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Learning by Doing: A Talk with Ogden Honors Professor Dr. Janet McDonald

For more than 14 years, Professor of Psychology Dr. Janet McDonald has led the Upper Division Honors program for Psychology majors at LSU. Through her role as both a teacher and mentor, Dr. McDonald has fostered scores of Honors students through their undergraduate research and Honors Thesis projects. She was selected by the Ogden Honors College as the Erich and Lea Sternberg Honors Professor for the 2014-15 academic year. We sat down with Dr. McDonald to learn more about her teaching philosophy and her own research interests—and in the process, discovered why Honors students continually rave about her courses. 

You regularly teach HNRS 3000: Research Methodologies in Psychology. Can you talk a little bit about what you do with Honors students in that course?

For students who want to do an Honors Thesis in Psychology, we have mapped out a  four-semester sequence, and HNRS 3000 is their first class in it. The class gets the students up to speed on all the skill sets they’ll need to actually be successful in doing their Honors Thesis. I believe in learning by doing. So in HNRS 3000, we do a project together as a class. They devise an experiment, gather the data, carry it out, and I help them analyze it. We do a different project every year, with the topic being driven by the class. Once we decide on a topic, the students practice finding relevant literature, and then read empirical studies about this topic. We see what past experiments have found and look for interesting things we can follow up on in our experiment. This year, we’re investigating if there are differences in how well males vs. females can read emotions off faces. So one of the things we found in the literature was that it looked like men and women differed in which part of the face they looked at when they were trying to judge emotions. The eyes turn out to be more informative for most expressions, and women were more likely to look at the eyes. So women tend to have an advantage because of that. We said, Aha! Let’s follow up on that.

Then we devise a study. The students come up with the hypothesis and have to find the stimuli.  So we decided to show pictures of standardized facial expressions to men, and to women, in order to see who’s better at identifying the expressions. We show some of the facial stimuli full-faced, some just the eyes, and some just the mouth.  In the case of just the eyes—now that we’re forcing the guys to look at the eyes, will the women’s advantage disappear? In the case of just the mouth—maybe everybody will be worse at that, because of course it isn’t as informative as the eyes. Once we have the data gathered, we use that to practice our analytical techniques. We go through it in class and test our hypothesis using statistical software so the students can see how you do it, how the output appears, how we can interpret it.

In getting them to design and analyze their own experiment, what are the principles or methodologies you hope to convey to the students?

We talk about all the kinds of stuff you have to worry about in experimental design, like counterbalancing, and making sure the same person didn’t see the same face more than once, making sure the faces were in a correct random order. In the process of all that, we find out all of the little things that can wrong—even just getting the slideshow to work correctly. We also learn writing and speaking skills. We have a fake conference, and the students get practice doing a conference-style presentation. They write a research proposal, which is what they’ll eventually be doing for their Honors Thesis. So they’re learning principles of research, but it’s also very realistic. You could learn about these methodologies by reading about them in a book, and you could memorize the definitions and get it all right on the test, but you remember and retain a lot better if you learn it hands-on, and they need to know it for their own research.

I really love training students in empirical experimental methodology, but I also love training students in critical thinking skills. Something that is really hard to do when you’re a beginning student is reading empirical literature out of a journal, as opposed to a digested version of it in a textbook. So we practice on some easy articles, pick them apart, look for strengths and weaknesses. Then we move on to journal articles that are tougher to read, but now the students have a systemic way of approaching it. I like to transition students from “Oh, it was written down somewhere so I believe it,” to thinking about: “What’s the evidence behind a claim? How good is that evidence? What would be the next kind of evidence we’d want to get to further support the claim?” They’re going to be reading empirical literature as a basis for their Honors Thesis, so they’re going to need to be able to do that.

Do you find that a lot of your HNRS 3000 students do go on to do further research in psychology, and complete an Honors Thesis? 

Well, the Honors Thesis is a time commitment. In psychology, as I said, it’s four semesters, and when you’re actually researching and writing your thesis in those final three semesters, to be successful you probably have to be putting in eight, nine hours a week on the thesis alone. Some of the students decide they don’t want to go on in psychology, some of them have too big of a workload, but by the time they’re done with HNRS 3000 they have a really, really good grounding in psych research—the methods, the statistics, and the act of actually doing it—so yes, most of them start an Honors Thesis. And when they do their Honors Thesis they really get the true experience of what you do as a graduate student in psychology, or even as a faculty member. A lot of the students go on to grad school in all different kinds of psychology: clinical, industrial/organizational, cognitive, neuroscience. Some of them go on to law school, some of them go on to med school, and a couple of them have come back and said how well prepared their psych background has made them for grad school. They get into some pretty prestigious programs, because they’re really well prepared. They stand out of the crowd, having done the Honors Thesis. 

Does your work with Honors students, whether in HNRS 3000 or more directly as an Honors Thesis advisor, dovetail with your own areas of research?

For my undergrad degree, I double-majored in mathematics and German, and I got very intrigued by why I had more trouble in German class than the person who had done her junior year abroad in Germany and been immersed in German. I became totally fascinated by this idea that the age at which you learn language could limit how far you can go in that language. I said, “I want to figure that out. That’s a problem to be solved.” So I went to graduate school in psychology, got my advanced degree in the field of psycholinguistics, which tries to understand the processes behind language comprehension, production, and acquisition. Since I’ve been at LSU, that’s what I do with my Honors students and with my graduate students: looking at the processes involved in learning a language. How do you understand this sentence? Can you repeat this sound? How do monolinguals and bilinguals differ in their language processing? So the students who work with me are interested in language, but I give them a lot of freedom to study, within that area, what they find interesting. It’s sort of a merger of their interests and my interests. 

Here’s the thing—it’s a lot of fun. Even though it’s also a lot of work. And that’s something I want to bring to students: research is actually just a puzzle that you’re solving. A great way to figure out how things work is through the experiment. You’ve got to learn these techniques so you have the skills so you can start to investigate it in a rigorous manner. If you turn out to be a person who can get passionate about work like that, you are an ideal candidate for a research career.

What advice would you give to a student who is considering LSU and the Ogden Honors College?

I would definitely encourage anybody who gets invited into the Honors College to accept this invitation, because it will change the quality of their education, and their depth. The Honors curriculum offers smaller classes. Most introductory psychology classes are somewhere around 200-300 students, and they can be even bigger than that. Whereas I’m teaching honors version of Intro to Psychology (PSYC 2001) right now, and we have 35 people in that. So we can do hands-on things, and we can do some real meaningful writing assignments in that class.

I just think the Honors College is a jewel on the campus. Both for the kinds of classes they can take but also for the opportunities to do the thesis and for the support staff that’s there to help them with applying to scholarships, helping them know about resources, applying to grad school, and things like that.

Do you keep in touch with a lot of your former students?

Well, I do monitor them! I do feel like they are my academic children, and you want to see that they’re doing well. I know that several of our former psychology honors students have gone on to academic careers of their own, so now they are teaching the next generation. That is very gratifying.

Honors students are absolutely fabulous. I’ve been teaching the HNRS 3000 class for fourteen years, and it’s a privilege to teach these students. They’re so smart, they’re so motivated, and they make terrific contributions in class. We have great discussions. They’re truly interested in learning, they want to do well, and they’re going to go on and be our future psychology researchers, or cancer researchers or breakthrough authors. It gives you faith that the world is going to be in good hands.