It’s a shame, really. Teachers across the world spend large sums of money on their university training. They spend large amounts of time committing to writing papers, lesson plans, learning how to write reliable/valid assessments, discovering education law, etc. But, I’m not aware of education programs that highlight how we learn. How does the brain remember? What are its potential limitations? A major goal of school is remembering information in order to change behavior. It seems plausible to me that it would help educators and students better achieve this goal if all involved actually knew how our memory works. Furthermore, after discovering the functions and limitations of our memory, how can we apply this to the classroom to optimize retention of material?
One theory describing just this is cognitive load theory (CLT). The education psychologist John Sweller is given principal credit for this theory; which emerged in the 1980s. To understand CLT, one must have a grasp of how the brain learns/remembers. After the encoding of new material, information is stored for a very brief time in our working memory. The amount of information that can be held in our working memory at a given time is limited and can vary between individuals. Information that persists beyond working memory is stored in long-term memory. CLT posits that we store information in long-term memory as schemas that organize it and allow for more efficient storage and easier retrieval.
Schemas are also important in reducing cognitive load in our working memory. For instance, if asked for the colors of the rainbow, many would recall the mnemonic, ROY G. BIV, from their elementary science classes. Remembering this acronym allows our working memory to remember and retrieve a reduced load of information. The alternative would ask your working memory to either store or retrieve red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet separately. Loading your working memory with seven unrelated bits of information is very likely to cause overload. However, remembering ROY G. BIV only represents a single schema and drastically cuts down on the cognitive load of information on our working memory.
Specifically, there are three types of cognitive load. They are additive, so all three must be factored in when considering total cognitive load.
1. Intrinsic load - the complexity of the information and the experience of the learner. This is the required load in remembering/learning.
2. Extraneous load - the bad or unnecessary load in learning. It does not contribute to retention of material and instructional practices either minimize or maximize extraneous load.
3. Germane load - the good load in learning. The necessary load shouldered by working memory to construct schemas and transfer material to long-term memory.
If we are discussing Piaget’s stages of cognitive development in my class, the student’s prior knowledge of Piaget and/or cognition represents the intrinsic load present. The instructional methods used may represent an extraneous load. For example, a complex learning strategy using a student collaboration activity may create an extraneous load as some working memory capacity must be used to remember the steps of the activity. This isn’t useful for remembering Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, but requires cognition and inhibits working memory capacity. How the actual material is remembered is the germane load. If students create a schema for the sensorimotor stage because it contains the word ‘sensory’ and they visualize the five senses, their working memory is bearing the necessary load for remembering (germane load).
Cognitive load theory most directly supports an explicit model for teaching. Generally, teachers using explicit instruction believe new material should be presented in a direct way that aims to scaffold learning. By beginning with the simplest of information and then building upon it, student’s working memory is allowed to create simple schemas and gradually add to them, creating more complex schemas. This model of teaching cuts down on extraneous load; thereby decreasing total cognitive load and increasing retention of material and potential processing into long-term memory.
How do I apply cognitive load theory in my classroom?
A little background on my classroom -- I teach AP Psychology this semester to ninety 10th, 11th, and 12th grade students. Anywhere between 80-90% of the school’s total population will attend either a 2 year or 4 year college/university upon graduation. I can only assume (dangerous, I know) this percentage is equal to or higher within my student population, since it is an Advanced Placement class. Due to this high percentage of students who will attend an institution of higher learning, I believe it is imperative to introduce my students to learning strategies that show evidence of increasing retention of material. In addition to modeling and practicing these strategies, I also discuss how they can capitalize on the limitations of our working memory and, when used correctly, assist with diminishing extraneous load while maximizing retention of material.
When thinking through how I want to present material to my students, two questions come to mind:
1. How can I best present this information
(a) for incorporation into existing schemas?
(b) for proper creation of new schemas?
2. How can I best decrease extraneous load in the presentation of material?
These questions really drive how I construct the presentation of material in my classroom. Outside of having heard of Sigmund Freud (never mind they don’t actually know what he did), students enter my class having very little knowledge of psychology. Knowing this, I understand their working memory will be ‘loaded’ with new information, so the method of presentation is key. Also, the design of the classroom is also quite important. Distractions are just that; they compete for space in working memory and divert attention from the appropriate information. A classroom environment devoid of such distractions is not taxing on cognitive load. Below are many different aspects of a lesson or the classroom environment that are important to consider when factoring in cognitive load theory:
Arrangement of Desks
While it is very popular in education to offer flexible seating or seating that fosters collaborative grouping, this can actually increase extraneous load. I prefer, especially when introducing a new topic where I know cognitive load will be tested, my seats to be placed in rows; all of the students facing the board. This helps to cut out distractions that can be caused by having to turn around for instruction or distractions that come with students facing each other.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with technology, but studies have shown that students remember more when hand-writing their notes and when they avoid the social media distractions of smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Knowing this, I ask my students to only use their devices if it adds to their understanding or assists them with the prescribed assignment/material.
Presentation of Material
When using Google slides or PowerPoint to present information to my students, I make a point to create slides that are quite simple and clean. Slides should only consist of images that directly aid in explaining the material. Fun pictures that make the slide ‘pretty’ are not necessary and can actually hinder information processing. Only the necessary text needs to be presented. Also, using easily understood vocabulary on the slides, outside of necessary vocabulary, helps to increase understanding of material and decrease extraneous load. While presenting, repeating the slide’s text word for word also creates an unnecessary load on the student’s working memory. Try to use words that aid with clarification and present concrete examples to help with assimilation and accommodation of existing schemas.
Student collaboration in the class should only be used as a method to reinforce/review or expand on a topic. Collaborative activities should not be used as a method of initial presentation of class information. During these activities, working memory will be used to process the rules or on many other possible distractions that accompany group work. These extraneous loads only detract from available working memory needed to satisfy the intrinsic and germane loads of information retention.
The home-life of students also introduces many distractions. I encourage my students to try and create an environment with as few distractions as possible; put away their phone, turn off the television and music, etc. Again, removing unnecessary distractors aims to decrease the extraneous load on the student’s working memory. I assign homework that reviews and reinforces information from class and never use homework to introduce new information. Retrieving information for homework that students have already encoded/processed during class requires less germane load and works to strengthen existing schemas. This spaced practice of material has been shown to strengthen retention of material.
The above examples are but a few ways I incorporate cognitive load theory into my classroom. Creating an environment that capitalizes on the known limitations of working memory only benefits the student. I believe that all students, teachers, and parents should have knowledge of cognitive load theory. If students knew why and how their use of social media, television, and music actually worked to decrease the productiveness of studying, maybe they would choose wiser habits for study. Our classrooms would also be more effective, and perhaps students would be less averse to classwork and homework if they knew their time was being used as efficiently as possible for retention of material.
Blake Harvard is an AP Psychology teacher at James Clemens High School in Madison, Alabama. He has been teaching for about a decade and received his M. Ed. and B. S. degrees from the University of Montevallo. Blake has a particular affinity for all things cognition and psychology; especially when those areas are also paired with education and learning. He started his blog The Effortful Educator to highlight research being done on learning, memory, and cognition and their connections to the classroom.
If you can imagine an end to this sentence, a professor has said it. Furthermore, a room full of colleagues probably agreed, whether positive or negative. There seems to be a constant divide between the experiences and expectations of professors and those of their students. For this reason, faculty members have searched, for decades if not centuries, for silver bullets that contain the secret to understanding, teaching, and motivating younger generations. Naturally, such easy solutions never appear, nor do they seem likely to appear soon. In fact, if we found the perfect way to teach the “average” student of any generation we might not reach anyone, because no student is completely average. In this post, I seek to find a balance, looking at a combination of what initial studies tell us about so-called Generation Z students, and connecting this with an understanding of motivation based on Self-Determination Theory.
A Warning: I Don’t Really Believe in Generations
I do not really accept that there are generations with clear dividing lines. I don’t consider the experiences and attitudes of millennials, born between 1980 and 1995, as particularly similar to each other, while also particularly distinct from those of generation X (1965-1980) or Generation Z (1995-2010?). I have a few reasons for feeling this way:
● Nobody agrees on the boundaries: Definitions of generation Z might be 15-year periods (1995-2010, 2000-2015, or 2005-2020). Others use the term to describe those born after the September 11 attacks in 2001. If nobody can actually agree on who is part of a generation, how can we derive something meaningful from a study of that generation, which distinguishes members of that generation from others?
● Many studies of generations describe the experiences of middle/upper class, able-bodied, white, cisgender, straight Americans. Many of our students have very different experiences. Frequent references to generation Z as the i-gen, assumes access to expensive consumer products.
I am not suggesting that we dismiss studies of these groups, but that we recognize that they tell us about a specific demographic group, based on the sample surveyed, and that those results may not be the same for later groups, even if they fall under the same “Generation Z” label.
What Do the Studies Tell Us?
Since Generation Z students have just begun entering college, we don’t have many studies about their experiences yet. Some of the most reliable datasets come from a survey conducted by Northeastern University, which asked a nationally representative sample about their expectations and desires, and from the ongoing CIRP (Cooperative Institutional Research Program) Freshman surveys conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute (the 2015 findings can be accessed here). In these surveys, the element that consistently sticks out is an emphasis on entrepreneurial skills and opportunities for choice in their education. This result resonates particularly strongly with me, as I have recently worked with many faculty members and departments struggling to meet increasingly detailed and specific accreditation structures, which results in removing electives and opportunities for choice.
Students are demanding more freedom and autonomy precisely when administrative and governmental structures are limiting student autonomy. With this in mind, we can turn to self-determination theory, a theory of motivation, which has been widely studied and applied over the past three decades.
A Brief Overview of Self-Determination Theory (SDT)
SDT is a theory of motivation based on three basic psychological needs (i.e., what people need for mental health after accounting for basic physical needs - food, water, shelter, etc.). These needs are competence, autonomy, and relatedness. According to a large body of research, addressing these needs fosters greater student motivation leading to enhanced performance. My purpose here is not to explain these in exceeding detail, but rather to consider them in the context of both current students’ desires and the classroom/college structures that are already in place.
With this goal in mind, I find that two of the three needs are generally well accounted for and/or easy to grasp. Competency lies at the core of what educators have always been doing and are generally good at. We share knowledge and/or resources to gain knowledge. Many teachers even help students develop strategies for measuring one’s own knowledge and provide pathways to reach competency goals. Relatedness can vary from course to course, but it is generally easy to conceptualize how to develop stronger relationships with students (I know professors who go to lunch with them in the dining hall), or between students in the same class (e.g., group discussions or activities). There are also significant efforts in many departments to focus on relatedness of material to future jobs and professions.
Creating an autonomy-supportive classroom environment may appear to be a more elusive goal than promoting competency and relatedness. Many teachers feel pressured to pack increasingly more content into the same semesters, leading to greater exertion of control over activities and class time to maximize efficiency. They must also overcome societal views of teachers as masters dispersing information (Paulo Freire calls this the banking model). In addition to these external pressures, the idea of relinquishing control can be scary. Can there be standards or grades if students have complete autonomy? Once they start talking or using their phones will they ever stop? While challenging, creating an autonomy-supportive environment aligns most closely with the emphasis on entrepreneurship and freedom reported by Northeastern’s survey regarding what incoming students would like to see in their education.
Autonomy-supportive teaching does not mean that we actually give students total control over their degree requirements and classroom. Here are some large and small ways to create a more autonomy-supportive learning environment, and by extension align better with current students’ desires for entrepreneurial experience.
Autonomy Supportive Teaching Strategies
When giving feedback, many frame student work in relation to what the instructor wanted, rather than as exemplary of excellent work more broadly. We often hear students describe trying to tailor work for a particular instructor, when in fact, most of us have similar ideas about excellence. The goal in using autonomy-supportive language is to change the position of the instructor from arbiter to interested and engaged reader. For example, instead of telling a student they did something correctly or how you wanted them to do it, tell them why you find their ideas interesting and point out errors in ways that encourage them to find a correct answer. This approach to language also aligns with supporting a growth-mindset.
2 Time Management
As we introduce more activities into class time, we tend to exert greater control over students’ use of time, often breaking down a 50-minute class section into 10 or more distinct sections. Sometimes this may be necessary, but other times we can give students multiple tasks to complete within a broader time limit, allowing them to choose how to organize their time. This can also emulate the time-management skills students need to develop for tests and beyond. Being explicit as to why you are providing students with greater control over time management will also help them relate to you and the project because they will understand the reasoning behind your pedagogical choices.
3 Group Structure and Organization
A lot of professors are incorporating group work into their classes, and many design creative ways to formulate groups working from a variety of assumptions about what would make the best working environments. Examples range from fantasy football-style drafts, to interest and/or experience surveys, to completely random groups. Many fear that opening the process to student decision-making can result in uncomfortable situations, micro-aggressions, and potentially bullying. There is a middle ground, in which students can exert some, but not total control. For example, this can be done by writing descriptions of skills, experiences, and/or interests to then be sorted, either by a teacher or by each other (names can be removed from the writing). While doing this, it is helpful to explain why you feel compelled to make some decisions (this helps build relatedness as well).
4 Mid-semester Feedback
Students have a lot of experience as learners, but too often we wait until the end of the semester to ask them for feedback on how their learning is progressing. There are many ways to get feedback, from short muddiest-point index cards at the end of every class to regular surveys, and bringing in outside consultants to conduct focus groups (e.g., SGIDs). In all of these formats, it is useful to ask students about what helps their learning and what suggestions they have to improve their learning. The most important part in any of these processes is acknowledging the feedback that you receive and discussing it (briefly). You don’t need to accept every piece of advice that they offer. Merely taking it seriously, and discussing why you have chosen your particular path gives students a sense of autonomy and investment in their own learning.
One of the key themes in supporting student autonomy is that students do not need to be given full control over the course or their learning. They often do not want full control. Even graduate students hunger for feedback and direction when working on their dissertations. All of the ideas above provide students with a combination of direction and freedom with increased transparency. Adopting these practices empowers students to take more responsibility for their own learning, while also providing us opportunities to better understand our students and their learning.
(Thank you to Erica Layow for collaborating on an earlier version of this project.)
Daniel Guberman is an instructional developer, educator, and musicologist with the Center for Instructional Excellence at Purdue University. At Purdue and beyond he works with faculty and graduate students to promote inclusive evidence-based teaching through presentations, workshops, learning communities, and consultations.
Resources and further reading
Self-DeterminationTheory.org – An overview of the theory with a detailed bibliography and resources for creating surveys if you are ambitious.
UDLOnCampus and CAST – While I have not delved deeply into universal design here, the principles behind universal design align well with autonomy-supportive teaching.
Todd Rose’s The End of Average – A well-written book that argues against trying to design teaching to suit average students because no student is uniformly average.
bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgressand Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed– These seminal works in the field of critical and democratic pedagogy promote autonomy-supportive teaching, while approaching the concept from a different angle.
Carol S. Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success – Promotes the use of growth-oriented mindsets when approaching our students. Autonomy-supportive feedback and course structures should effectively promote this mindset through emphasizing the development of tools students need for success.
Purdue University’s IMPACT Program – learn more about the course redesign program that Dan works with, which is based on self-determination theory.
How do students learn? As psychologists, we are likely familiar with research from cognitive psychology. As instructors, we may (or may not) use some of the basic principles from cognitive psychology in our classrooms. I’d like to present a little research on a key principle, retrieval practice, and focus on how we can apply it in our classrooms without requiring more prep, grading, or classroom time.
First, what is retrieval practice? Simply put, it’s the process of remembering and “pulling” information forward in our minds. For example, what did you do last weekend? What did you eat for breakfast yesterday? How old was King Tut when he died? These are all examples of retrieval – merely remembering something from the past and bringing it to mind.
Retrieval is a robust, reliable, and straightforward principle derived from decades of research by cognitive psychologists. The “practice” in retrieval practice is engaging in retrieval multiple times, particularly in the context of learning. When students frequently retrieve what they know – compared to re-reading a textbook chapter, for instance – long-term learning and retention of information improves. In a landmark study from 2006, my colleagues Roddy Roediger and Jeff Karpicke examined re-reading vs. retrieval practice in a laboratory experiment. College students either repeatedly read a brief passage or they read a passage once which was followed by a few periods of free recall (i.e., writing down everything they could remember from the passage). After 5 minutes, the re-reading condition resulted in greater final test performance. This result seems pretty intuitive, similar to cramming before right before an exam and performing well. After 7 days, however, the retrieval practice condition far outpaced the re-reading condition, by nearly a 20% difference in performance. More recent studies in classroom settings – including middle school, high school, and even medical schools – also demonstrate large effect sizes for long-term learning following retrieval practice.
Based on this wealth of research, including research I’ve conducted in lab and classroom settings, I practice what I preach. I incorporate retrieval practice in all my classrooms as frequently as possible. There’s a lot of research I could discuss, but you can read about that here. Instead, I’d like to focus on how I use retrieval practice in my Introductory Psychology course, as well as strategies for using it in your classroom.
One of my central methods for incorporating retrieval practice is in the form of brief low-stakes quizzes at the beginning of each week. Students walk in, pick up a piece of paper, and write for approximately 20 minutes. The room is quiet during students’ writing, which is a nice break from the hustle and bustle during everyone’s day. My retrieval practices are all short answer and comprised of 3-5 questions. Questions ask about the reading for the week; students are also informed that any course content throughout the semester is “fair game,” in line with research on the benefits of spaced practice.
Once students have had the opportunity to retrieve and think individually on paper, I follow the retrieval practices with paired, small group, and/or class discussion. My retrieval practice questions intentionally provide a springboard for class discussion about past or upcoming topics, a valuable opportunity to provide feedback and clarify student misunderstandings. Here are some examples of my questions:
Describe one of the 10 psychology myths we learned about last week.
Are all humans scientists? Why or why not?
What is one thing you learned from your book reading this week? Be specific.
How would a scientist conduct an experiment to see which type of shoe, Nike or Adidas, makes people jump higher?
Give two examples of stereotype threat from your own life.
I engage students in retrieval from day 1 (I ask students to respond to the question, “What is psychology?”). On day 2, I ask students, “Write down two things you remember about the syllabus from yesterday.” For this prompt, I have students go around the room individually and share one (of the two) things they remembered. In this way, students are retrieving and reviewing the syllabus, rather than me reiterating it for absent (or inattentive) students.
In terms of logistics, by administering my retrieval practices at the beginning of class, students have an incentive to arrive on time. I don’t allow make-up retrieval practices, and if students arrive to class but after the other students have finished, they’re out of luck. The retrieval practices only comprise 2.5% of students’ grades, but I find that this small incentive helps motive them to attend class. I also drop students’ lowest 4 retrieval practices (i.e., I use their top 10 for a grade), which provides some wiggle room for low grades and absences. I find that this combination between no make-ups, low-stakes, and dropping the lowest grades leads to very few (if any) complaints about excused and unexcused absences.
In addition, because of my grading structure with retrieval practices and other assignments (group projects, creating a video, and participation), I do not have midterms or finals in my course. This substantially lowers students’ test anxiety and they no longer cram in my course which, as mentioned above, is an ineffective strategy for long-term learning. By grading retrieval practices weekly (an hour or less for 60 students), instead of a midterm and a final, I pace myself more appropriately in terms of workload, as well.
I’ve thought about offering my retrieval practices online in order to free up 20 minutes of class time. Personally, I strongly dislike grading online writing and find it much easier to read students’ responses on paper. Based on research from cognitive psychology, we also know that open-book quizzes tend to reduce students’ learning and study time, hence an additional hesitation on my part to switch to online quizzes. For blended learning and fully online courses, I recommend emphasizing open-ended questions that require reflection, which cannot be easily “Google-able.” Some of my examples above lend themselves well to this type of retrieval (e.g., how would you design an experiment given a novel example) and various online programs can be used to verify that students aren’t plagiarizing (e.g., Turnitin is available through my content management platform). Additionally, I’d likely include a word limit for online retrieval practices, which encourages students to be persuasive, decreases grading, and makes it less likely that students will cheat. These may be considerations for your instruction when incorporating retrieval practice, though for now, mine will remain paper-and-pencil. (I also like the silent time students have in class to write down their reflections and refer to them during immediate class discussion.)
You may be wondering, “Won’t students be frustrated about these weekly retrieval practices?” At the beginning of the semester, my students are hesitant. They ask a number of questions about grading (2.5% each), question type (short answer), number of questions (3-5), makeups (not allowed), etc. Students are clearly concerned about retrieval as an assessment rather than retrieval as a learning exercise for class discussion.
By the end of the semester however, students have realized the benefit of weekly retrievals. Here are a few quotes from my students:
“Retrieval practices are the bomb. Keep that up.”
“Love that we have nothing for a final! Best thing ever!”
“If I had to remember one thing about this course, it would probably be the use and advantages of retrieval practices. Besides the reading from the book that supported that idea, it was awesome to see it come to fruition within class. I want to remember it because of how applicable it is to the field of education with how I plan to teach my students.” (music education major)
(Yes, they’re the bomb.) Throughout the semester, I increase student buy-in by
Presenting research about benefits from retrieval practice,
Acknowledging that it is challenging, but that challenges are good for learning, and
Reminding them that there are no midterms or finals.
I also aim to reduce the negativity associated with retrieval by asking optional questions (e.g., What was your favorite breakfast as a kid? Would you rather own a sailboat or a hot air balloon?). Discussing student responses for these optional questions is a nice way to start each class, to share experiences, and build community before diving into course topics.
Note that retrieval practice doesn’t need to take the form of weekly quizzes. It doesn’t even need to require class discussion or grading. For example, I recently asked students, “Write down two things you remember about neuroscience topics we discussed earlier this semester.” Students wrote their thoughts down and we promptly moved on – this retrieval activity took one minute, incorporated spaced practice, and will be beneficial for students’ learning down the road, even without discussion or feedback.
Another way I use retrieval practice is an activity common in K-12 instruction, “think-pair-share.” For this activity, I ask students to quickly write down 2 or 3 thoughts, followed by chatting with a partner, and then a whole class discussion. As an example, I might ask, “Why are results from the Stanford Prison Experiment surprising?” A think-pair-share activity such as this one could take 10 minutes or less, but it’ll be far more beneficial for learning than me telling students why the results are surprising.
When it comes to implementing retrieval practice in your classroom, here are a few challenges based on my own classroom experience. First, allocating time in class on retrieval may take away from the amount of content you can present. Yes, this can be a challenge, though think about how you can insert a retrieval activity for simply one minute per class, thereby minimizing time taken from content delivery. In addition, based on research I and my colleagues have conducted, keep in mind that students will remember more over the long-term following retrieval, so you won’t need to re-teach content as frequently as you will following lectures. This actually saves time in the long run, even if there is a small tradeoff in terms of time initially.
Another challenge can be student accommodations, particularly those who request extra time and distraction-free environments for tests. While a number of my students are eligible for accommodations (including students who are blind or dyslexic), my students rarely ask for them. The retrieval practices are low-stakes and reduce test anxiety, thus students feel comfortable completing them in the regular time allotted during class.
To conclude, retrieval practice is pretty remarkable for boosting student learning, verified by laboratory and classroom research. It dramatically improves learning over the long-term for diverse students, content areas, and education levels. It’s a central principle derived from cognitive psychology, but if we are going to practice what we preach and improve learning, we need to incorporate this evidence-based strategy into our instruction.
What next? Start small. What is one way you can incorporate retrieval in your classroom? Lecture and review less – this shares what you know. Aim to facilitate retrieval more – ask students what they know. Remember (pun intended) that retrieval practice doesn’t require more class time, prep time, or grading time. Whether you use weekly retrieval practices or brief un-graded activities in class, emphasize that retrieval is a learning strategy, not just an assessment strategy.
For more research, resources, and instructional tips, visit retrievalpractice.org. I also highly recommend a recent book, Small Teaching by James Lang, which describes additional research on retrieval practice and provides excellent tips for higher education instruction.
Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D. is an expert in the field of cognitive psychology. She has conducted learning and memory research in a variety of classroom settings for more than 10 years. Currently, Pooja is an Assistant Professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, teaching psychological science to exceptional undergraduate musicians.
To advance the use of scientifically-based learning strategies, Pooja founded RetrievalPractice.org, a hub of cognitive science research, resources, and tips for educators. Pooja's work has been featured in the New York Times, Education Week, and Scientific American, as well as academic journals, books, and podcasts.
She can be reached via email, her websites, and Twitter . . .
Exploring Issues of Student Resilience in Academia
In response to surging numbers of students reporting and demonstrating difficulties with anxiety and other mental health concerns over the past several years, many college campuses have added and expanded resources designed to respond and proactively attend to student needs. Is this the domain of Student Life or Student Health departments only? Or are there things faculty members can do to support student resilience as well?
We’ve all experienced events and circumstances that have challenged us beyond what we felt we could handle in the moment. What we do in those moments—our efforts to be resilient—include how we think, steps we take to understand the problem, how we call on our resources and develop plans of action, and more. The success of those efforts tend not only to (as the proverb says) “make us stronger,” but also to increase the likelihood that we’ll go on to accomplish goals that are important to us. The same is true for our students.
The degree to which our students are prepared for leaving the nest to come to college varies greatly. For many, the social challenges are every bit as trying as the academic ones. Darlene Mininni is a health psychologist who created a UCLA undergraduate course called LifeSkills; in which, she calls resilience the ability to “navigate skillfully” through difficulties (The Science of Resilience: How to Thrive in Life, 2015). Neuroscientists point out that while other portions of the brain have reached full maturity by early adulthood, the pre-frontal cortex—“ground central” for the range of functions we call executive control, including planning, assessing and making judgments, and weighing logic with emotion—continues to mature well into our 20’s.
If we want to be effective in passing on our knowledge and experience to students, it may be worthwhile to consider approaches other than asking them to “toughen up” or—at the other end of the spectrum—altering what we require to the extent that rigor is compromised. Are there alternatives? We believe so.
How Lack of Resiliency Impacts the Learning Environment
Today’s students often struggle with the transition to young adulthood during their college years and academic life can suffer as a result. Often, their lack of resilience and coping skills manifests itself as academic stress or poor academic performance. We know from the work of Erikson, among other developmental psychologists, that the primary goal of young adults is to love and be loved. As academicians, we cannot ignore this central focus of our students. In order to promote an inclusive learning environment, we must acknowledge the importance of students meeting their social and academic needs.
As the academic landscape is being shaped by less resilient and “needy” students, growing numbers of undergraduate students and faculty are experiencing academic incivility. Academic incivility occurs across a continuum, ranging from microaggressions (i.e., eye rolling, habitual tardiness, misuse of technology, etc.) to less subtle forms of incivility such as challenging faculty or other students, forming cliques, gossip, or name calling to name a few. Exposure to incivility may lead to a decrease in student participation in the classroom resulting in failure, attrition, stress, anxiety, depression, and lack of self-esteem. Academic incivility and other personal concerns or stressors detract from the quality of interpersonal well-being, or at least make it more difficult to build and maintain satisfying, nurturing bonds with others in the academic environment. Current literature on the relationship between resilience and academic incivility is most prolific within nursing education. A recent article on the role of mentoring students who demonstrate “quiet” incivility suggests that institutions of higher education must actively engage and mentor these students to promote their personal development and skills of resilience and self-efficacy (Carr et al., 2016). Finally, it is important to note that resilience is a process not a personality trait (Comier, 2016).
What does this mean for those who teach undergraduates? They may need help connecting present actions with future consequences, and setting reasonable, measurable short-term goals that will help accomplish longer-term ones. They may need us to explain the “why” behind policies and procedures in a way that doesn’t rob them of the autonomy they crave. They need us to be direct and explicit in “connecting dots” between concepts and their relevance beyond the classroom. The “expert blind spot” (a documented phenomenon in learning settings) can make it difficult for us to remember how novices think. Each time you make the implicit (things that seem obvious to us because of our expertise) explicit, you help bridge this gap.
Evidence collected across multiple disciplines suggests that resilience is a skill set that can be learned, rather than some fixed trait. Thus, we can put some confidence in the idea that our efforts to help students learn to navigate college (and life) skillfully will, over time, result in positive outcomes. In the next section, we have provided practical examples and strategies you can use to support development of resilience-related skills while providing “just-right” levels of challenge.
Strategies for Supporting Student Resilience:
In this section, we’ve attempted to include suggestions for integrating evidence-based strategies into existing courses, assignments, & programs, rather than recommending complete “overhaul” or changes in philosophy.
Set & share reasonable expectations with students—for individual assignments and for overall progress. For example, include an expected response time for email communication.
Make specific references to the type and magnitude of mental effort needed to achieve learning goals—in order to normalize some degree of struggle. Learning scholars tend to agree that “desirable difficulties”—challenges that stretch us—often result in powerful and enduring learning. Give examples of elements of your course that you expect students may find particularly challenging.
Build in extra “scaffolds” or supports up front whenever possible. Ideally, scaffolds support emerging skills while engaging learners in meaningful application of important concepts. Scaffolds can also help students meet your expectations for classroom behavior and participate in ways that align with the norms you set out to create.
Suggest specific “pathways” of action available when they do encounter struggle. Consider inviting representatives from your campus writing and tutoring centers (and other relevant resources) to class. Personalizing these sources of support makes a difference. According to hope theory (Snyder et al., 1991), students quickly give up on goals when workable pathways to their attainment are unclear.
Check out Carol Dweck’s work on learning mindsets; according to evidence generated from studies in this area, individuals’ thoughts and beliefs are powerful drivers of effort and behavior. Help students practice thinking and operating from a growth mindset by:
Emphasize learning as process. Make your thinking “visible” in as many ways as possible to illustrate ways of thinking and problem-solving reflected in your learning objectives. When processes are more transparent, what once seemed out of reach starts to feel more attainable. One way to do this: share samples of exemplary student work and explain what makes them great. Don’t leave out details about the process it took to generate the excellent final product!
Make it “safe” to err. Many students are so afraid of making a mistake that they clam up and refrain from participating in even small group discussions in classes.
Model responses to setbacks or obstacles. Failure isn’t a “verdict” about me or my ability; instead, it provides feedback/cues about how to improve. Use feedback to indicate where a student is in relation to particular learning goals.
Allow opportunities for students to revise their work after receiving feedback.
Normalize asking for help; posting office hours isn’t enough for some students. Are there unnecessary barriers to asking for help? Do we sometimes make this more difficult or intimidating than it has to be? Ask for objective opinions and consider steps that could make this a little easier. Connections with faculty are a significant predictor of student retention and graduation rates.
Encourage students to take part in experiential learning (study abroad, internships, etc.), where they’ll gain practice in dealing with problems that don’t have instant, easy answers or scripted step-by-step formulas.
Take opportunities to explicitly reframe stressful and challenging situations with students. According to Kelly McGonigal’s work, stress can be a cue that we’re involved in things that matter to us—allowing the choice to engage fully in spite of some trepidation, and experience the reward of accomplishment when that effort pays off—even when results aren’t perfect—or to opt out completely because we interpret stress as a threat from which we must flee to be safe. Guide students in channeling their energy by intentionally linking the task at hand to goals they value.
When a student’s functioning is severely limited by anxiety or other negative emotions, this maxim borrowed from a colleague seems to say it all: “When you’re feeling overwhelmed, focus on doing the next right thing.” Sometimes offering your perspective and feedback as their faculty is just what they need to help figure out what the next right thing is.
Faculty Role in Resilience Development & Classroom Culture
As faculty members, it is imperative that we evaluate our role in the development of our students’ resilience and in the classroom culture that we help create. Questions to ask ourselves may include:
Are we setting norms and standards of behavior that encourage and promote resiliency skills?
What biases, beliefs, and values are we bringing to the classroom that may unwittingly impact our students?
Are we open to new ideas and approaches for teaching our students?
What personal growth and development do we need to consider to better equip ourselves for this new layer of mentoring our students?
Maintaining our own growth mindset, as faculty, and an open dialogue with our students is paramount to anything else we may want to accomplish in our classrooms.
Our intent is not to suggest that faculty and staff remove risk, struggle, or challenge from the student experience. We do hope that by creating conversation about the nature of students’ challenges that affect learning & academic performance and the practical value of strategies that help bridge where they are with where we want them to be, we all become more satisfied not only with the outcomes, but also the processes and paths we take to get there. Below, we have developed a “Resiliency Toolkit” of resources that we find helpful in exploring resiliency building and creating a personal development practice.
Building a Resiliency Toolkit
A Resiliency Toolkit is a helpful resource for faculty interested in fostering resilience in the classroom and promoting student empowerment. It is important to note that each faculty member may customize their toolkit with the resources needed for their own personal development and that of their students. This toolkit is intended to teach faculty about resilience and resiliency resources in order to educate students about the significance of building personal resilience. This toolkit has tips, information, activities, and exercises to help develop resilience.
Dr. Corrie Harris is a Clinical Assistant Professor at The University of Alabama’s College of Education in the Department of Educational Studies in Psychology, Research Methodology, and Counseling. She earned her Doctorate in Educational Psychology from The University of Alabama in 2015. She also holds a B.S. in Human Environmental Sciences from The University of Alabama and a Masters in Counselor Education/Student Affairs in Higher Education Concentration from Mississippi State University. Dr. Harris’ teaching and research interests relate to the design of learning environments and academic interventions to support the success of all students.
Abby Grammer Horton is a full-time instructor at The University of Alabama’s Capstone College of Nursing (CCN) Program. She earned her Bachelors of Science in Political Science in 2006 from The University of Alabama. She later graduated from CCN with her BSN in 2010 and then a MSN in Rural Case Management in 2011. She is currently enrolled in the Nurse Educator Doctoral Program in the College of Education at The University of Alabama. Mrs. Horton teaches in the Undergraduate BSN Program, specifically in the Professional Nursing Practice: Mental Health Course and her research interests include student to student incivility, stress and coping, and student resilience.
Nearly all students have a ghost story, be it a personal one, or a tale from a friend. The belief in ghosts is prevalent. A 2016 survey showed that nearly 47% of Americans believe that places can be haunted by spirits (link to https://blogs.chapman.edu/wilkinson/2016/10/11/paranormal-beliefs), with similar numbers found in Canada and even higher in the UK. Ghost hunting shows are popular on television and there are countless films focused on ghosts and spirit possessions, with some claiming to be based on a true story. This interest in ghosts can provide the basis for an engaging class exercise that can be used to drive home key psychological concepts (Rockwell, 2012). It’s time to turn your students into ghost hunters.
A ghost hunt allows students to carefully consider methodological issues, as well as a broad range of topics such as scientific thinking, cognitive biases, and expectancy effects . To begin this exercise, I have students watch an episode of a popular ghost hunting television program. There are countless episodes available on YouTube. I prefer the UK version of Most Haunted, as there is a psychologist, Ciaran O’Keeffe, who is often on the show and acts as a skeptical voice amidst the other overly enthusiastic ghost hunters and psychics on the program. Remarkably, nearly every episode of any ghost hunting program ends with the discovery of a ghost. The purpose for watching the ghost hunting program is to examine what methods and tools are used, and consider the validity of these methods from a scientific perspective. Students can discuss what makes a good theory, how to develop hypotheses (ie., the need for a hypothesis to be falsifiable), independent and dependent variables, and issues of confounding variables and bias among others.
The ghost hunting activity has two grade components. The first is to be completed after the location of the hunt has been established. Students are asked to conduct archival research and learn everything they can about the location, with a focus on any reported paranormal activity. It has been my experience that some students have difficulty understanding the value of different types of methodologies. This assignment highlights how multiple approaches to data collection are often used to answer a single question. In this case, students are conducting archival research which will be used to inform experimental work – namely an experiment to test for the presence of ghosts.
The second graded component is a research paper based on the findings from the ghost hunt. The goal of this paper is to get students thinking about research methodology, and more broadly, how to evaluate extraordinary claims. I instruct the students to write the paper as though they were going to submit it to a peer reviewed journal. This allows for discussion of the peer review process, and how to identify reputable sources.
Not all students feel comfortable with the idea of searching for ghosts. As such, I make attendance at the ghost hunt optional. For students who choose not to go on the ghost hunt, they are to complete a similar assignment. Instead of attending a haunted location, the students are assigned to critique an episode of a popular ghost hunting television program and describe if the evidence presented in the program is sufficient to determine the presence of ghosts. The ghost hunt is typically conducted in the evening outside of class time. By having the ghost hunt outside of the regularly scheduled class, students are free not to attend if they don’t feel comfortable, and can attribute this to a problem with their schedules, work, etc.
While the tone of this exercise is generally positive and fun, instructors need to be careful not to alienate any students who believe in ghosts, or who claim that they have seen a ghost. A good way to do this is to have a discussion of the difference between scientific skepticism and cynicism (Sagan, 1995). Psychologists promote scientific skepticism, meaning that we do not dismiss ideas out of hand, but we do require extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims. This can lead to an interesting discussion on what evidence the students would need before they could be entirely confident that a location is haunted. As students present ideas, instructors will be able to talk about issues such as the need for rigorous scientific methods when attempting to make causal claims, the problems with relying on anecdotal evidence, and how cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias, can lead intelligent people to believe outlandish things. One way to frame this activity is that as scientific skeptics, we can allow for the possibility that ghosts exist, though we would need extraordinary evidence. The goal of the ghost hunt is to attempt to find this evidence.
One of the most difficult aspects of this assignment is finding a location for the ghost hunt. A good place to start is to do research on some of the “haunted” locations in your area. It is valuable to ask students for suggestions, as they may know of a building or location that would be appropriate. When you are deciding on the location to conduct the ghost hunt, you will need to consider whether the location is large enough to hold your class, whether the area is easily accessible, how students will arrive at the area, and of course, the safety of the location. All of the ghost hunts I have conducted have been at local businesses. For example, one of the houses we explored was a marketing firm whose main office was in a building that was over 100 years old. Supposedly there was a ghost of an old man with a top hat on the upper level, and the ghost of a small girl in the basement. While most employees did not believe that the building was haunted, they did report some unusual activity, and even invited a local medium to try to make contact with the ghosts. This highlights a need to be sensitive and respectful when requesting access to the “haunted” location, as some of the people who work in the building may truly believe that it is haunted. I am always upfront that this activity is one grounded in skepticism.
It is best to avoid places like graveyards. While this may seem like an obvious choice as the space is open to the public, there are potential problems. As mentioned earlier, the tone of the ghost hunt is generally fun, with lots of laughter (often nervous). This could be seen as disrespectful to someone who is grieving in this area. As well, while a graveyard is public space, it is not intended for large groups and you may be asked to leave. By having permission at a privately owned location, you will be confident about the amount of time you will be able to spend with the class, and you will not have to be concerned about offending members of the public.
The ghost hunt should be conducted in the early evening, after it is dark. Nearly all ghost hunting programs show footage from a ghost hunt at night, and some ghost hunters claim that the spirits only come out after dark. Shadows created by the moonlight can also lead to the experience of pareidolia – the perception of a pattern or form that does not actually exist (Sagan, 1995). For example, during one our ghost hunts a student noticed a floating figure that appeared to be a person suspended in midair. Upon closer inspection, it was simply the way the reflection of the moon fell upon a group of trees. In the marketing firm mentioned earlier, there were reports of a ghost with a top hat. We found that if you stood across the street, you could indeed see a figure that somewhat resembled the description of the ghost. It didn’t take long to realize that this effect was created by the reflection from the headlights of passing cars.
Conducting a ghost hunt at night also increases the likelihood of finding orbs. Popular ghost hunting programs often mention orbs, which are glowing dots or circles found in photographs that supposedly indicate the presence of a ghost. In fact, orbs are usually the reflection of the camera flash on moisture or dust particles in the air (Nickell, 2006). The photo below was taken during one of our ghost hunts and is packed with orbs. The night of this particular ghost hunt it was raining lightly, the reflection of the flash against the rain led to the presence of orbs in the photo.
The materials needed to conduct a ghost hunt are relatively inexpensive. According to some ghost hunters, spirits may disrupt or create electromagnetic frequencies (e.g., Fielding & O’Keefe, 2008). An EMF meter to measure electromagnetic fields can be found for less than twenty dollars online. EMF meters detect electrically charged objects, such as wall outlets, cell phones, computers, and lamps. The EMF meter is a fun component of the ghost hunt, as it will invariably go off, providing students with the opportunity to determine the source of the electromagnetic activity. This exercise leads nicely into a discussion of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out or search for information that confirms or supports our beliefs, and to reject or distort evidence that goes against our preexisting beliefs (Nickerson, 1998). Someone who believes that a location is haunted is likely to accept that any reading on an EMF meter is a sign of the spirits. A skeptic, on the other hand, may search for more earthly explanations.
Students should also be equipped with a pen and paper, flashlights, cameras and video cameras (which they will have if they bring their phones), a digital audio recorder, and thermometers. While some ghost hunting television programs will have more sophisticated equipment, this will be enough to get started and also lead to a discussion of whether the additional equipment found on ghost hunting shows provide any additional evidence or support for the existence of the supernatural. On many of the ghost hunting programs, a medium or psychic is involved to help contact the spirits. In lieu of a medium, I bring a Ouija board and have students attempt to contact spirits. This exercise allows for discussion of the ideomotor response and the power of expectation in driving many of the findings of paranormal events (see Hyman, 2007).
Students are broken down into groups of 4 or 5, and given time to explore the location. Ideally, the location should be large enough so that there are several areas for groups to explore independently. Older homes are ideal, as one group can be outside, another upstairs, one downstairs, and so on. Unless the ghost hunt is conducted in a very large area, fifteen minutes to explore each location is sufficient.
Some of the things the students will be looking for are cold spots. According to ghost hunters, small cold areas in a haunted location may be a sign of a ghost. The students can use the thermometers to check if there are any differences in temperature. If there are variations in temperature, students should look for reasons as to why a particular area may be colder (e.g., near a window, in a basement, etc.).
Students should be instructed to take careful notes and detail if there are any unusual smells, sounds, or if there were certain rooms or areas that might make them feel uneasy or frightened. Unexplained odours are supposedly another sign of a potential ghost. If students do find areas that have strong odours, the challenge again is to try to find the source. In one of my class hunts, the owners of the location of the ghost hunt said that some of the rooms had an occasional smell of perfume, which they attributed to the spirits living in that room. Upon investigation, this room was directly above a small store which sold strong smelling soaps. Another mystery solved! This discovery lead to a fruitful discussion on Occam’s razor. I posited to the students to consider which explanation was more parsimonious – that a spirit has returned from beyond the grave and was wearing strong perfume, or that the smell of soap wafted from the main floor of the building to the second floor.
In some ghost hunts, you may find that all students agree that one particular area made them feel uneasy or made the hair on the back of their neck stand up. It is often the case that infrasound is to blame. Infrasound is a low frequency sound under 20 HZ that is outside the limit of human hearing (Leventhall, 2007). Although humans cannot hear infrasound, there is some research indicating that infrasound can cause a mild physiological response, such as feelings of awe or suspense (e.g., Tandy & Lawrence, 1998). Infrasound can be created by heavy traffic, thunder, or low rumbling pipes. Many older buildings have pipes that create infrasound. Infrasound detectors are very expensive, but there is a workaround. Instructors should bring a set of matches or a lighter on the ghost hunt. If there is no breeze, light the match in the location of the suspected infrasound. If the flame starts to turn in a circle, or appears to bend, it is likely that infrasound is present. This method won’t provide you with the precise amount of infrasound, but at the very least you will be able to demonstrate to students that infrasound is the explanation for the ghostly sensations.
Following the ghost hunt, I use the next scheduled class to review what students experienced. Most are surprised at how things that initially seemed to indicate the presence of a spirit turned out to have mundane explanations upon further investigation. For example, during one ghost hunt, students reported that they could see the shadow of a headless body near a bridge. This was particularly frightening, as the students knew that this was also the location where a person hung themselves. Upon further exploration though, students realized that this was created by the way the moonlight was lighting a tree stump. Examples such as this allow students to discuss key issues related to scientific thinking, such as ruling out rival hypothesis, Occam’s razor, and how extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
The ghost hunt assignment drives home key concepts, and is an engaging and memorable experience for students. For anyone who is interested in this assignment, I would be happy to provide a copy of past assignments via email (email@example.com). Happy hunting!
 For a full overview of the range of topics that can be covered in a ghost hunt, as well as some interesting examples and techniques to approach this exercise, Joe Nickell’s (2012) book, The Science of Ghosts, is an ideal resource.
Rodney Schmaltz is an Associate Professor of Psychology at MacEwan University. His research focuses on pseudoscientific thinking, with an emphasis on strategies to promote and teach scientific skepticism.
Hyman, R. (2007). Ouija, dowsing, and other seductions of ideomotor action. Tall tales about the mind & brain: Separating fact from fiction, 411-424.
Leventhall G. H. (2007). What is Infrasound? Progress in Biophysics & Molecular Biology, 93, 130-137.
Nickell, J. (2006). Ghost hunters. Skeptical Inquirer, 30(5), 23.
Nickerson, R.S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology, 2, 175 – 220.
Ask this question to twenty people and you will get twenty different answers. Some will say that effective teachers are subject matter experts, others will emphasize communication skills such as being clear, and still others will point to personality characteristics such as empathy, warmth, and enthusiasm (Evertson and Emmer, 2013; Keller, Neumann, and Fischer, 2013; Madsen, 2003). A common thread weaves through all descriptions of effective teaching: the ability to modify expert content knowledge based on specific student needs, known as “pedagogical content knowledge” (Shulman, 1987). Understanding working memory can help instructors be more effective.
What is working memory?
The idea of neuroanatomical and internal psychological mechanisms being responsible for the learning process has advanced rapidly over the last few decades (Ashcraft and Radvansky, 2010). Students need to actively process the information delivered during instruction, which then leads to retention (Anderson, Reder, and Simon, 1996). This is why, for example, it is so easy to be entertained by TED talks, but more difficult to learn their content in a deep way. It is because there are few opportunities for passive learners to engage with the material. How do learners process information and content? The answer is through a complex system called working memory.
Working memory can be described as the “workbench” where information is temporarily stored and actively processed (Baddeley and Hitch, 1974). Information that comes in through the senses must undergo active processing or it will be lost. This is why you don’t remember every name of every shampoo you pass in the supermarket—you simply have not processed them. Working memory is also a small workbench; only seven to nine chunks of information can be stored for upwards of 15 seconds (Woolfolk, 2016).
Sounds quite scary if you think about! If information is not actively processed it will cease to exist, and the learning process will stop dead in its tracks. Before we conclude that all hope is lost, let’s briefly examine the most accepted working memory model (Baddeley’s model) and how it works.
Baddeley’s Model of Working Memory
Allen Baddeley, a pioneer psychologist working on the memory system, developed the idea that the initial stages of the memory system are complex. He proposed that conscious activation of information is crucial for our ability to understand what we are thinking and learning in the moment; only then is information moved into long-term memory where it is permanently stored (Baddeley, 2007). Baddeley’s model emphasizes the importance of paying attention during learning as well as the relationship between our hearing (“phonological loop”, PL) and sight (“visuospatial sketchpad”, VS) in the learning process.
Imagine that working memory is like a machine with gears. The central executive (CE) could be described as the “boss” of the working memory system, akin to a computer’s CPU. The central executive controls the processing of information into the auditory (PL) and visual (VS) “gears”. The CE uses a manager, the episodic buffer (EB), to determine how much oil (prior knowledge) to pull from long-term memory. This complex interaction between the CE and the EB allows the PL and VS gears to spin in harmony (Baddeley, 2007). When the system is working smoothly and there are no other complications, learning is enhanced and information can be easily encoded and stored in long-term memory.
How does Baddeley’s Model of Working Memory relate to our teaching?
Proper presentation of information and content knowledge is critical for successful student learning. Furthermore, the actual delivery of the content—basically, how the instructor approaches pedagogy-- is crucial for students’ processing of information. For example, if the instructor uses text-heavy slides, or reads from the slides, the phonological loop and visuospatial sketchpad “gears” will not work properly as the central executive is taxed by the need to draw too much information from long-term memory. Just like in any machine with faulty mechanisms, the learning process will, unfortunately, be corrupted or even stop. In the remainder of this post, we will suggest ways to modify the delivery of your content knowledge in order to “grease the gears” of your student’s working memory. Four different techniques will be discussed: relevancy, storytelling, repetition and chunking.
Technique #1 - Relevancy
We know that when information is presented in a way that is relevant to students, their focus and attention will increase, along with their motivation (Ryan and Deci, 2000). Relevancy assists cognitive load by not taxing the thinking process (working memory) with information that is not seen as valuable. Unfortunately, there is sometimes a mismatch between instructor enthusiasm and student relevancy. Take, for instance, an instructor who is excited by the nuances of Pavlov’s dogs. Nothing could be more thrilling than the intricacies of conditioned and unconditioned responses. To many students, however, a historical experiment involving meat powder seems remote from their daily concerns. Elaborating on Pavlov’s work by using more relevant examples of conditioning such as auditory alerts for text messages, or radar-based traffic tickets, might help students lean forward in their chairs.
How can instructors increase relevancy so attention is increased and working memory “works” more smoothly? Here are a few ways that instructors can increase relevancy when teaching students and integrate relevancy techniques within their course design.
Reflection Assignments (i.e. “Exit Slips”): Reflection is a deeper level strategy that allows students to examine what they have learned and how it relates to them. Reflection assignments can take many forms, including "Exit Slips", where students write down what they learned or enjoyed before class time concludes. Students who study prejudice, for example, may come to learn more about their own.
Interest-Based (Student-driven) Assignments: When students can choose their approach to an assignment or the type of assignment they wish to complete, the task becomes inherently more meaningful. Choice also strengthens motivation and increases self-regulation.
Relate content to use in the real world: When content can be explained in a way that emphasizes its importance and relevancy in everyday life, students tend to be more interested. For example, students can certainly relate to the Attribution Theory when it comes to failing a class or a test in college. Helping students to identify the connection between personal decisions that were made in the face of failure could facilitate a deeper understanding of the theory.
Technique #2 - Storytelling
Storytelling has historically been an effective tool in knowledge construction and learning (Hung, Hwang, and Huang, 2012). Stories create images and evoke relevancy in listeners, which can aid in the processing of information and benefits attention. Furthermore, stories allow for content to be presented in an organized manner, further alleviating cognitive load and allowing for working memory to process information more smoothly (Robin, 2008). The bystander effect is a great example of how storytelling can be used to help students process a complex social psychological phenomena. Although the events that surround the Kitty Genovese murder are still being called into question, presenting a story format to explain indifference and diffusion of responsibility certainly captures attention and engages students in active processing as they imagine how people could turn away from someone in need. Storytelling can be integrated into classroom and lecture time in many ways. Here are a few examples of storytelling:
Use multimedia (pictures and videos) in classrooms: Digital stories help students to create images and link these images to pertinent content as well as increasing attention. The statement “A picture speaks 1000 words” summarizes how powerful images can be. Integrate stories around the images, which can help for deeper processing and retention.
Student-driven storytelling assignments and tasks: Students can be great storytellers as well. Encourage students to create stories around content and integrate how the content is relevant through a story format. For example, students studying the fundamental attribution error might gather in small groups to exchange tales of times that they overlooked situational influences when making attributions.
Relate content to personal experiences in the field: Most instructors are also current or former professionals. When teaching content to students, relate personal experiences of how the content relates to the field. A former school psychologist may relate the Ecological Systems Theory to a professional experience in the field when teaching about social-emotional development and its effects on school achievement. Key points are brought to life as students create images of the experience and connect to the story being told.
Technique #3 - Repetition
Repetition can be very effective and allows for information to stay active in working memory (Harris, Rogers, and Qualls, 1998). McDaniel, Howard and Einstein (2009) found that repeating small pieces of information as we read (reciting) enhances comprehension and retention of the information. With this in mind, it is imperative that we not overload working memory and instead present small pieces of information that are repeated or paraphrased throughout the class time. For many students, however, the idea of repetition can seem boring even if it is effective. Here are a few ways that instructors can use repetition in interesting ways.
Have students paraphrase content: Putting information into one’s own words helps increase processing and retention. When students must summarize information learned, it also increases comprehension. One method of doing this is in pairs. Each student can read a section and summarize it for the other, or both can summarize the same section and compare their summaries.
Reciprocal Questioning: Students join partners and use the content to engage in an ask/answer format. Students must reflect on their own knowledge to answer their partner’s question and vice versa. This allows for information to be retrieved and then maintained and discussed, which increases the likelihood of retention. For example, students studying childhood development might generate a list of questions concerning imitation. These might include questions about basic definitions of terms like “imitation” and “over-imitation.” They might also include questions about verbal versus behavioral imitation.
Timed Repetition: This technique requires careful planning of class time. Instructors pinpoint times throughout the lecture when they should stop and repeat key points. Timed repetition works well in five to 10 minute intervals. By stopping and repeating, more time for processing can occur and learning of the material will be maintained.
Recap at end of lecture: Recapping key points before class time concludes increases recall and allows students to reflect on what was taught, and maintains important information in working memory before students leave the classroom.
Technique #4 - Chunking
The duration and capacity of working memory is quite small; anywhere between seven to nine chunks with an average 15 seconds of information. Keep in mind that working memory is not limited to the size of those chunks (Woolfolk, 2016). One way to bypass these restrictions is to use chunking. We are better able to process those individual items into one larger chunk when items are grouped by their similarities or commonalities. For example, you may better remember tiger, lion, and bear from a list of words if you group them into a chunk: “large animals”. We are also capable of chunking numerical information. Our current practice of remembering e-mail addressed by separating them into the section before and after the @ symbol is an example of chunking. Grouping items into one chunk allows for better processing and can increase the size of what can be remembered. Here are a few ways that instructors can use chunking within their courses.
Chunk information in lesson plans: Instructors should review the content they plan to go over and then group similar content into single chunks. This will help students process more information. Present these chunks instead of individual concepts. For example, an instructor wanting to introduce students to the geography of the nervous system should not simply present dozens of new vocabulary terms. Instead, she should categorize terms by function or location such as teaching brain lobes together, or sensory functions together.
Engage students in chunking content (e.g. concept maps): Learning activities that involve students have been connected to higher student engagement and interest. Chunking is a great tool that students can use in any class. Instructors can present, for example, pieces of a concept and have students chunk the pieces that belong together in a concept map format. This will also build familiarity with the content and increase relevancy. Returning to the previous example, instead of the instructor chunking key terms of the nervous system, students would engage in careful analysis of each term to create chunks or a concept map of the nervous system. Through active processing and deeper level exploration, students would ultimately discover similarities and differences between key parts of the nervous system and use this information to build the concept map. This experience allows students to stay active with the content and to become familiar with complex vocabulary as they work through the chunking process.
Working memory, which is often considered the “work bench” of the memory system, is crucial in the learning process. Proper presentation of information and content knowledge is critical for successful student learning. Instructors have a pivotal role in teaching content that most students will use in future courses and in their careers. Employing pedagogical content knowledge, not just content knowledge, is important to whether or not students will retain or lose information. Key points to remember about working memory and how to help students “work” their working memory are:
1. Consider how the eyes and ears must work together for optimal processing.
2. Consider how much background knowledge is needed before devising lessons.
3. Reflect on personal pedagogy and whether or not you have delivered content in a way that has enhanced or overloaded processing.
4. Increase strategies that promote relevancy, imagery, organization, repetition, and chunking when delivering content.
5. Include students in reflection activities that center on their personal understanding of how their working memory “works”.
Melissa Luis is the Education Degree Program Coordinator and an education and psychology faculty member at Middlesex County College in Edison, NJ. She received her Bachelor's degree from Syracuse University and her Professional Diploma in School Psychology and Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from Fordham University in New York City. Dr. Luis spent her early professional career in the New York City public school system as a School Psychologist. She currently coordinates the education program for Middlesex County College and has focused her time on developing stronger pedagogical practices in pre-service teachers and higher education professionals, along with creating effective teacher preparation.
James Martiney received his Bachelor's Degree from Princeton University (Biology) and his Ph.D. in Experimental Pathology and Immunology from Sue Golding Graduate School of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He spent several years doing research in various aspects of malaria pathophysiology and drug resistance before choosing a career in Higher Education. He is currently a Faculty member in the Department of Natural Sciences at Middlesex County College. His current research interests center on effective teaching practices and scientific literacy.
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Robin, B.R. (2008). Digital storytelling: A powerful technology tool for the 21st century classroom. Theory Into Practice, 47, 220-228.
Ryan, R.M. and Deci, E.L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54-67.
Shulman, L. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1).
Woolfolk, A. (2016). Educational Psychology (13th ed.). New York: Pearson.
One of the prerequisites for earning an advanced degree is being a pencil necked geek. In order to become an academic expert, you must sustain a monomaniacal fascination with arcane and highly specified subjects, coupled with an introvert’s ability to spend untold hours in intensive solitary study. Yet these same qualities that served us so well in graduate school often set us up for frustration and struggle as teachers. Intensely intellectual nerds who need a lot of time alone to research, write, and ponder are not natural-born classroom performers. Those of us who want to foster student learning have to constantly push ourselves out of our comfort zone and also continue to educate ourselves about teaching and learning. It can be exhausting. How do we cope? How do we maintain energy for and interest in effective teaching and learning? At my small rural state university, I’ve seen a wide range of strategies, from highly productive (attending teaching conferences, soliciting support from the Center for Teaching Excellence, mentoring junior faculty) to downright dysfunctional (bitterness, alcoholism, despair). I’d like to suggest another option: cultivating a gratitude practice.
Teaching Burnout as Occupational Hazard
Most of us currently teaching college classes did not set out to become teachers. Rather, we were good students who fell in love with a topic and decided to become students of that topic forever and ever. But because the (paid) job of “Sitting in an Ivory Tower and Thinking Deep Thoughts” doesn’t actually exist, we joined the professoriate although we may well have received little training or preparation for teaching. Thus high-achieving Ph.D.s who are lucky enough to secure a teaching position find themselves, after years of academic excellence, failing as effective teachers—flummoxed by a room full of bored eighteen-year-olds far more interested in Instagram than in whatever high falutin’ thing you think they should be learning how to do.
When introverted bookworms emerge blinking and befuddled after years in the archive or the laboratory, we are ill-equipped to navigate the highly complex and psychologically messy set of human activities that comprise teaching and learning in college. As advances in brain science show, the learning process itself is inherently arduous, even painful . Sure, we loved the mental rigor required to learn our subject but most students don’t. Moreover, college is an economic, emotional, and socially fraught undertaking for which many students are woefully underprepared. Throw in the complicated ways that identity (gender presentation, physical ability, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, economic class) shapes education, and the stage is set for burnout. Teaching and learning are fricking hard.
In addition to these systematic challenges, college professors often face another challenge when they set out to be effective teachers: working with, um, other human beings. As socially awkward dorks, we do not effortlessly interact with strangers, respond well to other people’s emotions, and often don’t make a good first impression. So we have to work our butts off to do things that effective teachers do. Being approachable, fostering a positive classroom environment, and showing enthusiasm for learning takes a lot out of us . Don’t even get me started on departmental and institutional conditions. Sarcastic backstabbing colleagues, clueless bloodsucking administrators, byzantine tenure processes, teaching overloads, adjunct exploitation and so much more! All these things can contribute to teaching fatigue. Practicing gratitude as an educator is a practical way to counteract the burnout by training ourselves to see our teaching context fully, to notice and actively respond to the complete reality of our teaching lives.
“Gratitude?” But I’m an Intellectual/Scientist/Scholar, Not a New Age Hippie
Look, I get it: “gratitude” sounds almost…anti-intellectual. Lobotomize yourself with “positive thinking” and Oprahesque affirmations and bury your head in the sand, right? On the contrary, a gratitude practice is nothing more or less than slowly training yourself to clearly see reality—reality as it is, not what you fear, hope, desire or expect but simply and only what is, without judgment or commentary. As Kerry Howells explains in her compelling book Gratitude in Education: A Radical View, gratitude can be a helpful strategy for educators facing workplace challenges and fighting professional exhaustion. Drawing on Buddhist mindfulness, the gratitude practices espoused by Howell never require ignoring negative situations or pretending everything’s always okay. Instead, practicing mindfulness and gratitude requires you pay attention to everything that is happening. Doing so doesn’t mean avoiding or denying the negative but it does mean acknowledging the positive by bringing a sense of curiosity to any situation and asking “What is really happening right now?”
That doesn’t sound too flakey, now does it? After all, hardnosed, scientifically-trained researchers have published numerous evidence-based studies demonstrating how gratitude practices reduce stress and enhance our mental and physical health . Chances are that you’re probably pretty good at stuff like “observe” and “focus attention” because you earned an advanced degree by focusing on the minutia of your beloved academic subject. A gratitude practice just means using that focused attention to locate what Howells calls the “gifts” we regularly receive as educators.
Whoa, whoa, whoa—“gifts?” If you are dealing with a full blown case of burnout right now and/or if you work in a particularly negative teaching context, the word “gifts” might understandably grate on your nerves. Stay with me because even though it may sound counterintuitive, Howells is right and gifts are indeed always part of education work.
Go Ahead, Take the Gift
I say “counterintuitive” because as Howells points out, a lot of college teaching and academia generally fosters, well, ingratitude. Professors are trained criticizers, highly skilled in picking apart things and pointing out errors. Even in the best of departments, there’s a lot of complaining—about students, about colleagues, about publishers, about administrators, and on and on. The tiered teaching system with its grossly unfair compensation hierarchies creates a sense of burning injustice, not gratitude. And stressed-out students falling ever deeper into debt rarely bubble over with gratitude when they encounter educational challenges. “Golly Professor, I sure appreciate the chance to learn a valuable life lesson by reflecting on the hot mess I’ve made of my work for your class! I failed your seminar but who cares about grades when I’ve advanced my knowledge of how to do better in the future!”
Howells emphasizes that to say we receive gifts as educators isn’t to pretend that we don’t regularly encounter stressful situations and people, but practicing gratitude allows us to become more aware of our teaching realities. Those realities always contain gifts, along with whatever else they contain. For example, your 9:00 a.m. class is continually disrupted and derailed by Student X. Okay, yes, Student X is a complete jackass who deserves to rot in hell and you better figure out how to deal with him as soon as possible. When you are cultivating gratitude, you don’t ignore Student X. However, you also pay more attention to Students Y and Z. Wow, looky there, Student Y read your feedback carefully, applied it, and did much better on the next assignment! And hey, didja notice that Student Z always arrives early to class, wide awake and prepared to listen and take notes?
“But,” you splutter, “they’re supposed to be doing those things!” Okay, time to put that big brain of yours to use and hold onto two different ideas at the same time. Idea #1: students are merely fulfilling their academic responsibilities. Idea #2: students are giving you a gift. Both of these things are true and real. These students are enabling you to teach more effectively by taking responsibility for their own learning and showing respect for your efforts, thereby gifting you with the ultimate payoff for all those hours you spent preparing and assessing: they’re increasing their skills and knowledge. Climb down off your cross of professorial suffering (Lo, see how I doth suffer and toil over grading these papers that so suckth!). Go ahead and take the gift.
When you get into the mental habit of acknowledging gifts, you’ll see how many there can be. If it makes it easier for you nerds to digest, think of this in terms of physics. What makes energy grow? Energy. Black holes grow the more planets they absorb. Student X will easily absorb every ounce of your pedagogical energy if you let him, so why not let Students A-W, Y, and Z take up more space and energy in your teaching universe? Or try looking at it from an evolutionary psychology perspective. Negativity bias leads us to fixate on the things that go wrong in our teaching, and our personalities tend toward introversion and obsessive thinking exacerbating our teaching tiredness. Practicing gratitude is a practical, proven countermeasure.
Importantly, practicing gratitude isn’t just a mental exercise. It begins in your brain and in your senses as you work to be fully aware of the reality of any given moment. This is only the first step though, as Howells emphasizes. Expressing gratitude as an action is the essential next step in cultivating gratitude and building up a regular gratitude practice. For instance, you notice Student Z is always on time and ready to begin class so you say to Student Z, “Thank you for being on time and ready to begin class.” No strings attached. You’re not assessing Student Z’s work and giving positive feedback in hopes she’ll continue doing it. You are purely and simply saying “Thank you for contributing to a positive classroom environment today.” After you do that a few times (or many times because it feels weird at first), you can build up to regularly thanking everyone present in class because at the very least, they’re there, and you are taking the gift in that. Recognition of the gift leads to expression of gratitude for the gift leads to a gratitude practice.
Practice Does Not Make Perfect
“Practice” is the key word here. “Practice” as in something you do frequently because you enjoy getting better at it and there are real-life payoffs for doing it. Not “practice” as in slogging doggedly towards some unachievable yogic Zen ideal. There’s no teaching nirvana waiting down the road if you do gratitude flawlessly. Nothing is going to miraculously transform the hard work of teaching and learning into rainbows and lollipops. Howells strongly cautions teachers against berating ourselves for not constantly “feeling grateful.” That’s not how it works. Sometimes it’s easy to spot the gift, sometimes it’s not, and nobody can do it every single moment of every single day.
Start really small and really, really, really easy. Notice one thing, just one, during the day, which seemed like a gift. Make a list for yourself of those things. Notice something different every day and start with the simplest and/or most obvious: the class laughed at one of your jokes, your best student earned an award, a colleague paid you a genuine compliment, your department secretary did some extra work to straighten out a paperwork problem. These were all gifts, containing the roots of a potential gratitude practice: You routinely thank all the students in your classes for positive responses to your efforts; you regularly thank exceptional students for the pleasure of seeing them succeed; you often compliment colleagues; you recognize administrative staff for their support.
Maybe when you’ve built up your gratitude muscle and have spent a long time practicing how to recognize what is without preconception, fear, anger, or judgment and to see the gifts therein, you might even be able to see Student X’s disruptive behavior more fully. Maybe deliberately trying to drive you batshit crazy is not actually his sole purpose in life but rather part of a bigger picture in which students resist learning and act out as a way to cope with academic anxiety, unpreparedness, and a host of other issues unrelated to you personally . Maybe then you can stop defensively reacting and instead start deliberately acting in order to productively address the situation—one of the important benefits of a gratitude practice, according to Howells. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll even see a gift in Student X’s incivility, like here is a good opportunity for you to do meaningful work in a world where most people don’t get that luxury. However, this is varsity level gratitude. For goodness’ sake, don’t set yourself up for failure by starting out with your most difficult teaching situation! The whole point is to cultivate a tool for counteracting educational enervation, not to add yet another overwhelming task to your already massive To Do list.
Professors get teaching-fatigue because we are intellectual introverts facing the inherent challenges of teaching and learning in the culture of academia. Training ourselves to notice the gifts we receive and to make a practice of cultivating gratitude can help offset that burnout, no rose-colored glasses or meditation mat required.
 On teaching, learning, and the brain, see for example James E. Zull, The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2002).
 See for example Elizabeth F. Barkley, Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010).
 See for example Robert Emmons and Michael McCollough, eds., The Psychology of Gratitude (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Casaundra N. Harbaugh and Michael W. Vasey, “When Do People Benefit from Gratitude Practice?” The Journal of Positive Psychology 9, no. 6 (2014); 535-546; Randy Sansone and Lori Sansone; “Gratitude and Well Being: The Benefits of Appreciation,” Psychiatry 7, no. 11 (November 2010): 18-21; Martin E. P. Seligman, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being (New York: Free Press, 2011); Michele Tugade, Michelle Shiota, and Leslie D. Kirby, eds., Handbook of Positive Emotions (New York: Guildford Press, 2014); Philip Watkins, Gratitude and the Good Life: Towards a Psychology of Appreciation (Dordrecht: Springer, 2014); Philip Watkins, Jens Uhder, and Stan Pichinevskiy. “Grateful Recounting Enhances Subjective Well-Being: The Importance of Grateful Processing,” Journal of Positive Psychology 10, no. 2 (March 2015): 91-99; Alex M. Wood, Jeffery J. Froh, and Adam W.A. Geraghty, “Gratitude and Well-Being: A Review and Theoretical Integration,” Clinical Psychology Review 30 (2010): 890-905; Mark E. Young and Tracy Hutchinson, “The Rediscovery of Gratitude: Implications for Counseling Practice,” Journal of Humanistic Counseling 51 (April 2012): 99-113.
 See for example Rebecca D. Cox, The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011) and Anton O. Tolman and Janine Kremling, editors, Why Students Resist Learning: A Practical Model for Understanding and Helping Students (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2017).
Jessamyn Neuhaus is a professor of U.S. history and popular culture at SUNY Plattsburgh and the author of Manly Meals and Mom’s Home Cooking: Cookbooks and Gender in Modern America and Housework and Housewives in American Advertising: Married to the Mop, in addition to numerous scholarly articles. Winner of the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, she frequently presents on pedagogy and has published articles in Teaching History and The History Teacher. Neuhaus is currently completing a book manuscript about best practices for nerds, introverts, and geeks who want to be effective teachers.
In addition to her book Gratitude in Education: A Radical View (Boston: SensePublishers, 2012), Kerry Howells’ website http://www.kerryhowells.com/ offers an online gratitude in education course and has links to videos of her public talks. For more information about the proven benefits of practicing gratitude, see Robert Emmons’ research and The Greater Good Science Center’s “Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude” project. A word of caution: There are numerous guides to cultivating gratitude but many of them do not offer much more than facile advice to “count your blessings.” Additionally, many resources for educators are aimed at K-12 teachers and discuss how to cultivate gratitude in students—a worthy goal indeed but as Howells rightly points out, a project that should only be undertaken after a great deal of careful preparation, research, training, and planning. If you’re interested in specific advice on cultivating a gratitude practice, I’ve found that researchers in the field of positive psychology are generally trustworthy. See for example “31 Gratitude Exercises that Will Boost Your Happiness.”
Apply the Science of Learning to Video Content You Create for Students
Media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously coined the phrase, “the medium is the message.” We believe that when an educator invests their time and resources into developing original educational videos for their online and blended courses, they are communicating a clear message about the high value they have placed on establishing instructor presence and supporting student learning in their courses.
Using an abbreviated lecture format (called microlecturing) allows educators to lean on the familiarity of the lecture while simultaneously leveraging to their advantage evidence-based principles from the cognitive theory of multimedia learning. These principles, developed by educational psychologist Richard E. Mayer, help educators apply the science of learning to the creation of their instructional videos (and other instructional materials). Ultimately, these principles are designed to help learners manage cognitive load (the amount of mental effort used in working memory) as they are engaged in the act of learning.
Here is a quick review of five principles from Mayer’s theory that you can use to optimize your videos for learning:
1- Coherence Principle
When students are learning unfamiliar information, they are more easily distracted by external noise. For this reason, it’s important to omit purely decorative images, unnecessary animations, distracting sound effects, and background music in your videos. It’s also worth it to ensure your recording environment is clean and tidy and that there are no environmental distractions (such as pets or children when recording at home) before you begin recording.
2- Segmenting Principle
More effective learning happens when we present content in small bite-sized chunks. To begin, this is why we recommend using a microlecture format that limits video duration to 3-5 minutes.
Another way to break-up content into segments is to incorporate strategic pauses into your videos. This makes room for learners to process new information and engage in reflective learning. Reflective strategies ask students to deepen their learning by periodically assessing their own thinking process. Two methods we use to build reflective pauses into our videos are the honor system (meaning that periodically during the video the speaker will prompt listeners to pause their videos to engage in a specific reflective activity before continuing to watch the video) and using an interactive video authoring tool (free tools such as PlayPosit or Office Mix allow you to build interactive questions into your videos - learner responses are recorded for added accountability).
Segmenting also applies to the visuals you present in your videos. If you are narrating slides, your slide design should follow the six by six rule. This means no more than six things per slide (images or bullet points) and no more than six words per bullet point.
3- Redundancy Principle
Learning is more effective with just animation and narration. This means that educators who read directly from their slides may be doing a disservice to their learners. Therefore, redundant text should be avoided. This means that it is more effective to provide a narrated animation, a narrated image, or to reduce slide text down to keywords and keyword phrases.
4- Personalization Principle
Using an informal (conversational) tone will deepen learning. This means it is important to sound like you in your videos. Online classes especially are humanized through video. The occasional audible pause or backtrack on a misspoken word adds to the human factor in your classes. Though, the quality of a video is important, it is not necessary to have perfection in your videos.
5- Pre-training Principle
When students are familiar with key vocabulary and concepts before a lesson begins, they are better able to receive the information you present. At the beginning of your video, remind students if there is any content that should be reviewed before viewing the video in its entirety. When you structure your videos into your classes, use text annotations to add context to video content. This helps prepare students for learning.
Using these principles and best practices, the “message” you communicate to your students is that you value their learning process and that you want to engage them in it. If you are interested in learning more about creating effective online video content, please visit our open access resource, The Online Lecture Toolkit, designed for educators.
Melissa Wehler, PhD and Judith Dutill, MA are project managers for The Online Lecture Toolkit, an open access resource designed to make the application of evidence-based strategies accessible for educators and instructional designers at every level of technological fluency. Melissa Wehler is the Dean of Humanities and Sciences at Central Penn College. Judith Dutill is an instructional designer at Millersville University and an adjunct faculty member at Harrisburg Area Community College.
Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multimedia Learning. Cambridge University Press.
My own mindfulness journey began when I decided to try a yoga class at the local YMCA in Maine during the summer after my second year of graduate school. As a “Type A” personality who was raised in an achievement-focused family, yoga opened my eyes to a world of new coping strategies for dealing with stress. I left each class experiencing a level of relaxation that I had rarely felt before. Since that first experience, barely a week has gone by that I haven’t attended at least one yoga class. The stretching, breathing, and meditation have helped me maintain balance amidst life’s many challenges over the past 18 years.
As a faculty member at a small liberal arts institution for the past decade, I’ve seen students struggling with various academic and personal stressors, with very limited coping resources to draw upon. Prior to the spring of 2017, I had periodically led students in brief mindfulness exercises (e.g., when covering the topic of Stress and Health in my Psy100 class). However, incorporating a formal mindfulness component into a course felt risky to me. I had many doubts, including how students would respond and the logistics of embarking on this new teaching endeavor.
Scientific Evidence for the Benefits of Mindfulness
To help ease my doubts, I turned to the research literature on this topic. I learned that participation in mindfulness-based programs has produced positive outcomes for college students, including reduced symptoms of anxiety (Call et al., 2014), decreased symptoms of depression (McIndoo et al., 2016), increased mindful awareness and self-control (Canby et al., 2015), and improvements in sleep quality and self-compassion (Greeson et al., 2014). A few studies have even shown that brief mindfulness exercises introduced at the beginning of each class meeting can have positive effects on psychological well-being and/or academic performance (i.e., Ramsburg & Youmans, 2014; Yamada & Victor, 2012). I felt encouraged by this scientific evidence!
Conversations with my talented yoga and mindfulness teacher, Jacoby Ballard, during the spring of 2016 were also helped with the decision to incorporate mindfulness in one of my courses. Jacoby suggested that I read Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning, and he highly recommended that I attend a workshop led by the authors of this book. I felt excited about the possibility of gathering with like-minded educators from across the country to learn more about teaching mindfulness to college students. After talking with Jacoby and learning about the research evidence on this topic, I decided to take the next steps toward sharing my passion for mindfulness with students in my developmental psychology seminar that would be offered in the spring of 2017.
To help me accomplish this goal, I applied for (and received) an innovative teaching grant offered through our Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). My plan was to integrate mindfulness into an upper-level developmental psychology seminar focused on developmental psychopathology, a perspective that emphasizes understanding risk and resilience in the lives of children and adolescents. I conceptualized the mindfulness strategies as a form of active learning that would help students build resilience in their own lives. The grant allowed me to attend the “Contemplative Practice in Higher Education” workshop at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York in the fall of 2016. Participating in the workshop helped me develop a better understanding of a broad range of activities that fall under the category of “contemplative” or “mindfulness” practices.
Throughout the fall 2016 semester, I participated in small group meetings every three weeks with the group of faculty on my campus who had received innovative teaching grants. Through these meetings, I developed my ideas about what the mindfulness component of my class would actually look like, obtaining feedback from group members on course design and assignments. Although my yoga teacher Jacoby relocated to Massachusetts during the summer of 2016, I kept in touch with him via e-mail and periodic phone calls. He suggested several helpful resources, and we strategized about ways in which I could strengthen my own daily mindfulness practice in preparation for doing this work with my students.
By exploring the books and other resources recommended by Jacoby, I expanded my own repertoire of mindfulness exercises that I was then able to share with my students. Throughout the spring 2017 semester, I led my seminar students through deep breathing exercises, intention setting, loving kindness meditations, other guided meditations, and yoga, and we also discussed ways to incorporate mindfulness into various daily activities such as walking to and from class.
The students read a chapter each week from a book entitled “Real World Mindfulness for Beginners: Navigate Daily Life One Practice at a Time”, edited by Brenda Salgado, along with other chapters and research articles about mindfulness. At the beginning of the semester, I suggested that each student use the free app called Insight Timer, which has many guided meditations to choose from, allows you to virtually connect with others who have the same app, has a timer for unguided meditation, and logs each session of meditation that you complete. Some students used this app, but several students found other apps that they preferred (e.g., Calm, Buddhify). A few weeks into the mindfulness component of the course, I started a discussion feed on Canvas and asked that students post about their favorite apps/guided meditations within apps, websites, etc., so that everyone in class could refer to this list for ideas. We also shared ideas during in-class discussions.
In addition to the teaching grant, I obtained funds from the Provost’s Office and the Vice President of Student Affairs to bring Jacoby back to campus to work with students in two different ways. First, he offered an in-class workshop on yoga and mindfulness for the students in my seminar. He also presented an evening campus-wide talk entitled “Mindfulness and Social Change” that my students were required to attend. Jacoby’s campus visit was in early March, after my students had been practicing mindfulness for about four to five weeks. They had many thoughtful questions for Jacoby during his visit and I thought it was very beneficial for them to learn mindfulness strategies from someone considered an expert in that field.
Outcomes –the Expected and the Unexpected
Regarding anticipated outcomes, it was sometimes challenging to set aside time for the in-class mindfulness practices and discussions when there was so much other course material that I wanted to cover. Also as expected, although all students completed the weekly mindfulness logs and reflection papers, some seemed to be more invested in the mindfulness component of the course than others.
Somewhat unexpectedly, I was pleased to see the great extent to which some students benefited from the weekly practices outside of class. Some students ended up practicing more than the required three times per week and described dramatic differences in their stress levels, understanding of mindfulness, levels of self-compassion, etc. throughout the semester. I was also surprised by the quality of the reflection papers, in which many students shared powerful insights and personal struggles that they were facing throughout the semester. This allowed me to get to know students in a different way. I was pleased with how many connections students were able to make between course material (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy for youth with anxiety and depression) and the mindfulness practices.
Reflection on Student Learning
To help capture the impact of the mindfulness practices on students’ learning, I created an end-of-semester assessment. Through this questionnaire, many students expressed having a broadened understanding of the concept of mindfulness. The mean scores on these questions were all between 4 and 5 (1 = not at all/never to 5= very much/often), with mean scores to specific questions as follows:
Change in understanding of mindfulness: 4.50
Frequency of practice outside of class: 3.86
How much did you enjoy outside/inside of class practice: 3.94/3.84
Enhanced learning of material: 3.92
In students’ responses to open-ended questions, the following themes emerged:
Learned about how beneficial mindfulness can be
Learned that there are many different types of mindfulness practices
Practicing mindfulness reduced their stress
Majority expressed enjoying the in-class mindfulness exercises
For additional qualitative feedback, I pulled quotes from the students’ final mindfulness reflection papers. Several example quotes are included below:
“…participating in mindfulness allowed me to become much more aware of my body and my thoughts…”
“I have learned the value of being able to take a step back and take a moment for myself…”
“…The exercises opened my eyes and enabled me to be much more kindhearted towards myself as well as patient…”
“…Each time I find myself feeling overwhelmed now I always take a few seconds to stop and breathe…
In both the end-of-semester assessment and the final mindfulness reflection papers, the majority of students reported enjoying the mindfulness component of the course, expressed that the mindfulness exercises helped to broaden their perspective and to manage their stress during the semester, and several of them expressed that they planned to continue completing the exercises on their own in the future.
In the final reflection paper I asked students to give advice to future developmental psychology seminar students about the mindfulness component of the course. The advice that they provided was invaluable, and I definitely plan to share this information with my future students!
Lessons Learned and Ideas for the Future
In terms of “lessons learned” from implementing the mindfulness component of the course, I offer the following:
Students may be reluctant at first – presenting them with the scientific evidence regarding the benefits of mindfulness (via assigned readings) can be helpful to reduce resistance; emphasizing that mindfulness is a skill that needs to be developed through practice is also key.
It is very important for the course instructor to engage in his/her own mindfulness practice, outside of the in-class exercises being completed with students – this approach can help the instructor to identify “pitfalls” and relate more easily to the challenges that students describe as they embark on their own mindfulness journeys.
Students enjoyed using apps; they reported being able to engage in guided meditations more easily than unguided; most students had to try several different guided meditations before finding their own favorites.
Carving out class time for mindfulness exercises/discussion was challenging, but worthwhile.
Bringing in a yoga/mindfulness expert for the in-class workshop and evening talk worked well; it was helpful for students to participate in a “hands on” session led by someone who has devoted his career to yoga and mindfulness; he answered their questions and offered a valuable perspective that students may not have gained otherwise.
Some students thought that the weekly mindfulness logs were burdensome, in the future I may consider a different method.
Next spring, I plan to repeat the mindfulness component of this course. By continuing my personal mindfulness practice, I hope to be able to broaden the range of mindfulness exercises that I can offer to my students. While working with my students last spring, my own understanding of mindfulness expanded. I learned a great deal by watching them discover mindfulness for the first time. This teaching endeavor was extremely rewarding, and has transformed my once reluctant stance on integrating mindfulness into the college classroom.
Julie Newman Kingery, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Psychology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. Her research focuses on associations between peer relationships and psychological adjustment during early adolescence, as well as the peer experiences of youth with anxiety disorders. She recently completed a research paper on the relationship between dispositional mindfulness and emotional well-being among college students, and looks forward to future scholarly endeavors related to mindfulness. In her spare time, she enjoys yoga, running, and spending time with her husband and two young children in the beautiful Finger Lakes region of western New York.
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Salzberg, S. (2015). The kindness handbook. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
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Thupten, J. (2015). A fearless heart: How the courage to be compassionate can transform our lives. New York, NY: Hudson Street Press.
Stop, Breath & Think: To view and sample various guided meditations available through this app, go to: https://app.stopbreathethink.org (then click on List of Meditations).
Call, D., Miron, L., Orcutt, H. (2014). Effectiveness of Brief Mindfulness Techniques in Reducing Symptoms of Anxiety and Stress. Mindfulness, 5, 658-668.
Canby, N. K., Cameron, I. M., Calhoun, A. T., & Buchanan, G. M. (2015). A brief mindfulness intervention for healthy college students and its effects on psychological distress, self- control, meta-mood, and subjective vitality. Mindfulness, 6, 1071-1081.
Greeson, J. M., Juberg, M. K., Maytan, M., James, K., & Rogers, H. (2014). A randomized controlled trial of Koru: A mindfulness program for college students and other emerging adults. Journal of American College Health, 62, 222-233.
McIndoo, C. C., File, A. A., Preddy, T., Clark, C. G., & Hopko, D. R. (2016). Mindfulness-based therapy and behavioral activation: A randomized controlled trial with depressed college students. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 77, 118-128.
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There has been a whirlwind of technological change in the classroom since I was an undergraduate student in the late 1980’s. Back then, class lectures were written on transparent plastic sheets and were projected onto a screen. Videos were played from VHS tapes shown on a television on a rolling cart. Students would take notes (or doodle casually) in spiral-bound notebooks. Laptops and phones were not around then to relentlessly distract us from the task at hand.
Sometime after the turn of the century, the use of Microsoft PowerPoint became a standard lecture tool. The advantages were obvious: videos and pictures could be included without using a separate device, no more sorting through plastic transparencies, and materials could be digitally shared with students. Students began bringing their laptops to take notes on their own copy of the slides. Instead of seeing a sea of bent heads scribbling notes, today’s instructors are faced with a room full of Apple and Dell logos.
It would be easy to fall into the trap of believing that technology is evil; or, at least, the root of many problems. One study, for example, reported that when people knew they could use Google to find information they would remember the source of the information rather than the information itself (Sparrow, Liu, & Wegner, 2013). I don’t believe that memory is declining because it has been rendered obsolete due to the greater capacity for storage on external devices. It simply means that people have found a better way of using their memory. Even Einstein realized the clear advantages of external memory when he reportedly commented, “Why should I memorize something when I know where to find it?" (Rossett & Mohr, 2004).
Technology in the classroom is not always good, however. While students feel confident in the power of their ‘external memory’, they may not pay as much attention in class. They may begin to use their class time in other ways. When we tracked Internet use during class, we found that students spent anywhere from seventeen minutes to almost an hour of a 100-minute class browsing the Internet on their laptop (Ravizza, Uitvlugt, & Fenn, 2017). Activities included watching videos, shopping, checking out social media, and looking up information to do homework for another class. It will come as no surprise that we found that the longer students spent browsing shoes at Zappos or kitten videos on Instagram the lower were their test scores on the final exam (Ravizza, Uitvlugt, & Fenn, 2017).
The Psychology of Distraction
Distraction in the classroom is nothing new. Students have been passing notes, drawing caricatures of their teachers, and staring out windows since the time of one-room school houses. The Internet broadens the scope of distractions. Passing notes has been upgraded to instant messaging allowing people to “pass notes” to anyone, anywhere. These notes have also been given lights and sounds and emoticons. Texts and instant messages are received from people who are not in the classroom and, therefore, have no insight into how distracting their communication might be. This is also why texting while driving is far worse than talking to a passenger who is with you in the car (Drews, Pasupathi, and Strayer, 2008).
Internet use, such as compulsively checking texts or emails, can also become addictive (Block, 2008). Indeed, Internet addiction is characterized by excessive use, withdrawal symptoms, and is marked by activity in reward regions of the brain (Dong, DeVito, Du, & Cui, 2012; Turel, He, Xue, Xiao, & Bechara, 2014). Given its addictive properties, it might be difficult for some students to stop using the Internet when they get to class. We did not directly measure Internet addiction in our study, but found that students used the Internet regardless of intelligence, motivation, or interest in the class material (Ravizza, Uitvlugt and Fenn, 2017).
Despite the perils of distraction it makes sense to ask: could the benefits of using a laptop outweigh the potential problems? To answer this question, we measured how much time was spent on class-related Internet use. For example, students sometimes browsed for a term such as “classical conditioning”, a topic which was discussed in class. We found that this type of classroom use was unrelated to final exam score (Ravizza, Uitvlugt, & Fenn, 2017). Using the Internet to directly augment classroom learning did not help the student although it did not hurt them either.
Should technology be used in the classroom?
There are potential benefits of technology use such as laptops in the classroom. Results from research have suggested, for instance, that technology provides a less intimidating way for students to participate in class by allowing them to perform activities such as Tweeting questions to the instructor (Dunlap & Lowenthal, 2009). A laptop or Smartphone is not necessary, however, to encourage participation in class. Devices such as iClickers also allow all students to answer questions without having to raise their hands and do not require students to bring a laptop to class.
Most research on Internet use in the classroom has focused on a lecture-based format. There are courses, however, in which technology may be integrated into the class structure. Some instructors, for example, might encourage Internet research in class to augment small group discussion. Similarly, instructors might mandate that students access on-line learning demonstrations or adaptive quiz technology while in class. Even in such cases, where technology is assumed to enrich learning, there is no guarantee that students are using their computers for the intended purpose. In a high school class focusing on Microsoft Word and Excel certification, for example, the student co-author of this piece (JA), observed other students playing on-line games during class. These types of distractions are just as prevalent at the college level.
Unfortunately, for many classes, the costs of bringing a laptop to class may ultimately be higher than the potential benefit. In addition to the potentials for distraction discussed above, using a word processor to type notes is not as beneficial for learning as writing notes by hand. Hand writing notes forces the student to summarize, engaging their mind in trying to extract important ideas from the lecture. This deeper processing results in better learning (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). If lecture slides are posted beforehand, students may be even less inclined to engage in summarizing and integrating class information.
Given the abundance of studies showing that poor learning is related to Internet use (Junco, 2012; Kraushaar & Novak, 2010; Risko, Buchanan, Medimorec, & Kingstone, 2013; Rosen, Lim, Carrier, & Cheever, 2011; Sana, Weston, & Cepeda, 2013; Wood et al., 2012), I actively dissuade students from bringing their laptop to class. If students bring their laptop, I ask them to sit in the back so that they will not distract other students who can see their screens (Sana, Weston, & Cepeda, 2013). I have also stopped posting my lecture slides before class to encourage students to take notes by hand. Instead, I post the slides before every review session. In my evaluations, students commented that I went too fast for them to take notes by hand so, in order for this strategy to be effective, keep in mind that you may need to slow down, to allow students to be able consolidate concepts in their notes.
In conclusion, there is little evidence that the benefits of bringing a laptop to class outweigh the costs to note-taking and attention in a typical lecture-based class.
Susan Ravizza is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Michigan State University. Her work on Internet use in the classroom is funded by an NSF Early Career Development grant #1149078 and is part of a larger research program concerned with how people use their working memory efficiently.
Julien Azar is a student in high school. He has insight into the effects of portable devices in the classroom as he has attended some schools where portable devices have been encouraged and others where they were prohibited. He brings a Smartphone to school, but only checks it at lunch.
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