Prehistoric psychology may be an overlooked opportunity to help students develop critical thinking skills.
In 1992, while still a teenager, I grabbed a backpack and headed to Asia. I spent months exploring remote corners of India and Nepal. I am guilty—I admit—of wearing the memory of this trip as a badge of superiority. Occasionally, when I speak with a millennial about to embark on a modern version of the same voyage, I am taken aback. Because of the Internet, my younger counterparts are able to book rooms on-line and use Google Earth to explore their destinations right down to individual park benches and shady spots at the beach. “The good ol’ days,” I am tempted to say to them, “when traveling was an adventure!” Of course, in these moments of weakness I am reminded of the aged hippies I met in the Himalayas in the early-nineties. They shook their heads sadly at me and said, “you should have been here in the sixties; now, that was real travel!” I am certain that my great grandmother could have scolded them on their fancy air travel; advocating for the good ol’ days when ship travel ruled. It is a familiar trope: Back and back we can go. Each generation longing for the times of old when, certainly, things were better.
Which brings us to the intriguing question: If we go back all the way—to the paleolithic era and the advent of modern humans—were times, indeed, better? A fascinating new Noba chapter on Paleolithic happiness by Darrin McMahon, the Dartmouth historian and author of Happiness: A History, ponders exactly this question. While McMahon cautions against romanticizing the lives of our Stone Age forebears, he also suggests life may not have been awful. Perhaps it had a little more Flintstones fun and not as much Jurassic Park terror. It is difficult to pinpoint the quality of life of paleolithic people but, despite the absence of written records, it is possible. According to McMahon:
The small human population likely meant that turf wars and border skirmishes were less common than they are today.
The fossil record seems to suggest that our nomadic hunting and gathering ancestors died of starvation at a lower rate than did their post-agricultural revolution counterparts.
The “work week” of hunter-gatherers is significantly shorter than the modern work week (many estimates based on modern hunter-gatherer societies suggest a 20-hour work week).
Smaller family and community groups also suggests much lower rates of the spread of epidemic illnesses.
Are these indicators proof that prehistoric humans were happy? Not really. Even so, more free time, better health, greater good security, and the ability to flee violence appear desirable. McMahon’s most interesting argument is not found in food, health, or work. Instead, he makes the case that human psychology has changed in important ways over the last ten millennia or so, and that this change can clearly be seen in the case of happiness.
In English, “happiness” is a word that was originally associated with good luck. To be happy, in other words, was to have good fortune. In olden days, a person’s happiness was an “easy come, easy go” phenomenon. Some days had good weather and plentiful fruit to eat and other days had rainstorms and the occasional rampaging mammoth. It is even possible to see vestiges of this type of fatalism in traditional societies in the modern era. Certainly, the ability to accept the whims of fate represented a psychological resilience in the unpredictable landscape in which our ancestors lived.
It is easy and interesting to contrast that attitude with the contemporary one. Nowadays, people—especially those in technologically and economically developed societies— have a very different mindset. Most of us believe that we are agents in our own lives: capable of affecting outcomes ranging from finding meaning at work to adjusting our optimism about the future. We believe—at least intuitively—that we are so powerful that we can make missing luggage appear by complaining or affecting the sales of products and services by leaving on-line reviews. While this modern attitude makes us feel powerful, it is also quite a responsibility to bear. Simply put, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that if we aren’t happy it is somehow partly our own fault.
In the end, the question of whether cave people were happy is less about arriving at a single factual conclusion and more about how to make a reasonable case one way or the other. McMahon offers evidence to support his conclusion but it is easy to think of refutations. Here is where a chapter like this can be used as a classroom or homework assignment to promote students’ research acumen and critical thinking. Consider the example assignment below:
McMahon, D. M. (2018). From the Paleolithic to the present: Three revolutions in the global history of happiness. In E. Diener, S. Oishi, & L. Tay (Eds.), Handbook of well-being. Salt Lake City, UT: DEF Publishers. DOI:nobascholar.com
In the target article referenced above, the author makes the case that early humans enjoyed a relatively—even surprisingly high—quality of life. He offers a review of research and of historical trends to support his conclusion. After reading the article, reflect on the degree to which you found it persuasive. Did the author convince you? Do you have lingering doubts? If so, what are they? Write a one-page response paper in which you assess the evidence presented by the author. Present any concerns you have about gaps in the evidence, or evidence pointing to a different conclusion. To do so, you will need to conduct a brief literature review and cite sources.
The chapter on paleolithic happiness is just one of 60 new chapters available at Noba’s scholarly sister-site, Noba Scholar. Where Noba Project provides modules for undergraduate and high school level instruction, Noba Scholar is intended for an advanced understanding of psychology (Honors or graduate students, or those holding an advanced degree). Currently, Noba Scholar is host to the Handbook of Well-being. This handbook is an edited volume that includes chapters on culture, assessment, theories, intervention, correlates and other areas related to happiness. More comprehensive handbooks on other topics will be published in the future. Feel free to check it out, share it, and let us know what you think.
It’s almost that time of year again…midterms are here, assignments are due, and students are panicking. In fact, based on the literature, the majority of students are not as prepared as they would like to be. Nearly 70% of students report that procrastination is a problem, with a meager 4% reporting that it is not an issue (Schowenburg et al., 2004). As instructors, we’ve all experienced the frustration of telling students to start studying early, to avoid cramming, and to schedule properly. While these are all sound pieces of advice, I wonder how many academics actually follow them? Perhaps part of the reason that students do not use their time effectively is that they have poor role models – their instructors! Academics are known to struggle with many of the same issues as students. For most of us, there is always that manuscript that can wait another day, or the research project that will get off the ground as soon as there is enough time. It’s not surprising that a small number of academics account for the majority of published work (Boice, 2000). What makes these academics different?
To help both students and faculty, I recommend following the guidance of Robert Boice. Boice studied academics and was interested in what separated those who were productive from those who were not. While his work focused on college and university faculty, there are aspects of his rules that are beneficial to students. I initially incorporated these rules into a lecture at the beginning of term for students in my advanced level courses. I realized though, that students benefit from receiving this information earlier in their studies. As such, my introductory classes now receive a similar lecture. Here is an adapted version of the key rules that I discuss with students.
Rule 1: Wait.
Boice (2000) found that people who managed their time well did not jump into work. This may seem counterintuitive to anyone who has a busy schedule. Often we feel like we are running from one task to the next. By “waiting”, Boice recommends taking a few moments and gathering your thoughts or meditating before starting work. One way to think about this is to consider what you do when you start your work day. Do you turn on the computer and jump straight to email? Does the day begin rushing into the classroom? If that sounds like you, consider taking a few moments before beginning a task and relaxing, while deciding how best to spend the next block of your time. Even as little time as a few minutes to gather and compose your thoughts can be valuable. The mindset of someone who has taken a few minutes to relax and reflect is much different than a person who rushes into work in a panic. The quality of the work will very likely be higher, and the task will be less stressful. This applies to students. Before a study session or work on a paper, I tell students to take two minutes to take a few deep breaths, consider exactly what they want to get done with the time they have allotted to study, and then to begin the work. A student who rushes into a study session worried about all the material that has to be covered will have a much different experience than a student who relaxes, decides what needs to be done, and approaches the material in a calm and focused manner.
Rule 2: Work in Brief Daily Sessions.
Boice was a strong advocate of starting tasks well in advance of deadlines and working in brief daily sessions. It’s well established that binge working is a poor strategy (e.g., Boice, 1989). In fact, Boice (1997) found that binge working is associated with poor health, lowered creativity, and leads to more binge working. By starting tasks early, and in regularly schedule intervals, there is time to reflect on the nature of the task and a reduction in stress. One reason that both students and faculty do not start early is that they do not feel prepared to begin. The reality is that with a difficult task, we rarely will ever feel ready to begin. By this, I mean that if we feel completely prepared to begin a task, it’s likely not one that we consider difficult!
By forcing ourselves to start early, we allow ourselves the flexibility to determine the best approach and have time to consider alternatives. When I discuss this idea in my courses, there is near unanimity among students that this is a good idea. However, when I ask the class a week later if anyone has actually implemented this strategy, the number of students who have started to work in brief, regular sessions is usually zero. To combat this, after I lecture on the value of this approach, I provide students with a handout of a weekly calendar. I ask them to cross out all of the times they know they are busy, such as scheduled classes. I then instruct them to schedule the brief, daily sessions. To help reinforce this, I have students share with each other in small groups when they are going to complete their brief, daily sessions, and on what assignment or task they will be working on. The addition of these social contingencies seems to help, as students start talking about who has maintained their schedule.
Rule 3: Know When to Stop.
By knowing when to stop, we can refer to two things. One is the idea that we should recognize when we are no longer productive and either take a break at this point or move to a different task. The other, and perhaps more important idea, is that we need to stop and allow ourselves enough time to prepare for future important tasks. William James, who published over 54, 000 pages during his lifetime (clearly a busy fellow), would stop what he was doing ten minutes before any class that he was teaching. He would use this time to go for a quick walk, clear his mind, and focus on the material and task ahead. Compare entering the classroom with this mindset versus a professor who works until the last minute before class, runs to make it to class on time, and jumps into the lecture material. Who is going to give the better presentation? On top of this, students pick up on the hurried pace of the instructor and can sense the anxiety.
This advice applies to students as well, and ties back to the first point of waiting. Before beginning an intense study session, students may want to consider taking a brief walk, or some other activity to clear their minds and prepare for the task ahead.* That is, they need to stop what they are doing and give themselves enough time to adequately prepare for the next task at hand.
(*I advise against staring at a computer screen. It can be more beneficial to get some fresh air, or even just walk around campus (e.g., Passmore & Holder, 2016).
Rule 4: Moderate Overreaction and Overattachment.
It is difficult to deal with criticism. Boice found that people who are successful are able to take criticism and find value in it. As academics, we receive our fair share of criticism through rejected manuscripts or less than enthusiastic student evaluations. Students receive a stream of criticism through incorrect exam answers, feedback on papers, and grades in general. As instructors, we’ve all encountered students who come to our office hours angry with the amount of red ink on a paper they have written. I always sympathize with students in this situation, as in general, we are not trained on how best to receive criticism. Students do not realize the amount of work that goes into grading a paper and providing feedback, and that the reason we do this is to help them improve. I begin many of my courses by explaining the value of criticism to students, and importantly, what to do with criticism. Nearly all criticism can be of value. Rather than being threatened by criticism, students should look over feedback, and decide how best to use this feedback to improve. This is a valuable skill. As students enter the workforce or graduate school, they will continue to receive criticism. Those that can take this information and use it to their advantage will be more successful.
Boice states that if there is an overarching theme to what he has found, it can be stated as ‘nihil nimus’, roughly translated as “everything in moderation”. By easing into work, scheduling brief, daily sessions, knowing when to stop, and moderating emotions, both faculty and students are going to be more productive and less stressed. I’ve only covered a small sample of the rules that Boice found. I strongly recommend that faculty look at Boice’s book, “Advice for New Faculty Members” (2000). As the title implies, this book is a great resource for new faculty, though I argue that his findings apply to anyone in academia who feel that they are not maximizing their time. As faculty, let’s lead by example, by teaching as well as demonstrating how to manage our time effectively.
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.
Boice, R. (1989). Procrastination, busyness and bingeing. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 27(6), 605–611.
Boice, R. (1997). Which is more productive, writing in binge patterns of creative illness or in moderation? Written Communication, 14(4), 435–459.
Boice, R. (2000). Advice for new faculty members: Nihil Nimus. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Schouwenburg, H. C., Lay, C. H., Pychyl, T. A., & Ferrari, J. R. (Eds.). (2004). Counseling the procrastinator in academic settings. (pp. xiii, 250–xiii, 250). Washington: American Psychological Association. http://doi.org/10.1037/10808-000
“Thank you for an amazing conference that balanced fun, teaching, and evidence based practice.”
“I love the opportunity to connect with like-minded colleagues!”
The most important thing I ever did for my career was to show up to places where teachers congregated. I was fortunate to have this opportunity locally, through a psychology department that gathered weekly on campus, regionally, through annual conferences, and nationally, through the Advance Placement Reading and the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology. Though I think everyone can benefit from conversations about teaching, I also think there are people like me who are more naturally drawn to them. Sure, I could read books and articles about teaching, or I could watch videos and attend cyber-workshops. But, there is just something special about showing up and being around like-minded people. It’s energizing and it makes me a better teacher.
Arriving on the first day of class armed with evidence-based pedagogical decisions has given me so much confidence in my practice. Students appreciate hearing the justification for limiting electronics in the classroom, assessing professional development skills along with content, classroom advising, and the high demands of pre-class preparation. There’s a satisfaction in telling students that this class will actually help them in their lives, their education, and their future vocations. I assume that others, like me, find it difficult to keep up (catch up?) with new scholarship on teaching and learning while trying to balance work and life. But, what if there were places full of fun people who talked about this stuff along the Riverwalk in San Antonio? Over fried cheese curds and beer in Green Bay? Overlooking a fireworks competition from the top floor of a hotel in Vancouver? (All things I’ve experienced.)
In 2013 I decided that I might take a shot at starting a regional conference specifically focused on General Psychology. I had seen the data on the estimated number of students who take the course and after a quick survey of the region’s college catalogues I knew that teachers of Psych 100 were at institutions all over the Pacific Northwest. As a community college instructor, I had taught Intro Psych a lot. I had learned that it was a complicated course, offering so much in terms of skills and content. But, there were so many decisions to be made about how to structure it, how to deliver it, and how to meaningfully assess it. Surely I couldn’t be alone in my struggle to teach this course well. Surely others could benefit from conference programming and networking that had already affected the way I was teaching. And so the idea for Teaching Introductory Psychology Northwest was conceived – it would be a community of teachers, passionate about their practice, who work out the complexities, challenges, and opportunities of General Psychology. And, we wouldn’t just aim for college teachers like myself – we’d recruit all teachers, from high schools, technical colleges, and universities. Our diversity would enrich our conference experience.
Since I had been to so many conferences, I had already noted what I found to be the most engaging parts of conference programming. Through networking at these events I learned about available grants (one need only look at a conference program or website to see which organizations are supporting it). I took one step at a time. I sent an email. I inquired about this and that. I asked for help. Sometimes I made mistakes. I tried to learn from them.Finally, in April 2015 we launched the 1st Annual Conference on the Teaching of Introductory Psychology, Northwest. People came, they ate up the food and the programming, they wore the t-shirts, and they left really nice comments on the surveys. We had pulled it off.
TIP Northwest (www.tipnorthwest.org) is now in its 4th successful year. Our single-day schedule is always jam-packed with teaching ideas, demos, and tools, and opportunities to network, all focused on the General Psychology course. While most of the programming is reserved for conference attendees to hear from one another, we also include inspiring invited speakers who are leaders in teaching and learning. This year we’re honored and excited to have Aaron S. Richmond as our Keynote.
As I have reflected on the experiences and successes of the past four years it occurred to me that I might have something to share with people who want to build a teaching community of their own in their city or region. So, I made a list - a detailed list that will help you start a teaching conference. And, while I was once making this stuff up as I went, I think I’ve been able to organize the process in a helpful way. Some of these items are quick tasks that simply require sending an email; others take some serious reflection, conversations, collaboration, and/or strategy. But, if you’re up for it, here’s my first and final piece of advice: take one step at a time.
Pull together a small team, identify strengths and delegate. If you can enlist well-connected folks, cross-institutionally, it will serve you well.
Start an email list of regional high school, college, and university teachers of psychology.
Select a conference date. Reserve a convenient location considering accommodations and parking.
Get a devoted conference email address.
Run conference finances through your institution or open a no-cost business checking account.
Figure out how you will take payment and register attendees.
Contact a local hotel to get a conference rate.
Identify public and private organizations (e.g. STP, APA, APS, State Board of Education, etc.) that provide grant money for your conference.
Ask your institution for money.
Ask publishers for money.
Ask publishers to bring in a textbook author to speak.
Determine your conference registration fees.
Invite excellent keynote speakers to the conference (to talk about teaching – you’d be surprised).
Put together a tentative conference program that includes talks, breakouts, meals, start and end times.
Email your conference website link to your email list, with a blurb about the conference and keynote speaker(s) and a link to registration.
Contact listservs through APA, TOPSS, STP, state college board, and anywhere else you can think of to advertise your conference website.
Bring in good conference catering. Leave an impression.
Design a good logo.
Print high quality conference programs and name tags.
Give away a unique and/or useful conference favors for attendees.
So, that’s how you might start a regional psych teaching conference. It looks like a lot of work because it is a lot of work. But keep in mind, the payoffs are huge both professionally and personally. Starting a regional conference will open doors, not only for you, but for anyone who attends. In this teaching-of-psychology world, professional growth is mostly about showing up, saying ‘yes’, and taking a first step.
You really should start a teaching conference.
TIP Northwest 2018 is happening on April 20th at Highline College. Submissions for Presentations are due on March 1st. For more information or to register, visit www.tipnorthwest.org.
Garth Neufeld is at Cascadia College in Bothell, WA. He is the founder of Teaching Introductory Psychology Northwest and the co-founder of the PsychSessions: Conversations About Teaching N’ Stuff podcast. Garth is the STP Director of Regional Conference Programming and the co-chair of APA’s General Psychology Initiative. He has served the national teaching of psychology community through the AP psychology exam reading, APA’s Summit on the National Assessment of Psychology, and APA’s Summit on High School Psychology Education.
Although we have been tasked with announcing the publication of Noba’s first human sexuality modules, talking about sex often makes people feel—uncomfortable. We certainly do not want to make you feel uncomfortable, so let’s ease into our conversations about sex by first talking about something else.
How about we begin by talking about…cycling? Colorado. And mountains.
Cycling down one of Colorado’s tallest mountains, Pike’s Peak, and its 14,115 feet of elevation, is both daunting and awe-inspiring. Imagine yourself doing it. Now put yourself back atop Pike’s Peak with a person named Avery by your side. Avery is eager to cycle the 156 steep turns that compose one of the highest roads in the world. But before descending, Avery turns to you, and says, “This is my first time ever riding a bicycle.”
You exclaim, “You’re about to ride down the side of a mountain without knowing how to ride a bicycle!?”
To which Avery replies, “My parents become mute every time the subject of bicycling is broached, my religion says it’s only for making more bicycles, and my school just says, ‘don’t ride;’ but I’ve learned about bicycling from my friends, who are endlessly talking about it, and I’ve watched hundreds of hours of videos on the Internet about it—so I think I’m pretty prepared.”
“Oh, by the way, do I need a helmet; and where do I put my feet?”
Much like cycling down a mountain without ever riding a bike before, today’s sexual landscape is daunting, awe-inspiring, and filled with people completely unprepared for it. Harassment, sexting, unwanted pregnancies, safer sex, same-sex marriages, online dating, sexual consent, HPV, virtual love, gender nonbinary, and Netflix & chill—are parts of this complex sexual landscape, yet few people are properly educated to negotiate it. (Only a small minority of K-12 schools offer comprehensive human sexuality programs; whereas, a significant number of schools offer abstinence-only sex education programs, Guttmacher Institute, September 2017.)
To facilitate people’s abilities for fully exploring their own diverse and ever-changing sexual landscapes, we are pleased to announce the publication of two new Noba modules, The Psychology of Human Sexuality, and Human Sexual Anatomy and Physiology.
The Psychology of Human Sexuality examines the history of scientifically studying sex, sexual consent, sexual behaviors, biological sex, gender, sexual orientation, and definitions of normality. Human Sexual Anatomy and Physiology examines sexual anatomy, sexual response cycles, the brain and sex, pregnancy, birth control, sexually transmitted infections, sexual dysfunctions, and treatments. On their own or combined, these modules provide fundamental overviews of human sexuality.
Since sexuality is a basic driving force of human behaviors, these modules are relevant across all psychology courses. But they are especially relevant for introductory psychology. For example, the American Psychological Association’s publication,Strengthening the Common Core of the Introductory Psychology Course, recommends topics concerning human sexuality be incorporated into introductory psychology courses, so students can address such questions and societal concerns as: “The tendency for both medical professionals and the general public to asexualize people with physical disabilities,” “What are the ethical considerations of conducting sexuality research?,” “Paraphilias,” and “How can psychological research on sexuality improve people’s lives?” (American Psychological Association, March 2014, p. 34). Further, a review of the most popular introductory psychology textbooks found 90% of them significantly address human sexuality topics; and more than a third of them devote an entire chapter to human sexuality (Harrison et al., October 2013). Lastly, if you will allow us to be personal for a moment, in our combined 42 years of teaching, we have taught hundreds of topics within dozens of different psychology courses. And without pause, we both can say, no topics have had greater impacts on our students than topics concerning human sexuality.
We hope you enjoy reading The Psychology of Human Sexuality and Human Sexual Anatomy and Physiology as much as we enjoyed writing them. We look forward to any questions, comments, or concerns you have about these modules. And we are excited about the potential of your students gaining information that will better allow them to navigate their sexual landscapes.
Don and Jen
These wonderful new modules are accompanied by an equally wonderful set of instructional materials, which includes a comprehensive instructor’s manual and integrated PowerPoint presentation, test questions, reading anticipation guides, and an adaptive student quiz. Instructors can access these resources by scrolling to the bottom of each module or by visiting the Instructor Resources section of the Noba website.
Don Lucas is a Professor of Psychology and Coordinator of the Psychology Department at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio, Texas. His teaching over the past three decades has earned him a number of accolades, including the Minnie Stevens Piper Professor Award. He is the author of Being: Your Happiness, Pleasure, and Contentment.
Jennifer Fox is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Advisor of Psi Beta at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio, Texas. As a Human Sexuality Educator and a mother of a spirited 7-year-old daughter, she is passionate about promoting sexual literacy for all ages.
For all you stats teachers out there – this one is for you.
TLDR: Negative student attitudes towards statistics can make teaching an already difficult course feel impossible. By incorporating bell-ringers into your weekly routine, you can sneak some applied material, opportunities for practice, and a little bit of fun/humor into your class without using a minute of class time.
The Difficulty of Teaching Stats
I don’t know about you, but I love statistics. I see the concepts in every news article I read, in every decision I make, and in every Facebook quiz I take (which, according to my most recent quiz, I’m 63% Beyoncé, and only 32% Taylor Swift. Who knew?). Unfortunately, the average student does NOT feel this way about statistics (at least in my experience).
Instead, I have found student opinion regarding statistics to be an impressive amalgamation of disdain, fear, and resentment (since the course is required). Indeed, research shows that students tend to have high anxiety and low perceived utility when it comes to taking stats courses. This is the disheartening reality with which anyone who teaches statistics is familiar. If you’ve never had student resistance to statistics and are only familiar with excited, eager students, you can stop reading here, this blog post is not for you (but please email me and share your secrets).
If you’re still reading, we agree that teaching statistics is hard. We want the class to be fun, engaging, informative, useful, and applied. Unfortunately, since we have limited time with our students, we must prioritize those goals. Consequently, we focus on information and memorization, which leads our content to become dry and abstract; we forget to show students that statistics can be fun and meaningful. It is no surprise then, that we undermine our primary goal of student learning and end up driving them away from quantitative courses.
So, what can we do? Obviously, this is a complex question that requires a systematic, multi-faceted response. I can’t give you that (at least not in this short space). However, I can help you take one step in the right direction. Bell-ringers are bite-sized practice problems that are designed to be fun, applicable, and don’t take a minute of class time. No, they aren’t a silver bullet – improving negative perceptions and/or getting rid of math anxiety requires a lot more intervention, but they are small, actionable behaviors that can improve student outcomes.
What are Bell-Ringers?
The phrase “bell-ringers” is a term I borrowed from primary education. I haven’t found a formal definition of the concept, but the general consensus seems to be that bell-ringers are activities that elementary, middle, and high-school students complete at the beginning of the class to help students get focused after break and to serve as a “warm-up” to the class content.
I was intrigued by this idea and spent the next several semesters figuring out a way to make them work in my class. I’ll spare you the details of my epic failures (in class I would call those “developmental opportunities”), but those developmental opportunities led me to finalize my idea of bell-ringers as 1-2 sentence responses to a visually appealing picture (see below for an example). Essentially, the most important realization I had is that bell-ringers aren’t exams; I don’t need to grill the students for proficiency. Instead, I want to give them a chance to practice previous content (to facilitate retrieval practice) and to improve their attitude about stats by using funny and applied content.
Why I like Bell-Ringers
Informal, fun, and take up very little class time (if any)
Provide low-stakes opportunities for practice and retrieval
Added bonus: Get students to attend class (and arrive on time!)
Pictures, memes, or any other creative media you might find (videos, songs, etc.)
See the “Where to find Bell-Ringers” section near the end of this article for a list of resources to help you get started
Below, I outline my approach to bell-ringers. I have a small class (roughly 20 students), no graduate student TAs, and typically 1-2 undergraduate TAs. The needs of your students may be different, so you should adapt this in a way that works for you and your students.
Each day, in the 1-10 minutes before class (as students enter the room,) I project one of the “bell-ringer” images up on the board.
I use jokes, memes, or even pictures from everyday life that I call "Stats in the Wild" (see example C).
As students enter the room and take their seats, they take the few minutes before class to explain how the image applies to concepts from class; usually just a sentence or two. By the time class starts, most students are done and have turned it in to the class TA.
To promote retrieval practice, I encourage (but do not require) that students complete the task from memory.
I keep the prompts very brief to ensure the responses can be completed in 1-3 minutes.
However, depending on the depth of the prompt, I will occasionally give them one or two minutes of class time if necessary (but I don't like to use class time unless I need to).
For me, this is the main benefit of bell-ringers: they sneak in practice without giving up precious class time.
You don’t have to stick to images, you could use songs, video clips, popular novels, etc. For example, when reviewing the scales of measurement, I have a special edition “Disney Bell-Ringers” wherein the students identify the scale of measurement for different Disney scenarios (e.g., the length of Rapunzel’s hair; Ariel’s decision to be a human or a mermaid). I pull a lot from popular culture because I think it’s fun, but I make sure the prompts are written in such a way that the answer does not rely on knowledge of the movie/story/character/etc. For example, you don’t have to be familiar with the story of Rapunzel to know that length of hair is a ratio variable.
If you have an online class, you could post these as discussion questions to facilitate student discourse.
For more advanced students (an upper level stats class), you could flip the assignment, wherein the students themselves are assigned to find the images. It takes a higher level of learning to identify statistics in everyday life.
Grading & Policies
At the end of the semester, I pick 8 random days and give students a half-point of extra credit per day that they completed the bell-ringer (so they can earn up to four points).
Since the goal is to get students engaged with the content and trying to get them to think about stats outside the box, I grade these based on effort and completion. In my experience with these assignments, if the students are worried about their grades, they are less inclined to think creatively (and thus rely more on definitions, which undermines the whole goal of critical thinking and application). Plus, grading based on completion allows my undergraduate TAs to help. This is a win-win for me and the students – I can provide the students with the opportunity to practice course concepts and receive formative feedback without substantially increasing my own workload (though finding the pictures the first time through can be time consuming. Lucky for you I’ve given you a head start with access to a Google drive shared folder; see the “Where to Find Bell-Ringers” section, below).
I don’t allow make-up bell-ringers because they are extra credit and there are several opportunities throughout the semester to earn points. However, if a student is short on time, I always allow them to turn their response in later that day (to the class TA, under my office door, etc.).
Overall, I have found that the combination of formative grading, extra-credit, and flexible deadlines means I receive very few emails (complaints) about missed activities. Of course, you should use policies that work for you and your students!
Where to find these bell-ringers?
I find them everywhere – Pinterest, blogs, Reddit, Facebook, my everyday life, the list goes on. If you don’t spend as much time online as I do (and I hope you don’t), I’ve compiled some potential resources and tips to help you get started.
First, I created a Google Drive folder with several images I have used in the past (I rotate them based on what I find interesting, relevant, and funny). Please feel free to access this shared folder and I encourage you to contribute to it! If you are interested in contributing, I have created a “Community Bell-Ringers” file that you can add images directly into - I would love to see what you are doing in your classes!
Second, I follow the amazing “Not Awful and Boring Statistics” by Jessica Hartnett (she’s a genius). She updates weekly with all sorts of interesting stats content, so definitely worth following, even if you hate everything I have said about bell-ringers.
Pro Tip #1: Finding images is an area where you could leverage your more advanced undergraduate TAs. Assign them to find 3-5 pictures you could use – it forces them to think about the content and it helps you accumulate source material to use!
Pro Tip #2: You can also leverage the power of your students! Once they get the hang of the bell-ringers style, you can create an assignment that has them find their own bell-ringers related to the chapter/content that was assigned. I have received many an email over the years from students who stumbled across a stats meme or “stats in the wild” (they observe a concept related to stats in a really unique or abstract way).
Teaching stats is not for the faint of heart. We do it because we love it, and it’s about time we share some of that passion and intrigue with our students! One way to do that is to incorporate funny, abstract, and visually appealing materials that force students to think outside the box and explain concepts in ways that go beyond memorizing definitions. Bell-ringers can help you do that!
Janet Peters is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychology at Washington State University Tri-Cities. She received her PhD in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from Colorado State University. Her current research interests center on effective pedagogical practices, particularly as they relate to the teaching of Introductory Psychology, Statistics, and Research Methods.
You know it. I know it. If we’re lucky, our students can at least parrot the phrase back to us at the end of the term.
But you and I also know the subtleties underlying this statement. We understand reverse causality and the third variable problem. We know that random assignment and a control group are critical elements for making claims of causality. We know how to look at a figure or table and make inferences about the type of research conducted. We can draw tentative conclusions tempered by the limitations inherent in the methodology used.
And yet, while our students jump at the chance to tell us “correlation is not causation”, do they really know what it means? They typically understand that there are different types of research and we shouldn’t make any bold causal claims from the results of most of them. But they aren’t usually able to identify research methodology from a real-world example. They tend to try to identify independent variables in observational or correlational research. They confuse random sampling and random assignment. And while they’re busy getting confused in the details, they’re also missing out on applying scientific thinking to real-world examples and to topics that are relevant and interesting to them. They’re missing the bigger picture of being a critical consumer of information. They’re unable to tap into skills that will help them to better understand the world around them.
So, if you’re like me, you’ve likely spent an inordinate amount of time tweaking your teaching - choosing a different textbook that describes research methods better, emphasizing learning objectives related to scientific thinking in your syllabus, creating class assignments that help students practice scientific content and thinking. And, if you’re like me, you’ve been frustrated by the seeming lack of results that comes from modifying your teaching over and over again. So the gist of this post is that I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news. The bad news is that we’ve got a long way to go. The good news is that I’m about to introduce some teaching modules that have been shown to improve students’ scientific reasoning skills.
What are these magical modules?
In brief, the “Intro Psych Scientific Reasoning Modules” are a set of 8 independent classroom activities that can be used throughout the course of a regular introductory psychology class.
There are a few really great things about these modules:
They are about topics relevant to students. From distracted driving to study habits, from the relationship between sleep and academic success to naturopathic treatments for depression, each of the modules helps students understand that psychological science has interesting, real-world applications.
The modules are designed around one or more published scientific studies. We don’t always have to use made-up examples to help students understand research. Which is great because only real research studies come with the requisite messiness that helps students grow more comfortable with ambiguity and the gray areas that accompany most scientific explorations.
These modules are truly “plug-and-play” - they come with everything you could need to implement them immediately. This includes an instructor guide (complete with APA Guidelines 2.0 Objectives and a section at the end specific to GTAs and others new to teaching), PowerPoint slides, and student handouts. Just spend half an hour or so reviewing the materials before you want to use them in class and you should be ready to go.
The modules address a wide range of scientific reasoning skills including reading graphs and tables, making predictions, identifying variables, designing studies, and drawing conclusions.
How do we know they work?
These modules were originally designed as a collaboration between Dr. Kathryn A. Becker-Blease at Oregon State University and Dr. Courtney Stevens and Dr. Melissa R. Witkow at Willamette University. This work was funded by the National Science Foundation DUE # 105060. In two separate, published studies, Dr. Stevens and Dr. Witkow tested the use of the modules in both community college and liberal arts college classrooms (see citations at end). In the first study, students in two sections of Intro Psych at Willamette University received instruction with a single module during their regular term. On their final exam, students answered data-based reasoning questions similar to those now on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). Students in the experimental sections performed better on MCAT questions than students in two control sections not receiving the modules. In a second study, the modules were similarly tested in classrooms at both 4-year and 2-year institutions. Again, students receiving the modules performed better on scientific reasoning outcome measures. Currently, Dr. Becker-Blease and her colleagues at Oregon State University are preparing evaluation data from large sections at a public university for publication. Spoiler alert: the results are favorable.
Anything else we should know?
Overall, researchers have found that implementing these modules in a wide variety of real college classrooms - large or small, 4-year or 2-year, seasoned instructors or graduate teaching assistants - is both feasible and effective for improving students’ scientific reasoning skills. More recently, the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP) funded a project to make these modules accessible to students with visual impairments. As a result of this generous Instructional Resource Award, a set of modules now exists complete with alt-tags, figure descriptions, and digital files for printing tactile graphs - everything a student with visual impairments would need to learn the same skills as our sighted students. Tactile graphs can be easily printed with a SwellForm printer - something most Disability Access offices already own (ask at your institution!). And, if your school doesn’t have this nifty machine, the School of Psychological Science at Oregon State University has some copies of the tactile graphs to be loaned out. Just email me.
How do I get these magical modules?
You can access all of the materials for the modules, including a “How-To” file at http://bit.ly/2xPqWMN. Yes, it’s that easy. The accessible materials are still under review, but you can request access by sending me an email (email@example.com). All modules are under a creative commons license which allows you to copy, remix, and distribute for any purpose.
Stevens, C. & Witkow, M.R. (2014). Training scientific-thinking skills: Evidence from an MCAT-aligned classroom module. Teaching of Psychology, 41(2), 115-121.
Stevens, C., Witkow, M.R., & Smelt, B. (2016). Strengthening scientific reasoning skills in Introductory Psychology: Evidence from community college and liberal arts classrooms. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 2(4), 245-260.
Raechel N. Soicher, M.A. is currently a PhD student at Oregon State University, focused on translating cognitive laboratory science to psychology classrooms. She has been teaching psychology for almost 10 years, cycling through all roles - adjunct, tenure-track professor, and now GTA. Raechel has a long history of working to improve psychology students’ outcomes and advocating for instructors at community college. As a member of the APA Graduate Student Science Committee, she works to bring attention to the role of pedagogical research in the larger field of psychological science. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @rnsoicher
Conversations about science, overheard in the hallway: “It’s just a theory, scientists haven’t proven that [what I believe is wrong]”, followed shortly by, “well, new research proves that [what I believe] is right.”
Sound familiar? As an instructor, I have had multiple experiences of students dismissing a well-accepted scientific theory because of personal beliefs or the over-extension of scientific research that is still ongoing. Perhaps you have had these experiences, too.
We live at a time in history when people have access to more information than ever before, a time where a simple internet search can yield millions of conflicting results in a fraction of a second. Yet the quantity of information does not address the quality of that information. In an era where science and pseudoscience can be packaged similarly, it’s increasingly important for students to develop the skills required to differentiate these claims.
With these challenges in mind I’ve authored a new module for Noba called Thinking like a Psychological Scientist. The module is designed as an introduction to the qualities of scientific thinking and theories that make science a trustworthy way to answer questions about the world, even if the claims are never proven. The module tackles concepts from the makings of a good scientific theory to null-hypothesis significance testing to the role of the scientist as an active participant in the scientific process. The goal of this module is to help students understand why science is a valuable tool in knowledge—even though its claims are based on probability—and how that knowledge is derived. For example, I spend some time in the module discussing how a researcher can interpret research results. When the data support their hypothesis, has the hypothesis been proven? When the data do not support their hypothesis—or are even in the opposite direction of the hypothesis!—does that mean that the hypothesis has been disproven? No! After any of these circumstances, there are a number of important questions that researchers, and their peer-reviewers, will ask. I spend some time on these different outcomes to help students understand research in context.
Although the module is primarily conceptual (rather than a practical how-to of research), I believe it can complement a variety of classroom goals. For example, it can be used at an introductory level to lay the foundations to the methods of scientific thinking. It could also be used at a more advanced level, as instructors guide their students in identifying and applying these concepts to real research. Throughout the Instructor Manual and PowerPoint presentation that accompany the module, I have highlighted various optional activities that can be removed for a basic introduction or used to enhance more advanced students understanding of these concepts. You’ll also be happy to know that for this module instructors have access to test questions, an adaptive student quiz, and a reading anticipation guide.
It is my goal that this module will not just be another piece of information; I hope that you will find the module useful in your instruction and in the formation of your students as developing scientific thinkers. I invite you to check out Thinking like a Psychological Scientist, give your feedback on it, and consider recommending it to your colleagues whose students may also benefit from its use.
Erin I. Smith is Associate Professor of Psychology at California Baptist University. She earned her PhD in Developmental Psychology at the University of California, Riverside. She was recently a visiting scholar in science and religion with SCIO (Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford) and currently serves as the director for the Center for the Study of Human Behavior at CBU. Her research focuses on the psychological processes that influence how individuals engage in the science-religion dialogue, especially as related to science rejection, and the empirical measurement of the effectiveness of church ministries for children.
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 . . .