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New psychology professor aims to learn more about learning

By Tom Zucco
Published November 18, 2021
Categories: Academics, Psychology
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Assistant Professor of Psychology Jessica Leffers is excited to teach students who care a lot about their learning and not just their grades. Photo: Angelique Herring ’19

It all started with a little harmless eavesdropping.

Ever since she was a child, Jessica Leffers, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Eckerd College, was curious about human behavior. “My parents would put me to bed, and I’d sneak out and listen to the grown-ups talking,” she says. “I just loved thinking about why people behave the way they do.”

It was her first research project. She was around 5 or six, and she was on her way.

Leffers, who is three months into her first year of teaching at Eckerd, grew up just north of Washington, D.C., in Germantown, Maryland. Her father is from Virginia, and her mother from India. They met while they were working at a biotech lab in Washington.

Leffers earned her bachelor’s degree from Goucher College in Baltimore, where she was a key member of the women’s soccer team. She earned her master’s and doctorate degrees from Northeastern University in Boston.

Among the courses she teaches are Introduction to Psychology, Research Methods, and Human Learning and Cognition. Her research interests center around how people think and organize what they know about social categories like race, religion and gender. Her studies include both children and adults and investigate how cognitive biases play a role in the way people process information, remember others and make decisions regarding social others.

Like her fellow faculty members who studied at smaller universities, Leffers found Eckerd a perfect fit. With the help of a little paperback book.

“I knew I wanted to be in a small, quirky liberal arts school,” she says. “And I did not want to live in Florida because I’d be too far from my family. My plan was to spend five years in Boston and then move back to Maryland.

“But I went on Eckerd’s website and saw the annual Ceremony of Lights, and it reminded me of the community feeling I was looking for. I also noticed that Goucher is on the list in the book Colleges That Change Lives, and so is Eckerd.”

One of the first things she did after arriving in August? “My mom and I went to Doc Ford’s [on the St. Pete Pier] and we got the peel-and-eat shrimp.”

Since then, her colleagues and the Eckerd staff have welcomed her and made her feel at home, she says. “When I first got here, sometimes I’d just walk around with my map in my hands. I love the campus.”

As for her students, she says they are “pretty much what I expected. They’re really engaged and care a lot about their learning and not just their grades. I’m really excited to be here.”

Her students are pretty happy about it too. Kerri Olzewski, a senior psychology and animal studies student from Wadsworth, Illinois, is one of Leffers’s students and was part of a group of psychology majors that interviewed her last winter. “We asked about her research, heard her lecture and listened to her teaching style,” Kerri says. “I remembered Dr. Leffers from that group and how much I really enjoyed her presentation.

“When she’s talking about things like human learning and cognition, you can really tell she enjoys what she’s teaching. We’re learning about learning, and it’s not just a PowerPoint presentation on a screen. It makes learning so much more meaningful.”