Dr. Peter Ornstein talks childhood development, student research

Dr. Gabrielle Principe, Psychology Department Chair, Dr. Peter Ornstein, and Dr. Trisha Folds-Bennett, Honors College Dean, embrace after the lecture. Dr. Ornstein mentored both College faculty members as doctoral students, and today they remain colleagues and friends. Dr. Ornstein's talk was sponsored co-sponsored by the Honors College and the Department of Psychology.

From left, Dr. Gabrielle Principe (Psychology Department Chair), Dr. Peter Ornstein, and Dr. Trisha Folds-Bennett (Honors College Dean), embrace after the lecture. Dr. Ornstein mentored both College faculty members as doctoral students, and today they remain colleagues and friends. Dr. Ornstein’s talk was co-sponsored by the Honors College and the Department of Psychology. (Photo by Laura Cergol)

Last Tuesday afternoon, when the sun was shining and many students were donning their shorts and sundresses for the first time this semester, some students instead chose to fill nearly every seat in a florescent-lit auditorium of the School of Science and Mathematics Building.  These students gathered to hear Dr. Peter Ornstein, director of UNC Chapel Hill’s developmental psychology graduate program, present his research on the role of the classroom in the development of elementary school children’s memory.

In his talk, titled “Linking the Classroom and the Development of Children’s Memory,” Dr. Ornstein outlined existing literature, various research methods, and his own team’s results with a genial style, eliciting a few laughs and several questions from the curious audience. “It’s a large room, and that can be intimidating,” he said, “but feel free to perk up if you have a question.”

Prior to his research, several scholars had studied memory at different stages of childhood development, but no one had looked at how children transition from one stage to another.  “I’ve bet a lot of money and time that conversational style as shown in child-adult interactions plays a role,” Dr. Ornstein said, and so far, it looks like he has won that bet. “Aided and abetted” by many graduate students, Dr. Ornstein has examined how children “learn to remember.” His research is not just about memory, but how a particular “diet of conversation” can help children develop memory strategies. It turns out that in the classroom, the first grade experience is essential.

Taking cues from a 1995 study by Fred Morrison that first suggested the importance of the first grade, Dr. Ornstein and his team began following a sample of first grade students through the fifth grade. They tracked students’ ability to use a sorting strategy to remember a set of cards, along with their status as high versus low self-regulators and their teachers’ status as “high or low mnemonic.”(Dr. Ornstein defines this term as referring to a teacher’s use of deliberate methods to encourage students not just to remember, but to learn strategies to remember.

“One hundred dollars to the person who comes up with a better way to describe what we’re getting at here,” Dr. Ornstein said, in reference to the confusion he encountered over his use of the word “mnemonic.” At the end of the talk, one student took him up on this, offering “enriched environment of instruction” for Dr. Ornstein’s “jury at Chapel Hill.”

After several years of recording classroom interactions and advising bachelor’s essays on the topic, Dr. Ornstein’s team found that for students who were high self-regulators, the teacher’s “mnemonic orientation” did not make much difference in their development of memory strategies. For low self-regulators, on the other hand, there was a huge discrepancy between those who had a teacher who pointed them toward memory strategies and those who simply taught content. These effects, seen in the first grade, persisted as late as the fourth grade and negatively impacted students’ memory development and study skills. If a student had a less-than-ideal experience in the first grade, it could make all of elementary school a struggle.

In response to an audience member’s question of whether this pattern may apply to undergraduate education as well as elementary school, Dr. Ornstein responded diplomatically that a student could have a good or great experience with either kind of teacher. “What’s more important than learning subject matter,” he said, “is learning a way of thinking.” He is reluctant to label low-mnemonic teachers as “bad teachers” because of the several factors that contribute to a teacher’s success. Next year, his team will go into a small group of Chapel Hill, NC schools to teach teachers how to use high-mnemonic strategies in the classroom with the goal of improving student memory outcomes.

Throughout his talk, Dr. Ornstein emphasized the role that student research assistants played in the success of the study. “That’s in fact the message I want to end with,” he said. “It takes a village.” After a Q&A session almost as long as the talk itself, he encouraged students to contact him if they wanted to learn more, and to get in touch with their own professors here at the College to develop mentorship relationships.

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