Ask A Researcher #7 – Dr. Brandy Tiernan

There is a gap between those researching practices in education and those implementing that research (teachers). This gap doesn’t really serve anyone and only adds to the disconnect between researchers and classroom teachers. Both ‘sides’ would greatly benefit from listening to the other. A teacher is a veritable treasure trove of expertise. Why would those conducting experiments to better education not want that important experience to drive and shape their research? A researcher’s knowledge of proper experimentation and understanding of outcomes could only stand to benefit the classroom teacher. 

This series (Ask A Researcher) is my attempt to close that gap a bit. By providing an opportunity to know a little more about those conducting the research, I hope teachers may feel a little more at ease with reading research articles and writing to those conducting the research…asking questions, seeking clarification, providing assistance. This obvious partnership could really improve both research/experimentation, classroom instruction, and education, overall.

Dr. Brandy Tiernan earned a BA in psychology from the University of North Texas, an MA in experimental psychology from Western Kentucky University, and a PhD in cognitive psychology (with a neuroscience focus and a minor in gerontology) from Iowa State University of Science and Technology. In her work as a teacher, advisor, and Civic Engagement Fellow, she promotes neuroscience literacy and mental health literacy to counteract stigma. Dr. Tiernan uses behavioral methods and time-locked EEG activity to study cognitive control operations such as error detection, inhibition, conflict monitoring, and emotion processing. As the director of the Emotion and Cognitive Control Laboratory, she regularly trains students in the event-related brain potential technique. Her recent work focuses on our ability to regulate our thoughts during times of emotional strain.

Without further ado, let’s ask a researcher:

1. What is the focus of your research?  

My primary research goal is to understand cognition and emotion in healthy individuals, and to examine the behavioral and neural bases of disturbances in cognitive control and emotional processing.  I study the underlying mechanisms of attention, memory, decision-making and emotion using a combination of behavioral and event related brain potential (ERP) methodologies. My work focuses on (a) how cognition and emotion influence one another, (b) the impact of increasing age on the interaction of cognition and emotion, and (c) how cognitive processes are disrupted with respect to emotional dysfunction.

2. What are you currently working on? 

I’m working on a number of projects, but my favorite one right now examines the impact of social stress and ostracism on cognition in people with traits related to borderline personality disorder. With several research questions to pursue, I am particularly interested in deconstructing the cognitive mechanisms associated with affect instability and impulsivity. I intend to explore the marked social, cognitive, and emotional impairments associated with this illness; therefore, it is necessary to examine whether individuals with BPD show a systematic deficit in the regulation of cognition and emotion. I use the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) to make participants anxious. A majority of participants report feeling relieved when they complete the TSST. Conversely, those with high BPD-like traits remain anxious, restless, or angry and may perform poorly on the cognitive task. Ideally, I will identify potential avenues for the successful management and treatment of the illness. I am excited to explore our data so that we can begin to build additional experiments that examine how these emotional disturbances shape or modulate cognition.

3. What work have you done that you believe most applies to the classroom? 

I practice active pedagogy and participate in workshops and projects to deepen my existing methods and strategies. For example, I collaborated with Jennifer Queen from Rollins College in Florida, and Jessica Alexander from Centenary College in Louisiana—first writing an innovative instruction grant funded by the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS). We created three interactive modules (Practice | Context | Self-Regulation) to help faculty at all levels and from all disciplines develop lesson plans, craft syllabi, and shape their assignments using empirical evidence from cognitive science. Before the modules were complete, we presented our plans at Washington University’s Center for Integrative Research on Cognition, Learning, and Education (CIRCLE) Conference at the Interface of Discipline-Based Education Research in STEM and Psychological Science. Jennifer and I received nothing but positive feedback about our soon-to-be-launched grant deliverable from dozens of attendees. We presented our pilot data, conclusions, and next steps at the Psychonomic Society Annual Meeting last November.

4. What do teachers need to know about being a researcher as it relates to education? 

Teaching and research are interconnected. The college atmosphere challenges me both as an instructor and scholar, and I look forward to continued discovery and intellectual growth. I use research, theory, and applications to guide students on how to become self-regulated learners, to practice effective learning and study strategies, and a framework that makes it easy to recognize behaviors that make academic success an imminent possibility. I bring confidence, advanced pedagogical methods, and creativity to the classroom, and I teach to engage students in questions on how we make a life for ourselves given our environmental and social circumstances.

5. What can teachers do to work with the research community? 

High school teachers attend the same teaching conferences as college faculty— connect with someone and share your ideas!

I first ‘met’ Dr. Tiernan on twitter a couple of months ago. Her expertise and area of research is incredibly interesting to me and has definite implications for learning and the classroom. Please check out her lab (Emotion and Cognitive Control Laboratory).

So, what can you do? If you’re a teacher, simply write an email of gratitude or inquiry to an author. It’s that easy. You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised how appreciative they are. If you’re a researcher, find classroom teachers on twitter or just email a local school. I assure you, we’d love to be included in the process.

Create the relationship. Close the gap. Improve education.

Are you a researcher interested in being featured in this series? Please feel free to contact me.

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