Michael Wolf Applies Learning Sciences to Health

By Katharine Duke

Photo by Jerry LaiMichael S. Wolf is hardly the traditional master's degree student.

To begin with, he already has a PhD in social welfare and two master's degrees, one in public health and the other in social work. In addition, he currently works full time as an assistant professor at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine and has received numerous grants and awards.

Yet, according to Wolf, the Learning Sciences master's degree program at SESP is exactly what he needs right now. Last year, Wolf received a prestigious career development grant from the Centers for Disease Control to take classes and conduct a major research project.

His project, "Improving Health Literacy to Reduce Disparities," examines how low literacy affects people's health. The purpose of his research, he says, is to help medically underserved patients with chronic diseases better manage their own health care by giving them the knowledge they need to ask informed questions.

One of the ways he proposes to do this is by developing interactive, multimedia tools that would give people basic information about their condition and how to manage it. Patients would be directed to this tool before they meet with their doctors.

"This would allow people to start thinking about the kinds of questions they should ask," Wolf explains. "A lot of patients, especially those with low literacy skills, feel like the doctor is the expert, and they are there to be told what to do. Our goal is to change that."

In order to develop these interactive tools, Wolf knew he needed to understand more about how people learn and process information. "I think a lot of the deficits that cause limited health literacy are associated with how people learn," he says.

That's when Wolf discovered the Learning Sciences program. After meeting with Professor Andrew Ortony, Wolf decided to pursue another degree.

"I was specifically hoping to fill a void I had in my own training that centered on some cognitive psychological issues related to learning," he says.

Wolf's interest in health care began 20 years ago when he was diagnosed at 14 with soft-tissue cancer. He spent many hours at the University of Michigan Hospital.

Several years later as a psychology major at Valparaiso University, Wolf interned in two hospitals and became interested in social determinants of health. This ultimately led him to complete his PhD in social welfare and public health policy at the University of Illinois.

For the past seven years, much of Wolf's research has focused on health literacy, an emerging field that is gaining significant attention in the United States because of its major ramifications.

"If someone doesn't read very well, it impacts his or her ability to understand, process and navigate health information and make appropriate decisions needed to manage one's health," Wolf explains.

Photo by Jerry Lai
By Katharine Duke