“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 . . .
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.