online course: intro to stats with R

This Summer, Felicia Zhang and I are developing an online course with the Princeton McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning. Below is an overview of the course, which will be accessible in Fall, 2018:

Two of the biggest challenges for undergraduates in psychology are understanding key concepts in statistics and applying those concepts to analyze data and interpret findings. These challenges not only make it difficult for students to understand material in lectures and labs, but also difficult for instructors to help the students because students feel defeated and become unwilling to engage with the course. Therefore, we are designing an online course to introduce statistics and R programming. Integrating statistics and R programming in one course is ideal for learning: The former is essential for students to understand research more broadly and the latter is an important tool for students to engage with research directly. For example, a psychology student must interpret statistical results from prior experiments as well as analyze their own data for their senior thesis. In sum, our course is designed to help students who have minimal prior experience to understand key concepts in statistics and to apply those concepts to realistic problems in psychology research.

The course will include 6 modules (i.e., getting started with statistics; getting started with R; descriptive statistics; correlation; one-sample t-test and binomial test; two-sample t-test) and each module will have the same basic structure: The first portion helps students to understand key concepts. Students will watch narrated text, live drawings, or videos. To assess students’ understanding, students will complete multiple choice questions. The next portion of the module helps students to apply key concepts via R programming. First, we will pose realistic psychology research questions (e.g., Do toddlers who hear more language from caregivers tend to have larger vocabularies?). Students will observe how we answer each question with the appropriate statistical test (e.g., correlation) and R syntax (e.g., cor.test(data$language, data$vocabulary)). Next, we will pose new, similar questions (e.g., Do toddlers who have more books at home tend to hear more language from caregivers?) and students will attempt to answer these questions. To assess students’ understanding, students will input their answers and receive feedback. The last portion of the module helps students to review key concepts. Students will watch narrated text, live drawings, or videos. Finally, to assess students’ overall understanding, students will complete a module quiz.

After participating in our course, students will have fundamental knowledge of statistics and R programming. Although both are extremely important for students in psychology, students need more resources to understand key concepts in statistics and to apply those concepts to real research (e.g., their senior thesis). Our course will provide these resources, with two notable strengths: First, unlike other online R programming courses, we will use realistic, psychology-specific examples. This design enables direct connections between what students learn in lecture, in lab, and in our online course. Second, although our course is tailored to the needs of psychology students, having basic knowledge of statistics and R programming is applicable to a growing number of fields (e.g., sociology, politics, etc.). In sum, our online course will support learning among undergraduates in psychology and could have wide-reaching impact among undergraduates in science, more broadly.


what teachers make

While prepping teaching materials for Developmental Psychology this semester, I suddenly remembered Taylor Mali. It’s been years since I listened to his poetry, but it’s still as poignant now as it was back then. (If you’re not familiar with his work, I strongly encourage you to check out his website.)

In particular, I’ve been reflecting on his poem ‘What Teachers Make‘ and how I feel about teaching. Being a teacher – making a difference! – is genuinely important to me. As is hopefully evident from my posts on teaching and mentorship, I enjoy working with students both in the lab and in the classroom. In sum, my intrinsic motivation to teach is one of the reasons that I decided to pursue a career in academia.

Yet it’s rare that teaching is openly celebrated. To the contrary, graduate students are often warned not to invest ‘too much time’ in developing our pedagogical skills, lest this distract from our research. How much time is ‘too much’ undoubtedly depends on whomever is giving the advice on the matter, but there are also more systematic cues to put teaching on the back burner. For example, in my department, if a graduate student receives outside funding, their teaching responsibilities are vastly reduced. In behaviorist terms, funding is therefore both a positive reinforcement (i.e., increasing funding for your research is good) and a negative reinforcement (i.e., decreasing your time spent on teaching is good). In sum, the overall message to graduate students is clear: Focus on your research.

This is not to say that advisors who counsel their graduate students to focus on research are necessarily doing the wrong thing. It makes perfect sense to focus on research if you intend to pursue a professorship at a research-focused institution! And this is not to say that I personally enjoy or value teaching more than research. What I mean to say is that the strict dichotomy of research and teaching may be a false one. Research and teaching can be combined in ways that benefit both the undergraduate students and the graduate instructors, and I’m grateful that my advisors have encouraged me to develop skills in both research and teaching.

Princeton supports grad students

Statement from President Christopher L. Eisgruber (12/4/17):

We share the concerns expressed by our graduate students regarding the provision in H.R.1 that would subject tuition waivers to taxation.  This provision is not in the bill that passed the Senate, but if it were enacted into law, it would impose a tax that graduate students cannot afford to pay and would severely harm graduate education throughout the United States.

Preserving the tuition remission exemption is a top priority for Princeton.  We have been and will continue to work vigorously and in concert with other universities and educational associations to achieve that goal.

If the tax were to be enacted, we would take steps to ensure the well-being of Princeton’s graduate students and to minimize the damage to graduate education at Princeton.  Our graduate students are important to us, and we will support them so that they can pursue their studies, careers, and aspirations successfully.  There can be no doubt, however, that this ill-conceived and counter-productive tax would not only impose significant costs on graduate programs here and elsewhere, but also do serious damage to the scope and quality of graduate education in our nation.


mentor of the millennium

Recently I told my advisor that I was feeling anxious about generals.

Here’s what he had to say about that:

You can count on me, Lauren, and Adele to be supportive and consistent and productive, both at your generals and in general. You’re doing a fantastic job in grad school, evidenced by efficiency in getting data collected, working on many drafts of a challenging empirical paper, getting the GRFP, and etc etc. These are the kinds of factors that add up to a committee being in your corner. Feeling anxious is natural and motivating and horrible, so let it flow in a healthy way, and you know you can work through it. Might we request more work or different work or further reading? Of course. But it’s nothing you can’t handle. Might we steer you toward or away from certain ideas? Of course. Who cares. It’s my job (and Lauren’s job, and Adele’s job) to be helpful and support your career, and you’ll see that at every turn during your generals. And who knows, we might just say “Uhh. Great job. Keep it up.”

It’s times like this that I’m extra thankful to be here.

Princeton supports international students

A letter from Christopher Eisgruber – President of Princeton University, with emphasis added:

To the Princeton community,

Many of you have written to express concerns about the recent federal executive order barring entry to the United States for refugees and for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries. I share those concerns. Since its early days, when the College of New Jersey recruited a transformative president from Scotland, this University has depended on America’s ability to attract and engage with talented people from around the world. Princeton today benefits tremendously from the presence of extraordinary individuals of diverse nationalities and faiths, and we will support them vigorously.

The University has taken steps already to assist Princeton students and scholars who are affected by the executive order, including a small number who are currently traveling abroad and face difficulties returning to the United States. Dean of the Faculty Deborah Prentice and Dean of the Graduate School Sanjeev Kulkarni have issued messages providing preliminary information about the order and its consequences. Staff members in the Davis International Center and elsewhere on campus are working around the clock to assess the full impact of the order and to aid and counsel members of our community, including those who are currently outside the United States.

The legal implications of the executive order have been evolving rapidly. My colleagues in the University administration will continue to monitor developments and identify appropriate ways to assist affected individuals. We will update the community as needed to ensure that our students, faculty, and staff know how to obtain information or help.

Princeton will also continue to safeguard personal information about non-citizens as it does for all of its students, faculty, and staff. As I noted in a previous letter to the community, Princeton has policies in place to protect the privacy of every member of the University community. We do not disclose private information about our students, faculty, or staff to law enforcement officers unless we are presented with a valid subpoena or comparably binding requirement.

As we seek to aid and protect individuals in our community, we are also supporting legislative efforts to assist non-citizens, including the BRIDGE Act that would extend protection for students covered by DACA (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy). Princeton’s current activity builds on a consistent history of advocacy for policies permitting foreign scholars and students to come to the United States. Much of that advocacy has occurred in cooperation with the Association of American Universities, of which Princeton is a member. The AAU has issued a statement of concern about the recent executive order, and we endorse that statement fully.

Princeton’s position on immigration policy issues reflects our conviction that every single person on this campus has benefited from the ability of people to cross borders in search of learning or a better life. That is emphatically true for me. My mother and her family arrived in this country as refugees escaping from a war-torn continent. They would have perished had they been denied visas. My father first came to America as an exchange student from a country that had recently been at war with the United States, and he then studied at Purdue University as a foreign graduate student.

Immigration has been a source of creativity and strength for this country throughout its history. It is indispensable to the mission and the excellence of America’s universities, which enhance this country’s economy, security, and well-being through the students they educate and the ideas they generate. Princeton will continue supporting students, faculty, and staff of all nationalities and faiths, and we will continue making the case for policies that simultaneously respect this nation’s legitimate security interests and allow for the free and vital movement of students and scholars across borders.

Christopher L. Eisgruber
President, Princeton University

January 29, 2017

Princeton teaching evaluations

Here’s what my Introductory Psychology students (mostly freshmen) had to say:

“Tracy Reuter was absolutely fantastic. She made the topics really interesting and relevant, and she was ALWAYS within reach (email, phone, in-person) if we ever had any questions. She is a fantastic teacher and anyone would be lucky to have her. I can’t stress enough how much she MADE this lab fantastic.”

“tracy rocks!!!”

“it was pretty fun”

“It was very fun and helpful and informative, keep it that way!”


“tracy is fantastic. she’s an absolutely fantastic teacher.”

And here’s what our head AI had to say to my advisor (who then immediately shared it with me, because he was so pleased):

“I thought you might be happy to hear that Tracy is a rockstar instructor. Her lab had the highest ratings — and the ratings were so high that I still felt pretty good about myself coming in second place. Also, Joel and I sat in on all of the 101 labs this week as audience members for the student presentations, and we were both impressed by how much enthusiasm Tracy elicited from her students. I expect that some of her virtuosity is due to dedication and personality, and some is due to your mentorship and example of outstanding teaching.”

It’s not every day that you get such positive affirmation, especially as a teacher! I’m glad to hear that my students learned a lot from the course and had fun in the process too. More importantly, I learned which teaching methods worked well and which methods I can improve for next time. For example, our ice-breaker activities on the first day really helped my students get to know each other. As a result, it was always easy to start a discussion on any topic and my students all collaborated beautifully for group projects. I learned that introducing new material via PowerPoint slides could help to lay the groundwork for the lab (e.g., What is cognitive control?) but this needed to include lots of engaging material and active participation (e.g., students responding aloud for a classic Stroop task). And I remembered how much I love working with first-year students. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it! Overall, I had a wonderful semester and am looking forward to teaching Developmental Psychology next year.

“Navigating Tumultuous Change and Uncertainty”

This message from SRCD President Ron Dahl seems worth sharing as we begin the new year.

Winter solstice 2016. Six weeks ago the U.S. election created a seismic event—a sudden massive shift in the geopolitical terrain that is still sending shock waves around the world. Today—as Earth’s angling orbit around the sun is creating the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere—seems an apt time to pause and take our bearings. The Inauguration on the West Lawn at noon on January 20th 2017 is still a month away. We may need to endure several more solstices before we are able to grasp the true impact of these events. The range of predictions varies wildly.

One thing is clear: a massive disruption has occurred. It has shifted the bedrock of what many of us had regarded as normalcy in U.S. political leadership. It has unhinged longstanding assumptions about the U.S. role in a rapidly changing and challenging global context. Such disruption of norms is exactly what many voters were seeking. Yet, as most of us are distressingly aware, upheavals can have dire consequences. Many in our nation, and across the world, are experiencing this period of tumultuous change as extremely threatening—including millions who are living in visceral fear of the future.

As members of a Society devoted to advancing developmental science and promoting its use to improve human lives, we are facing difficult challenges. Many of us feel that our core values and life work are under threat. We fear a fundamental de-valuing of our science in a ‘post-truth’ era of fake news. We abhor the rise in misogyny, bigotry, racism, and hate spewing crowds that many of us have witnessed. Most importantly, we see all of these dangers through an amplifying lens: their profound threat to the well-being, development, and future of children. All children.

How can we respond?
On one hand, with several thousand members spanning more than 50 countries, SRCD encompasses a diverse range of perspectives—making it impossible to speak with one voice for our entire organization. On the other hand, to say nothing in the face of what many of us regard as a time of great danger to our fundamental mission feels deeply wrong. So, I would like to take this opportunity to offer some personal reflections—emphasizing three points—and to make one pragmatic call to action.

The first point is captured in the wise advice of Maya Angelou, in Letter to My Daughter:

You may not control all the events that happen to you,
but you can decide not to be reduced by them.

It seems crucial that we not allow ourselves to feel defeated or diminished. Even if key people in power may disagree with our priorities, or seem to de-value our work and mission, we can decide—as individuals and as organizations—not to be reduced. We can actively choose the opposite path. We can engage more strongly in activities that create feelings of empowerment and larger purpose. By doing good science. By advocating powerfully for the values and inclusiveness that we believe in. By aligning our efforts toward heartfelt goals—which for many of us include the prioritization of science and policy that contribute to improving the lives (and the futures) of children.

A comment by President Obama just after the election, conveys a second important point:

Sometimes history zigzags.

It is important to take the long view. Growth, development, and progress rarely proceed in a simple linear fashion. What we experience as failures or tragic disappointments in the moment, often can be recognized later as the setbacks, barriers, and backslides that had to be overcome to achieve success. Emphasizing this perspective does not trivialize the magnitude or duration of the struggles. On the contrary, it is precisely when we are in the midst of the most daunting challenges that this perspective can become most critical. Not as some glib, abstract, optimistic statement. But rather, as way to kindle the authentic feelings of hope and inspiration that power resilience and perseverance.

A third relevant principle is highlighted by a quote from John F. Kennedy:

Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet.
We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future.

We must find more effective ways to counter the divisive forces that are tearing our nation—and our world—to pieces. Of course there is no simple formula or straightforward solutions. The factors and conflicts that divide us are extremely complex. Progress will require multi-faceted efforts. Yet, among these efforts, let us not underestimate the potential for the unifying power of caring about our children’s future.

There are hundreds of organizations throughout the world devoted to children. SRCD is one of the largest organizations with a mission focusing on the science of child development. We should give careful consideration as to how we, as individuals and as an organization, can add uniquely to larger concerted efforts. We should strategize regarding how to best channel our energies and efforts to have a positive impact—in ways that align with these heartfelt goals and priorities. In ways that can help inspire others to unify.

A call to action:
We want your help. We seek stronger engagement from our members. We want you to share your ideas and to contribute energy and action to our plans. One way to contribute thoughts is through our portal. A more dynamic way to come together and share ideas is the upcoming Biennial Meeting, where we are planning a special pre-conference on Wednesday afternoon April 5th. We envision a summit of thought leaders spanning several areas of expertise, to discuss how our organization, and more broadly, our field, can best contribute to positive change in this time tumultuous change and uncertainty. The speakers and panelists will be finalized and announced in March. We recognize that a lot can change in the next few months. With luck, things in April may look much better than we fear. Or, by then we may feel an even more compelling need to come together to discuss big-picture strategy and prioritizes. We ask that you consider holding this space open in your plans.

In closing, I would like to add one personal reflection on this winter solstice. Some who have experienced great struggle to persevere through daunting circumstances have discovered this: While we are in the midst of the longest, most difficult, and loneliest darkness, our rational knowledge that the sun will rise again can seem like a cold, distant, and irrelevant fact. It is only through feelings of larger connection—to those we love, to what we love, and to what gives meaning to our lives—that this knowledge can inspire hope. There is wisdom in nurturing these deep emotional connections. In ourselves and in others. Then, when we most need it, we may be able to feel the hope that underpins our understanding that this darkness is only transient.