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VIDEO: Assistant Professor Melissa Witkow and her students share the benefits of collaborative research projects. (0:48)

Witkow and her students meet to discuss their research data.Witkow and her students meet to discuss their research data.

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Professor and students collaborate on adolescent behavior research

Many people are happy to forget the adolescent social network, but Assistant Professor Melissa Witkow and her students are digging deep into the complex interactions of teenagers.

As psychology researchers, they realize that examining these relationships can reveal important information about how teens’ friendships impact their mood, their actions and even their academic achievement.

“We all remember how important our friends were during adolescence,” Witkow says. “Studying that social network can teach us how adolescents are learning from these relationships, and it can help us understand more about the individual and the paths that individual is likely to follow.”

Witkow began studying adolescent development when she was in graduate school. Since joining the Willamette faculty in 2007, she has cultivated a growing network of undergraduates to assist with her research and create their own scientific questions to answer — everything from the influence of teens’ romantic relationships to how the school day differs for students with attention deficit disorder.

Relationships and Academics

Witkow mainly focuses on how friendships impact students’ academic performance. Research she conducted for her doctoral dissertation showed that high- and low-achieving high school students tended to allocate their time differently — students with good grades often spent more time studying during the week, for example. Not too surprising.

But something she didn’t expect was that the high-achievers also spent more time hanging out with friends. This was because the achievers were more deliberate about differentiating what they did on weekdays versus weekends. They might spend more hours studying on school nights, but that also meant they didn’t need to work as much on weekends, instead devoting that time to hanging out.

Witkow is taking these findings a step further for her current study by looking at how adolescents spend their time in comparison to their friends. If a student is stuck at home studying while his best friend is at the movies, does that make the studier feel negatively about school or about his friend?

Collecting Data

Before Witkow and her students could start tackling these questions, they had to go through a lengthy process faced by every scientist: gathering data.

They spent several weeks collecting daily surveys from about 200 ninth-graders at a local high school, asking the students a litany of questions about what they did each day, what their friends did and how they felt about their experiences.

The Willamette students quickly discovered that collecting data was not as easy as it may seem, especially when dealing with human subjects.

“The biggest challenge for me was presenting to the high school students everything we wanted them to do,” says Rachel Tsolinas ’11, a psychology major. “Their attention span is about ten minutes, so we had to quickly explain our project in a clear manner while also getting them excited about it.”

“This project definitely taught me more about the statistics of psychology, which is based a lot on math,” psychology major Melissa Wurster ’11 says. “Our research is not about opinions — it’s about numbers showing what we found.”

Learning to Analyze

Witkow and her students continued working together on the research project during the fall as part of Willamette’s iHuman Sciences Initiative, a program led by the exercise science and psychology departments that supports interdisciplinary, science-centered student and faculty collaborative research.

After collecting all the data, they began analyzing it and trying to answer their research questions. The iHuman Sciences program is paying for five of Witkow’s students to present their work this spring at the Society for Research on Child Development conference in Montreal, Canada.

“If my students choose to go on to graduate school, this project will give them important skills in critical thinking and understanding psychology that will help them be successful,” Witkow says.

“But even if they don’t continue in research, this experience will help them evaluate research in their daily lives. We evaluate research all the time — anytime we read a news story or discuss politics, for instance. This project enables them to be better consumers of the information around them.”