Demo-lishing Misconceptions in General Psychology with Demos

Posted March 30, 2017

By Jon Skalski

What are students really going to remember many years from now? Some students will struggle to remember your name or even that they took your class. Yet the joy of our profession is that some students will cherish what you shared with them throughout their lives. Occasionally, we will help them overcome potentially damaging misconceptions and improve the way they understand the world in practical and important ways.

Unfortunately, research on the long-term retention of course content is rather discouraging (Custers, 2010; Landrum & Gurung, 2013). Landrum and Gurung (2013) found that the average student is unable to pass an exam from a psychology course just two years later. These findings are important to consider in regards to sequencing curriculum, and should inspire us to embrace both educational and cognitive science so that we can be more successful as teachers. Being aware of factors like decay, interference, failures to store and retrieve, and reconstruction errors is critically important to improve our pedagogy and help students retain the information they encounter in our courses (Lie, Donoso, Foutz, Lasoras, Oliver, 2011).

One approach to combat these negative findings about long-term retention, especially in general psychology, might be to focus more on addressing psychological misconceptions (Bernstein, 2016). Most general psychology students are filling a general education requirement and will not major in psychology; Bernstein (2016) argues that we best serve these students by focusing on addressing misconceptions about psychology, critical thinking skills, and practical knowledge.

In this spirit, novel in-class demonstrations can be effective in creating vivid, longer-lasting impressions (Vander Stoep, Fagerlin, & Feenstra, 2002). For example, it is one thing to know that eyewitness testimony can be contaminated in an abstract way and another to have firsthand experience with false memory. Likewise, it is one thing to memorize that negative reinforcement involves taking something away in order to increase a behavior and another to experience the differences between positive and negative reinforcement.

Here is a demo to help demolish misconceptions about eyewitness memory and another to demolish misconceptions about negative reinforcement, along with some suggestions on how you might adapt them for your classroom:

Can I Get A Witness? Creating Eyewitnesses

Students have seen on TV how powerful it can be when the prosecuting attorney announces, “We have an eye-witness!” Students have watched how persuasive it can be when the eye-witness swears on a Bible and affirms that she is absolutely certain that the suspect committed the crime.

General psychology students do not usually know that eyewitness testimony, like all evidence, can be contaminated. Eighty-seven percent of general psychology students endorse the statement that “memory can be likened to a storage chest in the brain into which we deposit material and from which we can withdraw it later if needed. Occasionally, something gets lost from the ‘chest’ and then we say we have forgotten” (Vaugh, 2002, p. 139).

You may have creative activities that convey principles related to false memory, but are students really altering prior misconceptions and learning in lasting ways? I use the term misconceptions to describe prior conceptions that may be more resistant than mere misunderstandings.

To provide students with their own eyewitness testimony about eyewitness testimony, I once transformed my classroom into a crime scene with the help of the local news. Here is the segment that was aired on our local TV station:

This demonstration was the most memorable experience of the semester for everyone involved! The students were shocked. They were shocked by the crime, they were shocked by how little they could remember about the suspect, and they were shocked that they misidentified an innocent person as a criminal. They came to clearly understand that memory functions quite differently than how they presupposed.

You could do a version of this activity in your own class with similar success and you do not need a local news anchor to make it work. Here are some ideas about how to pull it off:

1. Set up a video camera or smartphone in the classroom in order to record the “crime.” You could say that you are filming to gradually flip your classroom and for students who are absent or want to review the lecture.

2. Have a student confederate enter the classroom late and steal something in front of the class, when attention is to the front of the room.

3. Be prepared to deescalate the situation quickly. Consider having a teaching colleague step-in to debrief the students.

4. Ask students to respond to questions about the suspect’s description. You might have some students interview other students about the suspect’s description. Consider introducing incorrect information as part of a question. “What color was the suspect’s Nike jacket?”

5. In a few days, provide students with a photo lineup. Consider presenting some students with a simultaneous lineup and others with a sequential lineup.

6. Consider providing half of the students with the disclaimer that the suspect may not be in the lineup.

7. On this subsequent occasion, you could ask students if they saw a/the Nike logo on his shirt. You might even try to phrase the question differently to half of your students, “Did you see a Nike logo on his shirt?” or “Did you see the Nike logo on his shirt?” and see if there are significant differences.

8. Play back the video and/or show a photo of the suspect.

You can then help students think about how memory is nothing like a video recorder in which one can replay one’s experience. Instead, memory is a reconstruction. Memory is prone to being affected by one’s expectations and schemas about events, as well as one’s subsequent experience. Perhaps students will report that they did see the Nike logo on his shirt, and maybe it will even make a difference how you ask the question (Loftus, 1975). You might also discuss how one’s attention, experience, and resultant memory could be negatively affected by the presence of a weapon (Steblay, 1992).

Overall, research on memory and eyewitness testimony has been an area in which psychological science has been applied in practical ways. Psychological research has revolutionized the ways in which authorities gather evidence from observers, and introductory students need to be eyewitnesses to such concrete applications of psychology. Students need to see where the rubber of psychological research meets the road. They need to see that eyewitness testimony can be contaminated. This is a great way for you to help your students witness the importance of psychological research on memory in ways that they will never forget.

Teaching Negative Reinforcement; It’s Not Punishment

Introductory psychology students often struggle to understand negative reinforcement and commonly mistake negative reinforcement for punishment. This mistake was even made on an episode of The Big Bang Theory! Tauber (1988) found that 73% of students believed that negative reinforcement was used to decrease behavior and 76% of students reported that people do not look forward to negative reinforcement. Moreover, professors are often frustrated that students struggle to overcome these misconceptions. I do not have data to report, but it is safe to say that every single professor in the world who has ever actively tried to help students overcome this misconception has been somewhat frustrated. I use the word misconception for a reason! But teaching negative reinforcement does not need to be punishment.

You can use another engaging in-class demonstration to demolish this misconception. The demo not only lets you address confusion related to “negative” and “positive,” which most instructors seem to do well enough, but also contrasts negative reinforcement with other forms of operant conditioning:

Here is the process for an enjoyable and memorable demo that I like to do with my students:

1. Invite a student volunteer to step outside the classroom.

2. In his or her absence, ask the class to select a behavior that they would like to shape, like standing in the corner and/or scratching his or her head.

3. Have the volunteer return to the room and instruct the volunteer that the class has selected a behavior that you will shape by adding and taking away reinforcements as well as adding and taking away punishments.

4. Place a backpack heavily loaded with textbooks on his or her shoulders.

5. When the student starts doing something that approximates what the class has selected for the volunteer to do, remove textbooks (as a form of negative reinforcement).

6. When the student is not doing something that approximates the desired behavior, add textbooks (as a form of positive punishment).

7. As another aspect for shaping the volunteer’s behavior, bring out a cup and some Skittles. Add Skittles to the cup (positive reinforcement) when the volunteer’s behavior moves toward the target behavior and take away Skittles (negative punishment) when behavior is moving off target.

8. Consider doing the demonstration a second time. You might even highlight and emphasize how you are adding something, which is positive, and taking away something, which is negative. The moment that you add something, have the class declare “positive.” The moment that you take something away, have the class declare “negative.”

Note: Sometimes it can help to speed up the process by providing a little verbal information to the student, “Did you notice that when you raised your hand I took a book away (or added a Skittle)?” 

As the volunteer engages in various behaviors to gradually manifest the target behavior(s), there are smiles and laughter. When the student volunteer ends up moving to corners of the room, standing or sitting on chairs, scratching their heads, clapping, or even opening umbrellas, you can imagine the enthusiastic laughter. Be sure to create a courteous environment and also thank and reward the volunteer in some way.

You can then help students process and think about the demonstration in order to make distinctions about positive and negative forms of reinforcement and punishment. You might have students do this in small groups. Consider having them perform an additional small group demo in which they take turns shaping one another.

One thing you might emphasize is how a stimulus is considered either a reinforcer or punisher based on how it affects behavior. For example, in some instances, adding heavy books could function as a form of positive reinforcement if the student thought that he or she was receiving the books as gift (perhaps to sell online) or wanted the heavy pack for resistance working out (which would be considered punishment by someone else). The key is how the behavior is affected by the stimulus; does the behavior increase or decrease?

Overall, demonstrations that are personally experienced can be powerful. Experiential demonstrations meet us uniquely and speak to us where we are; some demonstrations can make concepts that are abstract and mysterious so concrete and clear that anyone can understand them. In general psychology, demonstrations can be used to demolish misconceptions, invite critical thinking, and foster practical understandings that last long after students have forgotten course content.


Jon Skalski is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Rockford University. He received his B.A. in psychology from Saint Mary’s University of Winona, Minnesota, M.S. degree in psychology from Brigham Young University, and Ph.D. from the University of West Georgia. He is passionate about teaching psychology and has taught a broad range of courses over the past 8 years.


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