Samuel T. Moulton ’01, director of educational research and assessment at the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching, is not averse to a little battiness.He wears his ties skinny and his jeans tight. He counts Harvard psychologists J. Richard Hackman and Mahzarin R. Banaji and “the spirit of William James” among his role models. And during his years as a graduate student he researched parapsychology, the study of scientifically inexplicable mental phenomena.
“I spent much of my graduate career researching extrasensory perception”—more commonly known as ESP—”which is actually not as deranged as it sounds,” Moulton says. “Well, it was a little batty, but utterly fascinating too.”
But despite his extensive research on divining the unknown, Moulton never predicted that his research in psychology would lead him to study—and teach about—how people learn.
As a Harvard graduate student, Moulton designed countless experiments to test for the existence of ESP. But after several years without confirmation of the phenomenon, he found himself gravitating toward applications of existing knowledge about the mind rather than speculation about how the mind could work.
“I found myself pretty expert in terms of research methodology but with no research program and somewhat disillusioned with psychological science,” Moulton says.
Armed with years of null data and a reputation as a skeptic of parapsychology, he looked instead to “the application of foundational research findings to vital real-world questions.”
Now a HILT director, Moulton stands not at the edge of perception but at a new frontier of teaching techniques. And in many ways, it is his background in psychological science that prepared him to help define the next big innovations in higher education.
Moulton first tried teaching while volunteering at a prison with a Phillips Brooks House Association program during his undergraduate and graduate years. He led weekly classes for inmates on recent developments in psychology.
His students were hungry for the information, Moulton says. Although Moulton had worked as a teaching fellow and instructor for undergraduate psychology courses while working toward his PhD, it was not until teaching a course on the science of pedagogy that he considered the study of learning and teaching as a career path.
“I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there was such a thing as a science of pedagogy and shocked that it wasn’t being systematically incorporated into practice and policy,” Moulton says.
His mentor, Stephen M. Kosslyn, perceived the makings of an educator in Moulton right away.
“He was particularly interested in topics that spoke to ways that people could improve themselves,” Kosslyn writes in an email.
UP TO THE HILT
“I don’t teach, for the first time in my life,” Moulton says with a hint of irony of his job at HILT. But in his administrative capacity, Moulton hopes to continue applying the lessons of psychological sciences to the practice of teaching in higher education.