With funding from APF, Michael Strambler is studying factors that enhance and diminish the academic achievement of ethnic-minority students. (credit: Katie Richardson)

Michael Strambler, PhD, an associate research scientist at Yale University School of Medicine, is taking an academic approach to questions he's been asking since childhood. Thanks to receiving the American Psychological Foundation's (APF) first Kenneth B. and Mamie P. Clark Early Career Grant in 2012, Strambler is studying how eighth-graders' perceived social standing is linked to their self-concept and academic performance.

Strambler grew up in a low-income neighborhood in New Jersey while attending a private school in an affluent nearby community. He says he often saw a contrast in performance between the mostly white and well-off students in his high-performing school compared with those in his own community. Today, he is studying those observations with an eye toward closing the academic achievement gaps between students of different backgrounds. gradPSYCH talked to Strambler about his research.

What specifically does your research project look at?

I am interested in the concept of how students think about themselves as learners and how psychologically and emotionally invested they are in learning. My project studies how students perceive their place in society and school and how these perceptions play a role in shaping their academic selves and academic performance.

How did you evaluate the students?

To assess social standing, we presented students with an image of a ladder and asked them where they perceived themselves to be on this ladder with respect to either society or their place in school. In terms of academic identification, there were two main concepts we wanted to assess. One was how much students invest themselves in the process of learning and the other question was what social domains and identities students found to be disengaged might invest in. So, you can imagine, for example, that if students identify less with academic learning, they may identify more with something else — say, athletics. We gave students different approaches to try to assess this.

Why is your research important?

It's important because the more we understand the social factors that contribute to the ethnic achievement gap and the underperformance of ethnic minorities, the better we can respond to them with interventions. One way to intervene might be to focus on changing the environment in which students learn. Another approach might be to directly help students become more psychologically invested in learning.

How did the grant help your career?

It has provided me very valuable resources to explore some of these questions that I have been interested in exploring for quite some time. APF also did an excellent job of promoting my work.

What's next for you?

My collaborators and I will want to look at some of these same measures among ninth-grade students because we know that the transition from middle school to high school can be very difficult. We'll also be examining how measures of stress affect the processes examined in this study.

Is there an APF grant in your future?

Each year, the American Psychological Foundation awards more than 45 grants worth $700,000. Find out if there's one right for you.