Spotlight on LEARN! Researchers: TuongVan Vu

This new (monthly) interview series highlights some of our LEARN! researchers. This month the spotlight is on TuongVan Vu. Interview by: Alissa Postpischil

25-06-2019 | 13:36

TuongVan Vu is currently working as a postdoc at the department of clinical developmental psychology. In collaboration with Nienke van Atteveldt, Martijn Meeter, Brenda Jansen and Lucia Magis-Weinberg, TuongVan Vu oversees the new project “Understanding the motivation-performance cycle”. 

What is the project about you are currently working on and how is it related to the research institute LEARN? 

In this project that I am involved in, Nienke van Atteveldt, Martijn Meeter, Brenda Jansen (UvA) and Lucia Magis-Weinberg (Berkeley) and I try to develop a new cyclical model of learning. 

To optimize the learning process in youth, understanding the underlying mechanisms is important. Numerous motivational and cognitive variables are known to affect learning, which we think all change continuously and mutually influence each other. However, existing learning theories typically focus on a limited set of factors, and capture just one direction of causality (e.g., intrinsic motivation increases performance). However, motivation, effort-related behaviours, and performance at school can mutually influence each other, and each outcome can be the starting point for a new learning cycle. Therefore, we want to work out a comprehensive cyclical model of learning which hopefully will provide the insights necessary for understanding and influencing the multifaceted learning process in elementary and highschoolers. 

We are developing this by firstly performing a systematic literature review that incorporates all known causal paths into the model, and as a second step we are conducting three different longitudinal experiments in which we tackle different aspects of the model. 

Why is this project important and what is the practical value of it? 

It is highly relevant when you want to develop an intervention in school, or you want to modify how the lesson is being administered. You want to know where to target when students lose their motivation. Do you help them to increase effort? Do you help them to increase the performance? Or do you make sure that they have the feedback that works best for them? So, that is what we are trying to figure out, which on is the most efficient step to intervene. 

What inspires you the most about your research and motivates you to keep working on it? 

I am myself someone who had a very fluctuating academic record. I did very well at school up until I was 15 and then I had three years in high school where even my classmates at some point told me that I should think about my future and start studying. I remember spending lots of time after school reading popular science books, but I could not care less about schoolwork. Fortunately, I did pick up again during the last months of my high school and managed to pass the scary nationwide university entrance exam into the National University of Vietnam, which eventually helped me to go study abroad. My life could have been very different if I did not put in the effort in those last months. So, for me the topics of motivation and effort resonate a lot with my own experience. 

What is an achievement you are proud of and what are accomplishments you still dream about?

Like many people in academia, I also suffer from the notorious impostor syndrome so it’s difficult to say the word proud. I guess the achievements that I look back and can pat myself on the shoulder would be finishing every single degree despite financial constraints. I came to the Netherlands in 2008 with a scholarship but the following year came the financial crisis and budget cut, so my scholarship was not renewed. The same thing happened during my master study, I had to work multiple jobs (cooking, babysitting, tour guiding, etc.). Even my PhD was not very smooth financially, I only had a bit more than three years of funding. 

And my dream is to be able to give a talk one day in which I present a very coherent line of research that is both societally relevant and conducive to theoretical advancement. 

What do you do when you are stuck in a problem? 

I think we would all benefit from being more comfortable with asking for help. Also in research one of the most valuable things is to have good collaborators because then you are never stuck with a problem alone. You can always discuss it and out of discussions with people who care about the same thing, solutions will arise. 

What was the best advice you ever received? 

I think which advice is most valuable is a very individual-specific thing. But I would say nowadays it’s good to go on Twitter and follow fellow scientists. The most innovative and progressive ideas and also the best pieces of advice that I have come across have been on Twitter. 

What was the most memorable class during school/college and why? 

I do not think I have one specific memorable class, but the time at University College Utrecht had a big impact on my intellectual and scientific development. It was there that I decided to pursue academia, and learned the set of skills that I still use on a daily basis. We had small class meetings, had many discussions in class and conducted from very early on our own research projects. Additionally, the whole program was highly multidisciplinary, which is an important foundation if you want to be a researcher. 

If you had not pursued a career in academia, where would you be? 

I would probably be translating books and teaching languages.