Amanda Baker interacts with her students in an educational psychology course. The new assistant professor in learning sciences and educational psychology teaches theories of learning and cognition in her courses. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Baker shapes student learning through studies in motivation

Amanda Baker is motivated by motivation.

The new assistant professor in learning sciences and educational psychology in Iowa State University’s School of Education studies the ways college students engage in practices that challenge the way they think. Her research in motivation adds insight to the differing levels of engagement among today’s students.

“Teachers’ success in using cooperative and active learning strategies often hinges on students’ willingness to engage,” Baker said.

Marlene Strathe, School of Education director, said Baker’s expertise gives future teachers an essential grounding in how engaged learning is made up of shared experiences.

“The theoretical interests driving Baker’s current work include the construction of knowledge at the societal level, cooperative learning, and learning through experience and reflection,” she said. “Her expertise provides teacher candidates with a rich foundation of learning to build upon throughout their programs of study.”

Knowledge is power

While earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology at The Ohio State University, Baker realized she wanted to focus on work that tackles real-world issues and students’ transformative experiences. That desire fueled her interests when she began her graduate studies.

“My question going into graduate school was, ‘How do beliefs, values, socialization, and social interactions in the classroom impact who we are and our experiences?’” she said.

Baker’s doctoral dissertation delved into students’ beliefs about knowledge and how those beliefs relate to their engagement in classroom settings. She said seeing knowledge as concrete or flexible shapes a student’s view on education.

“When you’re teaching, you have to think not only about how you learned, but how your students learn,” she said. “It’s a bit of a mental leap, so in my courses I try to challenge the way students think or the assumptions that they hold.”

Education that evolves

As Baker challenges these assumptions, she’s careful to frame her questions in positive ways and practice what her research has taught her.

“I see psychology and the study of motivation within the learning sciences having the ability to help us understand behaviors or patterns of engagement to make education more accessible,” she said. “Can we understand why some students engage and others don’t? Is it something in the immediate environment that can change, or is there an intervention that can make it better? Is it a pattern of socialization, where the student is coming in with specific beliefs or values that aren’t conducive to engaging in this environment?”

Baker said that as she tackles these questions, reason and evidence stand at the heart of her research.

“The nature of education and its role in society is changing,” she said. “We need people to use reason and evidence to tackle the big issues that we’re facing. We need people who can engage in difficult conversations. That forces us, then, to ask how we prepare students over time.”

A focus on application

In a 2017 study published in the journal “Contemporary Educational Psychology,” Baker found that students were most engaged in cooperative activities when teachers used strategies to suggest that students had control over their discussion. She said it’s important that students understand it’s OK to talk with one another, and not just talk to their teacher.

“It’s important to know that students talking to their peers exposes them to new perspectives in a way that can be a little more safe than when an instructor is challenging what a student thinks,” Baker said.

Baker uses a variety of examples to help students move beyond their prior experiences. These include her own experiences with elementary and secondary students in tutoring and volunteering roles, and examples borrowed from other educators. The various examples help students see learning is complex and challenging.

“We need to teach in a way that’s meaningful, and that communicates to students that they can think critically or can use the knowledge they’re getting in their classes to do something meaningful,” Baker said.

Iowa State gives future teachers early examples to shape their learning, Baker said.

“At Iowa State, pre-service teachers are asked to go into classrooms early to observe,” she said. “It gives them so many more examples to work with. It helps them get into the frame of mind to think like a teacher.”