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Husman explores how 'future thinking' affects motivation

February 27, 2009

Education researcher Jenefer Husman is probing the concept of mental time travel through “future thinking” to understand how personal motivation and a vision of the future affect students’ abilities to make connections between their college coursework and career goals.

“The more career–oriented students are, the less interested they are in non-major courses. I am finding that if students are thinking about their future within their major classes, they generally are more likely to make the connection between that class and their future,” explained Husman, an associate professor with the Division of Psychology in Education in the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education. “If they think the class is useful for their future, they are more likely to use active learning practices to approach learning in a more strategic way.”

Jere Brophy, a distinguished professor of teacher education and educational psychology at Michigan State University, called Husman an international leader in research on future time perspective, which he defined as the degree people think about and plan for their lives in the future and take these plans into account in making decisions today.

“She studies future time perspective as it relates to motivation, especially to forward-looking decisions about future schooling and career plans. Strong future time perspectives are important contributors to people's decisions to prepare for careers in science, engineering, medicine or other fields that require many years of education and specialized training,” Brophy said.

One of Husman’s most recent articles about future thinking was named one of ScienceDirect’s Top 25 Hottest Articles in psychology among 2,000 journals in 24 subject categories on the online global research community for scientists, clinicians and engineers. “Beliefs and Perceptions About the Future: A Measurement of Future Time Perspective,” was co-authored with Duane F. Shell, a research associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Husman’s research is funded by a CAREER grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation that has provided $711,437 to date, including new funds awarded in November. The five-year project, titled CAREER: Connecting with the Future: Supporting Identity and Career Development in Post-secondary Science and Engineering, is tracking engineering students through their undergraduate coursework to examine motivation, self-regulation and their sense of their own future. Students from an introductory engineering course and core mechanical and aerospace engineering courses were surveyed, as well as students from a geo-science course for non-science majors.

As a result of her work, Husman received the prestigious 2006 Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering, which honors the most promising researchers in the nation within their fields. 

Husman said it is important for students pursuing an engineering career to choose the right coursework, experiences and mentors and crucial for faculty to understand how these students conceptualize their future and the value of the coursework in their career goals. Her work validates two measures of human thinking about the future: The Future Time Perspective Scale (FTPS) and the Perceived Instrumentality Scale (PI).  Over the past two years, she has collected cross-sequential data from 2,000 students, including repeated data on up to 500 students, to interpret the engineering students’ future time perspectives.

The data indicates that students who already know they want to become an engineer often disengage in coursework that isn’t part of their career path, which correlates their interest level to motivation and self-regulation.

“What was surprising in the non-major courses, however, is that students who think about their future are slightly less likely to use active learning strategies,” Husman noted. “The faculty can be much more aware of the utility of their discipline outside of that discipline to help students engage in the research process so they understand how and why the course is useful in making connections to their own future. By better understanding how students think about their future in science and engineering, we can better support and guide them, increasing the number of students who choose and succeed in science and education careers.”

Because the study also reveals an unstable enrollment among engineering students, she plans to examine why enrollment fluctuates and to measure correlations between their beliefs and thoughts about the future with these changes in enrollment.

 “I hope to be able to look at the people who drop out and the people who stay in and see what is happening motivationally just before they drop out that might tell us how to intervene,” she said.

The CAREER grant currently funds five graduate assistants who are constructing and managing research data. The additional funding will allow Husman to hire up to three undergraduates to shadow the graduate students and participate as authors on conference submissions about innovations and research in computing and engineering education for the International Frontiers in Education Conference. They also will create a social networking group on Facebook to track the career paths of participating students.

“The undergraduates will experience what it’s like to be a research assistant and do educational and psychological research,” Husman said.

During her spring semester sabbatical, Husman spent two weeks at the University of Munich doing experimental work to measure emotion on affect. In April and May, she will work with Willy Lens, professor of psychology and director of the Research Center for Motivation and Time Perspective at the University of Lueven in Belgium. Lens said Husman’s work should be used by teachers, parents and student counselors when enhancing students’ motivation.

“Dr. Husman’s research is both from a theoretical and applied point of view and very rich and useful. Her work on the motivating role of the individual future time perspective is groundbreaking in educational psychology. Educational psychologists too easily assume that only intrinsic student motivation is adaptive and that extrinsic motivation is maladaptive. Nobody will disagree with the first part,” Lens said.

“But Husman’s research shows that instrumental motivation that derives from anticipating one’s future (i.e., future consequences of present schooling) can be very adaptive, although it is—by definition—extrinsic in nature,” he continued. “Ongoing work certainly will uncover in more detail in which conditions and for which type of students increasing the utility value of school work by referring to future outcomes will enhance—via high quality of motivation—deep level learning, interest, persistence, well-being and academic achievement.”

As a co-PI of the ASU COMPUGIRLS project with Kimberly Scott, associate professor of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies, Husman also will use her findings to help improve the program by isolating aspects of how people mentally represent their futures. COMPUGIRLS is one of the few programs nationwide to wed critical thinking, social justice issues and technology.  The program provides girls in under-resourced school districts access to the latest technologies in digital media, games and virtual worlds.  The intent of the project is to encourage the participants to use computer skills to make their communities more just, help them think about their futures and consider the possibility of studying computer science at the university level.

One hypothesis uses the model of the “time bubble” which contains a horizon of density, goals, connectiveness and future path that provides a time dimension and the human ability to consider the future and willingness to make sacrifices in the present to obtain a better future.

“Human beings have a time horizon—a point in time at which things are a lot less valuable to them simply because they are further away in time,” she said. “I need to pull those dimensions together and test correlationally and longitudinally to see if the model is accurate about how people navigate through time. How do you adjust courses or content in order to accommodate the different shapes and sizes of people’s time bubbles? All of these come down to motivating people through their future time perspective.”