The Value of Faculty Research: Juanita Cole's Learning Study

by Sarah Reinhart '10

A prized value at Azusa Pacific University is God-honoring diversity. Faculty and staff are hired with this principle in mind and are encouraged to immerse themselves in the same recognition and exploration of diversity that they stress to students. One way some professors do that is through their own research, equipping them to be better teachers because of work in their fields of expertise. Their knowledge and experience in a changing cultural environment is beneficial to students in the classroom.

In keeping with the tradition of God-honoring diversity, APU’s Department of Undergraduate Psychology is home to culturally sensitive and highly educated people whose passion for their field not only benefits their students, but extends beyond the classroom out into the community. Juanita Cole, Ph.D., who has been at APU for two years, has led an ambitious career in the research part of the psychology field, and continues to do so while she works at APU. She has been conducting research on the learning patterns of children of different ethnicities since she finished graduate school ten years ago, and has published several articles on this subject since then. Some of her articles have been used in courses at APU, such as Annie Tsai’s Cross-Cultural Psychology class, to help students think critically about the differences found among children in urban communities. As part of the same curriculum that uses Cole’s research, students are required to complete service-learning projects, usually with the elementary students of Azusa, many of whom are Hispanic. Cole’s research is an important tool to help students understand cultural differences through the lens of God-honoring diversity before they go out into the community to practice service.

Cole’s most recent publication, “Move to Learn: Enhancing Story Recall Among Urban African American Children,” appeared in the Journal of Urban Learning, Teaching, and Research and focused on understanding problems that may be hindering African American students in typical school settings. Together with Zewelanji Serpell, a former fellow student in graduate school, Cole conducted a study in hopes of helping to close an empirically observed gap in reading and writing that exists between African American and European American elementary school students by providing information on the optimal learning environment for African American students. Understanding these issues is vital because elementary school gives students a foundation which fosters scholarship and academic excellence as they progress to higher and higher levels of education. Helping students pursue scholarship at an early age will help them to excel later at places like APU.

Cole’s study included 100 African American third graders. Five different learning environments were created, ranging from no movement at all to the presence of iconic music and movement. In each of the five environments, the students were read four stories with differing levels of music and movement. As Cole and her colleague guessed, the African American students were best able to recall details of the story later in the environment containing large amounts of movement and music as opposed to the other settings. This puts them at a disadvantage in a traditional classroom setting in the United States because students are expected to sit still and be quiet. The results of Cole’s study indicate the importance of an education that recognizes different cultural practices, and could have significant implications for the traditional educational system in America.

Because of her background in culturally sensitive research, Cole is aptly equipped to teach her students the importance of understanding different cultures and cultural boundaries in order to emphasize APU’s key values. Because Cole has demonstrated the importance of these values in her own research, she is better able to explain to students how to incorporate them into their personal studies and their lives.