Areas of Research Focus

The characteristic thing about the research performed in our division is that it creates a link between fundamental research and applied research. We study issues related to research on schools and instruction while relying on theories and methods derived from the fields of educational, social, and developmental psychology. In terms of research methodology, our studies are dominated by experimental designs, supplemented by correlative and evaluation studies. At the same time, we work not only with self-reported information that can be collected using questionnaires and related tools, but also with nonreactive measures that capture implicit, automatic, unconscious associations with the aid of computers.

Key issues concern the motivational, identity-related, and attitude-related predictors of learning in school and achieving equal opportunity within the educational system, especially with an eye to breaking down gender-specific disparities. In the process, we focus primarily on the question of how the development of interests and performance among youth in school interacts with the formation of personal identity.

One area of focus in the content of our work is research on the image of science and the particular implications it has for the engagement of girls and women in STEM fields. On this point, we have been able to show in many studies that the perceived lesser fit between girls’ self-image, especially their feminine self-image, and the image of physics can explain the lower interest girls have in this field (e.g., Kessels, 2005; for a summary, see Kessels, 2012; 2014). In this context we have developed a model that is fundamental to our work, the Interests as Identity Regulation Model (IIRM) (Kessels & Hannover, 2004; 2006; Kessels, Heyder, Latsch & Hannover, 2014). We have also studied instruction in single-sex classes as one frequently discussed way to support and promote girls in STEM, highlighting the psychological mechanisms that can explain the positive effects seen among girls (Kessels, 2002; Kessels & Hannover, 2008).

In numerous studies we investigate whether, and if so, to what extent, stereotypes about school and learning on the whole have a comparatively worse fit with the self-image of boys or notions of masculinity. On this point, for example, we worked as part of a research project funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) on the topic “Are Boys Left Behind at School?” and investigated the issue, currently the subject of much discussion, of whether school is perceived as “feminine” (Heyder & Kessels, 2013). Further studies have looked at which school-related behaviors lead teens and adolescents to be perceived by their peers as especially masculine or feminine – and how this can explain the lower levels of engagement among boys in school. The teachers’ perspective was also studied in the process, as we asked what the consequences are when boys place special emphasis on their masculinity in a school context (Heyder & Kessels, 2015). We have also studied the extent to which norms of masculinity conflict with behaviors that promote learning (such as seeking academic help), and how this adversely affects scholastic performance among boys (Kessels & Steinmayr, 2013a), as well as the extent to which gender differences in general attitudes toward school can be explained through gender-typical interest profiles (Kessels & Steinmayr, 2013b).

One area of emphasis in our work in the context of heterogeneity in schools is the subject of handling of inclusion. We have conducted a study on the implicit attitudes toward inclusion among students enrolled in teaching credential programs (Kessels, Erbring & Heiermann, 2014). In that study, we were able to demonstrate for the first time how positive attitudes toward inclusion are, if the data are gathered using a nonreactive method, so they are influenced less by social desirability than the responses given in interviews or questionnaires. Katharina Holder’s dissertation project, which is currently in progress, involves several studies that build on each other to investigate the extent to which teachers view implementation of inclusion as conflicting with meeting educational standards, since these two lines of development may require very different actions by instructors.