“Each student is different and has his/her own values. I felt a great responsibility to understand each one of them and help them become a better person — a better self they could be proud of.”

Every year, the Hogg Foundation gives the Frances Fowler Wallace Memorial Award for Mental Health Dissertation Research to eligible doctoral candidates at The University of Texas at Austin. Awardees receive up to $1,500 in scholarship money to help cover research-related expenses.

Sophia Yang Hooper is one of two recipients of the 2017 Wallace Award. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Psychology at Beijing Normal University before coming to UT Austin, where she received master’s degrees in educational psychology and statistics. She is currently on track to graduate with a Ph.D. in educational psychology.

Sophia’s proposed study is “A Meta-analysis on Teacher Autonomy Support, Academic Achievement, and Psychosocial Functioning.” The project will examine the effect of teacher autonomy support — or teaching practices designed to cultivate student autonomy, rather than impose control — on student mental health outcomes.

 

How did you become interested in the field of educational psychology?

Growing up, I was always curious about why people think and behave in certain ways. With this curiosity in mind, I chose psychology as my undergraduate major. During my third year of college, I interned in a middle school as a psychology teacher. I soon realized that my students were complicated. In middle school, students are constantly seeking autonomy, and forming their identities and worldviews. Each student is different and has his/her own values. I felt a great responsibility to understand each one of them and help them become a better person — a better self they could be proud of. Therefore, I felt an urge to pursue educational psychology and learn more about students and education.

What is the story behind this specific project? Where did the idea come from?

I have always been a strong believer in providing and fostering an autonomy-supportive environment for students. However, some research and media outlets suggest that autonomy-supportive teaching is not always helpful, and that harsh and controlling teaching practices can actually help students perform better. Given the inconsistency of these arguments, I think this specific project is needed to clarify what the best teaching practices are.

Why is a meta-analysis your methodology of choice? What insights can this avenue of investigation offer that others cannot?

Meta-analysis is advantageous because it is able to combine the results of many studies. An individual study usually only investigates a limited number of participants within certain contexts. By combining many studies, a meta-analysis project can include more participants across many different contexts. It allows us to estimate the “true” effect in the population. That is, we can generalize results to a larger population. A meta-analysis is especially necessary when there are discrepancies among different study results. This is the best way to resolve those disagreements and identify patterns.

What applications do you hope your research will have in the classroom?

I hope my research can provide insights for determining what the best teacher practices are. Teaching is a complex endeavor. I hope this synthesis will provide answers to important questions about autonomy support and control in the classroom, including what type of autonomy support and control is most beneficial or harmful, and under what circumstances autonomy-supportive or controlling teaching practices might be helpful. This research will address these specific questions with the goal of guiding teachers in their everyday teaching practices.

Do you foresee any potential impacts on an administrative level? How will educators outside the classroom benefit from your findings?

I have been thinking a lot about why teachers implement various teaching strategies. Why are some teachers more controlling, and others more supportive? ­I think administrative policies may play a critical role in determining teachers’ practices. Teachers may be more likely to use more controlling practices when they feel that their performance is based on student test scores, or if a certain type of teacher evaluation is used. Administrative policies may fundamentally shape the school environment. I hope my research can provide some guidance on administrative policies and help create better school environments.