Feature

If you had strolled through the poster session at the Eastern Psychological Association's (EPA) annual meeting in New York City in March, you would have seen hundreds of researchers fielding questions about their work on such topics as autism prevention, workplace wellness and academic motivation. You would have noticed the name of one institution — Washington College — appear aisle after aisle, with nearly all of its posters overseen by undergraduate students.

You may have assumed that Washington College is a large research university or that these students were assisting their professors who really conducted the research.

You would have been wrong.

Washington College, in quaint Chestertown, Md., has a student body of fewer than 1,500. About 115 majors and seven faculty members make up its psychology department. But the college's emphasis on student research and its active learning curriculum make it a standout even among universities more than 10 times its size. Over the past three years, for example, between 20 percent and 50 percent of psychology majors have immediately gone on to graduate school. More than 30 percent took on research positions or psychology-oriented jobs. And, at the EPA meeting, Washington College showcased 21 posters, the most of any of the 346 institutions represented.

Robin Hailstorks, PhD, associate executive director of APA's precollege and undergraduate programs, says Washington College is a great example of an institution that has capitalized on its small student-faculty ratio to involve undergraduates in research.

"The higher education literature suggests undergraduate research is a high impact practice — it encourages student success and engagement," she says. "For schools that have this practice, students have more opportunities to engage in research with their professors and to present their findings at conferences."

A shift

Washington College boosted its students’ success by embracing an active learning curriculum and building its research program (credit: Lloyd Wolf)Washington College's psychology department hasn't always been a success story. Twenty years ago, its students' scores on the Educational Testing Service's (ETS) Major Field Test for Psychology were in the 40th percentile among more than 200 colleges and universities nationwide. "Not anything to be proud of," says George Spilich, PhD, a psychology professor and former chair at Washington College.

So in the mid-1990s, the faculty transitioned to an active learning model in which almost all psychology courses offered a lab component and professors opened up their own research to student involvement. For Spilich, a cognitive neuroscientist, that has meant inviting students to work in his lab on projects related to concussions. For current psychology chair Lauren Littlefield, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist, it means tweaking her research questions on learning and memory to incorporate students' new ideas.

"It's about … taking students' ideas into account, being as excited for students as they are about their future and guiding them to where they want to be," says Littlefield, who graduated from Washington College with a psychology degree in 1991.

Psychology students must also complete a senior research project — a requirement that hasn't changed since the 1950s. The difference today is that instead of striking out on their own, students often collaborate with their professors with similar interests. They develop a question and form a team, apply for and gain institutional review board approval, conduct an experiment, analyze the results and write a report. Many develop posters and some submit their articles for publication. Student posters at the EPA meeting, for example, included research on the relationship between personality and dietary interest, a study exploring whether concussed students experience reduced awareness and a look at how frustration affects performance on cognitive tasks.

The results have been dramatic: Today, Washington College consistently scores above the 80th percentile on the ETS exam. Students in the clinical and biopsychology tracks tend to score in the 90s, "a leap," Spilich says, "and it's all due to engaging them in experiences that most people don't have until graduate school."

‘They can hold their own'

One of those experiences is the chance to present research projects at professional conferences alongside tenured professors and established researchers. That is expected at Washington College. Since 1996, the college has never had fewer than 25 student co-authors per year at professional conferences. This year, it had 60.

"There are a lot of different conferences where we encourage them to submit their research because discussing your work is an important part of being a developing psychologist," says Littlefield.

William Jackson, a junior at Washington College, was one of 16 students who presented a poster at the EPA convention in March. His research project looked at how overweight people and normal-weight people react physically to anxiety. At the conference, he explained his team's method and fielded questions about their results. A few weeks later, he learned he had won an award from the Eastern Psychological Association of Graduate Students for his work.

Littlefield credits the award to Jackson's ability to answer questions — a criterion that makes up 60 percent of the judging. His grace is typical of her students, she says. "Most of them feel so comfortable because they've been working through their project for a semester or longer," she says. "They can hold their own."

Washington College's approach can be used at schools both large and small, says Hailstorks. "More learning takes place when students are actively engaged in the learning process — that's been established by the literature for several decades."