Setting the bar high

Psychology professors taught Alyssa Parr ’13 how to use a complex statistical technique usually reserved for second- or third-year PhD students while she was working on her senior thesis about high school dropouts.

Now, Parr’s paper, titled “Role of Family Background, Student Behaviors, and School-Related Beliefs in Predicting High School Dropout” is being published in The Journal of Educational Research.

Under the instruction of her senior thesis advisor, Assistant Professor of Psychology Verena Bonitz, as well as Professor of Psychology R. Sergio Guglielmi, Parr learned how to apply the technique Structural Equation Modeling to analyze data for her research.

“I was very lucky that they gave me this opportunity, because it has prepared me well for graduate school and it is by no means a common experience,” said Parr, who will graduate with a M.Ed. in Educational Psychology: Applied Developmental Science from the University of Virginia in August.

Although her project started the summer of 2012, Parr’s inspiration for the topic came after her study abroad experience in Granada, Spain in the fall of 2011, her junior year. A psychology and Spanish double major with a minor in education, Parr was working in a secondary school for students between the ages 12 of 16 when she became interested in the context of education as an area in which to apply her knowledge of psychology.

“The school was very diverse, which created a really interesting and challenging environment in which many teachers and students struggled,” she said. “So, when I came back, I decided I wanted to do something related to education for my senior thesis as well as incorporate my knowledge of psychology.”

In her research, Parr hoped to identify predictive indicators of a high school dropout. She used data derived from a nationally representative sample of 15,753 high school students to draw her conclusions:

“…the results indicated that socioeconomic status, academic performance, parental involvement, and absenteeism were most predictive of high school dropout. In contrast, social cognitive constructs (self-efficacy and subjective task value) added little explanatory power,” according to her abstract. 

Parr presented her research at last year’s Student Symposium.

Bonitz said Parr’s aim from the beginning was to produce publishable research.

“Our attitude was, ‘If we do it, we might as well do it right,’” said Bonitz. She added that Parr’s self-motivation, independence, and grasp of Structural Equation Modeling, which, as Bonitz explained, is “way beyond what we do in our research methods classes,” set the bar high for advisees she hopes to work with in the future.

Parr said her research experience at Lake Forest College, including her Richter Scholar project as a first-year student with the late Professor of Psychology Robert Glassman, prepared her for graduate school as well as her next endeavor. In September, she will start a PhD program at the University of Pittsburgh in Applied Developmental Psychology. 

Ultimately, she hopes to continue to merge her interests and knowledge in research, education, and psychology as a career, perhaps as a professor or a research consultant for schools.