Thoughts on Theses: Taylor Penzel
Issue   |   Wed, 09/17/2014 - 00:28

Taylor Penzel ’15, Psychology and Spanish double major, is writing her senior thesis about children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and how they perceive their own social and academic competence. Her advisor is Professor Julia McQuade.

What is your senior thesis about?
TP: It is about children with ADHD and the perceptions of their social competence versus their actual competence. Past research studies on this topic have only looked at ADHD patients’ self-reports that followed the failures in assigned tasks. The researchers asked the subjects about their feelings in order to closely look into positive illusory bias. This bias is about how the children overestimate their competence at social and academic tasks.
The purpose of my thesis is to find out whether the children overestimate their competence level out of self-protection or genuine inability to recognize their failure. I used specific equipment to measure heartbeat, breathing rate and finger sweat of the subjects to observe whether their actions are self-protective or not. The presence of physiological reactions showing anxiety will verify that the children are acting to protect themselves.

What kind of tasks did the children partake in during the research?
TP: There are two categories of tasks: social and academic. My thesis focuses on social tasks. The first time the child subjects, who range from the ages of nine to 13 years, come in, we look at basic executive functioning. The second time they come in, they are asked to participate in a task that is purposely designed to lead to failure. During the assigned task, the children come in and believe that they will be chatting with other kids and go through a paradigm in which an imaginary player chooses who he wants to talk to. The subjects sit there while the imaginary player is supposedly picking between him/her and another imaginary player, and the subjects are ignored from this social situation. The academic task requires the children to solve an impossible word puzzle where they are assigned to find nine words when there is only one word in the puzzle.

Why did you choose this particular topic?
TP: When I was talking to psychology professors last year about potential thesis topics, this sounded the most interesting to me. I am on the premed track, so a topic that incorporates physiological measures intrigued me. Also, having the opportunity to work with children is a huge perk of my senior thesis.

What has been the most difficult part of your thesis so far?
TP: Working with kids has been difficult because I have to deliver the same protocol every time, but the children really want to talk to me and be friendly. I want to joke with them and keep chatting, but at the same time, I have to keep every situation controlled and deliver the protocols. It was hard to not distract them and not be distracted myself as well.

What is your favorite part about your thesis?
TP: It is quite similar to the most difficult aspect of my thesis. There are kids coming in and I have the opportunity to interact with them. I genuinely love working with children. Also, I really liked having the experience of using real protocols and psychological assessment tools, too.

What was the most unexpected thing about writing a senior thesis?
TP: I have not started the writing process of my thesis yet, but so far, the most unexpected thing about the senior thesis has been that it is far less stressful than what people make it out to be. During the planning process of the thesis – talking to professors and laying out the general outline of the research – I was able to structure the whole project in a way that is very manageable. I am going to be done with the thesis by February 20, so the majority of the work will have to be completed this semester, but it seems like as long as I stay on track, it will not be as scary as people have told me in the past.

Who or what have been some helpful resources so far?
TP: My advisor, Dr. McQuade, has been really helpful. She is always willing to help out where she can and is available whenever I have any questions. She is also extremely organized, which keeps the lab on track, and her clear plans make writing a thesis much less daunting. I also thought her class, Abnormal Psychology, prepared me well by teaching me how to read published psychology articles critically.

Where do you stand in terms of the timeline?
TP: I have finished the majority of the experiment on campus this summer, so I have the bulk of my data collected already. I just have to finish a couple more assessments with children. Right now, I am reading a lot of articles in order to figure out the outline for my introduction. I am doing my introduction and methods sections during the fall semester and results and discussion sections over Interterm and in February. And hopefully, I will be done with my thesis by the end of February. With the reference section at the end, it will most likely end up being somewhere around 100 pages, but ideally, it will be more concise than previous thesis papers from the department.

What do you think is the most valuable lesson you are taking away from writing a thesis?
TP: I have had the wonderful opportunity to explore my field of interest and learned to deliver standardized psychological tests and cognitive functioning tests. Because I am on the premed track and planning to attend medical school, this experience has been very exciting.

Do you have any advice for future thesis-writing students?
TP: I came into Amherst and heard about how scary and overwhelming a senior thesis is. After hearing horror stories, I told myself I would never write one because it is so hard. However, if you are interested in writing a thesis, I think you should do it and not be afraid. It is not as scary as it seems to be, even though it is a giant paper. I think Amherst trains us well. As a Psychology major, I know how to write psych papers. Also, having been in a lot of writing intensive classes honed my writing skills, too. I feel very well prepared.