2014 Texas Tech Integrated Scholar
Associate Chair in Psychology
Professor of Psychology
College of Arts and Sciences
Psychology professor Roman Taraban is a teacher at heart—part of the reason he’s earned the distinction of Integrated Scholar. He enjoys studying intelligence and is eager to share his pursuit with others. Some of Taraban’s research interests include language processing, reading comprehension, engineering problem solving and the study behaviors of undergraduates. He also promotes undergraduate research and has been involved with the Texas Tech University/Howard Hughes Medical Institute (TTU/HHMI) for more than a decade. Those experiences led Taraban to co-edit the book “Creating Effective Undergraduate Research Programs In Science,” organize conferences on engineering and science education, and organize and chair the Scholar Research Forum for TTU/HHMI students. Taraban’s research interests also earned him a Fulbright Scholar grant, and in 2010 he traveled to India to study information literacy among students at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur. Like many professors, Taraban has incorporated elements of his research into his courses. As recognition of his adeptness in the classroom, he was presented with the TTU President’s Excellence in Teaching Award in 2013. In regard to service, Taraban has worked on numerous university councils and committees, and is a member of the Texas Tech Teaching Academy. Nationally, he served as president of the Society for Computers in Psychology (SCiP) and is associate editor for the Journal of Educational Psychology.
Learn more about Integrated Scholar Roman Taraban in this question-and-answer session.
What are your research objectives and interests?
I finished my graduate training a couple of decades ago, but continue to be fascinated by the possibilities of modeling human intelligence through computer simulations. These days, I would like to learn more about how neural networks store information and make inferences and to develop working models of these processes.
Texas Tech has a talented and diverse research community that encourages collaboration. For the last 10 years I have been working with Ed Anderson, a professor in mechanical engineering, on how engineering undergraduates learn to solve problems. This has been a really enjoyable and rewarding relationship.
My training as a scientist is in the area of language processing (psycholinguistics). Just about any research I do involves language learning or language processing in some way. As I am exposed to new research and collect new data, a question that is always running through my mind is how the research can be applied to the classroom. So an abiding interest of mine is to develop and apply new learning models in educational settings and to apply new technologies to instruction.
How do you feel your research impacts the globe?
Research in cognitive psychology and cognitive science is grounded in experimental methodology and has close ties to work in artificial intelligence, so I feel that I have at least a small part to play in an area in science that has and will continue to make incredible contributions to our understanding of human and machine intelligence and learning.
Some of my early work in psycholinguistics is considered seminal in the field of language processing. More recent applied work on metacognitive strategies for reading comprehension has received some attention in far-off places like Turkey. Currently, my research has practical implications for learning and instruction. Some of the things my students and I are working on include memory for expository text and the effects of note taking in the classroom. None of this work is particularly earth-shaking, but it does get out to the journals occasionally. The Internet is also a powerful channel these days for circulating and sharing new knowledge. So I think we all have the potential to shape the world these days, albeit in small ways.
A Fulbright Research Award in India in 2010 broadened my knowledge and understanding of research and learning outside the U.S. So now I don’t just think of how my research can have an impact elsewhere, but think of research more in terms of the cultural and societal contexts in which it develops.
What types of service projects have you been involved with?
Some of my service has been to the local community. Shortly after I started at Texas Tech, I was part of LISD’s Adopt-A-Classroom program. As my daughters were going through school, I was on the Home & School Association and the school board at their school. I also worked in prison ministry for the Catholic Diocese.
At the university level, over the years I have been a member of over 20 committees, including: the Institutional Review Board for the Protection of Human Subjects; the Texas Tech College of Arts and Sciences Research Council; the Arts & Sciences Distance Learning Council; the Distance Learning Technology Committee; the Southwestern Bell Foundation Systems Learning Advisory Committee; the Teaching, Learning, and Technology Center Advisory Committee; the Industrial Engineering Graduate Programs Review Committee; the College of Arts & Sciences Curriculum Committee (ASCAP); the College of Arts and Sciences Research Council; the College of Arts & Sciences Scholarship Committee; the Texas Tech Faculty Incentive Grant Review Panel; the Texas Tech Undergraduate Research Task Force; the President's Research Award Committee; and the Texas Tech Fulbright Committee, as well as several faculty search committees outside the Psychology Department.
In terms of service to students, I was the faculty adviser to the Psi Chi honor students in psychology for several years, and I have worked with the TTU/HHMI Scholars and CISER (Center for the Integration of STEM Education and Research). I was also quite active for many years in the TTU Teaching Academy.
Outside of Texas Tech I have been associate editor for the Journal of Educational Psychology for the past six years. I have also been active in the Society for Computers in Psychology (SCiP).
What are you currently working on?
One question I find fascinating has to do with the cost of creating memories for the information in the things we read. So, for instance, how long does it take a person to store a new thought or idea into memory? This has some practical value in teaching because it can give you a sense of the demands we place on students when we ask them to read a chapter in a book, for instance. But it also can give you an idea of how much to expect from students from one hour of study. Ultimately, it could also give students a better sense of their academic demands and their own cognitive limitations, and could lead to better time management.
Related to the question of creating new memories is the issue of how the brain does that. I have been discussing this question with Dr. John Fowler, who is in physiology at the Health Sciences Center. On first pass, it appears impossible to apply traditional symbolic models to what neurons do. However, the possibility of learning more about the neural costs of creating new memories in the brain makes it an exciting prospect and worth the effort.
Another interest I am pursuing has to do with undergraduate research opportunities. There are far too few research openings for students, and the ways in which faculty envision research is quite narrow. So there are a couple of problems to solve there. Making some progress on these questions would benefit students for a long time to come.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I find my inspiration in many places. I am particularly inspired by bright, hard-working students. They give me a sense of hope and reassurance about the future.
I became hooked on Knowledge, with a capital K, as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. There’s a lot to ponder, whether you are studying literature, philosophy or science. Great writers, great researchers, great scientists leave me with a sense of awe. My graduate work at the University of Chicago and Carnegie Mellon put me side by side with some of the greatest minds of the 20th century.
I am also often moved by the struggles faced by young people dealing with the many demands and challenges of growing up. My own good fortune compels me to want to do what I can to help others achieve their potential. So, as odd as it may sound, I am inspired by the needs of others because it pushes me to consider things that I can do to make the present and future better than it is.
Finally, my family has been a great source of support. I have always been inspired by my children, Lindsay and Meghan. I have watched them grow, learn, work through small and large challenges, and achieve great things, in a father’s eyes. My wife, Beth, has always been good at reminding me that there is more to life than just work.
What advice do you have for new faculty members about balancing the components of Integrated Scholarship—teaching, research and service—in their careers?
Some simple advice is to take research, grants and publications seriously, but not by ignoring the need and obligation to teach and serve others. When we hire new faculty in the department, the administration tries to “protect” them from committee work and service. This, I think, sends the wrong message.
Texas Tech is a research university, and coming out of graduate school there is a strong urge to excel in the research we were trained to do. However, all of us are teachers, too, and we need to look for creative ways to inspire students to engage in inquiry and in critical thought. Faculty will often tell you that the only model they had for teaching was their own experience. Discovering and experimenting with new learning contexts and teaching methods takes time, and it is also risky—sometimes new approaches don’t work, and students get cranky. Creating and supporting research opportunities for students is clearly one valuable form of service.
I started out as a sixth-grade schoolteacher interested in education. I was attracted to educational psychology and then to cognitive psychology because of the exciting work going on in the 1980s, developing learning models and simulating thinking using computers. I don’t think I have ever stopped thinking of myself as an educator, nor have I lost my commitment to education. Cognitive psychology, though, makes it interesting. I have always been interested in how things work. Cognitive psychology is a science, and it is a wonderful challenge learning about and using the tools that are available, like experiments, statistics and computer models, to try to figure out how memory works, how we comprehend text, how intelligence develops over time and how people change through experience.
B.A., English (cum laude), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1975);
B.A., Philosophy, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1976);
B.S., Elementary Education, University of Nevada, Las Vegas (1978);
M.A. Educational Psychology, University of Chicago (1981);
Ph.D., Cognitive Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University (1988)
Postdoctoral training, Department of Psychology, University of Massachusetts at Amherst (1988-1989)