Alexander, Patricia A. 1947-
Patricia A. Alexander was born in Washington, DC, on October 28, 1947, to a first-generation Italian immigrant mother and a father who came to the city from the Virginia Mountains as a result of the World War II draft. Alexander's life is one of classic blue-collar America. She attended a Catholic primary school where she struggled in basic subjects like reading and writing. Upon occasion Alexander has recounted a story of the day that she realized that all of her second-grade peers could read words that she had no idea how to understand. That day she decided that learning to read and write was going to require a great deal of hard work. Despite these early struggles, Alexander went on to graduate from Hammond High School, Alexandria, Virginia, in 1966, and was the first member of her family to attend college.
In 1970, she graduated from Bethel College, McKenzie, Tennessee, with a degree in elementary education. Following her degree, Alexander worked for nine years as a middle school language arts and science teacher primarily in rural Virginia in the Shenandoah County Public Schools (SCPS). In her final three years with the SCPS,
she was given the opportunity to teach students with exceptionalities reading and mathematics in a laboratory setting. This experience was fundamental in Alexander's career as it turned her attention to the issue of individual differences in children and ways that educators could foster positive academic growth for all learners. Following this experience, she enrolled in James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, where in 1979 she obtained a Masters of Education degree in reading/elementary and early childhood education. In 1981 she received her Doctorate in Philosophy in reading from the University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland. Alexander accepted her first faculty position as an assistant professor of educational curriculum and instruction at Texas A&M University in 1981. Less than a decade later she was a full professor with a joint appointment in educational psychology and educational curriculum and instruction at Texas A&M University, and in 1995 she returned to the University of Maryland at College Park as professor of human development and convener of the educational psychology specialization. In 2000 she was named Distinguished Scholar-Teacher in Human Development at the University of Maryland in recognition of her outstanding research and teaching.
Alexander has made seminal contributions to many areas of learning and instruction. Among her notable contributions are her research on the role of strategic processing and analogical reasoning in reading comprehension and problem solving (e.g., Alexander, Willson, White, & Fuqua, 1987), explorations on interest in student learning (e.g., Alexander, Kulikowich, & Schulze, 1994), and investigations regarding the powerful influence of knowledge and beliefs in the acquisition of domain-specific expertise (e.g., Alexander, Murphy, & Kulikowich, 1998; Alexander, Schallert, & Hare, 1991; Garner & Alexander, 1994). Perhaps her most noteworthy contribution, however, is the model of domain learning (MDL) (Alexander, 1997). The MDL depicts the journey toward expertise in a domain in terms of select cognitive and affective components (i.e., subject-matter knowledge, learner interest, and general strategic processing) in a way that was groundbreaking in the field of educational psychology.
These components are positioned within a framework that addresses both stages (i.e., long-term characterizations) and phases (i.e., recurrent, iterative aspects) of domain learning. The stages predicted in the MDL are essentially non-regressive and non-recursive and aligned with the experiences, schooling, and work that tend to be age-associated. While the stages are meant to depict steplike changes in domain learning trajectories, the phases are intended to capture the fluidity within the learning process. It is the recurring patterns emerging from the phases that give rise to the profiles indicative of a particular stage of domain learning. The MDL entails three stages: acclimation, competence, and proficiency/expertise. Woven through these three stages are the critical forces of subject-matter knowledge, interest, and strategic processing that serve as catalysts for structuring and restructuring within and across each stage. Thus, it is the configuration of these components that bridges the stages and gives them identifiable characteristics.
Acclimation, the initial stage of development toward expertise, represents that point when individuals are confronted with a domain for which they possess little relevant knowledge, interest, or strategies. Overall, individuals in the acclimation stage demonstrate limited and fragmented knowledge of the subject, rely heavily on surface-level strategies, and report relatively higher levels of situational interest than individual interest.
A number of changes take place during the phases of acclimation on the road to competence. Specifically, the indicators of competence within a domain include a distinct increase in the breadth and depth of subject-matter knowledge, a deeper personal investment in the domain combined with decreased reliance on situationally interesting conditions, and finally a willingness to exert the effort necessary to employ deep-level processing strategies.
The change from competence to proficiency requires a synergy among subject-matter knowledge, interest, and strategic processing. Those individuals fortunate enough to achieve proficiency in a domain are distinguishable from competent learners in several ways. First, the subject-matter knowledge of an expert becomes increasingly dense and cohesive, and proficient learners actually generate knowledge. In addition, individual interest and knowledge combine as a unified force. Finally, they may experience a slight rise in deeper strategic processing due to the knowledge generation and solving of novel domain problems, and a concomitant decrease in surface-level strategies.
Through her pioneering work, Alexander has given researchers and educators new ways to envision individual differences in student learning within a domain. Essentially, the MDL lays out a developmental trajectory of expertise; that is, a road map to proficiency. In addition, the domain-specific nature of the model lends versatility to its application in diverse settings such as those commonly found in schools and the workplace. This is so much the case that the MDL has become foundational in programs designed to train the teacher leaders of tomorrow such as the KEYS initiative (Hawley & Rollie, 2002). In the end, Alexander's MDL exemplifies the 1930 admonition of John Dewey (1859–1952) “No act can be understood apart from the series to which it belongs” (p. 412). The MDL calls on researchers and educators alike to think more deeply about learning and individual differences in developmental and multidimensional ways.
Alexander, P. A. (1997). Mapping the multidimensional nature of domain learning: The interplay of cognitive, motivational, and strategic forces. In M. L. Maehr & P. R. Pintrich (Eds.), Advances in motivation and achievement (Vol. 10, pp. 213– 250). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
Alexander, P. A., Kulikowich, J. M., & Schulze, S. K. (1994). How subject-matter knowledge affects recall and interest. American Educational Research Journal, 31, 313–337.
Alexander, P. A., Murphy, P. K., & Kulikowich, J. M. (1998). What responses to domain-specific analogy problems reveal about emerging competence: A new perspective on an old acquaintance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 397–406.
Alexander, P. A., Schallert, D. L., & Hare, V. C. (1991). Coming to terms: How researchers in learning and literacy talk about knowledge. Review of Educational Research, 61, 315–343.
Alexander, P. A., Willson, V. L., White, C. S., & Fuqua, J. D. (1987). Analogical reasoning in young children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 79, 401–408.
Garner, R., & Alexander, P. A. (Eds.). (1994). Beliefs about text and about instruction with text. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
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