Spotlight on LEARN! Researchers: Tieme Janssen

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

22-11-2019 | 15:57

Tieme-JanssenOn December 1st, Dr. Tieme Janssen will start as an assistant professor at the department for clinical, developmental & neuro psychology here at the VU. After already accomplishing his Ph.D. and Postdoc at the VU, he spent the last months at the Maastricht University. Together with LEARN! colleagues, he will work on motivational beliefs and growth mindset interventions for the upcoming years. His knowledge of neurofeedback and his passion to apply neuroscience to societal subjects will be a highly valuable addition to the LEARN! community. Read the full interview to get to know more about him and his research.

What projects will you work on when you start here at the VU in December and how are they related to the research institute LEARN!?

My main research area addresses motivational beliefs. These can be defined as beliefs students have about their learning. Motivational beliefs is an umbrella term for multiple interrelated constructs which can collectively enable or disable effective learning. It includes for instance ability beliefs, these are students' beliefs about their ability as a fixed trait that is beyond their control, or as something that can change and grow. Other examples are self-efficacy, locus of control, effort beliefs and goal orientation. When looking into the current literature, you will find that most of those constructs are studied separately or have a central role in a theory, while they are very interrelated, overlap and affect each other reciprocally. For example, the amount of control students experience over their learning process comes back frequently in these constructs. We are trying now to step aside from this trend and develop a birds-eye perspective on motivational beliefs. For example, we are doing this by conducting latent class analysis to identify motivational profiles across students. Furthermore, we are trying to find implicit ways of measuring students’ beliefs about learning and how they process mistakes (with event-related potentials, electrocardiogram and skin conductance). 

However, my primary focus when I will come back to the VU will be on growth mindset interventions. More specifically, I will continue the project called “Explore your Brain”. In this project, we developed a growth mindset intervention and tested it already in 430 first-year high-school students. As a next step, we will investigate the long-term effects of this intervention on motivation and learning over the next two years.

Can you describe this intervention in a bit more detail?

In this intervention, we aim to make students more resilient in facing academic setbacks. We are hoping that by stimulating a growth mindset, students become more motivated to learn and more resilient when they experience difficulties in school, such as not understanding a subject, receiving a low grade or negative feedback, etc. One part of the intervention involves neurofeedback. The idea behind neurofeedback is quite simple: with a (portable) EEG device brain activity is measured, processed and send back in the form of visual and auditory feedback in real-time. This allows students to observe and influence their brain states. Most of the research into neurofeedback focused on ADHD, as a way to improve attention. However, in the growth-mindset intervention, our primary goal is to provide a powerful experience of feeling in control over your brain functions. We hope that this results in larger improvements compared to the previously studied growth-mindset interventions.

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

In all my work until now, I am trying to apply neuroscience to societal subjects. For example, I used artificial neural networks to assist in diagnosing psychiatric disorders based on fMRI during my master thesis (although I am more skeptical about this now). Then I studied neurofeedback treatment for children with ADHD during my Ph.D., and now neurofeedback to promote a growth mindset in students. I hope to use portable EEG technology for hyper scanning research in real classrooms to study engagement in the near future. For me, it is very important to find ways to translate neuroscience to applications outside the lab. I hope I can contribute to this new research field, called ‘real-world neuroscience’. What keeps me working in this field is that I hope to help students to reach their full potential and to make them more resilient in this society in a healthy and sustainable way. Alongside this, I am highly fascinated by the brain.

Why do you think people should talk about your research? Why is it important what you do?

These beliefs can shape students’ motivation for learning and academic performance in school, and most importantly their resilience in the face of setbacks. There is no denying that there is a genetic basis for our abilities, that is something we cannot change or influence, but we can change the educational context and strengthen the beliefs of students that there is room to grow. I think investigating those possibilities is crucial. However, there is also a debate going on between researchers and practitioners on how important the concept of growth mindset is. Some people believe in this concept and others are less convinced of how important it is. So, I think that makes it even more essential that we do this research to bring more clarity in this debate.

And what side are you on – believer or skeptic?

I learned a lot during my Ph.D. about choosing sides because the neurofeedback research field is very polarized. It sometimes feels a bit like a warzone. I hope I succeeded in positioning myself between those extremes. My Ph.D. results showed this as well: it is something in between, there are both specific and non-specific (including placebo) effects of neurofeedback for ADHD. I think the same now accounts for the current discussion on how important ability beliefs are. Therefore, I am skeptical in the sense that I do not expect unrealistic large effects, but I see promise in using growth mindset interventions for more vulnerable students. For example, in students from a lower socioeconomic background or students with developmental disorders. Is that what you will try to figure out in the next years here at the VU? Yes, I hope that with my research I will increase the impact of those interventions. First, we did that by using neurofeedback and now we will focus more on vulnerable groups in society to figure out who can benefit most from the intervention. For instance, students with ADHD or dyslexia might be more inclined to have a fixed-mindset because of the experiences they had in school. They have learned that they have a psychiatric disorder, sometimes explained to them explicitly as a brain disorder, which I am afraid can foster a fixed-mindset: they think “Okay, I am born with ADHD or dyslexia, it is in my brain, I cannot do anything about it.” These mindsets might also impact the effectiveness of ADHD or dyslexia treatments.

What are achievements you are proud of?

I think in the light of my research field, a better fitting question may be: what were your most productive failures? Here, I have a long list. For example, during my Ph.D., it was very difficult to include enough children with ADHD. One day, I found out we were missing 20 EEG recordings of control participants or when I think of rejections we experienced trying to publish some of our findings. We had several null-findings which are more difficult to publish in the neurofeedback field. We also had experienced some hostilities from researchers who strongly believe in neurofeedback, that was very tough. I could continue with the list of challenging moments for a while. I think my biggest accomplishment was to face all those challenges, being resilient to finish the projects and finally publish them. That's also an interesting thing about motivational beliefs, you can apply them to yourself.¬

When you think back about your school or university time, was there a class or a teacher who supported your growth mindset?

Disappointingly, I don´t think there was one or at least I can not remember. I think probably my parents influenced my mindset most. My parents always supported me to get the most out of me without pushing too much. I also have a twin sister. She is very smart and successful and always a bit ahead of me. I think that helped to push myself a bit more than I was inclined to. When she can do it, I can do it!

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

I would be working in the film or animation industry, probably directing documentaries (about the brain 😉)