Three Questions: Professor Judith Meece

“Three Questions” is a series that explores the work of members of the School of Education faculty.


  • Professor of educational psychology and a faculty member of the School of Education since 1985. First woman hired in educational psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill. School of Education program memberships include the Master's of Arts in Teaching (MAT), Educational Psychology, Measurement, & Evaluation, Curriculum & Instruction. Campus-wide affiliations include the Psychology Department (Developmental Psychology) and the Center for Developmental Science.
  • Research interests include gender differences in motivation and achievement, development of academic motivation, school engagement, school transitions, and underserved youth.
  • Serving this year as President of Division 15 (Educational Psychology) of The American Psychological Association, a 1,000-member group made up of psychologists, researchers, educators and others who study learning, development, instruction, assessment, motivation and other topics relevant to education.

1. Why did you enter the field of educational psychology?

When I was growing up, there were only three professions open to women: secretary, teacher and nurse. I chose education due the role models available to me. I was fortunate to attend a teacher preparation program at Michigan State University that had a strong educational psychology program, as well as courses in child development and educational psychology that were required as foundation courses. It was my first exposure to the field and what educational psychologists do. Also, my only female professor in college (who may have been an instructor or adjunct professor) taught a course on middle childhood development. I did not know it at the time, but it would have a lasting impression on me.

I graduated from college with a joint degree from the College of Human Ecology and Education, and had a K-8 certification and early childhood specialization. I taught for a couple of years, but I missed the college environment, classes and learning. I was living outside of Detroit, and I began taking continuing education courses at the University of Michigan at Dearborn in the evening. One of the courses I took was on motivation theory and taught by a protégé of John Atkinson – a major theorist in motivation psychology at the University of Michigan. I was hooked, and I wanted to learn more about motivation theory.

Another stroke of luck was that the University of Michigan had a Center for the Continuing Education of Women. I went there and spoke with a career counselor. Due to my interests in both education and psychology, the counselor placed me in contact with a faculty member, William Morse, who was co-founder of the combined program in education and psychology at the University of Michigan. He encouraged me to apply for the Ph.D. program in educational psychology, and I was able to take courses in the psychology department to fulfill my course of study.

At the time, the University of Michigan was at the forefront of motivation research, and I enrolled in every motivation course offered. As a doctoral student, I was fortunate to work with two assistant professors (Phyllis Blumenfeld and Jacquelynne Eccles) on school-based research, but I also had the opportunity to interact with their colleagues – Carole Ames, Jere Brophy, Tom Good, Irene Frieze, Susan Harter, John Nicholls, Diane Ruble, Deborah Stipek, and Bernard Weiner. All of these researchers have had an impact on research and policies shaping education practices.

While at UNC-Chapel Hill, it has been a honor to continue the efforts of educational psychology to improve education through my research, teaching, and service. The Educational Psychology program at UNC-Chapel Hill  is currently ranked 19 in the country by US News & World Report.

2. What are the major issues facing educational psychology today?

First and foremost, educational inequities due to ethnic/racial background, family income, language status, special learning needs, and geographical location persist, and – in some cases – even continue to grow. With the knowledge base and skills of educational psychologists, we can help to reduce educational inequities.

And, while educational inequities are persistent issues, the role of technology in learning is a new area of research where educational psychologists can take a leadership role. We have a strong knowledge base on learning, motivation, assessment, and instruction that can apply to educational technology to enhance learning. At the same time – as learners continue to work with this media – educational psychologists can generate new knowledge about the science of learning.

A third issue is the role of educational psychology in teacher preparation. Although it was an important foundation course for my own teacher preparation, colleagues from across the country are concerned about the future of educational psychology courses in teacher education. I have faced this same issue at UNC-Chapel Hill. When I joined the faculty in 1985, educational psychology was a required course for teacher education programs. It is no longer a required course. Yet many of the topics educational psychologists study – such as assessment, educational technology, achievement inequities, and classroom dynamics – are issues of concern for classroom teachers and school administrators alike. As a field, it is important to support other colleagues facing decisions to phase out educational psychology in teacher preparation programs within their colleges.

Along these same lines (and due to its interdisciplinary roots), the field of educational psychology is having an identity crisis all its own. Within the last 30 years, the fields of learning and developmental sciences have emerged. While development and learning are at the heart of educational psychology, the field will need to embrace these new scientific traditions in order to grow and flourish.

3. What are your goals as Division president?

I am one month into my term, and my goals continue to change as I learn about the status of this organization. This position is an elected office in the American Psychological Association. I was nominated, and then I needed to decide whether to run for the office. In the end, I decided to run because educational psychology has been my intellectual home for the duration of my career.

I advocated for faculty lines in educational psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill. I was pleased that we were able to hire Gregory Cizek, Jill Hamm and Jeffrey Greene to replace retiring faculty. These new faculty members in educational psychology have exceeded expectations in terms of their contributions to the School of Education and contributions to their respective research fields. And yet, the educational psychology program I have helped to build at UNC-CH will be closing at the end of this academic year. This transition has helped to shape my goals as Division 15 president.

My first goal will be to recruit and engage the next generation of educational psychologists. Division 15 has established several new social media sites for this purpose, including Facebook, Twitter, and a weekly newsletter. As Division president, I will begin a weekly blog series to discuss the current state and future of educational psychology. Revenues generated by Division 15 publications (Educational Psychologist, Handbook of Educational Psychology, and Classroom Insights) and member dues provide the resources needed to support doctoral students and early career psychologists (see the Division 15 website for various award programs).

Our organization is also in the early phases of planning a small Division 15 conference separate from the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. This conference will provide an opportunity for deeper discussions of research topics, greater mentoring opportunities, and strengthening of cross-institution research networks. The first stand-alone Division 15 conference is scheduled for October 2014, and I am pleased to assist with facilitating conference planning in 2013.

As president, I have adopted a theme focused on increasing the impact of educational psychology research on public policy. I will be investing resources for sessions on educational psychology and public policy at the 2013 meeting of the American Psychological Association.