2002-03 Hunt Grant Research Report
Staying Close to Home: The Benefits and Threats of First Regional Convention Experiences
Jennifer M. Jordan, BS, Tammy Melton, BS, and Matthew J. Zagumny, PhD
Tennessee Tech University
How do undergraduate (and some graduate students) learn about the profession of psychology? Based on Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy (1977), modeling is crucial in the learning process. According to Bandura, self-efficacy is increased when people see modeled behavior, learning vicariously through observed experiences of other people. Observing and learning during "regional psychology conventions provide the setting for many students’ first tangible encounter with the broader study and profession of psychology. . . ." (Psi Chi, 2002).
To foster the profession of psychology among undergraduate students, a better understanding of students’ needs are warranted. In a report published in Eye on Psi Chi in 1997, Dennis Carmody, winner of the second Thelma Hunt Research Award, reported that undergraduate presentations were significantly associated with subsequent graduate study in psychology. Likewise, those undergraduates who went on to graduate study in psychology compared to other fields where more likely to have presented as an undergraduate student during a psychology convention (Young & DaPrada, 1997).
The question that has not been addressed is, "why do students choose to participate by attendance but do not present research papers?" By understanding benefits and threats faced by undergraduates during their first psychology convention experience, we, as professionals, will be better equipped to mentor our students.
Participants and Procedures
We utilized a mixed methodological approach to collect data concerning positive and negative aspects of student experiences at the 49th Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Psychological Association, held in New Orleans, Louisiana, March 26–29, 2003. The SEPA headquarters was contacted to obtain a list of annual meeting attendees, but it was not possible to identify first-time attendees from this list. The methodology originally proposed involved prior contact of the first-time attendees via e-mail to solicit study participation. The research team decided to contact people after paper sessions in the lobby of the meeting hotel. A total of 45 students volunteered to participate in both the interview and follow-up e-questionnaire phases of the study.
Participation was voluntary and included signing an informed consent form. The two undergraduate authors conducted semi-structured interviews with student volunteers. Questions were designed to examine the positive and negative experiences associated with their participation in the meeting. Probe questions included the following:
- How many times have you been to SEPA?
- Are you presenting?
- What were your main reasons for coming to SEPA?
- What were any problems you encountered in coming?
- How do you think that attending SEPA will affect you academically?
- How do you think this experience will help you in your career planning?
- Have you learned anything you were not expecting to learn?
- How do you feel about personal connections that you have made at the convention?
- Do you plan to attend graduate school, and has SEPA influenced that decision or changed it in anyway?
- Do you think your attitude towards conducting research has changed as a result of your attendance here?
On-site interviews were recorded with a Sony digital video camcorder for later content analysis.
A Likert format e-questionnaire was e-mailed to those students who were interviewed during the SEPA Convention and who agreed to be contacted later for the purposes of this research. The 30-item e-questionnaire was designed to assess students’ perceptions of their experiences at the SEPA Annual Meeting. The e-questionnaire was sent one month following the annual meeting to the participants under an "undisclosed recipients" list.
Several common themes were discovered independently among the three content reviewers. Most students reported that their primary motive for attending SEPA was to "gain knowledge." Several students reported an interest in learning about particular fields of psychology, especially those that were underrepresented at their own institutions. Some students did report that they attended to help in the decision to continue to study psychology.
Another major interest for most students was learning about graduate school. Two returning students spoke about a graduate school seminar that they had attended the previous year and how helpful the seminar had been for their graduate school application process. Most students reported that their experience either reaffirmed or increased their desire to attend SEPA meetings in the future.
The attendees stated that viewing the research of other students made them feel more confident in their own ability to conduct research and to present it at conferences. Most students reported that they felt more encouraged and could see the advantages of conducting research, although a few decided that research involved more effort than they had expected. Another major reason students wanted to attend SEPA was to meet other students with similar interests. Some students reported that, after seeing some of the same people year after year, they became good friends. One of the undergraduate students reported meeting a graduate student who later arranged for a visit to her graduate program.
Not all comments were positive concerning SEPA experiences. "Maybe our expectations were too high," stated one student from a group of three. All agreed they had seen "better" research at their school. They complained about both the variety and quality of research. "A lot of stuff I’ve seen isn’t very informative, it’s things I could have speculated myself; common sense," one student exclaimed. Other common comments concerned the faculty-only symposia. Another student stated, "I can’t believe how much stuff was left out [of a paper presentation] or wasn’t thought about." All three students expressed concern after finding out that the presenter taught an undergraduate psychology class.
Students who did offer criticism of the quality of the meeting program reported that it had motivated them to conduct research of higher quality. One attendee speculates that the quality of research was due to the intrinsic motivations of the students presenting. She suggests that most students came for credit, because it would be an excused absence, or just to "party" in New Orleans.
Approximately 38% of students responding to the e-questionnaire reported that they presented at the 49th Annual Meeting, 26.9% reported that they had attended previous academic meetings in the past, 11.5% reported at least one previous academic presentation at a meeting other than SEPA, and almost 90% reported meet and talking with students from other institutions while at the SEPA Meeting. Eighty percent of the respondents stated that they had spoken with professors from other institutions and 3.8% reported that they had been contacted by a professor following SEPA. More than half of the e-questionnaire respondents reported that they had talked to students from other institutions about graduate programs.
More than half of the respondents stated that they will likely present their research at the next academic meeting they attend. This finding is understandable given the large majority of interview respondents who stated that they did not submit a proposal because they felt intimidated but now feel that their "research is good enough to present."
Three major conclusions can be drawn from the wealth of data collected for this study: 1) Professors should encourage their undergraduate students to attend regional meetings to decrease the "intimidation factor" of professional conferences; 2) Students are taking advantage of the networking opportunities available during regional conferences by meeting with other students and faculty; and 3) Students reported that financial issues are an important consideration in deciding to attend the annual meeting.
The importance of faculty encouragement and institutional support to attend regional meetings are central themes of qualitative and quantitative information collected during this study. Once in attendance, the large majority of students maximize networking opportunities.
Encouraging students to attend professional conferences earlier in their academic career will reduce fear and encourage them to present their research at future conferences. Faculty involvement and previous professional conference attendance were the primary correlates with students’ decision to present at the 49th Annual SEPA Meeting. Program submissions by undergraduate students will increase with greater faculty collaboration and some institutional support. Both of these are minor barriers to providing students with the opportunity to become more involved in research, more interested in attending graduate programs, and developing students’ professional networking skills.
Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84, 191–215.
Carmody, D. P. (1997). Student views on the value of undergraduate presentations. Available from www.psichi.org/awards/winners/hunt_reports/carmody.aspx
Psi Chi. (2002). Hunt grant questions. Available from www.psichi.org/awards/winners/hunt_questions.aspx
Young, J. & DaPrada, T. (1997). Twenty-five years of the Hunter College Psychology Convention: Some theoretical and practical issues. Available from www.psichi.org/awards/winners/hunt_reports/young.aspx
Jennifer M. Jordan, BS, graduated from Tennessee Tech University in May 2003 and is now a graduate student in the clinical psychology program at Middle Tennessee State University. Ms. Jordan collaborated on this research study as part of her senior thesis requirement at Tennessee Tech.
Tammy Melton, BS, graduated from Tennessee Tech University in May 2003 and is now a case worker for Plateau Mental Health Center in Cookeville, TN. Ms. Melton collaborated on this research study as part of her senior thesis requirement at Tennessee Tech.
Matthew J. Zagumny, PhD, received his doctorate in organizational psychology from Central Michigan University and is associate professor of psychology at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville, TN. He teaches statistics and research methods courses as well as general psychology. Dr. Zagumny’s research agenda includes examination of psychosocial models of health promotion behaviors, including sexual behavior and drunk-driving interventions. He has an active international health psychology research agenda in Poland and other regions in Eastern Europe along with his coauthors from Tennessee Tech and Poland.
Winter 2004 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 55-57), published by Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright, 2004, Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.