Faculty Spotlight: Lila Davachi on Redesigning the Psychology Thesis Research Curriculum to Promote Inclusion

by | Sep 16, 2022

In Spring 2021, Lila Davachi, along with Nim Tottenham, Professor of Psychology, and Caroline Marvin, Lecturer in the Discipline of Psychology, was awarded an Office of the Provost Large-Scale Grant to redesign and reimagine the thesis research curriculum in the department of Psychology. Dr. Davachi worked with PhD students Ana DiGiovanni and Anna Vannuci on the project, with support from the Center for Teaching and Learning. Below, Dr. Davachi and Ana DiGiovanni share their experience.


Please describe the previous iteration of the program

The prior Psychology research thesis curriculum was structured as a 2-year Honors program (junior and senior year) open to students pursuing the Psychology and Neuroscience & Behavior major with GPAs of 3.65 or higher. By the end of the program, students would run their own experiment, and had the opportunity to work with faculty, not only in the psychology department, but across New York.


What were its main challenges/limitations?

It was quite a small program, resulting in few students (~10 per year) benefitting from Columbia’s strong research mentorship and the sense of community and belonging that this program engenders. We noticed that students who applied to the honors track were often already involved in research and they knew how to navigate campus. This further disadvantaged those from underrepresented backgrounds, who did not have prior research experience or those who arrive on campus and just don’t really know that this is something they can do. It dawned on us that we really needed to think about how to break down these barriers to entry to the program. 


What is the intervention that you implemented and how does it enhance the student learning experience?

We implemented the STAR (Senior Thesis Advanced Research) program to create an inclusive undergraduate research mentorship program for students pursuing Psychology or Neuroscience & Behavior majors. Components include a 3-semester curriculum, and there’s no longer a GPA requirement. 

The main innovation is the addition of “The How-To’s of Research” course that students take the first semester, which provides scaffolding for the program. This course is designed to reveal the hidden curriculum associated with involvement in research, while also increasing students’ science identity. The format of the course was motivated by empirical work in memory and learning that shows that one of the best ways to learn how to do something is to actually engage actively in that activity. So, this class is designed to have students actively engaged in the process of research—it’s a skill-based class. 


What are the goals of the course? 

“The How-To’s of Research” course has three main goals. By the end of the semester, students will have 1) acquired a toolbox of research skills, including knowledge on how to conduct a literature review, generate research questions, use R for data analysis, and practice reproducible science. 2) They will have completed an independent research proposal through scaffolded assignments, which will help demystify the research process for students. 3) They will be able to articulate the issues of diversity and representation in psychology and neuroscience, and explain how bias is perpetuated in research practices. 


How is the course structured?

The course is structured a bit differently than traditional psychology classes. First there’s an asynchronous component in which students interact with short lectures before coming together in class. Class time is then dedicated to hands-on learning and practical exercises to equip students with tangible research skills. There is a strong focus on group-based in-class challenges in which students work with one another on assignments. This group-based work teaches students about team science and the value of their peers’ ideas. Lastly, we devote some class time to workshopping research ideas and getting feedback from not only fellow classmates, but also instructors. 


Can you provide an example? 

In the third week of class, we teach students how to conduct a literature review. Although students often have to complete research projects in other classes, rarely are students actually taught how to systematically conduct a literature review. So, we have students watch short pre-recorded lectures that take them through the content and show them how to use different databases to search for literature and reference managers to store the papers they find. Then in class, they practice this in real time with one another. We focus on this iterative nature of science, whereby you’re constantly updating your knowledge and searching for new papers and integrating this into the existing body of work. 


On de-emphasizing grades and correctness…

Also, although we have clearly delineated deadlines for all assignments, we have been flexible. We work with students to make timelines and assignments that work for them, so that they get the most from this class that they possibly can. We’ve tried to remove the mentality of correctness that is ingrained in students. We provide a lot of different avenues for students to showcase their knowledge, and we don’t make one assignment worth too much of their final grade. The final research proposal due at the end of the semester is scaffolded throughout the entire course, making use of sequenced assignments for which students get feedback, so they are not surprised by their final grades.


Has it been successful? 

The class has actually doubled this year. We have two parallel sessions that are going, so we have been successful in recruiting more students. And we have more freshmen and sophomore students enrolled. It will be really great to see how they progress through this research track, and if they then decide to do more active research in the future. 


Student testimonials

We wanted to share some student testimonials about the class. These were taken from what we call “journals of an emerging investigator,” in which we give students prompts and ask them to reflect on class so far, in their identities and just an informal space. The prompt for the three quotes below was “Have there been any changes in how you think about your own identity as a person, student, and scientist thus far, as we’ve progressed through this class?”

“I feel lucky to be in this class because it is the first class since I’ve been in college that feels very collaborative and engaging. It may be trivial, but it’s really nice to know my classmates and feel comfortable taking risks around them. Having been on Zoom my first year and taking big lecture classes last semester, I forgot what it felt like to make friends in class and focus a lot on participating in a safe space.” 

“The most important thing I’ve learned in this class so far is how to critically analyze scientific papers and communicate scientific ideas. Science journals and jargon can seem very intimidating from the outside. When you don’t understand everything being done, it’s far too easy to accept anything even if there are holes in the methods, irrelevant conclusions and questionable motives. This class, along with two of the other seminars I’m taking this semester have exposed to me that science has many gray areas and that every study is up for criticism. This is especially true considering the history of how science has been manipulated in the past to fit various racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. agendas.”

“I realized that my role in research can extend much beyond myself. If I become an influential researcher one day, my identity as an Asian female researcher will be inspiring to those around and after me, showcasing that the research field can be diverse, that you don’t have to be a white cis-gendered male in order to succeed in the field. As we talk more about the unitary demographic makeup of people in research, I was surprised to realize that most of the students in this class are non-white going by she/her pronouns. Will our group, our generation, change the future makeup of people in research?”

“Ever since I was a kid, I knew I wanted to be a scientist and solve the universe’s biggest mysteries to me…However, the idea of doing research, especially as a young lady in a largely patriarchal country, sounded very odd and unlikely to my people at home. As a result, I have always been afraid of calling myself a scientist, and masked my interest by saying that I am thinking of doing research on the side. However, coming to this class gave me the courage to be able to say ‘I don’t want to be a scientist, I am one already.’”

This spotlight is a condensed version of Lila and Ana’s video presentation at the 2022 Celebration of Teaching and Learning Symposium.