Featured Briefs

Boosting College Prospects for Low-Income Students

February 2, 2022

LRDC Research Associate Omid Fotuhi, and colleagues investigated the use of a mobile app and belonging intervention to increase college attendance. Their research shows the value of combining multiple interventions to address the multiple barriers that can block progress toward college attendance. Visit the LRDC website for the full article.

Main takeaways from this research are:

  • The current research shows the value of combining multiple interventions to address the multiple barriers that can block progress toward college attendance.
  • Psychological interventions are effective at igniting motivation, but only if they are paired with a behavioral intervention that helps to channel that motivation.
  • Mobile technology apps can also be used to amplify the intervention impact by delivering timely and tailored reminders to students about important deadlines in the admissions process.

students with laptops

In the United States today, some postsecondary education is estimated to be required for more than 60 percent of jobs -- compared with approximately 25% of jobs 50 years ago. Americans with a four-year degree earn an hourly wage that is nearly double that of those without a degree. Even without graduating, time spent in college translates to more lifetime earnings, well-being, job-satisfaction, and mental and physical health

Yet, the benefits of higher education are not equally available to all. Each year, thousands of qualified, low-income students fail to apply for college. For low-income students, the steps needed to go to college-applying for college and applying for financial aid-can be blocked by both psychological and behavioral hurdles. The psychological ones arise from questions about belonging and performing well in college, as well as stemming from real worries about the ability to pay for college. Behavioral hurdles take the form of institutional and bureaucratic barriers including securing financial aid or taking the SAT and picking a college.

In "Boosting college prospects among low-income students: Using self-affirmation to trigger motivation and a behavioral ladder to channel it," LRDC Research Associate Omid Fotuhi, and colleagues from California State University and Stanford focused on the hurdles related to completing the college application and financial aid application. They designed and studied psychological and behavioral interventions meant to overcome difficult barriers and lead to successful enrollment in both financial aid programs and in colleges for high-school applicants.

The multi-institutional research team combined two interventions on a senior high school class in Northern California. The first intervention, a psychological approach of self-affirmation, asked participants to complete a brief reflective writing activity in which they identified self-defining values and then reflected on their importance. The second, a behavioral approach, had participants use a mobile app that reminded them of important deadlines in the college and financial aid application processes, such as FAFSA.

From these interventions, researchers found that the students who used the mobile app in combination with self-affirmation made further progress along the college admission pipeline than students who did not. The intervention resulted in significantly higher numbers of students who completed all stages of the college admissions process, and consequently were also more likely to matriculate in college one year after the intervention.

This research contributes to our understanding of college attendance for low-income students in a number of ways:

  • it shows the importance of combining multiple interventions (one to ignite motivation, and another to channel it) to address the multiple barriers than can block progress toward college attendance,
  • it demonstrates the power of self-affirmation interventions
  • it adds to the body of research on "nudges;" and
  • it highlights the potential of mobile technology to deliver timely, tailored psychological interventions.

These results demonstrated the importance of wise psychological design, which may at times require the combination of relevant interventions to address barriers that are dynamic in nature. Future interventions and research that combine positive psychological and behavioral approaches such as self-affirmation and daily encouragement through consistent reminders may begin to help tear down barriers to college access and facilitate the upward mobility of future generations of students.

Fotuhi, O., Ehret, P. J., Kocsik, S., & Cohen, G. L. (2022). Boosting college prospects among low-income students: Using self-affirmation to trigger motivation and a behavioral ladder to channel it. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 122(2), 187-201.

Studying the Cognitive and Affective Predictors of Math Performance

January 28, 2022

Math skills are used every day for tasks, such as calculating a tip at a restaurant or choosing which checkout line at the grocery store is the shortest. Although we may often think of math abilities as purely academic skills, an abundance of studies indicates that children's and adults' math skills are associated with a wide range of important outcomes.

Main takeaways from this research are:

  • Understanding how both cognitive and affective factors impact math performance skills is a crucial aspect to understanding how math skills develop
  • There is a critical need to consider affective factors, such as anxiety, in discussions and interventions designed to support math performance in college students

Pitt student wearing mask Math skills are used every day for tasks, such as calculating a tip at a restaurant or choosing which checkout line at the grocery store is the shortest. Although we may often think of math abilities as purely academic skills, an abundance of studies indicates that children's and adults' math skills are associated with a wide range of important outcomes.

Variability in math performance is associated with educational attainment, income, career choice, likelihood of full-time employment, and health and financial decision making. Given the wide-ranging impacts of math skills on everyday life, decades of research have attempted to identify predictors of individual differences in math abilities.

Past work has focused heavily on child populations, with a large body of research examining cognitive predictors, such as inhibitory control, the ability to ignore unhelpful information, or the approximate number system (ANS), the ability to quantify information intuitively. Affective predictors often focus on anxiety.

Recent research conducted by an international team of scholars and University of Pittsburgh faculty and graduate students examined whether and how these factors contribute to math performance in adulthood.

The researchers studied 122 university students at one of the largest universities in Belgium. Participants completed math tests, tasks that assessed ANS performance, and a math anxiety questionnaire at the beginning and end of the study. The researchers conducted extensive analyses and found that although inhibitory control and the ANS were closely related to each other, they did not predict math performance above and beyond the effects of the other while also controlling for math anxiety. Instead, math anxiety was the only unique predictor of math performance.

These findings contradict previous results in children and reinforce the need to consider affective factors in discussions and interventions for supporting math performance in college students. The findings also provide useful targets for future investigation and interventions aimed at improving math performance. Further, examining these factors throughout development will prove helpful for understanding whether cognitive and affective predictors are more or less strongly related to math performance when learning different types of math skills.

Abstract available: Silver, A. M., Elliott, L., Reynvoet, B., Sasanguie, D., & Libertus, M. E. (2022). Teasing apart the unique contributions of cognitive and affective predictors of math performance. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Going to College with a Posse: How Having High School Peers on Campus Supports College Achievement

December 23, 2021

For many first-year college students, adjusting to a new school, city, schedule, and social life can be daunting, especially if they have few or no contacts from their hometowns on campus. Universities and colleges spend a great deal of effort to make students feel that they belong in college.

Main takeaways from this research article are:

  • Establishing a sense of belonging in college is crucial for helping students reach their full academic potential.
  • Addressing questions of how high school peers shape college success can facilitate understanding and promoting equity in higher education.

students on campus outdoors Adjusting to a new school, city, schedule, and social life can be daunting for many students, but some students come to campus with an advantage: knowing people. Students, educators, and policy makers have long assumed that when students go to college with demographically similar peers, it bolsters their chances for success. It is thought that having peers from one's high school present at the university provides students with social capital to help navigate the transition and thrive in college. Rhese benefits may be psychological (increased sense of belonging and connection) and informational (increased access to valuable academic and social knowledge).This assumption has driven policy around fostering equity in education for decades, including efforts to create "posses" of localized students to attend college together.

To understand both the sources and the affordances of students' pre-existing high school connections, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research & Development Center (LRDC) analyzed a data set of more than 43,000 undergraduate students, from a four-year public research university over the course of 7.5 years. From this data source, the authors calculated the number of peers from each students' high school who were on campus when students matriculated.

In their article "Going to College with a Posse: How Having High School Peers on Campus Supports College Achievement," Professors Kevin Binning and Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal, Department of Psychology, and two graduate students, Lorraine Blatt and Susie Chen (currently a research scientist at WGU Labs), reasoned that with social integration so important for student success, students who arrive on campus with a large number of peers from their high school may have a smoother social transition to college life. More, the scholars hypothesized that a smoother transition at the beginning of students' college careers could translate into improved college performance and retention.

They found support for these ideas. The prevalence of high school peers on campus predicted students grades in critical first-year college STEM courses, particularly Introductory Physics. Binning and colleagues also found that students from more societally privileged backgrounds, such as students who are White or from affluent high schools, tended to have higher numbers of peers on campus. The researcherss also found that although the prevalence of high school peers did not predict higher college retention for all students, it was a significant predictor for first-generation college students. Together the results illustrate how admissions policies can reinforce and perpetuate societal privilege on one hand, but they could also be leveraged to promote equity among first-generation students on the other.

Binning, K. R., Blatt, L., Chen, S., & Votruba-Drzal, E. (2021). Going to college with a posse: How having high school peers on campus supports college achievement. AERA Open, 7. 1-18. Article here.

Culturally Responsive Family Intervention Improves Latino Kindergarteners' Vocabulary and Approaches to Learning

November 1, 2021

All families engage in food routines, such as grocery shopping, cooking, and eating together, but in Latino families, food routines play special roles.

Main takeaways from this research article are:

  • By focusing on Latino families' environmental and cultural assets, Food For Thought (FFT), enacts an initiative that facilitates the conditions for Latino family engagement in schools by building a relationship of trust and respect between home and schools.
  • FFT can help Latino families become equal partners in their children's education.
  • If implemented into academic policy, FFT may have the potential to mold aspects of the Latino community's practices into durable, compounding improvements in critical outcomes that matter to school and life success.
  • By elevating the richness of Latino family life in this way through a focus on food routines, this approach may reduce racial/ethnic disparities in school success while respecting and elevating Latino family life.

people eating at a table One in every four children in the United States today is of Latino heritage. Latino children represent 23% of school-age children, and the population of Latino preschool children is growing faster than any other racial/ethnic group. It is critical to help Latino kindergarteners start school with the best possible chance of achieving and succeeding.

A 2021 study, led by a national research team including authors from the University of Pittsburgh, University of Michigan, and University of Virginia investigated the impact of an intervention that emphasizes students strengths and builds on practices that already exist around food routines in context of the Latino family.

Called Food For Thought (FFT), the a four-week program that capitalizes on family food routines to help Latino parents foster their kindergarten children's academic skills at home. Diana Leyva, Research Scientist at Pitt's Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) and Associate Professor, Psychology, developed FFT based on evidence of studies examining parent-child interactions in food-related activities and discussions

According to Leyva, most family programs focus on the knowledge and skills that families of color lack rather than their strengths. "As a result, many of these programs have failed to engage families of color and improve their children's learning. This study developed a new family program for Latinos that is innovative because it draws on their cultural strengths," Leyva said.

After implementing FFT in a select group of Latino Kindergarteners, the results of this study indicated that there were moderate-to-large impacts on child vocabulary (especially food-related) at end-of-treatment and the five-month follow-up, and suggestive evidence of moderate impacts on approaches to learning (including approaches to learning math) and executive function at the five-month follow-up. There were no statistically significant impacts on children's math or literacy skills.

Overall, the research indicated that a culturally responsive family intervention that emphasizes student's positive strengths and qualities and is integrated into Latino family life can improve critical skills needed to succeed in school.

Most educators are aware that engaging families is important for children's learning but many of them do not have the knowledge or tools to build these family-school partnerships. "The Food For Thought program is an example of how educators can work to engage Latino families in schools by using home activities that parents value and are already engaging in regularly to support children's literacy, math and social skills." Leyva said. "Policy makers can support efforts by schools to offer programs such as the Food For Thought program, which are tailored to the cultural strengths of the community they intend to serve."

Diana Leyva, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology and LRDC Research Scientist, How Getting Kids to Make Grocery Lists and Set the Table Can Improve Their Vocabulary and Willingness to Learn was featured in the November 16, 2021, issue of The Conversation

Leyva, D., Weiland, C., Shapiro, A., Yeomans-Maldonado, G., & Febles, A. (2021). A strengths-based, culturally responsive family intervention improves Latino kindergarteners' vocabulary and approaches to learning. Society for Research in Child Development.

Screen Time in the COVID Era: International Trends

October 20, 2021

An international research team led by University of Pittsburgh scholars investigated increased screen time among three- to seven-year old children in six countries

Main takeaways from this research article are:

  • Understanding the impacts of increased screen time as a result of the pandemic on children's academic and health outcomes is imperative.
  • Examining the impact of using screens for educational purposes for children's academic outcomes may be useful.

children on a couch using screen devices

The global pandemic caused by COVID-19 has increased overall electronic screen-based media use. Both adults and children alike relied on digital technology for entertainment, socializing with family and friends, and educational app use. For children especially, increased reliance on laptops, iPads, tablets, and iPhones begged the question: How much more time are kids spending on their screens than before the pandemic?

An international research team set out to answer that question. The study was carried out by researchers at the Learning Research & Development Center (LRDC) at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Cambridge. LRDC post-doctoral fellow Andrew D. Ribner, graduate student Linsah Coulanges, and University of Cambridge PhD student Samantha Friedman worked with LRDC scientist and Professor of Psychology Melissa E. Libertus to evaluate changes in screen time. The researchers collected data via online surveys administered to more than 2,500 parents or caregivers of one or more children aged three to seven in Australia, China, Italy, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The parents reported current ("now") and retrospective ("before the pandemic") screen-based media use for entertainment, educational app(s), and socializing with family and friends. Parents also reported family socio-economic (SES) information and impacts of the pandemic to their physical well-being, whether a family member or friend had been diagnosed with COVID-19, and social disruption, whether the family experienced loss of income or employment due to the pandemic. The research team hypothesized that children in households that had experienced greater disruption would see an increase in their screen-based media use. They also hypothesized that children from lower-income families may have been more likely to rely on screen-based media.

The results of the surveys indicated that screen use largely increased as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. On average, parents reported a nearly one hour increase in screen time from prior to the pandemic to during the pandemic. This change was largely driven by changes in screen use for entertainment purposes; parents reported an increase of nearly 40 minutes from before to during the pandemic. There was also an increase of more than 20 minutes of screen time for educational apps. In contrast, there was a decrease in screen use for socializing with family and friends. Internationally, screen time for entertainment use and educational app use increased across all countries. Screen time for the purposes of socializing only changed in China, where it decreased by more than 50 minutes.

The study also considered the impact of social disruption on changes in screen time by socio-economic status (SES). Across countries, children in lower-SES homes were more likely to increase screen use than their peers in higher-SES homes, possibly exacerbating SES disparities in screen use that were present prior to the pandemic.

An important takeaway from this study is that understanding the impacts of increased screen time as a result of the pandemic on children's academic and health outcomes is imperative. Examining the impact of using screens for educational purposes for these children's academic outcomes may be useful, as some evidence suggests that educational apps may be less beneficial than previously thought.

As lives become increasingly digital by necessity, further research is needed to better understand positive and negative consequences of electronic screen-based media use. Additionally, research could examine whether changes in screen use due to COVID-19 will be reduced as effects of the virus are mitigated, whether a return to pre-pandemic levels varies by child, or whether we now adjust to a "new normal" of increased screen use.

Ribner, A.D., Coulanges, L., Friedman, S., & Libertus, M.E. (2021). Screen time in the COVID era: International trends of increasing use among 3- to 7-year-old children. Journal of Pediatrics.

For Black Students, Harsh Discipline Can Lead to Lower Grades

October 15, 2021

Black students are more likely than White students to be suspended for minor infractions, harming later academic achievement

Main takeaways from this research article are:

  • Black students are often subject to harsher discipline at school than White students
  • Those punishments can damage students' perceptions of their school and negatively impact their academic success years later
  • Schools may need to reconsider policies that allow educators and other school staff to choose severe punishments such as suspension for minor infractions

students at table talking Recent research conducted by University of Pittsburgh scholars Juan Del Toro and Ming-Te Wang show that Black students are often subject to harsher discipline at school than White students, and those punishments can damage students' perceptions of their school and negatively impact their academic success years later.

The authors analyzed three years of school records, including disciplinary data and grade point averages, for 2,381 sixth-, eighth- and tenth-grade students from 12 schools in an urban Mid-Atlantic school district in the United States. Of the students, 818 were Black and 1,563 were White. The researchers also surveyed the students each year about their perceptions of their school's climate — such as whether they felt they belonged at the school and whether they felt that school rules were consistent and clear.

Twenty-six percent of the Black students received at least one suspension for a minor infraction over the course of the three years, compared with just 2% of White students. Minor infractions included things such as dress code violations, inappropriate language or using a cell phone in class.

Among Black students, those who were suspended for a minor infraction during the first year of the study had significantly lower grades than students who weren't suspended one and two years later. They also found that the relationship between suspensions and grades was mediated by the students' perceptions of their school climate: teens who received suspensions for minor infractions were more likely to report an unfavorable school climate one year later, which in turn predicted lower grades one year after that.

"Unfortunately, we were not surprised by the findings, considering what we know about the role of racial bias . . . Regardless of the behavior that African American youth engage in, that behavior is viewed by educators as more worthy of harsh school discipline like a suspension," said Wang, Professor, Education and Psychology, and research scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC).

The researchers also looked at whether students' grades and their perceptions of school climate during the first year of the study predicted whether they would receive any suspensions by year three and found no relationship in that direction. This suggests that it was indeed racial bias, and not any individual traits of the student — such as poor self-control — that led to both increased suspensions and poor grades, according to Wang.

The researchers were not able to similarly explore the link between minor infraction suspensions and grades among White students because too few White students received minor infraction suspensions to run an analysis that would reach statistical significance.

The findings illustrate the pervasive negative effects that racial biases in school discipline may have on Black students, according to study co-author Del Toro, a postdoctoral research fellow at LRDC. "When students are suspended for a harmless minor infractions, they may understandably begin to view school adults and the rules they enforce as controlling and unfair," he said. "That can damage adolescents' relationships with educators and lower their sense of belonging in school."

The results suggest that schools may need to reconsider policies that allow educators to choose severe punishments such as suspension instead when students commit minor infractions. "Based on our study, it may be important to limit school adults' opportunities for choosing severe discipline options for minor infractions, because of what we know about the role of racial biases in school discipline," Del Toro said.

In future studies, the researchers plan to explore where in the school discipline pipeline these racial biases are most likely to play out — for example, whether teachers make harsher discipline suggestions for Black students, or whether school administrators are likely to mete out harsher-then-suggested punishments for Black students. They are also studying whether teachers and schools that promote culturally responsive education, diversity and cultural competence have less racial disparities in school discipline.

Del Toro, J., & Wang, M.-T. (2021). The roles of suspensions for minor infractions and school climate in predicting academic performance among adolescents. American Psychologist.

This research news article was adapted from a press release written by Lea Winerman, Public Affairs Manager and Producer, Speaking of Psychology, American Psychological Association, lwinerman@apa.org.

How to Help Teens Cut Back on Social Media

October 7, 2021

Brian Galla reports that teens' desire for independence can help them cut back on social media use, if properly harnessed.

Takeaways from this research

  • Harnessing a teenager's need for independence can be an effective tool for getting them to cut back on social media use.
  • Don't lecture teens about the consequences of too much social media use. They likely already know, and it doesn't change their behavior.
  • Instead, help kids understand how social media platforms hook you. Show them how changing their social media behavior is an act of autonomy.

graphic of a hand chained to a phoneBrian Galla, Associate Professor of Applied Developmental Psychology, School of Education, and LRDC Research Scientist, was featured in the October 4, 2021, Psychology Today Character Lab. Character Lab gives "Sixty seconds of actionable advice to help kids thrive," and was co-created by Angela Duckworth, Professor, University of Pennsylvania. In "Rebel with a Cause," Dr. Galla shared his thoughts on how to help teens resist the pull of social media. Read the full interview "How to Help Teens Cut Back on Social Media."

Galla was also featured in the October 7, 2021, Pittwire article "Brian Galla wants to help your teen kick their Instagram habit," by staff writer Patrick Monahon.

Both interviews were based on Galla and co-authors' recently published research: Galla, B.M., Choukas-Bradley, Sophia, Fiore, H.M., & Esposito, M.V. (2021). Values-Alignment messaging boosts adolescents' motivation to control social media use. Child Development.

How Big is the Ballpark? Assessing Variation in Grant Aid Awards within Net Price Calculator (NPC) Student Profiles

September 1, 2021

University of Pittsburgh scholars demonstrate that with relatively simple modifications, the federal template NPC can explain up to 90 percent of the variation in actual grant aid awards.

Main Takeaways from this research article are:

  • Net Price Calculators (NPC) can bring greater transparency to college cost and pricing.
  • Information on simple enhancements to NPCs is especially timely as Congress considers the Net Price Calculator Improvement Act (S.1448), which would establish minimum NPC requirements for all postsecondary institutions to include on their websites.
  • The bill would also authorize the creation of a universal NPC in which prospective students can enter information once to receive net price estimates at any institution.
  • Providing an institution-specific estimated range of likely grant aid, in addition to a specific dollar estimate, may help students make more informed college enrollment decisions.

student loan repayment graphic Financial aid can make college feasible for families who otherwise would not be able to afford it. College net prices—the out-of-pocket prices students and families pay for college after receiving grant aid—are the best indicators of a college's affordability.

Using Net Price Calculators (NPCs) is a common way students and their families estimate college costs. NPCs are online tools designed to give prospective students a better idea of out-of-pocket costs earlier in their search and application process. For example, students may use NPCs to discover that certain schools with high sticker prices may be within their budgets after getting a better idea of the after-grant-aid net price.

To be most useful to prospective students and their families, NPCs should be designed with a focus on providing reasonably accurate grant aid estimates while minimizing complicated inputs from users. All NPCs must allow for an estimate of how much a family would be expected to contribute towards the cost of college, expected family contribution (EFC). However, colleges use different NPCs, and these different NPCs vary in terms of how much information they

In "How Big is the Ballpark? Assessing Variation in Grant Aid Awards within Net Price Calculator Student Profiles," University of Pittsburgh researchers Aaron Anthony, Research Associate, Learning Research & Development Center (LRDC), and Lindsay Page (currently Annenberg Associate Professor of Education Policy, Brown University), the authors focus on the NPC template provided by the U.S. Department of Education because it is among the most common, and its data inputs are relatively straightforward for student users. A simple NPC requires only basic inputs that most users are readily able to provide but may trade accuracy for ease of use. The authors study this simplicity and accuracy balance by measuring the variation in actual financial grant aid amounts among students predicted by the federal template NPC to receive identical awards.

Anthony and Page conclude with an assessment of potential additional data elements that are straightforward for students to provide and effective for improving college net price estimates. Their recommendations represent an additional dimension of NPC improvement that would allow policy makers and institutions to improve the form and function of their NPCs. The Net Price Calculator Improvement Act would establish minimum requirements for all NPCs to include as well as authorize the creation of a universal NPC in which a prospective student could answer one set of questions and receive net price estimates for several postsecondary institutions. However, postsecondary institutions do not need to wait for federal legislation to make such improvements to their NPCs. Providing an institution-specific estimated range of likely grant aid, in addition to a specific dollar estimate, may help students make more informed college enrollment decisions.

Anthony, A.M, & Page, L.C.; How Big is the Ballpark? Assessing Variation in Grant Aid Awards within Net Price Calculator Student Profiles. Education Finance and Policy2021; doi: https://doi.org/10.1162/edfp_a_00353

Iconic Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) Building on Pitt Campus Will Soon Be Gone

May 14, 2021

LRDC building "The architectural prima donna on O'Hara Street today is not one of the old buildings but an escalator-like structure that houses the Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC)," stated author Franklin Toker in his Pittsburgh A New Portrait (2009).

The author went on to say
". . . The 1970s buildings is shaped like a giant staircase against the hillside because it was meant to act like one: the bare patch still visible on the right side of the lobby was designed to carry a huge escalator to hoist students up to the proposed dormitory complex above" (pg. 337).

Originally funded in 1964, LRDC was one of the world's first institutions dedicated to the study of learning and instruction. The Center's mission "Understanding learning and improving education," is as relevant today as it was at its founding. At that time, the Center was distributed over a number of buildings. In 1974, with funding from the Office of Education and the University of Pittsburgh, LRDC moved into the new $8 million building on O'Hara Street designed by the architectural firm Harrison & Abramovitz. It has been LRDC's only home since then.

The LRDC building, and the O'Hara Garage that abuts LRDC, will soon be demolished to make room for a new Wellness and Recreation Center. The Wellness Center makes a welcome contribution to the Pitt campus and Oakland area, but heralds the demise of an iconic structure with connections to striking architecture around the world.

From 1941-1976, Harrison & Abramovitz created some of the most iconic modernist buildings the century had even seen, in Pittsburgh, in the nation, and in Cuba. Their designs included the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba (1953), the United Nations Dag Hammarskjold Library Building, New York (1961); CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia (1961), Avery Fisher Hall (1962) (today's David Geffen Hall) and the Metropolitan Opera House (1966) at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City; Assembly Hall, and Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne (Abramovitz' alma mater).

The architectural firm was also well known for modernist buildings in Pittsburgh including, William Penn Plan (1951), the Alcoa Building (1953), today's Regional Enterprise Tower, the USX Tower (1970), today's U.S. Steel Tower, and the Westinghouse Building (1970).

Hard to imagine visiting LRDC and not entering the "escalator-like" building on O'Hara Street. It will be sad to lose this iconic building, but LRDC will make its new space into the kind of environment that will nurture the spirit of collaborative inquiry that has always fueled its mission of "understanding learning and improving education."

Learning Research and Development Center Scholars Study How to Promote Adolescent Engagement in Social Distancing during COVID-19

May 12, 2021


  • The primary motivating factor behind adolescents' social distancing was the desire to protect others.
  • Teens who had opportunities to connect with friends via technology were more likely to sustain their daily engagement in social distancing.
  • Teaching teens about preventative health behaviors for mitigating COVID-19 transmission were more likely to engage in daily social distancing.
  • Schools and policymakers hoping to encourage adolescents' social distancing should consider appealing to adolescents' developmental needs.

girl with laptop at home Public health experts have identified social distancing as one of the best responses available to curtail the spread of COVID-19, but try telling that to the teenager in your home who needs time with friends, a place to practice tik-tok moves, or just a break from family routines! When the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools and recreational spaces, teens were forced to distance themselves from each other and the social activities they enjoy. At a time in their lives when establishing autonomy and testing the boundaries of their independence is critical to their development, social distancing presented a challenge, to say the least, to the teens themselves and the family members around them.

For developmental psychologist Ming-Te Wang, it became critical to understand how teens could be persuaded to engage in social distancing in a manner that respects their dignity and meets their needs for developing autonomy and independence. "Interacting with friends and risk-taking behaviors are two major components of adolescent development," explained Wang. "Social distancing challenges adolescents' developmental need for interacting with same-aged peers. These relationships are so important, we were concerned that adolescents may engage in risky behaviors (e.g., sneaking out of the house to see friends) to get around social distancing mandates."

At the onset of the pandemic, Wang, Education and Psychology Professor and Senior Scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC), School of Education doctoral candidates Christina Scanlon, Meng Hua, and LRDC postdoctoral fellow Juan Del Toro began a study of the social distancing behaviors of teenagers. Based on a national sample of more than 440 adolescents aged 13-18 years from 38 states, Wang and his team used focus groups and daily-diary approaches to collect more than 6,200 assessments from this group. Their research was published in the April 12, 2021, issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health in an article entitled "Safely Social: Promoting and Sustaining Adolescent Engagement in Social Distancing During the COVID-19 Pandemic."

The primary motivating factor behind teens' social distancing, according to the study, was the desire to protect others. Giving support to others can be both rewarding and stress reducing. Engaging in caring behavior toward others- especially during times of crisis or mass trauma- can be both rewarding and stress reducing. This altruism in times of trauma has also been associated with increased resilience and mental health. In light of this finding, Wang and colleagues offer advice to those aiming to encourage adolescents' social distancing: "By emphasizing that social distancing is a good way to keep yourself and others safe during the pandemic, we activate developmental processes related to adolescents' need to prosocially interact with peers."
"We also thought it critical to understand what can promote social distancing over time," Wang explained. Though he could not have known we would be socially distancing more than a year later, Wang et al. also wanted to know what would encourage teens to continue in these pro-social behaviors. They made three important discoveries: teens who learned about preventative health behaviors for mitigating COVID-19, received peer support, and remained virtually connected with friends were more likely to continue to engage in daily social distancing. "It became clear," said co-author Scanlon, "that adolescents who understood the purpose of social distancing and who found socially distanced ways to interact with peers were more likely to keep up their social distancing behaviors over time."

Practical knowledge about COVID-19, its transmission, and how social distancing decreases this transmission is essential for adolescents' engagement in these behaviors. Considering that youth are more likely to engage in a behavior when they understand the reason behind it, it is critical that adolescents understand the purpose behind social distancing and attain appropriate knowledge about COVID-19. According to Wang, "Teens who understand the importance and rationale behind social distancing are empowered to make informed decisions about social distancing, which also allows them to exercise their independence in a manner that paints them as prosocial and competent." It is noteworthy that descriptive information about infection and mortality statistics were not linked to engagement in social distancing. Since the onset of COVID-19, media has been saturated with infection and mortality rates even as research indicates these daunting statistics may be ineffective at promoting social distancing. "When interacting with teens, adults should consider how they might react to the various types of information provided," Wang explained.

Teens who reported receiving daily social support from their friends were more likely to sustain their social distancing behaviors, but how were they receiving this social support amidst school closures and stay-at-home orders? Although social distancing may have challenged adolescents' need to connect with friends, technology has presented teens with a myriad of choices regarding online social connectedness, what the research team calls ‘virtual connectedness'. "Adolescents need the time and space to connect with their peers, and virtual spaces have allowed them to do so while remaining physically distanced," said Scanlon. "Teens' tenacity to connect with friends despite physical distancing is a testament to their resilience."

At the same time, virtually connecting with peers relies on the availability of technology, which may pose a problem for teens from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds or those in remote areas with no access to reliable Internet connections. Low-income teens financial situations may also make social distancing more challenging due to reliance on public resources such as public transportation. "We must work together to address systemic inequities that have left some youth particularly vulnerable to the physical, emotional, and social consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic," stated Wang.

This work is a first step into understanding trends in social distancing and sheds light on the motivation behind teens social distancing behaviors: The primary motivating factor behind adolescents' social distancing was the desire to protect others. Teens who had opportunities to connect with friends via technology were more likely to sustain their daily engagement in social distancing. Teaching teens about preventative health behaviors for mitigating COVID-19 transmission were more likely to engage in daily social distancing.[MW1]

In consideration of these findings, public health administrators and the media may be able to promote social distancing behaviors among adolescents by providing targeted practical information about the coronavirus, how to engage in appropriate social distancing, and how social distancing prevents contagion and protects others. Schools and policymakers hoping to encourage adolescents' social distancing should consider appealing to adolescents' developmental needs. "By providing teens with practical information, we promote autonomy and utility value, and by emphasizing the prosocial nature of social distancing, we encourage a sense of connectedness to others," said Wang. "When we work with, rather than against, adolescents' developmental needs for autonomy and relatedness, we can find developmentally appropriate ways for youth to remain safely social throughout the pandemic."

Wang, M.T., Scanlon, C.L., Hua, M., & Del Toro, J. (2021). Safely social: Promoting and sustaining adolescent engagement in social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Adolescent Health. Abstract here.

IFL to Partner with Canutillo ISD, Fabens ISD, and Tornillo ISD in Texas

May 11, 2021

By Joe Dostilio & Laurie Speranzo
Institute for Learning

IFL and school district logos The Institute for Learning (IFL) at the University of Pittsburgh received a planning grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to partner with Canutillo Independent School District, Fabens Independent School District, and Tornillo Independent School District, all of which are in the El Paso area of Texas, to design a multi-year plan for each district for implementing a high-quality mathematics curriculum. The goal is to develop a multi-year plan for each district that will lead to coherent instructional systems that result in deeper mathematics learning for sixth through eighth grade students.

Rosa Apodaca, Executive Director for the IFL, talked about the excitement of working with the districts. "We look forward to learning together with educators who deeply understand their common challenges and who lead with a growth mindset as they see themselves in their students. We appreciate their sincere engagement, examination of data, and responsiveness with unique solutions to issues that are common to all three. Their quest for bringing joy to learning is palpable."

To design each district's plan, the IFL and the school districts will form a network and work together to engage students, parents, teachers, and district leaders in an asset analysis and equity audit around each district's math instruction.

Ivonne Durant, IFL District & School Leadership & Emergent Multilingual Learner Fellow, emphasized the importance of bringing the three small districts together with the IFL to form a network. "Our network approach gives the three school districts a common vision with space, resources, and peer ideas to collaborate and support each other's work."

Laurie Speranzo, IFL Mathematics Fellow and Lead Designer on the project, noted the importance of student and teacher voice and engagement in putting together each district's implementation plan. "It is critical that we start from the assets of the teachers and students. Each of the districts has fantastic work happening; we have to leverage what is working well and help the teachers build on that. Students' math thinking and their lived math experiences should be the center of every classroom and the partnerships with the districts will allow learning from the students as we move their math experiences forward.

Interviews, surveys, and classroom visits and artifacts will continue to be analyzed throughout the planning phase and, if funded, the implementation phase to ensure students, caregivers and community members, and teachers have voice throughout. Chris Schunn, LRDC Senior Scientist and IFL Co-Director, highlighted the important role of strategic data in the plan for implementation. "Too often, historically marginalized communities are asked to implement plans without regard for their assets and needs. We will work regularly with stakeholders to understand where they are and continuously adapt the implementation plan."

The IFL is one of 10 organizations partnering with school districts to design plans for Phase 2 implementation funding to be submitted to the Gates Foundation in June 2021. The organization-school district partnerships funded by the Gates Foundation for Phase 2 will continue on in the foundation's Effective Implementation Cohort with the goal of identifying reliable, practical evidence and measures to apply in planning and implementing district-wide high-impact math improvement initiatives. Joe Dostilio, IFL Mathematics Fellow and Principal Investigator on the grant, talked about the importance of being part of the cohort. "Our district partners are not large districts. There is a lot of opportunity in bringing them together not only to work in a network amongst each other but also in the Effective Implementation Cohort. The work of the cohort has great potential for identifying what is needed to support rigorous mathematics teaching and learning."

The rest of the team involved in the planning grant include the following:

  • Beatriz Strawhun, IFL Mathematics & Bilingual Education Fellow
  • Carol Chestnut, IFL Mathematics Content Developer
  • Aaron Anthony, IFL Director of Analytics and Operations
  • Rip Correnti, LRDC Research Scientist

Learning Research & Development Center (LRDC) Internship Preparing Students for Careers in the Learning Sciences

May 7, 2021

group of LRDC researchers and interns Interested in how students choose strategies and invest effort for learning? Or how high cognitive demand tasks and teacher practices affect student engagement? Maybe, given the demands of the CoVID pandemic, you have been thinking about digital literacy for communities and urban youth. These are some of the topics explored by interns who completed the 2021 spring Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) Undergraduate Research Internship.

On April 30, 2021, seven undergraduate students from colleges and universities across the country presented the results of their six-week internship in the learning sciences in a digital poster session. The internship program annually brings in six to eight undergraduates from under-represented minority backgrounds to the Center to conduct research under the mentorship of an LRDC faculty member. This year, it was virtual. The aim of the program is to promote broader participation in the learning sciences and to attract students to the University of Pittsburgh who embody the diversity of our nation, region, and city.

Program creator and co-Director Natasha Tokowicz, explains that "LRDC is committed to increasing the pool of students from diverse backgrounds entering graduate study in Psychology and related fields in the learning sciences. Our undergraduate internship program is designed to help take a step toward achieving this goal." Tokowicz is Research Scientist at LRDC and an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology with a secondary appointment in the Linguistics.

Participating in the program gives interns firsthand experience in research and is particularly valuable for students who intend to apply for graduate programs. Students work with graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, or faculty members in the labs of LRDC faculty who have primary appointments in the Department of Psychology, and the Schools of Education, Law, and Computer Science.

Co-Director Timothy Nokes-Malach, states "The program provides interns with an immersive research experience as well as professional development for considering a career in the learning sciences. Interns join the broader LRDC community and bring their much valued perspectives, experiences, and skills to engage on a collaborative research project." Nokes-Malach is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology, a Research Scientist at LRDC, and co-leads the LRDC Committee on Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity (CODIE).

The internship includes professional development seminars on topics such as stereotype threat, the imposter phenomenon, applying to graduate school, writing a research statement, writing a CV and presenting research.

Launched in 2017, and held on campus in 2018 and 2019, six students and eight to ten faculty mentors participated each year. In 2019, the co-directors applied for and received funding from the Office of the Chancellor Seed Project Grant to expand the program from six to eight weeks and to increase the number of interns who can enroll. The 2020 program was suspended due to CoVID-19 restrictions, but not wanting to miss an opportunity to reach another group of undergraduates, Tokowicz and Nokes-Malach organized an online program the spring 2021. The summer program is on the books for 2021 with eight students participating.

To date, the program has trained 25 interns and is the subject of a chapter in a 2020 volume Advancing Diversity, Inclusion, and Social Justice through Human Systems Engineering.* Co-Director Natasha Tokowicz was invited to contribute to the volume and in her description of the program, states "Such experiences are important for women and people of color because academia can seem unwelcoming for students from underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds. Supporting and encouraging our students is critically important as the country wrestles with increasing instances of bias, bigotry, and social justice on a national scale."

For those students interested in applying, interns generally have a primary field of study in an area relevant to the learning sciences. GPA should be over 3.0; however promise can be demonstrated through other means, such as student letters of recommendation, student background, and research experience. Women and members of under-represented minority groups are especially encouraged to apply.

To learn more about the program, visit the LRDC Undergraduate Research Internship webpage.

*Tokowicz, N. (2020). The Learning Research and Development Center summer undergraduate research internship: A diversity internship in the Learning Sciences. In R. D. Roscoe, E. K. Chiou, & A. R. Wooldridge (Eds.) Advancing Diversity, Inclusion, and Social Justice through Human Systems Engineering (pp. 215-220). CRC Press, Taylor and Francis Group. [invited contribution] https://doi.org/10.1201/9780429425905-14

School Cultural Socialization and Academic Performance: Examining Ethnic-Racial Identity Development as a Mediator Among African American Adolescents

December 18, 2020

Mentioning race in schools has fallen under scrutiny as critics contend that doing so can lead to racial division. Historic racial disparities in the United States have created an urgent need for evidence-based strategies promoting African American students' academic performance via school-based racial identity development.

This longitudinal study examined whether school cultural socialization predicted 961 African American adolescents' grade point averages through their ethnic-racial identities (49.6% males; Mage = 13.60; 91.9% qualified for free lunch). Researchers discovered that African American youth who received more positive messages about their racial group in school also had better school grades up to 1-2 years later, because of the positive sense of community and interdependence that African American youth develop from such messages.

School cultural socialization predicted greater commitment 1 year later, which in turn predicted better grades 1 year later. In particular, educators who engage in cultural socialization may help bridge adolescents' filial cultural values with their schooling experiences from interactions with teachers and peers.

African American adolescents report greater engagement in school when they feel their ethnicity-race was valued and accepted. School cultural socialization may also promote positive interactions among students by reducing their biases toward their peers' ethnic-racial groups. Ethnically-racially diverse children with less racially biased attitudes have been found to have more cross-race interactive companions and more positive perceptions of their friends.

Through these positive relationships with school adults and student-peers, school cultural socialization may have helped African American youth feel recognized and valued, thus influencing positive developmental competencies.

To promote greater equity in schools, the hope is that schools use practices, mentioned in the study, that promote African American's pride, history, and heritage.

Del Toro, J. & Wang, M.T. (2020). School cultural socialization and academic performance: Examining ethnic-racial identity development as a mediator among African American Adolescents. Child Development, 1-18

University of Pittsburgh Learning Research & Development Center (LRDC) & School of Computing Information (SCI) Faculty Receive Grant to Study Robots in Math Classrooms

November 11, 2020

Erin Walker, associate professor in the School of Computing and Information (SCI) and research scientist in the Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC), has been named principal investigator for a $900,000 National Science Foundation grant to study the use of robots in middle school math classrooms. Co-principal investigators on the grant are Diane Litman, professor of computer science and senior scientist in the LRDC; Timothy Nokes-Malach, associate professor of psychology in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and research scientist in the LRDC; and Adriana Kovashka, assistant professor in SCI.

Walker and colleagues will investigate the use of robots to support collaborative learning.When students work together with an intelligent tutoring system such as a robot, they are able to learn more and explain their reasoning while also building on each other's ideas. Walker and colleagues will investigate if the robot's gaze or gestures, combined with dialogue, can promote middle school students' collaborative interactions and lead to more math learning. The main goal of the project is to gain a better understanding of how robots can be integrated effectively in learning environments.

Walker has also recently received a Google AI 2020 Award for Inclusion Research with colleague Leshell Hatley, of Coppin State University in Baltimore. In this work, Walker and Hatley are collaborating on a project to develop a dialogue system for a culturally responsive robot.

Read this news story on Pittwire.

Mind the Gap: How a Large-Scale Course Re-Design in Economics Reduced Performance Gaps

November 4, 2020

Large lecture classes in higher education continue to be a context in which large performance differences between underrepresented minorities and their White and Asian peers are observed. In the current study, we sought to develop a package of interventions that may reduce this gap in a multi-section Micro Economics course. The focus of this intervention was to re-design instruction in students' recitation sections, while also iteratively training teaching assistants on their instruction during recitation sections. Participants (N = 2,679) who were enrolled in Micro Economics worked together in groups where teaching assistants facilitated their learning in their recitation section. Results indicated that while all students demonstrated higher Micro Economics grades after the course transformation than their peers in prior semesters, this was particularly the case for underrepresented minorities, essentially eliminating the performance gap observed in prior semesters. Findings highlight the importance of instructional training for teaching assistants and employing teaching practices that can promote engagement and potentially promote inclusion during the learning process.

Miller-Cotto, D. & Schunn, C. (2020). Mind the gap: How a large-scale course re-design in economics reduced performance gaps. The Journal of Experimental Education. Abstract

Black Youths' Perceptions of School Cultural Pluralism, School Climate and the Mediating Role of Racial Identity

November 4, 2020

Schools might think that they are making the academic environment more diverse, but students might disagree, specifically the black youth. School support for cultural pluralism, also referred to as school support for cultural diversity, has been regarded as one aspect of school climate. It is important to understand the relationship between Black students' perceptions of school support for cultural pluralism and perceptions of school climate. 336 Black adolescents (Mage = 13.74 years) were used to determine whether previous perceptions of school support for cultural pluralism predicted later perceptions of school climate.

During a time in which the topics of race, diversity, and inclusion are at the forefront of national media discourse, it is unrealistic to think that students and their school experiences are not impacted. This study suggests that Black youth may find it particularly beneficial when their schools actively and intentionally communicate their support for student diversity and culture. As schools engage in these practices, they can be reassured that doing so does not interfere with the academic and behavioral performance of their students, but rather promotes students' understanding of self and connection to school. In turn, student success in all areas is bolstered and small strides towards closing racial gaps in achievement can be anticipated.

Smith, L.V., Wang, M.T., & Hill, D.J. (2020). Black Youths' perceptions of school cultural pluralism, school climate and the mediating role of racial identity. Journal of School Psychology, 83, 50-65. Full article

LRDC Communications, News & Media