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Department of Educational Psychology: Positioned for Growth

by Tom Hanlon / Apr 20, 2020

Kiel Lead_EPSY Growth

A national leader in the field, the Educational Psychology Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign stays competitive by attracting and retaining the best of the best.

Kiel Christianson has seen a lot of changes since he began as a tenure-track professor in the Department of Educational Psychology in 2004. Student numbers have swelled, then ebbed, and are now on the rise again. New programs have been initiated. Some professors have been hired, and others have retired.

But one thing has remained the same: The Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is consistently one of the top ed psych programs in the country, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report.

It’s a recognition of excellence that Christianson, who was named associate chair of the department in 2011 and chair in 2019, is intent on continuing.

“We get a lot of applications from students around the world, and accept the best of the best,” says Christianson, who became a full professor in 2016. “Every year since I’ve been associate chair, just about every student we put up for an Illinois Distinguished Fellowship—a campus-wide competition—receives that prestigious fellowship.”

Attracting top students is one factor in remaining a nationally-acclaimed department. Another is the faculty who work with those elite students.

“Annual faculty reviews are tough, because everyone is so good,” Christianson chuckles. “Everyone is near the top of the scale in everything. It’s like Lake Wobegon, where everyone is above average. From grants to publications to keynotes, it’s hard to find fault with any of our faculty members.”

When you blend those two top-quality groups with each other in a model that accelerates learning and academic growth, you begin to get an idea why the Department of Educational Psychology is perennially ranked so high.

“We have an apprenticeship model where we really encourage students to become part of the scientific community as soon as they get here,” Christianson says. “They don’t have to wait around for some magic point in the program where they are finally let loose in the lab. They can start as soon as they get here, if they’re comfortable doing it.”

In this model, Christianson notes, the students actually drive a lot of the research. “We encourage students to follow their own interests,” he says. “A lot of the really interesting things I’ve learned and studied and published since I got here are directly the result of a student saying, ‘Hey, what about this?’ And I’d say, ‘Huh, I hadn’t really thought about that. Let’s look into it.’ That’s pretty neat to be able to drive your own research right from the get-go.”

The Strengths that Keep Ed Psych Among the Nation’s Best

That apprenticeship model is only one strength that keeps the Ed Psych Department among the best in the nation. A few other strengths that Christianson points out include:

  • “Our students have been widely and consistently hired as researchers and faculty at universities for decades.”
  • “Certain fields, like education evaluation, started here. This is the place where it all began. We have a long history of doing really good scholarship.”
  • “We are really strong in quantitative and methodological research and in data analytics.”
  • “We are an eclectic group—which means you get a lot of different perspectives.” Those perspectives, he adds, range far and wide, from areas such as cognitive aging to learning in less traditional spaces (think museums and video games and interactive situations) to the more traditional classroom. “Those kinds of perspectives make our research vastly more applicable to how the world really works, as opposed to being narrowly constrained to what happens from eight to three in a classroom,” he notes.

Collaborating Across Campus and Across the State

Diversity among the faculty lends itself to cross-campus collaborations with engineering, medicine, biology, chemistry, linguistics, psychology, advertising, sport recreation and tourism, and a host of other colleges and departments. The Department’s proclivity for collaboration dovetails perfectly with Illinois’s focus on interdisciplinary work.

“A lot of universities pay lip service to valuing interdisciplinary collaborations, but when it comes to doing it, that’s another matter,” Christianson says. “At the University of Illinois, we’re very serious about it.”

One of dozens of such efforts is a partnering with the College of Engineering and the departments of Molecular & Cellular Biology and Chemistry to evaluate students and predict student success.

“A lot of students in the STEM fields drop out early, and we’re trying to figure out what keeps the ones going who keep going,” Christianson says. “What happens there, and how do we get more students to keep going? We have a lot of exciting studies going on.”

Another interdisciplinary effort involves the Discovery Partners Institute, a collaborative research institute in Chicago that is focused on growing the state’s workforce by creating solutions to challenges the state faces in the areas of computing and data, environment and water, food and agriculture, and health and wellness.

“We’re trying to establish a giant national repository for longitudinal data, for which professors Chris Napolitano and Jim Rounds, both from our department, are key players,” Christianson says.

Poised for Growth

Christianson is optimistic not only about the present, but also about the future for the department. “Assuming our budget comes through, we are hoping for a few more searches next year for new faculty, both in counseling and developmental sciences, and two more in the next two years after that,” he says. “And we’re excited about a suite of four online courses that we are developing, looking at data analysis, using the open software R.” (R is a programming language and software environment for statistical computing and graphics, widely used among statisticians and data miners.) “We’ll be building those up and hopefully they will be open to people on campus next year, and to people anywhere on a fee-based system. We’re looking to develop it into a standalone certificate that non-degree students can take to show they’ve got a good handle on using R for statistical purposes.”

The Department of Educational Psychology is preparing to build its ranks.

“We’re in the process of building our numbers back up, both because of the new young faculty and because of the recognition by Dean Jim Anderson that you can’t continue to have a top-ranked program without students in it.”

A new Master’s program in Mental Health, slated for a soft opening in the fall of 2020, will help boost those numbers, Christianson says.

That new growth will help the department continue its strong tradition in the field and maintain its status as one of the top educational psychology programs in the nation.