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Professor-advisee symmetry delivers Presidential Fellowship

Janet Kiplinger Ciccone
April 26, 2018

Competitive award gives Sungjun Won three semesters of Ohio State funding for dissertation research

After earning a master’s degree in South Korea, Sungjun Won received several offers to earn a PhD at U.S. universities. One even offered him a full-tuition fellowship.

But he had heard Professors Christopher Wolters and Eric Anderman speak at an academic symposium in Korea and was impressed.

“I had read the research about students’ academic motivation and self-regulated learning. I knew Wolters was among the top scholars in that subject, which was my interest as well,” he said. It was the right match for him.

Now completing his fourth year as a doctoral student in Educational Psychology, Won has published five papers in prominent research journals with Wolters, who is his advisor. He has also published with Anderman and Associate Professor Shirley Yu, and is teaching at EHE’s Walter Dennis Learning Center, which Wolters directs.

These achievements and more have brought Won a new and highly competitive honor – this spring, he received an Ohio State Presidential Fellowship, the most prestigious award given by the university’s Graduate School. Recipients embody the highest standards in the university’s graduate programs.

The award provides three semesters of full tuition and stipend to compete his dissertation research – a study he believes will provide implications for enhancing the quality of and access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

Student motivation key

Won knows the United States faces a rising challenge: How do we fill the increasing number of traditionally defined STEM jobs, plus jobs in other industries that also require high levels of STEM knowledge and skills?

Won explained that research shows students’ academic motivation is a key to whether they persist in a STEM field and choose it as a career. Several factors influence motivation. An important one is a sense of belonging. It refers to the feeling that one is valuable and an important part of the school context, and to feeling accepted and supported by school members.

“In some contexts, or in some disciplines, maybe belonging is more important for students who are marginalized, such as females or ethnic minorities,” Won said. “I want to test belonging and how it relates to students’ motivation, persistence and choices in STEM disciplines.”

Additionally, his study will yield a more nuanced understanding of gender differences in belonging and academic motivation among college students studying STEM domains.

Won’s data collection is part of a larger study by Yu, who is collaborating with Ohio State Professor Andrew Heckler, Department of Physics, and Senior Lecturer Matthew Stoltzfus, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, both in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Yu’s study aims to better understand and improve college students’ engagement and persistence in STEM fields.

Won in action: How to give students a sense of belonging

When it comes to helping students feel they belong, Won walks the talk. During autumn semester 2017, he taught Learning and Motivation Strategies for Success in College at EHE’s Dennis Learning Center.

The center helps Ohio State students examine their academic strengths and weaknesses and develop self-regulated learning strategies for academic success.

For the students in Won’s online and face-to-face courses, he worked to create a caring atmosphere and mutual respect. “Research has demonstrated that instructors’ support is the most powerful factor influencing students’ feelings of being accepted and respected,” Won said.

“So at the beginning of the semester, I explicitly told my class, ‘One of my goals is to give you a sense of belonging, so I want you to know and respect each other.’”

To let students know him, Won shares some of his own success and failure with motivation and self-regulated learning. “I tell them I’m not always motivated, I’m not always that self-regulated,” he explained. “I study the topics so I can get to know myself better.”

His students always want to know a little bit more. “Many students are taking large lecture classes, so they have a different relationship with their professors,” he said. “They’re interested in getting to know their instructors, so if you are willing to share some of your personal stories, they appreciate it.”

Won is teaching again this semester and checks in with his students regularly. He asks if they’re feeling comfortable sharing their thoughts with him or with their classmates. “It’s a discussion-based class, so it’s really important for us to engage,” he said.

Was he successful? Won finds teaching a new experience after three years of research, but he sees signs that the students feel respected. “I call on students quite a lot and they didn’t mind,” he said. “They seem comfortable sharing their thoughts.”


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