In & Out of the Classroom With Erik Thiessen
Associate Professor and Director of the Undergraduate Program in Psychology Erik Thiessen has been conducting research, advising and teaching at Carnegie Mellon University since 2004. He genuinely enjoys his job, especially the teaching aspect.
“If someone wants to learn something, I’m interested in helping them figure out how the world works,” he explained.
Rather than sticking to one or two classes, Thiessen is willing to teach any course that the department offers, as long as it is within his area of expertise. During his tenure at CMU, this has included Introduction to Cognitive Psychology, Developmental Research Methods, Cognitive Research Methods and Developmental Core, an introductory class for first-year graduate students. Thiessen is enthusiastic about each subject, and does his best to make his lectures both informative and engaging.
“Dr. Thiessen was the heart and soul of the class, and you couldn’t find him without his smile at the beginning and end of every lecture,” says Matthew Salim (DC ’18), a student in Thiessen’s spring 2015 Cognitive Psychology course. “He put tremendous effort into presenting the material, and my friends and I were amazed by how easy it was to understand everything we needed to know.”
Last fall, Thiessen taught an advanced psychology class in his primary research area, Infant Language Acquisition. Students read and discussed research articles on topics like bilingualism and why language learning is so difficult for adults. By the end of the semester, they were able to synthesize what they learned, develop their own research questions and write a grant proposal describing ways to study those questions.
Thiessen hoped that the class helped students to better understand how theory and data are related. He believes that this is important, even for students who don’t plan to pursue a research career.
“People are constantly using data to make claims about the right way to do things. If you’re a sophisticated consumer of data, you can make better judgments about whether you want to believe those claims,” Thiessen said.
Thiessen is currently studying how infants and adults learn language by paying attention to probabilistic regularities or expectations about what units of language go together. For example, native English speakers have expectations about the type of words that usually follow the word “the.” Thiessen hopes to figure out how sensitivity to probabilistic regularities is related to individuals’ ability to successfully learn language.
Thiessen often invites undergraduates to help with his research and says that collaborating with bright students is one of his favorite parts of working at Carnegie Mellon University. “When you surround yourself with people who are clever, you learn something,” he said. “You meet more of those people at Carnegie Mellon.”
By Laura Pacilio