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President's Professor Leona Aiken treasures teaching

February 25, 2011

This article is part of a series that looks at ASU's 2010 Regents' Professors and President's Professors.

Professor Leona Aiken, who was once a ballet dancer, prepares for class each day as carefully as she would for a performance.

Rising in the early hours of the morning, Aiken reviews her lecture and asks how she might present the information in a new way, what could improve and how her current group of students will best learn the material.

“Every time, it’s show time,” said Aiken, a psychology professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University.

Aiken has been named a President’s Professor at ASU, an “unexpected and humbling” honor in a long string of awards that she has won. 

“I never dreamed this would happen,” she said. “I was just numb.”

As a former ballet dancer, Aiken aims to bring the beauty, symmetry and order inherent in ballet to her quantitative psychology classes. Although the relationship is not immediately evident, Aiken is attracted to the fundamental attributes shared by statistics and ballet. She characterizes these as “order, pattern, strong form, technique, powerful geometry, discipline and the beauty of human invention.”

“I resonate to that, the beauty and patterns in the structure of statistics,” Aiken said.

Aiken is a treasured professor among her students and her colleagues. Psychology Department Chair Keith Crnic writes of Aiken in his letter nominating her for President’s Professor: “The aspect that shines most brightly to me is Professor Aiken’s willingness to give more to her students and their development than she is to her own scholarly pursuits. That is incredibly rare for someone so internationally regarded as among the vanguard in her field. Other outstanding professors may earn excellent ratings, but few generate the absolute devotion that Professor Aiken does.”

ASU student Taylor Finegan credits Aiken with helping her deal with math anxiety that caused her distress during class. Aiken taught her an easy and effective relaxation technique that helped her succeed in the class.

“There were many days when she would stay after class with me to clarify material. She always made time to see me at her office if I had questions or felt uneasy about a topic,” wrote Finegan in a letter nominating Aiken for President’s Professor.  “Ms. Aiken went above and beyond her obligation as a teacher every day for me.”

Now Finegan is a student who excels in statistics courses. She graduates in May with honors.

Without the help and guidance from Leona Aiken, I would have never found the motivation to face my anxiety and overcome it,” Finegan wrote.

In the classroom, Aiken’s style is active - moving about the room, making the subject fun with color-coded markers and enjoying the class. She distributes complete narratives of all her lectures, so students don’t scramble to take notes. “I’m a very old-fashioned chalk and talk teacher,” she said.

 “While, of course, I use PowerPoint for delivering professional talks and statistics workshops, I don’t use PowerPoint in class because I want to be ‘out there’ in the classroom — I want the material to feel new each time I present it, even if it is material I teach all the time,” Aiken said. “The transcripts of the lectures assure everything is in place for the students.  My lecture is to energize curiosity and interest, and to firmly plant understanding.” 

Aiken began teaching psychology statistics 40 years ago when she went to graduate school at Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind.

“When I got into graduate school, I fell into it and fell in love with teaching,” she said.

And she earned her doctoral degree in quantitative psychology at a time when women were just coming into their own. Aiken was the lone female in her graduate class and she was terrified of failing. Many years later when reunited with three former Purdue classmates who were fellow members of the Society for Multivariate Experimental Psychology, she learned that they were also terrified of her because she never made a mistake.

Those days of few females in statistics are long gone. Aiken recently scanned her multivariate analysis class and noticed that everyone in class was a woman.

“I thought, ladies you have no idea how the world has changed,” she said.

Teaching has also evolved through the years with technology. Using the internet for research can be problematic among students who don’t understand the concept of intellectual property. Aiken carefully teaches her students to attribute everything that someone else wrote.

“You never go to jail and lose your job for too many citations,” she said.

Time spent with those she teaches is treasured by Aiken who talks of challenges her students have overcome from the young woman who took care of her newly disabled father while going to school to a student who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina and came to Arizona with her husband and two young children. She graduated from ASU and now has a “phenomenal” job directing a lab.

“I try to let students know that my door is absolutely open,” she said.

Aiken takes role at the beginning of each class and calls students if they miss class twice in a row, since it’s easy to fail statistics if sessions are missed.

Research that she pursues focuses on health psychology and applied statistics. She is a co-author of “Multiple Regression Testing and Interpreting Interactions,” with Stephen G. West. The book has been cited in articles more than 10,000 times and she is currently on sabbatical in Berlin at Free University Berlin working on a revision.

She is a highly treasured professor as her awards attest: ASU Professor of the Year (2010); Outstanding Graduate Mentor award (2009); the Distinguished Teaching/Mentoring award (Division 5, Evaluation, Measurement, Statistics, of the American Psychological Association, Inaugural Award, 2001); College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Distinguished Teaching award (2000); and ASU Alumni Association Excellence in Teaching award (1997).  

The honors are humbling, but it is the beauty of statistics, experiences with students and the geometry that she finds in ballet that inspire her.

“Ballet has a glorious and dynamic geometry that I adore,” she said. “Statistics has this same awesome beauty.”