Helping students align individual goals with course materials


“Start with where the learner is and push them as far as you can get them to go,” says Theresa (Terri) Thorkildsen, professor of educational psychology.

Theresa (Terri) Thorkildsen has spent her career studying students’ social and motivational development as it aligns with learning. So what is the best way to help students learn?

“Start with where the learner is and push them as far as you can get them to go,” said Thorkildsen, professor of educational psychology and winner of the UIC Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Thorkildsen has taught primarily graduate students during her 25 years at UIC, but has also earned a Silver Circle Award for her work with undergraduates.

“I have stayed at UIC because of the students,” Thorkildsen said. “Our students are worldly. They come from all over the place and I learn from students as often as they learn from me.”

It is crucial to identify students’ individual goals, Thorkildsen said.

“I like to imagine where students are going with their degree instead of assuming that everybody is heading in the same direction,” she said. “With that in mind, I try to tailor the curriculum and design teaching activities to help students further their goals in constructive ways. Having that connection to long-term goals is really crucial for success beyond or programs.”

Thorkildsen evaluates her students by determining whether they meet the course standards and how well they align the course material with their personal goals. She encourages her students to make evidenced-based decisions and understand the quality of the evidence.

“Students should look at the quality of the data and not only at the names of the researchers,” Thorkildsen said. “Data-driven logic can be difficult for a lot of students. We usually talk about who influences us but we also need to decode the evidence.”

One successful teaching method Thorkildsen uses is to create small interest groups in large classes. Students work with members of these smaller groups for 16 weeks.

“Many students make lifelong friendships with their classmates,” she said. “The strategy has transformed my classes because students think more deeply and engage in constructive controversy rather than destructive competition. Small group discussions create rich substantive conversations.”

A developmental educational psychologist, Thorkildsen studies the development of K-12 students, particularly adolescent development. Her research focuses on how students understand and join society. A book she wrote on the topic, Adolescent Self-Discovery in Groups, will be published in August.

Thorkildsen is currently on sabbatical at UCLA, working with her mentors and discovering new areas to study in her field.

“My book is closure on almost 30 years of research and I have to ask the question, ‘What next?’” she said. “I don’t want to keep doing the same thing. My own self-discovery will keep me vital and help me stay excited about doing new things.”

Read about more winners of the Award for Excellence in Teaching.