Faculty Spotlight: Tyler Towne

| Thu, 10/05/23
Tyler Towne, an associate teaching professor in the Department of Psychology and the assistant dean for undergraduate studies at Florida State University’s Panama City campus.
Tyler Towne, an associate teaching professor in the Department of Psychology and the assistant dean for undergraduate studies at Florida State University’s Panama City campus. Photo by Helen Johnson.

Tyler Towne is an associate teaching professor in the Department of Psychology, part of the College of Arts and Sciences, and the assistant dean for undergraduate studies at Florida State University’s Panama City campus. Towne is a three-time FSU alumnus, holding a bachelor’s degree in psychology as well as a master’s and doctorate in cognitive psychology from the Department of Psychology.

Tell us a little about your background, where you’re from and what brought you to FSU.

I’m from Wichita, Kansas, and I moved to central Florida towards the end of middle school. In 2003, I enrolled at FSU as a political science major set on law school. That was followed by a brief exploration of criminology, during which I took psychology courses. I found these courses fascinating, and professor Bryan Loney, a former assistant professor of clinical psychology at FSU, was an incredibly influential part of why I ultimately chose psychology.

My interest shifted towards cognitive psychology after a few conversations with former Conradi Eminent Scholar and professor of psychology K. Anders Ericsson. I had the privilege of conducting undergraduate research in Ericsson’s lab for two years until I graduated in 2007. Ericsson was an internationally renowned psychologist who passed away in 2020 and pioneered the idea that expertise is associated with engagement in large amounts of deliberate practice. In 2008, I returned to his lab as a graduate assistant where I studied skill acquisition and expertise.

What inspired you to choose your field of study? What makes you passionate about these topics?

Like many psychology majors, I wanted to be a therapist. Professor Loney’s child psychology research fascinated me, but as I got further into the curriculum, I realized the field encompasses areas I hadn't even considered. When I started researching with Ericsson, I fell in love with psychology as a way to study greatness and expertise.

Can you break down your areas of study for us?

I’m interested in people’s abilities to build cognitive structures, or ways of thinking, that allow them to achieve high levels of performance in whatever field or domain they choose. My research pushes back against the notion that general abilities supersede acquired skills and practice activities in determining the ceiling of skill development.

Tell us more about one of your publications.

Jared Moxley and I published “Predicting Success in the National Basketball Association: Stability and Potential,” which aimed to determine if college basketball players’ anthropometrics like wingspan and height were related to their success at the professional level. We controlled for factors like age and the quality of the players’ training, which was based on the school they attended and the school’s history of producing NBA players, and we found that the things that most people count as markers of “talent” were not significant determining factors in their professional success. Height and physical skills like vertical leap may predict college-level athletic performance, but our research demonstrates that their age, college performance, and quality of their training were the main contributing factors to early career performance in the NBA.

What do you want the public to know about your studies? Why are your topics important?

As a culture, I believe we've overemphasized talent and innate ability. Many people assume that if somebody is skilled at something, they have innate giftedness or genetic talent. What Ericsson tried to emphasize is that we must take a closer look at the role of experience and the types of behaviors that predict superior performance. What separates experts from non-experts is the incredible amount of work they put into their specialty. I’ve tried to emphasize that these practice activities result in the development of specific mechanisms that support performance within the narrow domain that aren’t related to more generalized cognitive abilities.

What inspired you to shift your focus from research to undergraduate teaching, mentorship, success, and retention?

One of the major influences on my early career was having inspiring instructors. I found a passion for teaching during graduate school, and I wanted to provide students with that same positive experience. As I was about to graduate with my doctoral degree in 2016, a teaching position became available at FSU’s Panama City campus. I love FSU, so I jumped at the opportunity.

What do you enjoy most about your role as the Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Studies?

My favorite part of my job is truly the people I work with. The Panama City campus is much smaller than Tallahassee’s, so we are naturally interdisciplinary in many unique ways. My office is right down the hall from engineers, psychologists, biologists, and chemists, which isn’t typical of a larger university environment. I think this gives this campus a unique character and provides first year students with opportunities to explore different areas of study that they might not typically get.

Who are your role models? Are there certain people who have influenced you most in your life and career?

Professionally, professor Ericsson really was the gold standard. He had such a consistent and intellectually rigorous way of approaching his work, and he absolutely practiced what he preached in terms of putting in the work to become an expert.

I have so many people in my life that serve as great role models but one that comes to mind is my late grandfather. He is a person who worked extremely hard and had a “roll up your sleeves and get it done” way of approaching things that I find inspirational. He was also kind and family-oriented, which is tremendously important to me.

Do you have any exciting upcoming projects or goals you’re working towards?

We have many exciting initiatives in the works. We recently created the Student Research Experience program based on FSU Tallahassee’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program; we’re aiming to encourage undergraduate research since it’s such a high-impact experience. This semester marks the implementation of first-year student interest groups, which are roughly modeled after the Tallahassee campus’ Living-Learning Communities. We have about 70 students enrolled in the program. As the size of each freshman class increases, we have more interest in an honors program, which is something we hope to have by next fall.

If your students only learned one thing from you, what would you hope it to be?

The key to success in anything that they do, whether it’s academia, personal life, or hobbies, is hard work and resilience. Failure and setbacks are part of growth. If you never experience failure, you’re not challenging yourself enough.