Educational Psychology Review
© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Conversations with Four Highly Productive Educational Psychologists: Patricia Alexander, Richard Mayer, Dale Schunk, and Barry Zimmerman

Melissa Patterson-Hazley1 and Kenneth A. Kiewra 
Department of Educational Psychology, University of Nebraska, 240 Teachers College Hall, Lincoln, NE 68588-0345, USA
Kenneth A. Kiewra
Published online: 30 August 2012
This article seeks to answer the questions: Who are the most productive and influential educational psychologists? What factors characterize these educational psychologists? And, what advice might they pass along to budding scholars? To determine the top educational psychologists, we surveyed the membership of Division 15 (Educational Psychology) in the American Psychological Association. The four top scholars were Patricia Alexander, Richard Mayer, Dale Schunk, and Barry Zimmerman. To determine characterizing factors, we used qualitative research methods that uncovered the scholars’ trademark characteristics, influences, time management practices, writing techniques, collaboration patterns, mentoring practices, and other intriguing aspects. Finally, we asked the top scholars what advice they might pass along to budding scholars.
Educational psychology Productive researchers Expertise Talent development
More than a decade ago, Kiewra and Creswell (2000) raised the question: How do productive educational psychologists accomplish so much? To that point, productivity or expertise had been explored in various domains such as music or art (Hayes 1985), chess (Charness et al. 1996), and architecture (Dudek and Hall 1991). In addition, psychologist Howard Gardner (1993) studied the lives of outstanding creators, such as Freud and Stravinsky, and educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom (1985) investigated the roots of artistic, athletic, scientific, and mathematical talent. Expertise in the closely aligned field of education (Berliner 1986, 1988) was also studied, but not educational psychology.
To fill that gap, Kiewra and Creswell (2000) identified and interviewed three highly productive educational psychologists to uncover the secrets of their productivity and to offer advice to budding educational psychologists. The three top scholars identified from a survey of Division C members (Learning and Instruction) of the Mid-Western Educational Research Association were Richard Anderson, Richard Mayer, and Michael Pressley. The scholars were interviewed about their scholarship, influences, time management, and research management. In addition, their scholarly records (e.g., publications and educational service) were examined. Findings revealed that each scholar had a trademark characteristic that boosted productivity. Anderson was an Enculturator—skilled at developing an apprenticeship program for mentoring graduate students and conducting research; Mayer was a Systemitizer—skilled at developing and carrying out a highly programmatic research agenda; and Pressley was an Interconnector—skilled at connecting research, teaching, and service so that effort in one area paid dividends in the other areas too. Although each scholar had a distinctive trademark characteristic, they had much in common. Each had an impressive lineage, gravitated to centers of excellence, was guided by routine, contributed significantly to educational service, pursued outside interests, strived for clarity in writing, collaborated heavily and effectively with students, and shared the same guiding philosophy for scholarly productivity: follow your bliss. Based on findings, Kiewra and Creswell offered this advice to budding scholars in educational psychology: (1) Get solid training, (2) do pioneering science, (3) investigate a few things systematically, (4) build an apprenticeship program involving teams of graduate students, (5) work hard over a long period of time, and (6) write (and rewrite) with clarity.
The present study was largely a replication of Kiewra and Creswell’s (2000) study and addressed the following research questions: (1) Who are the top educational psychologists today, (2) How do they accomplish so much, and (3) What advice might they give to budding scholars? This replication, more than a decade after Kiewra and Creswell’s study, would reveal whether the same educational psychologists are still considered the most productive or if there was a changing of the guard. It would reveal whether the formula for success has changed or remained constant. And, it would perhaps reveal additional advice for those hoping to increase their own productivity.
Bloom’s (1985) enduring conclusion was that talent is made, not born, and that supreme talent is within the grasp of nearly anyone who follows the path of the supremely talented. Bloom’s optimistic conclusion suggests that the insights and advice that emerge from this investigation can provide budding educational psychologists with a pathway for scholarly success and assurance that the path is passable.

How the Study Was Completed

Case analysis was used as the mode of qualitative inquiry. This consisted of purposefully selecting four highly productive scholars in educational psychology. The case analysis approach entailed describing each scholar, identifying themes, reflecting on how these four cases were both similar and different, and posing naturalistic generalizations about what we learned. These procedures were consistent with good qualitative case development (Merriam 1998; Stake 1995). The study was completed in four phases: nominations, scoring, data gathering, and data analysis and interpretation.


Our focus was productive educational psychologists in the learning and cognition area. Such scholars would be familiar to Division C (Learning and Instruction) members in the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and to Division 15 (Educational Psychology) members in the American Psychological Association (APA). An electronic letter was, therefore, sent to the presidents of both organizations requesting permission to survey their membership. Only the APA Division 15 President complied.
The Division 15 President twice forwarded an electronic message from us to its 1,284 members. The message briefly described the study and asked potential respondents to follow a link that led to an electronic survey. The survey asked, “Who are the most productive educational psychologists in the learning and cognition area in terms of their contribution, visibility, and influence?” Three empty boxes numbered 1, 2, and 3, respectively, followed the question along with a ranking key: 1 = first most, 2 = second most, and 3 = third most. Respondents were directed to type the names of their three choices in the corresponding boxes and then click a button to submit their response. Overall, 60 APA members responded (a 5 % return rate) and 96 different scholars were nominated. Demographic information was not collected from respondents so there is no way of knowing the sample composition in terms of gender, occupation, or other characteristics.


Scoring was done by assigning three, two, and one point(s), respectively, for nominees designated as “first,” “second,” and “third” most productive across all ballots. The resulting top 10 educational psychologists are listed alphabetically in the top portion of Table 1. The top four nominees according to survey results were in alphabetical order: Patricia Alexander, Richard Mayer, Dale Schunk, and Barry Zimmerman. Results are listed alphabetically, rather than in rank order, for two reasons. First, the present study was largely a replication of Kiewra and Creswell (2000) who also listed scholars alphabetically. Second, the present study’s purpose was not to rank order top scholars as other studies did (e.g., Hsieh et al. 2004; Jones et al. 2010; Smith et al. 1998, 2003) but to identify a few top scholars and to investigate how they accomplish so much.
Table 1
The ten most nominated scholars and their institutions in alphabetical order from the present study (top portion) and from Kiewra and Creswell’s (2000) study (bottom portion)
First name
Last name
Institution at time of study
University of Maryland
Stanford University
Stanford University
University of Memphis
Oxford University
University of California, Santa Barbara
University of North Carolina, Greensboro
Oklahoma State University
Simon Fraser University
City University of New York
University of Illinois
Arizona State University
Vanderbilt University
Stanford University
University of Southern California
University of Wisconsin
University of California, Santa Barbara
University of Notre Dame
John Hopkins University
Yale University
aTop nominees interviewed
The top 10 list of present nominees does not represent a geographical bias. Four are from the eastern USA; three are from the western USA; one is from the central USA; and two are from non-US countries. Comparing the present nominees with those from Kiewra and Creswell’s (2000) study, and shown in the bottom portion of Table 1, a few observations are noteworthy. First, eight of the present nominees were not listed in the top 10 previously. Only Richard Mayer and Robert Sternberg were among the top 10 both times. Second, only three female names appear across the two studies—Ann Brown last time and Patricia Alexander and Carol Dweck this time. The lack of female representation is a topic addressed later in this article. Third, two of the top three scholars last time did not make the top 10 this time: Richard Anderson and Michael Pressley. Pressley’s absence is explained by his untimely death in 2006. Anderson retired from academia in 2010. Last, among the four top scholars this time, three of them did not appear in the top 10 list last time (with Mayer being the exception). In considering these differences across studies, it should be noted that surveys were completed by APA Division 15 members for the present study and by AERA Division C members (in the Mid-Western Educational Research Association) in the previous study. Although both divisions represent educational psychologists interested in learning and instruction, the memberships are varied. The most important similarity between the previous (Kiewra and Creswell 2000) and present study is that Richard Mayer emerged as a top scholar both times. Even though Mayer was investigated in the previous study, we included him again in the present study to examine if his scholarship methods changed, especially in light of what we found to be a highly accelerated publication rate the past 10 years.

Data gathering

Each of the four top scholars (Alexander, Mayer, Schunk, and Zimmerman) was contacted via email, briefed about the study, and asked to participate. All agreed to a telephone interview, except Zimmerman who, because of a temporary medical condition, sent written responses instead. All participants also sent their full vitas.
The interview instrument followed from Kiewra and Creswell’s (2000) interview instrument and addressed the following: (1) factors that contributed to becoming a successful educational psychologist, (2) contributions to theory and practice, (3) the substance and form of scholarly contributions, (4) personal characteristics related to productivity, (5) the influence of key people and places, (6) academic ancestry and offspring, (7) time management practices, (8) research and writing techniques, and (9) additional advice.
Each of the three telephone interviews was done separately and lasted between 1 and 1.5 h. For each telephone interview, a calling service was employed that recorded conversations electronically and produced digital files that were downloaded and transcribed.

Data analysis and interpretation

Our analysis strategy entailed generating detailed descriptions of each productive scholar to first allow an overview or “glimpse” of their backgrounds and scholarship. We then examined the data to determine themes or “trademark characteristics” in the professional life of each. We then used a cross-case analysis approach (Yin 1989) to identify the scholars’ “influences, time management routines, writing techniques, collaboration patterns, mentoring practices, intriguing aspects, and advice.” We next identified the study’s “limitations” before drawing “conclusions” about the characteristics of these four highly productive scholars. The remainder of this article addresses each of these factors in turn.

A Glimpse at Who They Are

First, we confirm that the four scholars are productive and worthy of their nominations. Table 2 shows the total number of books and articles published through 2011. These are impressive numbers indeed and testament to the old adage that 5 % of scholars probably publish 95 % of the work.
Table 2
Number of books and articles (including chapters) published by the four scholars
An examination of three productivity studies, which ranked the top 20 educational psychologists in terms of published articles in selected journals during designated time periods, confirms that the four scholars nominated here are among the most productive. Between 1991 and 1996 (Smith et al. 1998), Mayer was ranked 2nd, Alexander 8th, and Schunk 17th. Between 1997 and 2001 (Smith et al. 2003), Mayer was 1st, Alexander 9th, Zimmerman 10th, and Schunk 12th. And, between 2003 and 2008 (Jones et al. 2010), Mayer was first and Alexander second. Mayer and Alexander’s high rankings make them obvious candidates for the present study; Zimmerman and Schunk’s relatively lower rankings raise the question of why they were nominated over other scholars with higher publication rates. The answer probably lies in our invitation to survey respondents who were asked to nominate “the most productive educational psychologists in the learning and cognition area in terms of their contribution, visibility, and influence.” Our invitation leaves out those who do not focus on learning and cognition and opens the door to those who have earned exceptional visibility or influence perhaps through the publication of articles outside selected educational psychology journals or the publication of books.
Speaking of books, with some calculations, Table 2 also reveals the ratio of books to other publications. The ratio ranges from 0.05 for Alexander to 0.08 for Mayer and Zimmerman, but it is 0.15 for Schunk. That Schunk writes relatively more books than the others is one explanation for Schunk’s relatively lower publication figures overall and his inclusion in this study.
Table 3 shows the breakdown of publications over 5-year increments. From this table, some patterns are evident. First, all have had long careers. At the low end, Schunk has published over a span of 30 years; at the high end, Zimmerman (retired in 2011) has published over a span of 45 years. Schunk’s relatively shorter career is another explanation for his relatively lower publication output. Second, there are few productivity gaps. All four scholars are rather consistent in their output. Third, Mayer and Alexander’s recent publication rates are especially high. It is no surprise that they were cited as the two most productive educational psychologists, respectively, between 2003 and 2008 (Jones et al. 2010). Last, Mayer’s productivity is an anomaly, even compared to the other top scholars. Mayer’s productivity level is higher, and his productivity rate keeps climbing. His 10-year productivity rate jumped from 95 publications between 1992 and 2001 to 150 publications between 2002 and 2011, a 63 % increase. Later, in the “Intriguing Aspects” section of this article, we address Mayer’s astonishing publication rate.
Table 3
Number of publications (books, articles, and chapters) for the four scholars over 5-year periods
First publication year: Alexander, 1980; Mayer, 1972; Schunk, 1980; and Zimmerman, 1970
Second, we provide some background information. Table 4 shows where and when the scholars were educated, where they are employed today, top awards, editorial service, and notable activities. Some patterns emerged. Looking across the top row of Table 4, it is evident that all the scholars graduated college within a 6-year span from the mid-1960s to early 1970s. Coincidentally, three of them graduated from Mid-Western institutions. The second and third rows of Table 4 confirm that all received doctoral degrees from and now work at major universities. An inspection of the scholars’ vitas reveals that all boast a long list of professional awards, and the fourth row of Table 4 confirms that three of them garnered the same two highly prestigious awards: The Sylvia Scribner Research Award (Division C, AERA) and the E. L. Thorndike Award for Career Achievement (Division 15, APA). The fifth row of Table 4 shows that all served educational psychology by serving on many review boards and that two of them twice served as journal editors. The sixth row of Table 4 is additional evidence that the scholars do much more than scholarship. Alexander was a teacher for 10 years before attending graduate school. Alexander, Mayer, and Schunk all served as department chairs. Schunk’s career, though, has emphasized administration. Seventeen of his 32 years as an educational psychologist were also spent in administration. Schunk’s long-standing administrative duties provide a third explanation for his relatively low scholarship output. Note too that all four scholars were APA Division 15 president.
Table 4
Background information about the four scholars
Bachelor’s degree
Bethel College (IN), 1970
Miami University (OH), 1969
University of Illinois, 1968
University of Arizona, 1965
University of Maryland, 1981
University of Michigan, 1973
Stanford, 1979
University of Arizona, 1969
Present university
University of Maryland
University of California, Santa Barbara
University of North Carolina, Greensboro
City University of New York
Top awards
Scribner, Thorndike
Scribner, Thorndike
Early Contribution Award (APA, Division 15), Research Award (International Reading Association)
Scribner, Thorndike
Notable activities
Teacher (10 years), department chair (3 years), Division 15 president
School board (30 years), department chair (3 years), Division 15 president
College dean (9 years), department chair (8 years), Division 15 president
Division 15 president
Last, we provide a brief account of the scholars’ research agendas. In each case, the scholar’s research has moved through identifiable phases. Each began his/her career studying well-established topics before conducting pioneering research in new areas. For Mayer, all three research phases revolve around the single theme of transfer—how to apply what is learned to new problem-solving contexts. Initially, Mayer investigated the familiar topic of transfer in general problem-solving contexts (e.g., Mayer 1975; Mayer and Greeno 1975) and across academic disciplines like math (Mayer 1982) and science (Mayer 1985). Later, his research shifted to text learning—text design principles or learner strategies that promote transfer (e.g., Cook and Mayer 1988; Mayer 1989; Sagerman and Mayer 1987). Mayer’s present and most innovative phase pertains to design principles that boost multimedia learning (Mayer 2005, 2006; Mayer and Moreno 1998; Moreno and Mayer 2000a, b). Zimmerman’s research has two phases. His early work investigated the familiar topic of social learning—how observing models fosters learning (e.g., Zimmerman and Brody 1975; Zimmerman and Pike 1972). His second and innovative phase of research is self-regulated learning—how factors such as strategies, motivation, and self-reflection aid learning (Zimmerman and Bandura 1994; Zimmerman and Kitsantas 2002). Schunk’s work has followed a path similar to Zimmerman’s. Schunk’s early work investigated the already familiar topic of self-efficacy—how learners’ beliefs about their abilities affect learning (Schunk 1982, 1983). Schunk’s second and innovative phase is self-regulated learning, particularly the elements of educational self-efficacy, modeling, and goal setting (Schunk and Ertmer 1999; Schunk and Zimmerman 2007). Alexander’s research first focused on the familiar topic of text comprehension with an emphasis on reader strategies (Alexander et al. 1983; Garner and Alexander 1982). Next, she examined the role of domain knowledge for subject matter learning (Alexander and Kulikowich 1991). Then, she pioneered research that looked at the interplay of strategies and knowledge and eventually how strategies, knowledge, and motivation influence domain learning (Alexander 2004; Alexander and Murphy 1998). In summary, the four scholars’ research agendas evolved from the familiar to the innovative during their careers.

Trademark Characteristics

Each scholar exhibited a trademark characteristic instrumental in his/her productivity. Zimmerman is the “self-regulator,” using the very self-regulation strategies he investigates to guide his research. Schunk is the “applicator,” applying his findings to improve educational practice. Alexander is the “assembler,” piecing together disparate ideas into a useful and researchable learning model. And, Mayer is still the “systemitizer” but also the “extender,” continually extending his systematic research program into new areas.
Given that Zimmerman’s research focus is self-regulation, it should come as no surprise that he relies heavily on self-regulation to conduct this work. In fact, when asked if there was a metaphor that describes his career, he said, “a path to self-discovery and self-discipline.” This makes sense given that as a youth he first discovered that self-regulation (although it was not called that then) was instrumental in his developing competence as a scholar, musician, and athlete. As an educational psychologist, Zimmerman relies on the Cyclical Phase Model of Self-Regulation that he developed to carry out his own work (Cleary and Zimmerman 2012; Zimmerman 2000). First, he uses forethought to maximize his work time. For example, he knows that morning is his most productive time, so he writes then and schedules student meetings or leisure activities in the afternoon. He also sets daily goals and poses questions to guide his research and writing activities. Second, Zimmerman uses cognitive strategies to enhance performance. For example, he uses templates for planning and describing research because they have proved helpful throughout his career. One such template he said, “involved a series of research questions, psychological dimensions underlying these questions, self-regulation attributes associated with each dimension, and self-regulatory processes designed to influence each attribute.” Last, Zimmerman uses self-reflection for evaluating his work. When reflecting on his writing, for example, Zimmerman raises and answers a series of questions for each manuscript section such as: “Is the title compelling? Does the abstract give a succinct overview of the sample, variables, research question, and results? Does the introduction present key constructs, prior research, unanswered questions, and a rationale for additional research?”
Schunk is a self-regulator too. This is no surprise because both Zimmerman and Schunk are pillars of self-regulation research (e.g., Schunk and Zimmerman 2012). Schunk revealed, “I try to practice self-regulation strategies in my own work: setting goals, assessing progress, monitoring performance, choosing strategies, and seeking help when needed.” For example, when Schunk writes, he sets specific time goals for completing the manuscript (e.g., completing it in 3 weeks) and for each of its sections (e.g., completing section 2 in 4 days).
But, given that trademarks are best ascribed to one person only, we chose to assign Schunk a unique trademark. What fits Schunk best is “applicator” because his career has focused on the application of self-efficacy research to educational practice. Schunk stated that his most important career contribution was “establishing the relevance of self-efficacy theory to education.” This career focus was born when Schunk was a graduate student at Stanford in the 1970s. Schunk took a class from Albert Bandura who had just published a book that described self-efficacy in clinical settings. Schunk said, “I thought that the idea of self-efficacy would be very appropriate to education. At that point, it had not been applied in education.” Schunk invited Bandura to work with him on this new line of applied research and to be his advisor. Schunk said, “My dissertation was really the first project that applied self-efficacy theory directly to education.”
Schunk has investigated self-efficacy in a variety of applied settings from elementary-aged children with learning disabilities (Schunk and Rice 1992) to, his present interest, academically struggling college students (Schunk and Mullen 2012a, b). By working with diverse learners, Schunk has uncovered similar patterns of results (e.g., showing students that they are making progress builds self-efficacy and improves learning) that widen the scope of educational applicability. Schunk said, “A lot of the ideas that I helped develop have been very well received by practitioners who were able to see their importance in their own classrooms.”
In order to build educational applications, Schunk often abandons the precision of laboratory research environments for the disorder of classroom research environments. Speaking of classroom-based research, Schunk said, “My research studies have been almost exclusively in schools. I have worked with curriculum directors, teachers, and counselors. Many have been collaborators with me on projects and co-authors of articles. They have taught me a lot about life in school and how learning occurs in school.” Schunk’s own motivation to apply his work to student learning was evident when he said, “I want to come into schools. I want to work with children. I want to help them learn. I want to help them believe they are capable of learning and to try to get them motivated to learn.”
Asked about her primary contributions to scholarship, Alexander said, “My biggest contribution to the field is not any one thing. What I am is an assembler. I am about bringing ideas together. One thing that irritates me is that people fragment things; they pull them apart. I always want to put them back together. Someone might be interested in goal orientation, but I want to know how goal orientation fits with something else. You really cannot understand someone’s success by simply looking at one or two factors.
Alexander’s Model of Domain Learning (MDL) (Alexander 2004) is a testament to her “assembler” trademark characteristic. The model combines Alexander’s primary concerns: knowledge development, strategic processing, and motivation. Alexander said, “The MDL was my way to bring those things together into a meaningful theoretical framework to explain how people grow and develop in any academic domain.” Another way that Alexander assembles is by combining psychology with philosophy (Murphy et al. 2012), “a practice,” she said, “that might have earned her the title of speculative psychologist 50 years ago.” Finally, Alexander assembles theory and practice (e.g., Alexander 2011). She said, “I would never look at theory and practice as separate constructs. Whatever I put forth theoretically has practical implications as well. So, my work in strategic behavior, epistemic beliefs, and interest all come together and serve practice.”
Richard Mayer was tabbed the “systematizer” by Kiewra and Creswell (2000) because his research agenda was highly programmatic. They characterized Mayer’s research this way: It always focuses on the outcome of meaningful learning. With respect to meaningful learning, Mayer’s research examines (a) the role of instructional variables in terms of delivery systems (e.g., lecture, text, and multimedia), content (e.g., math and science), and methods (e.g., questions, signals, organizers, and illustrations); (b) the role of learner activities such as note taking and elaboration; and (c) the role of learner characteristics such as prior knowledge or spatial ability. Each study examined how one or more variables related to instruction, learning activities, or learner characteristics promoted meaningful learning. From experimental work (Mayer and Greeno 1975), review articles and chapters (Moreno and Mayer 2000a, b), and books (Mayer 2002), Mayer verified and explained what variables or combination of variables promoted meaningful learning.
Although Mayer’s trademark systematic research approach continues today, there is more to it than that. Mayer’s trademark characteristic is also that of “extender” as his research program continues to extend through a variety of educational delivery systems. Mayer’s early work involved traditional mediums like lecture (Peper and Mayer 1978) and text (Mayer 1978). He then studied how illustrations (Mayer 1989) and animations (Mayer and Anderson 1991) affected learning. This led to the broader medium of multimedia learning (Mayer and Moreno 1998) and a host of now famous principles for designing multimedia instruction (Mayer 2001). The newest extension includes educational games (Mayer 2011). Mayer said, “I’ve been trying to understand how to design educational games that are effective because there is a lot of interest in them. There are a lot of visionary statements about the benefits of educational games. There are people who envision a future where these games replace traditional education. But, I think that somebody needs to do the basic research on which features of games are effective and what is learned from them. I am trying to see if we can derive evidence-based answers to such questions about educational games.”
Even Mayer’s research method for investigating games seeks to extend what is known one variable at a time. Mayer said, “I’m taking the value-added approach to studying games. This means that you take an existing game and add one instructional feature at a time to see if that helps or hurts learning. This approach pinpoints what features actually improve learning. Some of the things that we have found to be effective include: self-explanations, asking people to explain their moves, giving detailed feedback about why a move was successful or unsuccessful, and providing worksheets that get players to focus on the underlying principles of successful play.” Mayer summed up his extender approach when he said, “The same underlying theories and research methodologies (I’ve used to explore other mediums) are involved in studying educational games. What I’m doing is seeing how far these theoretical ideas will travel.”


All of the scholars credited other people and places for their success. In some cases, there was an early influence that sparked these educational psychology careers. Zimmerman’s roots to the study of self-regulation can be traced to his father. Zimmerman said, “I have been fascinated by the topic of learning as long as I can remember. My father was a teacher in a small town in Wisconsin, and he taught me strategies for learning long before I encountered them in class. My father was a wonderful model. He also stressed that personal dedication and practice pay dividends.”
Schunk also credited his parents for establishing his general drive for success and his specific interest in self-efficacy. He said, “They were wonderful role models who demonstrated how effort, persistence, and self-efficacy promote success.” His parents also stressed the value of education. Early in Schunk’s career, his father wrote to him, “You can take satisfaction in the work you are doing in education because education helps make the world a better place to live.”
Mayer also credits his upbringing, particularly the core values his parents instilled, for his success. He said, “As a kid I was brought up in the Midwest in Cincinnati in a Jewish home. There was a lot of emphasis on social justice, ethical behavior, the value of hard work, and love of learning. All those core values influenced me. An interest in social justice is reflected in my trying to address practical problems in education, and an interest in the value of hard work and love of learning are reflected in my enjoyment of academic life.” Mayer was directly influenced by his father’s occupation—industrial psychologist. In fact, Mayer experienced psychology first hand by working in his father’s office during high school and college.
Finally, Alexander traces her penchant for hard work back to her upbringing. “I come from a blue collar family,” she said. “I am the first from both sides of the family to go to college. All of my family is extremely hard working. And, that is an attribute that’s been with me long before I entered academia.”
In all cases, the scholars were influenced by those in their academic setting. Zimmerman was most influenced by the legendary social psychologist Albert Bandura. Zimmerman commented, “When I finished graduate school in the late 1960s, I was unhappy with the theories I had encountered in my courses because none emphasized social cognitive aspects of learning. When I ran across the work of Al Bandura, I felt that I had discovered a kindred spirit. Although Al’s research on social modeling focused on clinical issues, it gave me a theoretical paradigm to understand the impact of modeling as a powerful social form of instruction.” Commenting further on Bandura’s influence, Zimmerman said, “I am especially indebted to Al Bandura whose influence on me was profound. I was introduced to Al early in my career and came to know him personally as well as professionally. I found him to be a warm and encouraging person with a wonderful sense of humor. He invited me to contribute to books he edited (Rosenthal et al. 1971). Later, I spent a sabbatical leave conducting research with Al, and we jointly published several studies that focused on links between self-efficacy and self-regulation” (Zimmerman and Bandura 1994; Zimmerman et al. 1992). Zimmerman also credits his advisor for his success. He said, “Another key influence on my thinking and development was my mentor at the University of Arizona, John Bergan. Jack was an ideal scholar—a thoughtful man who impressed me with his awareness of the latest research literature and the rigor of scientific analysis. He showed me how to develop psychometric scales, apply statistics, and build conceptual models. Like my father, Jack stood out because of his great respect for our discipline and the scholarship on which it rested.” Finally, Zimmerman acknowledged that his work environment was influential. He said, “I have spent most of my career at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. It has been an ideal setting because of its singular focus on doctoral education. I have had the opportunity to mentor (and publish with) wonderfully dedicated students.”
Dale Schunk’s first academic influence occurred as an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois. Schunk said, “I was a psychology major and as part of that I took one course in educational psychology. I really liked it and was interested in it, particularly the ideas about how people learn and about motivation. I decided then that I would someday pursue these ideas further. I would find out more about educational psychology.” Just like Zimmerman, Schunk’s primary influence was Albert Bandura. As mentioned previously, Schunk met Bandura at Stanford, took a course from him, thought Bandura’s ideas would be applicable to education, and invited Bandura to jointly pursue this line of research (Bandura and Schunk 1981) and become his graduate advisor. Schunk also credits the Stanford environment and its faculty for his success. He said, “Being at Stanford was really helpful. It was a wonderful environment to prepare for an academic career. The professors really took seriously the task of preparing future scholars. It was a wonderful environment because I was able to work closely with well-known people such as Al Bandura, Herb Clark, and Nate Gage. I was their research assistants and all of them made sure that I learned what I needed to learn. I give the professors there a lot of credit for that.”
Mayer also points to his academic surroundings when explaining his success. He said, “I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with a lot of talented people who’ve gotten me interested in a lot of good research questions, and I’m fortunate to be at a university where I have the resources to carry out my studies.” He also said, “I was really fortunate to work with Jim Greeno, my advisor, at the University of Michigan. That was a life transforming experience. Without that, I’m sure that my career would be completely different. I owe a lot to Jim and the University of Michigan.” Regarding his influences following graduate school, Mayer said, “I had good luck landing at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). I came here in 1975. It was my first job and its been a great environment ever since because of the great colleagues and great students to work with. UCSB has certainly had an incredibly positive influence on my life.”
Alexander also credits her mentor, Ruth Garner, for putting her on a path to success. Alexander said, “When I met Ruth at the University of Maryland, where I got my Ph.D., it set my life on a trajectory that I still pursue. She was a superb role model for what it means to be a scholar, and I took those lessons to heart.” Speaking about the role of mentors in general, Alexander commented, “No one gets to the point of any of us (the four scholars studied here), senior members of the community, without others supporting, guiding, and mentoring us. Everyone who is successful had a successful mentor, advisor, or guide somewhere in his/her life.”
Sometimes influences stem from the cards life deals, and this was particularly true for Patricia Alexander. She revealed to us a personal life-changing story, which few people know, that is at the core of her career decisions and outlook. In 1979, she was diagnosed with a presumably terminal illness called adult hydrocephalus and told that she had just 1 year to live. Despite the news, she entered graduate school at the University of Maryland near to where her parents lived so that she and her 1-year-old son could have stability. As to why she entered graduate school then, Alexander said, “I went to graduate school because I wanted to use my mind to the utmost before I lost it.” Alexander did more than attend graduate school; she devoured it. Racing against the clock, she doubled her coursework, studied day and night, and earned her Ph.D. in just 2 years. She said, “I lived every day as if I were dying, and I still do. I never take any day for granted. And to this day, I never lost that ‘live like you are dying’ mentality. (The death sentence) made me who I am. I am a very intense person. And, today, I instill that sense of intensity in my own students.”

Time Management Practices

As you might expect, productive scholars control time. They spend ample time working, maximize time, and (most) build leisure time into their lives. The ways that Zimmerman, Schunk, and Mayer structure time are eerily similar. All work about 50 h/week with about half that time focused on research activities. All preserve and protect the morning hours for writing because all contend that this is their most important activity and because they are fresher in the morning—ideas and words flow more easily. Setting aside daily time for writing pays big dividends over the long haul. Mayer, for example, is happy to produce just three or four written pages a day. All put off other tasks like teaching, meetings, correspondence, and administrative duties until the afternoon whenever possible. They sometimes bring their work home and spend a portion of some evenings and weekends reading professional literature or reviewing manuscripts or student work.
There are natural and reoccurring rhythms to their days and weeks. Mayer, for example, said, “I have a segmented day and week that works for me. I have breakfast with my wife in the morning. From 8:30 until noon, I’m in my office on campus writing. I have lunch with my colleagues or with a research group each day. Then in the afternoon, from 12:30 until 5:00 or so, I teach, conduct office hours, meet with students, do service work, and try to get a little more writing done if I can. After work, I have dinner with my wife, walk the dog or something, and later use part of the evening reading or reviewing student work.” Mayer also said that he is cautious not to sacrifice family time. He said, “I try to put my family first because ultimately that is really important to me. I try not to let work take over family time.”
All three recognize the importance of leisure time and set time aside for leisure activities. Zimmerman exercises 1 to 2 h most afternoons and enjoys leisure activities such as tennis, snow skiing, New York City music performances, and traveling abroad. Schunk commented that he builds break time into his days. He said, “I have to have breaks. I can’t work all the time. I schedule the breaks just like I schedule the work. If I don’t schedule breaks, the work will fill up that time.” Schunk likes to work around the yard and spends 3 to 5 h doing that most weeks. He jogs a few miles every morning and enjoys reading novels, going to shows and movies, visiting friends, and traveling. Mayer spends a lot of time with his wife and family including four grandkids. He enjoys walking his dogs and mountain biking in picturesque Santa Barbara, CA. He goes to the movies and tries to figure out his latest technology gadgets. Mayer joked, “I like learning to use my computer, I-Pad, and Smart Phone. Those give me plenty of hours of wasted time.”
Patricia Alexander takes a different and less structured approach to time management than her three counterparts. First, she sleeps just 4 or 5 h/night. “That is kind of the Michael Pressley model,” she quipped. “Michael and I used to match each other on that.” Pressley had been a professor at the University of Maryland and was one of the three productive scholars studied by Kiewra and Creswell (2000). Alexander rises each day around 6:00 a.m. and is rarely in bed before 1:00 a.m. She spends 3 to 4 h writing every day but, unlike the others, is not tied to the morning hours for this. She said, “I know that some people say they write better in the morning. I do not. I can write anywhere, anytime. I can write on the fly. I write whenever I have time to write. That works just fine for me.” In fact, when she was completing her Master’s degree, she also performed as a blues/jazz singer. Throughout an evening, she performed several 40-min sets on stage interspersed by 20-min breaks. Alexander worked on writing papers during those 20-min breaks. As a professor, her time is spent on more than writing and is divided among several activities. For example, she teaches two classes a semester with up to 200 students in her undergraduate class. She presently edits two journals. She also spends a lot of time supervising her many laboratory assistants and graduate students. Overall, she professed that her best time management trait is “work fast, work a lot.”
Alexander also strays from the other scholars in terms of leisure time. She admitted, “I really do not do leisure. Even if I am watching TV, I am watching TV and writing or grading papers. I cannot ‘not work.’ I am a workaholic. That is not a good thing, but it is who I am.” Alexander has tried to build leisure activities into her life. Once she took up crocheting because people said it would relax her. She ended up crocheting two Afghans in a week. Another time she tried painting and painted 50 portraits in about a month. “Whatever I do,” she lamented, “gets out of hand.”
We asked Alexander if she made sacrifices to accomplish so much or if she had regrets about her “all work no play” lifestyle. She answered that, even though she has lived most of her life as a single woman, she is quite content. Her family, including her parents, son, daughter-in-law, and beloved grandchildren, are part of her life. There is also her academic family. Alexander said, “I am devoted to my students and my work. They are my family too. (Working with them), the rewards have been plenty.”

Writing Techniques

The last section showed that all the scholars spend a lot of time writing. This section reveals just what they do with that time when writing a manuscript. Zimmerman emphasized writing’s planning and evaluation stages. Before writing, he often lays out his ideas in a matrix form in order to uncover the meaningful patterns and relationships he reports. For example, while preparing one manuscript (Zimmerman 1994), he created a matrix that contained research questions, psychological dimensions underlying these questions, self-regulation attributes associated with each dimension, and self-regulatory processes designed to influence each attribute. After writing the manuscript, Zimmerman poses and answers a series of evaluative questions. Here are the section-by-section questions Zimmerman poses when evaluating a research report:
  • Is the title compelling?
  • Does the abstract give a succinct overview of the sample, variables, research questions, and results?
  • Does the introduction present key constructs, prior research, unanswered questions, and the rationale for additional research?
  • In the method section, are the operational definitions accurate and clear?
  • Are there confounding variables?
  • In the results section, are the data examined and interpreted appropriately?
  • Are follow-up analyses needed to clarify unclear issues?
  • In the discussion section, do the data support the research narrative?
  • What findings were unexpected and how should they be interpreted?
  • What are the implications for researchers and practitioners?”
Zimmerman concluded, “I have found this self-questioning format leads to a better organized and more compelling manuscript.”
Schunk also emphasized the planning and evaluation processes of writing. In terms of planning, Schunk begins with an outline that contains some level of detail about what each section will contain. He said, “The outline will probably change once I start writing but that’s okay because I just want to get something down that will serve as a framework.” In conjunction with the outline, Schunk gathers necessary readings and materials central to composing the manuscript. He also sets time goals for completing each section and the manuscript overall. When composing the manuscript on his computer, Schunk just tries to get his ideas down on paper, “just get it written,” without concern for revision. After composing the manuscript, he prints it and makes revisions by hand before making changes on the computer. He repeats this revision process three or more times until the document is in good shape.
Mayer offered several specific writing techniques aimed at clarity after telling a humorous story about his learning the importance (and dangers) of clarity. Early on in graduate school, Mayer submitted some written work to his advisor, Jim Greeno, who responded, “I don’t understand what you are saying.” Mayer revised the work making sure he wrote it clearly and resubmitted it to Greeno who responded, “Now that it is written clearly, I don’t think you have a very good idea.” Mayer said, “I didn’t understand when I was a student how important writing is. I thought you just do good research and that was it. But, you actually have to explain it to other people.”
Mayer strives to keep his papers simple and have them focus on just one or two main points. Of course, this means that he advocates simple and confined research studies too. He said, “I try to answer one question at a time and try not to have large complicated studies with a lot of variables and sub-questions.” Returning to the writing task, Mayer added, “I try to be as concise and focused as possible. Having a lot of extraneous material is what confuses people. If there is a lot of detail that must be reported, I try to add it as a footnote or appendix in order to keep the text body as clear, concise, and flowing as possible.”
In describing the writing process, Mayer said, “I try to begin with a clear theme or story that I am trying to tell. Sometimes the best way to do this is with a concrete example (such as showing how adding an illustration makes a text’s message more clear).” When writing a review article or the literature review of a research report, Mayer often organizes ideas in a clear and simple parallel structure. For example, if writing about instructional methods, he might address how each method influences the selection, organization, and integration processes of learning (Mayer 1984, 1996).
When writing a research report, Mayer follows this plan: He starts by creating the data tables and graphics that contain the main ideas he wants to convey. Next, he writes the methods section because, he said, “that is the easiest part; it’s morale boosting.” Mayer then writes the results, introduction, and discussion sections in that order. Mayer added, “Then I revise and go through multiple, multiple drafts. That’s the painful part of writing.”
After emphasizing that writing is a practiced ability, Alexander revealed several writing techniques she practices germane to the composing phase of writing. Foremost, her writing has both a signature style and rhythm. Alexander’s signature style begins by writing for a common audience other than her peers. It is important that people outside the domain understand her writing. Like Mayer, Alexander often begins her writing with a metaphor or analogical reference that gains reader interest, activates appropriate schemata, and serves as a connective thread throughout the manuscript. Alexander’s style also emphasizes coherence—direct links from sentence to sentence. Alexander relies on transparent markers to bridge sentences. For example, she uses connective phrases like “in contrast” or “however.”
Alexander also spoke about the rhythm of writing. She said, “The rhythm of a sentence matters to me. I used to think that my advisor, Ruth Garner, wrote using a jazz rhythm. Sentences were pretty truncated. There was not a lot of descriptive elaboration. There were not a lot of connections between sentences. It was brief and to the point, almost like jazz.” Alexander described her own rhythm as more flowing and joked that her endings mimic Hemingway in that they are spiraling, elaborate, and dramatic.
In terms of process, Alexander never writes from an outline and finds it “painful” to do so. Instead, she simply sits down at the computer and composes rapidly, just as she speaks. “It is a process,” she said, “I let it flow, flow, flow as rapidly as it can flow. I call this throwing it up on the page.” Naturally, Alexander spurns any editing when composing. She quipped, “People who try to edit sentence by sentence while they are building are constrained. It is almost like constipation, constraining oneself so tightly. You need to let the ideas out.”

Collaboration Patterns

We examined collaboration patterns to see if those patterns might help explain the scholars’ productivity. To do so, we created Table 5, showing articles (journal articles and chapters) published alone or in collaboration with others. Row 1 shows the total number of published articles, and rows 2 and 3 show the percentage of sole authorships and collaborative authorships, respectively. Rows 2 and 3 confirm that all of the scholars collaborate a lot—about half the time for Mayer and Schunk and about three quarters of the time for Alexander and Zimmerman. The productive scholars agreed that such collaboration naturally permits them to work on more projects, share the workload, and do better work. Research confirms that collaboration in general is on the upswing in educational psychology between 1991 and 2008 and that the most productive authors during that time had several coauthors (Jones et al. 2010). The most productive authors benefited from the division of labor and the inclusion of other viewpoints that ultimately led to higher output and greater quality.
Table 5
Articles published alone or in collaboration with others
Total articles
Sole authorship (%)
Collaborative works (%)
First author on collaborative works (%)
Sole or first author overall (%)
Even though our productive scholars collaborate a great deal, the collaboration data also confirms that they are not just along for the ride; instead, they commonly lead the way. Row 4 shows that the scholars assume first authorship on most of their collaborative work (50 to 75 % of the time) with the exception of Mayer (36 % of the time). Our impression from reading much of Mayer’s coauthored work, however, is that Mayer’s research and writing signatures, described here and in Kiewra and Creswell (2000), are evident regardless of his authorship status. A better index for examining project leadership is in the fifth row of Table 5. There it is evident that the four scholars are either sole author or first author about 70 % of the time. In summary, these four productive scholars collaborate a lot but often lead the way and presumably do the lion’s share of the work.

Mentoring Practices

All four scholars spoke glowingly about the highly successful graduate students they have mentored and collaborated with throughout their careers. The scholars also credited students for steering them toward new and interesting research paths. Alexander, for example, reported that her work on epistemic beliefs and technology’s influence on knowledge and truth were prompted by student interests. Schunk noted that some of his interests in school-based research stem from the school practitioners with whom he collaborates. Mayer and Alexander provided keen insights into their successful mentoring processes and outcomes.
Mayer reported that many of his research publications are done in collaboration with students and that he really enjoys mentoring them. He reported that the graduate students in psychology that he works with at University of California, Santa Barbara are academically strong. When selecting students to work with, Mayer does not seek students purely interested in working on his latest research projects. Mayer argued, “Students are in graduate school to become independent researchers, not to be my research assistants.” Mayer’s selection sights are wider. Mayer said that he “looks for students who have an interest in learning and applying the science of learning to education.” Mayer seeks extramural funding to carry out his research and to support two to five graduate research assistants who work in his laboratory. Research assistants get busy in the laboratory right away preparing materials and collecting data.
Mayer makes sure that students are also working on their own ideas and own research projects. Mayer said, “I help them develop an initial research study that they can get up and running early in their program. I see my job as making sure that their study can be successful. That it is feasible and can make a contribution to the field. It is important that students work on their own ideas. People are a lot more productive when they work on something they are interested in.”
Mayer meets once a week for an hour with each student individually and also leads weekly research meetings that include all his students plus other students with related interests. The group meets Mondays over lunch, and one of the students presents his/her research ideas and the group provides constructive criticism.
Alexander presently has 12 full time doctoral students working in her research laboratory. Working with so many students is an intensive and time-consuming but rewarding process for Alexander. She said, “When you have as many students as I have, you are always reading student work, meeting with them, and planning projects.” As does Mayer, Alexander meets with her research team for a couple of hours each week. Speaking about these laboratory meetings, Alexander remarked, “You cannot imagine the energy in these lab meetings when this many brilliant and engaged students collectively tackle one problem.”
Also like Mayer, Alexander advises students to find their own research identity. She said, “I do not ask students to study my model. I do not ask them to become the next generation of MDL researchers.” Alexander reported that she meets with students individually on a regular basis to talk about their research.
Alexander credits her graduate students for much of her success. Meanwhile, she measures her own success and legacy by her students’ success and the group’s sense of family. She said, “I would not be where I am today without my students, past and present. The most important thing to me is not what I accomplish, but what my students accomplish. People refer to my students and me as the Alexander Family because we are a family. We all help one another. I keep in touch with my graduate students, from the first to the present members. I am so proud of each of them and what they have accomplished. Long after I am gone, they will be the marks for which I will be remembered.”
Although Alexander fosters a friendly work environment that “blurs personal and professional,” she has no trouble asserting her authority when need be. She said, “I have no trouble being in charge, being the family’s matriarch. There are points in time when I put my hand up and say, ‘go speak to the hand because this is how it is.’ At those points in time, I cause terror. When I speak, they listen.”
Not surprisingly, both Schunk and Zimmerman employ mentoring styles designed to develop students’ self-regulatory behaviors. Schunk said, “I try to apply self-regulation principles because the ultimate goal is for students to be self-regulating in their careers after graduate school. Thus, we set research and writing goals and sub-goals with timelines. I model research and writing skills as appropriate and gradually withdraw my guidance as students become more skillful. I provide constructive feedback to improve their skills and build self-efficacy.” Zimmerman employs a similar mentoring style. He said, “I first model how a researcher plans and conducts a study, prepares a manuscript for publication, and responds to critics. Over time, my role changes: My modeling is diminished and my focus is on providing feedback.”

Intriguing Aspects

Five additional things emerged from this study that we found intriguing: (a) the scholars’ longevity, (b) the connectivity among scholars, (c) the lack of female representation among nominees, (d) Schunk’s extensive administrative role, and (e) Mayer’s scholarly output.


Regarding longevity, all the scholars have had long careers in educational psychology. Alexander has the shortest tenure at 30 years, and Zimmerman has the longest tenure at 42 years. On average, the four scholars’ careers span 36 years. When Kiewra and Creswell (2000) first investigated productive educational psychologists, such longevity was not as evident. Although Richard Anderson’s career had spanned 40 years, Richard Mayer and Michael Pressley’s careers had spanned just 28 and 23 years, respectively. Still, it is evident across the two studies that there are no flash in the pans when the field of educational psychologists gauge scholarly output. All six scholars were productive over many years. Alexander conceded that being a textbook author or journal editor might have made her more visible to those who nominated her, but contended that selection as a top scholar (for her and the others) was largely about producing good work over the long haul. Alexander said, “A burst of energy is not enough; it must be sustained.”


Regarding connectivity, the career paths of these productive scholars connect and overlap. We already reported that all four were APA Division 15 president and that three of them (Alexander, Mayer, and Zimmerman) received the Scribner and Thorndike awards. Beyond that, the most obvious connection is between Schunk and Zimmerman. Albert Bandura ignited their common interest in self-regulation constructs. Since then, Schunk and Zimmerman collaborated on 21 published works between 1989 (Zimmerman and Schunk 1989) and 2011 (Zimmerman and Schunk 2011). Their work has included chapters by Alexander (Alexander et al. 2011) and by Mayer (2003). Meanwhile, Mayer and Alexander collaborated recently by coediting the Handbook of Learning and Instruction and by contributing three introductions to that volume (Mayer and Alexander 2011). Previously, Mayer (Mayer and Wittrock 2006) contributed a chapter to a book Alexander edited. Such interconnectivity is further evidence for the importance of collaboration, particularly with fellow productive colleagues.

Female representation

Regarding the lack of female representation among nominees, Table 1 reveals that, across the present study and previous study (Kiewra and Creswell 2000), just three women (Alexander and Carol Dweck this time and Ann Brown last time) were among the top 20 nominees. This uneven representation was also observed in two studies that determined top contributors to educational psychology journals from 1991 to 2002 (Hsieh et al. 2004) and from 2003 to 2008 (Jones et al. 2010). Among the 24 contributors ranked in the 2004 study, only 6 were female. Among the 25 contributors ranked in the 2010 study, only 8 were female. Alexander, by the way, was the top-ranked female contributor in both studies. She was ranked seventh in the 2004 study and ranked second (behind Mayer) in the 2010 study.
The underrepresentation of females on productivity lists might be a function of their historically lower involvement in the field of educational psychology overall. Robinson et al. (1998) found that, in 1976 (around the time the four scholars identified in this study were beginning their careers), there were just 0.43 female authors per published article compared to 1.38 male authors. Moreover, women held just 13 % of editorial board positions in 1976 versus 87 % for men. Fortunately, women’s involvement in publishing and leadership positions in educational psychology has been on the rise and has basically equaled that for men. Fong et al. (2009) found that, in 2008, there were 1.20 male authors per published article and 1.39 female authors per published article. That same year, women held 47 % of editorial board positions and men held 53 %.
Although women have caught up to men in terms of publishing and holding leadership positions, women still lag behind men on productivity lists (Hsieh et al. 2004; Jones et al. 2010; Kiewra and Creswell 2000, and the present study). Perhaps this lag will diminish over time as women increasingly influence the field in leadership positions and publish at a higher rate than men. Alternatively, our culture might make it difficult for women to publish at the highest levels. Alexander offered an explanation. She said, “There is a choice to be made between devoting time to building a family and building a career. Many women understand the need to give up on certain things (their careers) in order to raise a family. Women are nurturers and that takes energy away. If you look at the men on the list (of top educational psychologists), in most cases, they’ve all been married and have wives who understand and support their careers.” Alexander, though, is optimistic about women’s emerging role. She said, “When I came through, it was rare to even see women in fields like educational psychology, so the battles that we had to fight to get this done are hard won. Hopefully, in the years to come, more women will surface.”

Schunk’s administrative role

It is also intriguing that one of the top scholars named in the present study has spent more than half of his academic career in administration. Schunk served as department chair (1993–2001) and college dean (2001–2010) for 17 of his 32 years as an academic. In these roles, he engaged in the usual tasks administrators handle such as budgeting, personnel matters, and strategic planning. Still, he published about 100 works during this administrative span (see Table 3). When asked how he remained productive, Schunk admitted that he practiced what his research program preached—effective goal setting and time management practices. Schunk said, “Being an administrator forced me to engage in goal setting and time management daily. My free time to work on research and writing was very limited so I planned time carefully and used breaks in my schedule for scholarship. For example, I took copies of manuscripts with me to work and worked on them during small breaks.” When possible, Schunk also preserved time outside of work for writing manuscripts, reading journals and books, attending conferences, and staying connected with colleagues and graduate students. To maximize time, Schunk also shifted his empirical work from investigating K-12 students to college students who were more accessible, and he emphasized conceptual writing over empirical work because the former is less time-consuming. Overall, Schunk viewed positively his dual role as administrator and scholar. He said that serving this dual role assured that he was putting his time to good use every day as he performed valuable public service and advanced new knowledge.

Mayer’s publication record

The last and perhaps most intriguing aspect of our findings is Mayer’s extraordinary publication record. As shown in Tables 2 and 3, Mayer’s publication record is about two to three times higher than that of the other top scholars. Meanwhile, previous research corroborates that Mayer was the leading contributor to educational psychology journals between 1991 and 2002 (Hsieh et al. 2004) and between 2003 and 2008 (Jones et al. 2010). Moreover, Mayer’s own productivity is on the rise. It increased 63 % in the most recent 10-year period compared to the preceding 10-year period (see Table 3). So, naturally, our first interview question directed at Mayer was this, “Your publication rate in the past 10 years has just skyrocketed from an already high rate. What has changed? Is cloning involved?” Mayer was hard pressed to answer this. As already mentioned, he credited his parents and teachers for providing an enriched learning environment, his advisor and professors for developing his research and writing skills, his colleagues and students for helping him raise and answer good research questions, his institution for providing an encouraging atmosphere, and his wife for her support. Although all these factors seem important, they are, for the most part, common among the other scholars and insufficient to explain Mayer’s extraordinary and accelerating publication rate.
Mayer’s work management practices described earlier also provide little insight. He works about 50 h/week (no more than the others), reserves the mornings to write when he is freshest (two others do this too), and works with a cadre of talented colleagues and students (which is true for all). So, what is it that makes Mayer especially productive? We entertained two hypotheses.
The first hypothesis addressed Mayer’s accelerated publication rate and the prospect that it was a function of greater collaboration, a shift away from empirical research toward more conceptual writing, or perhaps a decrease in the quality of research publications. We, therefore, constructed Table 6 that might show such shifts in Mayer’s output during the past two 10-year periods. Row 1 simply confirms the growth in publication rate between the two 10-year periods. Row 2 pertains to shared versus sole authorships. It shows that about 50 % of Mayer’s overall work was sole authored and that the number of sole authorships was similar for the two 10-year periods. These findings were unexpected because such a high and unchanging level of sole authorships intuitively runs counter to high productivity overall and to increased productivity of late. In fact, when Richard Anderson and Michael Pressley were interviewed previously (Kiewra and Creswell 2000), both linked high collaboration rates with high productivity. Row 3 shows the percentage of publications that appeared in empirical journals (instead of edited books). Again, about 50 % of Mayer’s publications were journal articles overall and during each 10-year period. This consistent rate was also unexpected because we believed that journal articles are more difficult and time-consuming to publish than are chapters (see Jones et al. 2010) and that Mayer’s publication record might have shifted toward publishing relatively fewer journal articles. Finally, row 4 pertains to research quality and shows the percentage of journal articles published in Journal of Educational Psychology (JEP). We calculated this because JEP is considered the top empirical journal in educational psychology based on impact factor (Nolen 2009). Here, there was a slight decline from 22 to 12 % from the previous to the present 10-year periods. This decrease, though, might not reflect a decline in quality as much as a shift in topic. Much of Mayer’s most recent work has focused on computer learning and was published in journals with that same focus. Overall, we rejected the hypothesis that Mayer’s increased productivity is linked to shifts in authorship, type, or quality of publications.
Table 6
An analysis of Richard Mayer’s publication record in 10-year increments the past 20 years
Total number of articles
Percentage of sole authorships (%)
Percentage of articles in journals (%)
Percentage of journal articles in JEP (%)
The second hypothesis pertained to Mayer’s trademark characteristics described earlier. Mayer is the ultimate systemitizer and extender. He conducts studies that fit neatly into his systematic research program—a program that continues to extend naturally into fertile areas. Because Mayer’s work is so interrelated, there is often overlap among the research questions raised, the literature reviewed, and the methods and materials used. This overlap, we believe, must speed up the research process. Moreover, Mayer’s now well-practiced research and writing process is inherently streamlined and systematic to begin with. As previously described, Mayer’s research and writing styles are based on simplicity and clarity. In summary, we believe that the distinguishing key to Mayer’s productivity is his ability to repeat a simple yet effective formula for scholarly success and to get increasingly better at it.

Final Advice

Hopefully, this article has already provided the reader with considerable and sound advice for increasing productivity. To be sure it was not missed, we created Table 7, which summarizes indirect advice that stemmed from the interviews. We also offered our four scholars one last opportunity at interview’s end to pass along their advice to budding scholars. Seven unique advice nuggets emerged.
Do not aim to become a prolific scholar. Alexander said, “Don’t aim to be a prolific scholar; aim to be the best scholar you can be. Trying to be prolific might be detrimental because it can lead you down a path of producing without meaning, where the numbers take precedence over the influence. Aspire to true scholarship whether that leads to 500 publications or 50 publications. Be sure that each publication represents your best thinking, is influential, and impacts others.”
Connect with other scholars. This advice came from both Schunk and Zimmerman. Schunk advised budding scholars to connect with others. Build a social network. Seek out mentors and colleagues because they help you develop your thinking, get work done, and can become your friends. Zimmerman provided guidance for how to connect. He said, “Associate with other prolific scholars. Identify a burning topic, locate other researchers who are doing research on the topic or related topic, and set up a symposium at a professional conference where this group can meet to discuss common issues and points of agreement and contention. Organize an edited book to summarize research from the various perspectives on the topic.”
Ask a lot of questions. Schunk said, “Ask a lot of questions because that is how you learn. Never be afraid to ask questions.” He credited much of his learning throughout his career to this single activity.
Ask good research questions. Mayer declared that the single most important thing to doing good research was raising good research questions. He said, “Good research questions are personally interesting and have educational and theoretical relevance but are also feasible to carry out. For example, ‘how can you teach in ways that promote transfer?’”
Design feasible research studies. Mayer said, “Feasibility is a big problem for most students. Sometimes they have a great research question but their plan for answering the question is not feasible. So, sometimes you might need to give up a little bit in order to actually do a study. Find a research method that allows you to answer your question, but is also as simple and as straightforward as possible. A lot of students make the question or methodology more complicated than it needs to be. They put in too many factors and explore unnecessary side issues. Keep things simple and clean.” (For more advice on the research process, see Mayer 2008.)
Set goals and monitor your progress. This advice comes from Schunk who sets yearly goals each August as a new academic term begins. He lists five or six projects along with timelines for completing them. Monthly, he monitors his work progress and revisits and modifies his goals as needed. Schunk sets weekly goals every Sunday and makes fairly detailed plans for meeting them. He also sets daily goals. Every night he lists the main things he wants to accomplish the next day.
Ride the wave. Schunk noted, “Being a scholar is like riding a wave. I say that because there were periods when I was very productive and other periods when I was not so productive. If you look at my publication record over the years, it goes up and then tapers off a little bit. Then it goes up and tapers off a little bit again and again. When I thought about this pattern, I realized that even during those periods when I was not publishing so much, I was still being productive as I thought about things and planned new projects. (My advice, then) is to keep thinking about the future. What are you going to do next when the present project is done?”
Table 7
Indirect advice for budding scholars from the four scholars
Career advice
 Work at a major university with good colleagues, students, and resources.
 Align yourself with influential and productive people.
 Cut research teeth investigating familiar topics; later cut new paths investigating innovative topics.
 Develop a research program based on assembling, applying, or extending ideas.
 Self-regulate: set goals, choose effective strategies, and monitor performance.
 Work hard over a long career.
Time management advice
 Live every day as if it were your last.
 Preserve and protect your most productive times daily for research and writing.
 Take advantage of small pockets of time throughout the day and in the evenings.
 Do not just focus on publications; be a complete scholar.
 Maintain balance; make time for leisure and exercise.
Writing advice
 Self-regulate: set goals, plan, and evaluate.
 Suspend judgment when writing initial draft; let the ideas flow.
 Write for a common audience, not other experts.
 Begin with a metaphor or framework to gain interest and provide structure.
 Make the writing clear, simple, and concise; do not confuse people.
 Revise a lot.
Collaboration advice
 Collaborate with colleagues and students; collaboration divides labor and improves quality.
 Help students carve out independent research programs.
 Meet regularly with students regarding team and independent projects.
 Model effective research, writing, and self-regulation techniques.
Readers seeking additional advice for improving scholarly productivity should also examine the work of Kiewra (2008), Kiewra and Creswell (2000), Mayrath (2008), and Martinez et al. (2011).


We hope that this research inspires others to investigate productive scholars. In doing so, we suggest that researchers remedy three of our study’s limitations. First, our response rate was low (just 5 %), even though the request to APA Division 15 members came from the organization president twice. Researchers should be sure that their request for participation is more compelling and persistent. Second, we neglected to obtain demographic information from our survey respondents. Without this information, we could not describe the general composition of our sample or determine if certain characteristics such as gender, occupation, or years in rank influence nominations. For example, there might have been few female nominations because the respondents were largely male. Researchers should collect and report demographic information and use it to see if nominations differ by sample characteristics. Last, our call to survey respondents to identify the “most productive educational psychologists in terms of their contributions, visibility, and influence” might have been too broad. Our rather open-ended call perhaps raises the question of whether respondents were nominating people who were most well published or most well known. In fact, seven of the ten scholars nominated were certainly well known because six were former Division 15 presidents and one was a former APA president. Researchers should better set the parameters of what constitutes a productive scholar or ask respondents why they nominated whom they did.


At the outset, we raised three research questions. One was, “Who are the top educational psychologists today?” Survey respondents from Division 15 of the APA told us that Patricia Alexander, Richard Mayer, Dale Schunk, and Barry Zimmerman were the most productive in terms of their contributions, visibility, and influence. Although our survey methods might have been biased toward the selection of APA scholars and might have diluted what some might believe is pure scholarship (publication rate) with visibility and influence factors, we believe that our goal of identifying and investigating four top scholars was met.
Another research question was, “What advice do these productive scholars have for budding scholars?” It turns out that they had considerable advice pertaining to one’s career and to day-to-day operations. A summary of this advice is found in Table 7 and in the “Final Advice” section.
The last research question was, “How do they accomplish so much?” In order to provide a summary answer to this question, we extracted the similarities found among the four scholars and drew a profile of a highly productive educational psychologist (we call HP).
HP is raised in a family that stresses core values related to ethics, hard work, and the importance of learning. Moreover, HP’s parents build a fascination for learning, model effective learning behaviors, and even impart learning strategies. HP attends college, focuses on psychology, and becomes interested in its application for solving educational problems. HP attends graduate school in psychology or educational psychology at a research university and works with influential and productive mentors and faculty that ignite HP’s career on a trajectory for success.
HP becomes a faculty member at a leading research university and remains there or changes institutions just a few times over a long career spanning more than 30 years. The institutions provide excellent research support: productive and collaborative colleagues, strong graduate students, limited teaching responsibilities, and sufficient resources. HP continues exploring the research agenda begun in graduate school but eventually branches out to explore related but more innovative interests. HP’s work is systematic as study builds upon study. HP’s work also extends into new forums and is applied to contemporary educational problems. HP becomes well known for his/her pioneering work. HP publishes many highly visible research reports, chapters, and books and is given several prestigious research awards. But, HP is not just about publishing. HP descends the ivory tower and provides extensive service to the field serving as editor for major journals, as editorial board member for a dozen more journals, and as president of national organizations. HP also provides dedicated university and community service such as chairing the department and serving the local school board.
HP is certainly a hard worker, logging about 50 work hours per week; but for HP, productivity is more about managing time. HP spends roughly half of those 50 h writing. HP preserves this valued writing time by designating the morning hours (when the brain is most alert) for writing. HP deters distractions by writing at home or at the office with the door closed. HP handles the more mundane tasks of teaching, meetings, and correspondence in the afternoon. In the evening, HP enjoys spending a few hours catching up with professional duties such as reviewing manuscripts. But, HP is not all work and no play. HP recognizes the importance of rejuvenating leisure activities and purposefully and joyfully builds them into his/her day.
HP recognizes that collaboration raises productivity and, therefore, collaborates on about two thirds of works. HP, though, usually leads collaboration efforts. HP collaborates occasionally with other top scholars in the field and extensively with students. Students help HP follow his/her research line, but their fresh ideas also help HP (and students) cut new research paths. In fact, HP insists that students establish their own research identities. HP builds a culture for student and research success. HP selects the best students to work with and meets with them weekly both in teams and as individuals to discuss their progress and impending tasks.
HP has developed sound research and writing techniques that boost productivity. First and foremost, HP is self-regulatory. HP sets goals, establishes plans and timelines for meeting them, and monitors progress throughout the research and writing processes—often by posing and answering evaluative questions. Second, HP keeps research questions simple and manageable so that research is well focused and the findings clear. Last, HP recognizes the importance of clear and simple writing. HP strives to tell a memorable and flowing story devoid of extraneous details. Oftentimes, HP begins that story with a concrete example that introduces the problem and serves as a referent throughout. HP writes with an unmistakable rhythm that is pleasant to follow. And, HP revises the work again and again until it meets HP’s high standards.
HP’s profile confirms that the pathway to high productivity in educational psychology is largely within the grasp of those willing to work hard and effectively.
Our final conclusion, then, mimics that of Bloom (1985). What these productive scholars have accomplished almost anyone can accomplish through high motivation and by applying the lessons gleaned from the scholars’ experiences, insights, and advice.
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