Research, mentorship, innovation keep Educational Psychology program top ranked year after year

Ask UW–Madison’s Jim Wolack what makes the Department of Educational Psychology so special, and the professor of quantitative methods pauses for a moment to gather his thoughts.

“I think there are quite a few factors,” says Wollack, who chairs the department.

It’s the type of place, he explains, where faculty members are both world-class researchers, and outstanding teachers and mentors who are eager to train the next generation of scholars. 

It’s a place where individuals care deeply about their work and where the depth of scholarship, its creativity, theoretical foundation, and potential impact are unmatched in a field that is broadly committed to improving learning and mental health. It’s vital work that can help us reach our potential as individuals — and as a society.


“Bottom line, there is no one thing that makes us so highly regarded,” says Wollack. “What it comes down to is that across the board, we have incredible people who wholeheartedly embrace a culture of excellence.”

It’s no wonder, then, that when U.S. News and World Report released its annual rankings of the best education graduate programs earlier this spring, the department was home to the nation’s No. 1 Educational Psychology program. It marked the 15th time since 2000 that UW–Madison’s Department of Educational Psychology has held the top spot.

“The U.S. News ranking underscores just how spectacular our faculty, staff, students, and alumni are,” says Wollack. “It’s a team effort and it’s an affirmation of our department’s unwavering commitment to improving learning and mental health here in Wisconsin and across the globe.”

Serving and leading the field

Another important aspect of being such a well-respected department is having talented faculty members serving in the highest levels of leadership in the field. This means guiding professional associations, serving on editorial boards for the most prestigious journals, and taking on key roles with grant review panels, among other efforts.


This past fall, department faculty member Courtney Bell was named one of 15 experts to serve on an ad-hoc committee created by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) to provide practical, evidence-based guidance to make STEM learning in the PreK–12 system equitable.

Bell, who also is the director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, was chosen from more than 350 nominations to serve on the committee.

Also this past fall, Professor David Kaplan was elected as president of the Psychometric Society, which was founded in 1935 and is devoted to the advancement of quantitative methodology in the behavioral sciences.

Kaplan is the Patricia Busk Professor of Quantitative Methods in the Department of Educational Psychology and an elected member of the National Academy of Education.

Students from the department are also developing important leadership and service skills during their time on campus. This past spring, PhD students from the department Alexandra Barber and Emma Lazaroff received Graduate Student Services Scholarship awards from the university’s Graduate School. 

Barber has led the department’s Diversity and Inclusion Association (DIA), where she has worked with students, staff, and faculty to create an inclusive academic and professional climate; educated the department through trainings and dialogues aimed at advancing cultural responsiveness and social justice; and advocated for systemic changes to promote equity in and outside of the department. And Lazaroff served as president of the Educational Psychology Student Association and volunteered at WiSolve Consulting Group — a non-profit organization of UW–Madison graduate students and postdocs that is committed to strengthening the entrepreneurial climate within the university and the community.

Research excellence

The depth and breadth of research taking place across the Department of Educational Psychology, argues Wollack, is unmatched. 

Currently, faculty members with the department direct approximately 50 different externally funded projects, with the vast majority being supported by major agencies and foundations, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Department of Education, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the James S. McDonnell Foundation.

This work both advances educational and psychological theory, and also is translational in nature — impacting schools and K-12 student learning, mental health, and communities around the country. Faculty in the department are leading projects at the forefront of disciplines that broadly span the learning sciences, human development, school psychology, and quantitative methods.

Sadhana Puntambekar

The learning sciences area, for example, encompasses the design and study of learning environments, ranging from preschool to university education. It also reaches outside of school to informal contexts for learning in places like after-school programs and museums.

Sadhana Puntambekar is the Sears-Bascom professor in Educational Psychology and director of the Interactive Design and Learning Lab. Since arriving at UW–Madison in 2004, she has secured more than $13 million in external funding to conduct her research. A pioneer in examining the impact of technology in classrooms, one project she led examined how best to utilize technology to improve K-12 science education. The study focused on understanding how sixth graders reason in both physical and virtual lab spaces and the work led to an award-winning 2020 paper published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching. The paper reported how students approached the same curriculum much differently given the mode of delivery. Sixth graders in physical labs spent a good deal of time doing things like setting up experiments and taking measurements, while those in virtual labs spent more time making predictions of what an experiment might find, and in interpreting what happened.

In other words, both physical and virtual labs have their strengths and shortcomings — something many teachers learned for the first time during the pandemic, when virtual learning options became a necessity. Puntambekar and her colleagues write that supplementing the two ways of learning may lead to better outcomes.

Foundations of Embodied Learning Book coverAlso in the learning sciences realm, Mitchell Nathan — a Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor — authored a book published this past fall titled, “Foundations of Embodied Learning: A Paradigm for Education.” Nathan’s work explores research on how the ways we move in the world — and even the ways we imagine how we move — can shape our cognitive processes.

One area Nathan has researched is the role our bodies — and particularly our hands — play in changing how students think about and understand math concepts. Nathan led the development of an online game titled, “The Hidden Village: Mathematical Reasoning Through Movement.” It was the result of a four-year project funded by the Institute of Education Sciences to better understand how movement and non-verbal communications improve mathematical reasoning. That work has evolved into a new research project that’s using augmented and virtual reality gaming systems to study ways that may help students improve their math decision-making through movement, spatial reasoning, and imaginative thinking.

In addition, Professor David Williamson Shaffer, the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Learning Sciences, is the director of a recently launched online master’s program in learning analytics — which is part of the rapidly growing field of data science that uses statistical, computational, and ethnographic tools to understand and improve learning. The program is designed to help graduates improve teaching, learning, and educational policy by harnessing the power of big data to tackle a broad range of challenges.

“We want to train people to use numbers in a way that’s sensitive to the real-world issues of teaching and learning, to questions of equity and meaning,” says Shaffer. “Fundamentally, we’re not just creating number-crunchers. We’re teaching educators how to use powerful new tools to make a meaningful difference in students’ lives.”

The Department of Educational Psychology’s human development area focuses its work on individual development — with an emphasis on infancy through young adulthood. The human development area’s research seeks to make conceptual and theoretical contributions to the understanding of human behavior that can address practical concerns of educators, parents, and others.

Brain imaging
Edward Hubbard has been examining the physical changes that occur in children’s brains as they learn through brain imaging, in an effort to find ways to help improve education practices.

For the past decade, Edward Hubbard has been examining the physical changes that occur in children’s brains as they learn — through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) — in an effort to find ways to help improve education practices. Hubbard is a cognitive neuroscientist and an associate professor with the Department of Educational Psychology who created the Educational Neuroscience Lab.

“We use the same type of MRI scanner you’d find at a hospital, but it’s tuned a little differently,” explains Hubbard, who directs a 40-member team at the EdNeuroLab, where work revolves around numerical cognition, synesthesia, and autism spectrum disorders. “The special scanner we use picks up blood flow signals in the brain — and by knowing where the blood is going, we can tell which parts of the brain are active when kids do different things, like reading words or computing math problems.”

Also in the human development realm, earlier this spring Robert Enright received the American Psychological Foundation’s 2022 Gold Medal for Impact in Psychology. This award recognizes psychologists whose work has had a game-changing impact on the field of psychology. Enright holds the Aristotelian Professorship in Forgiveness Science with the Department of Educational Psychology. Enright is the founder of the International Forgiveness Institute. He has pioneered the study of forgiveness education across the globe for more than three decades, examining how forgiveness affects well-being.

Katie Eklund, Stephen Kilgus, and Andy Garbacz.
(Left-to-right): Katie Eklund, Stephen Kilgus, and Andy Garbacz launched the School Mental Health Collaborative in 2020.

Within the department’s school psychology area, efforts center on developing school psychologists who help children cultivate positive relationships, build skills, and achieve academic success — as well as overcome social, behavioral, and academic difficulties.

It wasn’t long ago when the concept that schools should play a role in supporting a child’s mental health was met with skepticism. It’s really only the past decade or so that “we’ve gotten to the point where it’s increasingly recognized as a core part of the mission of education,” says Stephen Kilgus, an associate professor.

With efforts centered on conducting research that informs policy and practice related to the social-emotional and behavioral success of all students, Kilgus and colleagues Katie Eklund and Andy Garbacz launched the School Mental Health Collaborative in 2020.

While all three are faculty members with the Department of Educational Psychology’s school psychology program, each brings a different lens from which to view this realm. Much of Kilgus’ work centers on studying social-emotional and behavioral assessments, while Eklund — who worked in public education for 10 years as a school administrator, psychologist, and social worker — focuses on policy and practice issues related to school mental health identification and interventions, in addition to school climate and safety. Garbacz’s work emphasizes building, testing, and scaling programs that interconnect school, home, and community systems to promote mental health.

Teaching and mentoring

Another strength of the department is the commitment faculty members make in both training the next generation of scholars and in advancing the profession.

“Our faculty are extraordinary teachers and mentors who are eager to share their expertise,” says Wollack, the department chair.

Students with the department often receive prestigious fellowships to support their scholarship, earn campus-level honors for outstanding teaching or service, and secure best paper/poster and dissertation awards from professional associations.

Kylie Gorney

This past spring, Kylie Gorney was selected to receive the Harold Gulliksen Psychometric Research Fellowship from Educational Testing Service (ETS). The fellowship is the most prestigious student award issued by ETS and recognizes graduate students in psychometrics who are working on their dissertations, and are conducting innovative, applied research of the highest quality.

Gorney is a fourth-year PhD student with the Department of Educational Psychology in the Quantitative Methods program. Her research focuses on describing, exploring, preventing, and detecting issues with standardized exams, such as test security, speediness, or low motivation.

In addition, Chelsea Olson conducted research in the department as an undergraduate before earning her PhD in educational psychology in December. While pursuing her doctorate, Olson received an interdisciplinary training grant fellowship and conducted research looking at the intersection of two important contexts in adolescents’ lives: peer relationships and social media. This work studied how negative experiences in those contexts, such as cyberbullying or cyberstalking, affect adolescents’ mental health and well-being.

“I developed a passion for research and topics related to development,” says Olson, who was mentored by Amy Bellmore, a professor of human development with the Department of Educational Psychology. “A goal of mine was to find a way to help others, and research turned out to be the way to do this. Pursuing a PhD in educational psychology allowed me to grow as a scholar, find my niche, and contribute to important work that could benefit others.”

Upon graduation, Olson took a job with the UW–Madison’s Department of Pediatrics’ Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team.

“As our alumni move on to academic and top industry positions,” says Wollack, “they routinely demonstrate to their new colleagues what a stellar job Wisconsin does at preparing leaders who can help shape the future of a discipline.”

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