Award-winning professor launches hybrid learning experience for online students

Early Career Award winner Viridiana Benitez expands access to language-learning research


ASU Assistant Professor Viridiana Benitez smiling, looking at the camera, on a sidewalk lined with trees and bushes.

Assistant Professor Viridiana Benitez. Photo by Robert Ewing/ASU

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Viridiana Benitez – a daughter of immigrants, an English-as-a-second-language learner and a first-generation college student – knows firsthand what it’s like to overcome challenges in academia. Now, the Arizona State University assistant professor is aiming to help current college students in their own higher education journeys.

In the spring of 2023, Benitez is launching an innovative new course to provide research experience for ASU Online students who utilize a learning modality that, despite its many benefits, has previously lacked the same research opportunities afforded to traditional immersion students who learn in-person, on campus.

“It is just so important for students to be able to conduct the research they are learning about,” Benitez said.

Benitez is the primary investigator of the Learning & Development Lab at ASU, where she researches cognitive development with a focus on how young children learn words, how they track the patterns of their environment and how language experience, such as bilingualism, affects cognition. She hopes to better understand how to promote the development of language in children, in particular, the kinds of early experiences that might support dual language development.

This fall, she was recognized as an Early Career Award winner by her doctoral training institution, Indiana University. She was selected based on the quality of her early career research and the impact she is having on the field of psychology.

Benitez received her developmental psychology training under the mentorship of Linda Smith, a renowned professor in the field of cognitive development.

“I received the email early this year that I was selected, and I was just very proud, surprised and also very humbled to have received it. The training I received from Dr. Smith really enabled me to become the scientist I am today, and for that I am grateful,” Benitez said.

To accept the award, Benitez flew back to Indiana for a reception dinner with her academic peers and family. At the ceremony, she acknowledged another prominent faculty member from Arizona State University — the late Martha E. Bernal, the first Latina PhD in psychology, which she also received from Indiana University, who studied ethnic identity development among Mexican American children.

Bernal is recognized as a groundbreaking figure in the fields of clinical and developmental psychology, and contributed significantly to the advancement of ethnic minority psychology. Each year, ASU's Department of Psychology also awards The Martha E. Bernal Memorial Scholarship Award to deserving doctoral students who are contributing to research on ethnic identity and minority mental health.

“I have also been reflecting about Martha Bernal’s story and how she may have made it a little easier for someone like me — a daughter of immigrants who is an English-as-a-second-language learner and a first-generation college student — to be able to complete a PhD,” said Benitez. “Additionally, for ASU to be recognized as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, I think is really amazing. We're serving a lot of Latino students, and in particular, in our work, we focus on bilingualism, which is an important factor in the Latino experience.”

This course Benitez is launching in the spring, titled “Learning words across language and development,” is designed to provide the hands-on psychology learning required for continuing training and graduate education. In it, ASU Online students will engage in a 15-week research opportunity to examine the mechanisms of word learning and bilingualism across development.

While the students are working remotely, they will attend weekly meetings with the Learning & Development Lab and help to conduct a literature review on bilingual word learning, design experiments to fill gaps in the literature, and conduct research with adults and children via Zoom.

“Right now, we're conducting a study in which we're inviting parents to read bilingual books to their young child, aged 3 to 4. We're interested in how caregivers incorporate both languages as they are reading to their child,” said Benitez. “I’m very excited for this cohort of students and for all that they will have the opportunity to accomplish.”

Video courtesy the Department of Psychology

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