As a young girl growing up in Peshawar, Pakistan, Khudaija Ahmad looked through websites and books, memorizing the names of prestigious universities that she hoped to one day attend.
“When a teacher approached me or asked me what my ‘dream school’ was, I was always prepared — and Teachers College was one of those institutions,” says Ahmad, who is receiving her master’s degree from TC’s Cognitive Science in Education program with a concentration in Human Development.
What Ahmad didn’t know then was how she would get there or precisely what she would study when she did — a question that, in Pakistan, where there is limited access to high-quality educational research institutions and equally limited options of study, young people are required to make choices about early on.
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“By 10th grade, we are given a small number of curricular subjects to choose from, and ultimately need to decide what career we will pursue at a young age,” she says. “At first, I was quite unsure as to what direction I wanted to go in.”
There were some obvious precedents to consider.
“I grew up in a family full of teachers, innovators, and educators,” says Ahmad, “My mother has a Ph.D. in English Literature and frequently explores the feministic works of Jane Austen. My father teaches Electrical Engineering. All three of my siblings teach or have taught as well.”
Ahmad assumed that she, too, would do something that related to education — and so she has, but from a different perspective.
“It wasn't until my sister suggested that I explore psychology that I realized I wanted to pursue it further,” she says. “I was always a very social person. I frequently found myself interested in human relationships and human development.
“I discovered that I’m naturally drawn to students’ cognitive capacities and struggles. I felt that this would be an interesting concept to apply to a culture like my own, where every student seems to be immensely dissatisfied because of the gap that exists in the student-teacher relationship.”
I discovered that I'm naturally drawn to students’ cognitive capacities and struggles. I felt that this would be an interesting concept to apply to a culture like my own, where every student seems to be immensely dissatisfied because of the gap that exists in the student-teacher relationship.
— Khudaija Ahmad (M.A. ’21, Cognitive Science in Education)
She continued to pursue studies in clinical counseling aspect and earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology. “I worked with a professor in my undergraduate career that really sparked my interest in both clinical and educational psychology,” says Ahmad. “I felt even more connected to the educational side of psychology because I come from such a strong family of educationists.”
Problem number one solved — but that still left the question of how to finance a graduate school education. The answer came a year after completing her undergraduate studies, when Ahmad received a generous financial package from the College. “This was such a huge opportunity for me,” she says.
At Teachers College, Ahmad has focused on learning how to reimagine the classroom space.
“How can I motivate students and develop an environment that both captivates their attention and cultivates success?” she says.
In particular, she is interested in conducting research on two concepts: Cognitive Load, or the amount of information that an individual’s memory can hold at one time, and motivation in a classroom setting, or the factors that drive students to learn.
“My goal behind researching cognitive load is to better understand how teachers can present learning materials in a way that is easy for students to absorb,” she says. “You want to give meaning to everything you teach, without overwhelming the students’ cognitive capacity. Motivation, while it may seem quite simple, is much more complex than just having that drive to do better, to learn more. I’m currently investigating and researching what gives students that drive and how it applies in the classroom.”
Ahmad attributes her own success at Teachers College to the warm community of mentors and professors she’s met along the way. “There are three professors that truly shaped my experience at TC: Dr. Barbara Tversky [Professor of Psychology & Education], Dr. Xiaodong Lin-Siegler [Professor of Cognitive Studies], and Dr. Robert Siegler [Jacob H. Schiff Foundations Professor of Psychology and Education],” she says. “These three people have impacted the way I view my field and how I would like to move forward — from the readings and virtual office hours to the high-touch communication that I felt was missing from my previous educational experiences. I’ve had the privilege to learn from individuals who believed in me more than I did myself at times, and that means the world to me.”
As an educator, I want children to know you can be successful; you can dream big. I want to use this concept of ‘motivation’ that I’m studying now to empower them.
— Khudaija Ahmad (M.A. ’21, Cognitive Science in Education)
Ahmad plans to pursue a Ph.D. and, more broadly, to work toward creating equity in education — especially in her hometown of Peshawar. “I believe every child deserves a chance — a chance to be educated and to decide for themselves what they want to become.
“In Pakistan, I previously worked with children in our educational system. They are not given the opportunity to pursue the education that they want. They aren't given that choice. They are expected to meet certain standards and ideals because it's what their parents and elders want, not what they want. Therefore, this social divide, this social stratification — is never broken down. As an educator, I want to work towards changing this when I return home. I want children to know you can be successful; you can dream big. I want to use this concept of ‘motivation’ that I’m studying now to empower them.
“I feel like I owe this social change to my community. I want to help children attain the same successes and dreams that I once had. I want them to know that anything is possible.”