounds, sources of their failures, determinants of people’s reaction to failure, and how to help people cope with their failure experiences. Thus, the research addresses a central question about human development and education: how and when do people perceive failures and setbacks as crucial information and a stepping stone to grow?

EPIC research program consists of the following areas of studies:

Cultural, Developmental and Individual Differences in Students’ Understanding and Reactions to Failure

EPIC is currently conducting studies in the United States and China to investigate how students of different ages, academic performance level and social-economic backgrounds interpret and react to various kinds of failures, setbacks and undesirable situations.  For instance, we study what levels of school performance and types of learning are associated with failure or success experiences. For some students, scoring a 65% in math class counts as success and for other students scoring a 95% in math is counted as success.  We want to understand what standards students set for their own success and failure in a wide variety of academic, social and personal activities. What roles do their sense of self and beliefs of what it takes to succeed in a given field of study play in their understanding and reaction to failure. These types of studies are often done by conducting in-depth psychological interviews with students from varied cultural and academic backgrounds about their personal experiences and about their understanding of failure encountered in various aspects of their lives.  In addition, we also examine peoples’ emotional reactions and decision making after experiencing failure across various cognitive tasks.

Learning About One’s Own and Failure of Other People

Even though research on failure as a motivator of effort is very limited, the evidence that does exist suggests that students can grow both from learning about the failures of other people and from experiencing and understanding their own failure.  Crucially, for failure to have positive effects, students need to realize that failure offers valuable information that is central to their long-term success. These projects explore how learning about other peoples’ struggles and failures impacts one’s own learning and problem solving.  The effects of learning about other peoples’ struggles have been studied in both cross-cultural problems solving as well as STEM learning. For instance, we study how recognizing that visionaries and ‘geniuses’ such as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Marie Curie also have experienced lots of struggles and failures helps students learn difficult domains.

Goals, Metacognition, and Problem Solving 

A burgeoning research literature shows that students who value learning and believe success is within reach persist in the face of failure, excel academically, and accomplish more than people who don’t, even if they are equal in ability.  (see A. Bandura on Self-Efficacy; Attribution and Social Expectancy Theories, C. Dweck on Self-Theories and Mindset; A. Duckworth on Grit; D. McClelland on Acquired Need for Achievement; W. Mischel on Self-Control). Yet, little is known about whether students view learning as their primary goal in school, whether their goals vary by context or academic performance level, and whether their goals carry predictive power for academic performance. This gap is unfortunate, because if students do not have learning as a primary goal, no amount of instruction will improve their learning. These projects examine how students’ understanding of their own goals, goals set by their schools, and by their teachers impact their learning and problem solving across a range of challenging domains.

Instructional Media That Motivates Learning

Recently, we have witnessed an increased interest in applying the theories, constructs, and methods of basic motivational research to design instructional materials and activities to motivate students’ learning and to improve educational outcomes. Although this instructional research is only in its infancy, it shows promise as an influence on student performance and as a supplement to other interventions and reform, such as those that target teacher recruitment and training, school structure, and curriculum.  EPIC’s research projects investigate what it takes to design instruction that motivates students’ learning and performance in schools. We conducted a series of classroom-based experiments with random assignments of students to different instructional conditions using various forms of technologies and media and assessed learning outcomes produced by these conditions. For instance, we have studied how an integration of scientists’ personal struggle stories with instruction on scientific facts impact students’ STEM learning.  We also used contrasting cases, comparing examples of good and poor working students, in our instruction to help students better assess their need to learn and improve. We are thoughtfully and painstakingly trying to understand instructional processes and craft interventions based on theory and research in the field of motivation.

Cross-Cultural Communication and Learning

Over the past decade, the number of international students enrolling in higher education in America has been growing rapidly (Institute of International Education, 2015). Approximately 5 million international students are enrolled in American colleges and universities (OECD, 2015) and the number is projected to reach 8-10 million by the year 2020 (Forest, 2007; Phakiti, Hirsh & Woodrow, 2013). This fast-growing educational globalization has brought both advantages and challenges to international education in the United States.  EPIC research projects identify challenges international and local students face when studying and working together. In particular, we study the nature of personal reflection and how cross-cultural experiences lead to different types of reflection and behaviors. We also explore how international students perceive their communication with local students and how their perceptions influence communication and learning. Cross-cultural competency is examined in the context of different levels of communication among international and local students.  This line of work helps us understand how cultural contexts influence peoples’ perceptions, and their interpretation and understanding of challenges and failures encountered in learning and problem solving.

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