Research is at the heart of psychology, allowing you to engage with topics that you care about and expand on the existing knowledge. I was reminded of this while interviewing Serena Agterberg and Madeleine Smith, two wonderful scholars in our Honors Program, who are both incredibly passionate about their Honors research.
Serena, a certified sex educator, is researching which sexual behaviors college students consider risky. In her last research project, she used an established measure of risky sexual behavior that left her both confused and a bit disturbed. Some of the items seemed only tangentially related to what they were measuring. The measure was also outdated and based on a mostly white, mostly Christian, and mostly heterosexual sample.
In response to this disappointing scale, Serena set out to measure what students actually consider risky. To do this, she asked students to describe a time when they or someone they knew engaged in sexual behavior they would consider risky. According to Serena, reading these narratives has been very entertaining due to their diversity and emotional reactiveness. She is still in the process of analyzing the responses, but she told me that a lot of what she’s finding is expected – mentions of unprotected sex and condoms, things happening at parties, etc. However, there have also been some unexpected themes.
Thinking about the future of this research, Serena hopes to create a more accurate measure of risky sexual behavior and explore risk reduction strategies. One of the strategies that she has thought about is expanding the sexual education offered at college: ideally, a sex ed course that can go in-depth into various subjects and allow students to make educated decisions about their engagement in risky behavior.
Similarly passionate, Madeleine Smith was led to her current research on motivation and thinking about future goals by how much she cares about helping STEM students complete their degrees. Existing research has shown that having clear goals and working to meet those future goals is beneficial in academic contexts. What Madeleine wants to know is how this “future thinking” relates to motivation and self-regulation.
After collecting data, she was able to engage in her favorite part of the research process: statistics! These showed that students tend to fall into one of three motivational profiles: mastery-oriented, performance-oriented, and apathetic. Out of these, the mastery-orientation is the most advantageous. Mastery-oriented students are motivated to learn the material, not because they want a good grade, but because of their interest in the material itself. These students are also more likely to engage in actions that further their progress towards their future goals.
One of the most impressive aspects of this research is its potential impact. Teachers can use these findings to inform their decisions about classroom format, student assessment, material type, etc. Ideally this could create system-level change, where the classroom is designed in a way to enhance intrinsic motivation and student engagement. This is something that Madeleine thinks about a lot. She quoted bell hooks, “education as the practice of freedom,” while explaining to me the importance of keeping students in school and supporting them as they pursue their dreams. Knowing that she gets to be a part of research that could have an impact on someone else’s future is part of what gets her out of bed in the morning.
If you’re interested in learning more about either of these fascinating projects, you’re in luck. Madeleine presented on some of her research during the 2021 undergraduate symposium. On their youtube channel, you can watch two poster presentations she did on this topic: Planning for the Future: The International Future Time Orientation and Life Project Scales and Thinking About my Future While Sitting in Science Class: Future Thinking and Motivation to Learn. To hear Serena present on her research, you’ll have to check out the 2022 Undergraduate Symposium this May.