Department of Educational Psychology
Division of Cognitive Science of Teaching and Learning (CSTL)
Graduate Handbook

This handbook provides a description and some guidelines about graduate study in the Cognitive science of Teaching and Learning.

The CSTL Division admits students with a bachelor's degree or a master's degree. We are a doctoral program and do not admit students seeking only a terminal master's degree. Students entering with a bachelor's degree only are expected to pursue both Master's and Ph.D. degrees. Students are expected to complete the doctoral degree within five to six years. 

Master's Degree (32 hours)

Students entering with a bachelor's degree will need to complete the Master's degree course requirements (32 hours) and deposit a Master's thesis during their program. Information regarding the College of Education minimum requirements is available in the College of Education Graduate Handbook.  The Master's Thesis is typically submitted to fulfill the Early Research Project requirement in the Doctoral Program. CSTL students are expected to completed their Master’s degree by the end of the second year of study.

Course Equivalency Credit

Through the Graduate Petition process, graduate coursework taken at other institutions may be reviewed by the Division, Department, and College for possible course equivalency or transfer credit considerations.

Doctoral Degree (64 hours, plus coursework for research specialization)

Requirements for the doctoral degree require completion of an Early Research Project, the Research Requirement, additional coursework in cognition and learning, general and special qualifying exams, a preliminary oral exam, and preparation of a dissertation and final oral exam. 

Early Research Project

All doctoral students in the College of Education are required to complete an Early Research Project prior to the time they take qualifying examinations. Early Research Projects are developed by the student in collaboration with the advisor. A committee of three faculty members (at least one of whom is the advisor in the CSTL division) evaluates the project. For students seeking a Master's Degree, this Early Research Project is typically submitted as the Master's Thesis and as the capstone project for the Research Specialization Requirement.  The student is expected to complete the Early Research Project by the end of the second year of study. 

Students admitted with a master's degree earned from another institution may be exempt from the Early Research Requirement. A research-based thesis completed at another institution may be submitted for the Early Research Project, and would need to be evaluated by a faculty committee of three members (with at least one member from the CSTL Division).

Research Specialization Requirement

The purpose of the Ph.D. Research Requirement is to ensure that all Ph.D. candidates in the College of Education have had sufficient coursework to attain proficiency in at least one research methodology and are able to conduct independent dissertation research.

The Research Requirements are intended to provide students with both a broad view of research methodologies and the ability to specialize in one area. It is intended that the choice of a focus area will be consistent with a student’s dissertation research. All students will take a Foundational Methods Course, one or more basic courses in one or more methodological areas, and advanced courses in a particular area. All students will use a two-stage approval process in consultation with their academic advisers. Candidates must maintain a B average for all methodology courses. 


It is expected that CSTL students enroll in courses and seminars Educational Psychology, Psychology, and elsewhere on campus relevant to their specific interests in the cognitive science of teaching and learning.  The CSTL Division specifically requires that the student take at least one advanced course (500-level) in each of two areas: (1) Cognition and Learning, and (2) Language Processing and Learning from Text.  These requirements may be fulfilled by taking courses in Educational Psychology, Psychology, or Linguistics, as appropriate.  A partial list of courses that may be used to fulfill this requirement includes:

(1) Cognition and Learning

  •             EPSY 551/PSY 514 Seminar in Cognitive Science
  •             EPSY 552 Classroom Learning
  •             EPSY 590 Cognition and Learning in Education
  •             EPSY 590 How People Learn

(2) Psychology of Language

  •             EPSY 563 Theories of Second Language Acquisition
  •             EPSY 566 Advanced Psycholinguistics
  •             EPSY 590 Psychology of Reading
  •             EPSY 590 Psychology of Discourse Processing
  •             EPSY 590 Language and Aging

Qualifying Examination

Students are admitted to doctoral candidacy after they successfully complete a Qualifying Examination. The qualifying examination consists of two parts: the General Field Exam, and the Special Field Exam. College requirements for this exam are detailed in the College of Education Graduate Student Handbook.

General Field Exam

This examination is intended to gauge the student's knowledge of the theories, methods, and research literatures within areas of the cognitive science of teaching and learning that will most closely define the student's professional identity. Typically, exams will cover a range of topics (e.g., cognition, learning, language processing, instruction), so as to assess the student’s knowledge and facility in reasoning about theories, models, methods, and core empirical findings related to these topics. A collection of sample General Field Qualifying Examination questions from prior CSTL students may be obtained from the CSTL Chair.

Generally, students spend a semester reading and preparing for the General Field Exam. Students typically prepare reading lists in consultation with their advisor, and sometimes with other members of the Exam committee.

The format of the General Field exam will typically be take-home. For example, one week may be given to respond to a series of open-ended questions. Each exam is individualized and the committee may specify a different period for producing the responses and number of questions.

The advisor will work with the student to assemble a General Field Exam Committee. This Committee must contain three doctoral level faculty members, one of whom must be the student’s advisor from the CSTL Division. Based on the student’s reading list and the student’s input on the topics to be examined, committee members will write the questions for the General Field Exam. The advisor will arrange for its administration. The committee has three weeks to evaluate the student’s responses. All paperwork is to be coordinated through the designated departmental staff member. The advisor will communicate the results to the student. If any qualifying examination response is judged unsatisfactory by the committee, the student will have one opportunity to provide a satisfactory response in writing, orally, or both. The terms of the remediation will be set by the committee. CSTL students are expected to complete the General Field Exam no later than by the end of the fourth year of study.

Special Field Exam

The Special Field Exam is intended as a vehicle through which the student can demonstrate advanced expertise in a particular research domain or area (i.e. the student's chosen area of scholarship). This exam will be constructed and administered by the student's advisor and two other committee members who have been chosen by the advisor and the student. This committee often constitutes a portion of the student’s dissertation committee.

The format of the Special Field exam can be one of two options. It can be a portfolio containing written work by the student (e.g., journal articles, chapters, papers submitted for publication, and near-publication quality papers that were submitted in courses at the University of Illinois). The portfolio illustrates the student's expertise in an area of specialization, and must include an "overarching essay" in which the student describes their specialization and how the papers fit together. A portfolio can include collaborative work with other authors, such as the advisor, but the student must be the senior author on each work submitted. There must be an oral defense of the portfolio. The second alternative is a specialty paper/exam. In the CSTL Division, the specialty paper option often serves as the foundation for the introduction to the dissertation research. CSTL students are encouraged to complete the Special Field Exam no later than by the beginning of the fifth year of study.

Preliminary Oral Examination (Dissertation Proposal)

Following the completion of the qualifying exam, students are admitted to doctoral candidacy. At this stage, students assemble a doctoral committee consisting of 4 or 5 faculty and begin work on a dissertation proposal. Criteria for a doctoral committee can be found in the College of Education Graduate Handbook. Students are required to pass a preliminary oral defense of this proposal before conducting the dissertation study.

The Preliminary Oral Examination is the time when you present the research plan for your dissertation to a committee of faculty members chosen by you and your advisor. Most students review the relevant literature, refine their research questions, and describe their proposed data collection procedures and strategies for data analysis in writing. Approval for Research Involving Human Subjects must be obtained prior to the preliminary oral exam. Pilot data may be presented in the preliminary oral to demonstrate proof of concept, but it is expected that this is a prospectus meeting. This serves to sharpen their ideas and to allow their committee to make constructive suggestions before the research is initiated. At the end of the successful preliminary oral examination, the first few chapters of the dissertation are typically in draft form, the rationale for the research project is well-articulated, and the methods and analytical approach are substantially developed; the student has discussed his or her work with interested faculty members and is ready to begin the research.

Dissertation and Final Examination

See the College of Education Graduate Handbook for the requirements for setting up a final dissertation committee, scheduling your oral defense, and depositing your dissertation. Typically, the final dissertation committee has the same membership as the preliminary committee.  It is important to keep in close touch with your advisor and your committee about necessary changes in the procedure or design of your research that arise after the preliminary oral.

Evaluation of Progress

CSTL students are evaluated annually according the process defined by the Graduate College.

Developing Habits of Professional Engagement

Engagement in graduate education implies a deep commitment to the development of an array of important professional skills.  Over the course of study, the student is expected to develop an independent research program, to publish in scholarly outlets, and to seek out experiences to hone skills in teaching and professional presentations. 

Students are strongly encouraged to participate in the intellectual life of the Campus by attending relevant colloquia and brownbags offered by the Division, the Department, Beckman Institute, the Center for Advanced Study, and elsewhere on campus.  Graduate students are expected to make a research presentation in the CSTL brownbag series during their first two years, and in subsequent years as appropriate. Students are also strongly encouraged to join major professional organizations (e.g., American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, Society for Research in Child Development), to subscribe to their journals, and to participate in their national conferences. The Department and University provide funding to help defray travel expenses for students making presentations at national and regional conferences.

Revised March 27, 2015