Making Introductory Psychology “Super Better”

Posted June 28, 2017

By Sara Finley

@ProfessorFinley

Introductory Psychology is a Platform

One of the main courses that I teach at Pacific Lutheran University is PSYC 101, Introduction to Psychology. This is one of the largest courses that PLU offers, with three sections of 90 students in the fall semester, and 1 section of 90 students in the spring. I also teach one small (online) section of PSYC 101 in the summer. With a total student population of around 3100, Introductory Psychology is one of the most popular courses at PLU. This is in line with statistics suggesting that Introductory Psychology is one of the most popular courses that students take in college. Given that so many students take an introductory psychology course in their college career, it makes sense to see this course as a platform. Not only can we, as introductory psychology instructors, help instill a love for the rich, deep field of psychology, and an interest in the scientific study of human behavior, but we can also instill important skills that students can use in their own studies and beyond. Topics such as learning and memory can help with study and learning skills. Topics such as disorders and treatments can help students better understand mental health, and may make them more likely to seek treatment, or help their loved ones to seek treatment. All of these components have important impacts on students. They have the potential to increase student success generally, and increase retention and persistence across the university. 

Resilience: The ability to 'bounce back' after tough situations, work through hard times, seek help and guidance from trusted individuals and complete goals.

Given that introductory psychology has the potential for such a huge impact on the lives of students, I wondered whether there was a way to more successfully deliver on this potential, to build community among the students, and to increase student resilience. Resilience is an extremely important skill for anyone, but particularly important for college students, who often struggle with learning new materials, finding motivation, and balancing personal and academic challenges. Students with resilience have the skills to do well in college because they have, and seek out the resources necessary for them to be successful. The problem, of course, is how to instill these skills in our students.

Inspiration hit when I started listening to the audio recording of a book called SuperBetter (McGonigal, 2016). This book is considered a ‘self-help’ book, but it is a lot more. The book is written by Dr. Jane McGonigal, an expert in game design, and the use of games to better people’s lives. Using the science of games, she was able to lift herself out of the cognitive and emotional symptoms that followed a concussion. She created a game called SuperBetter, a game that is designed to increase resilience. In her book, McGonigal distinguishes between four types of resilience, social, mental, emotional, and physical. 

Social Resilience: “the ability to get support from friends, family members, neighbors and coworkers” (p. 17).

Mental Resilience: “motivation, focus and willpower” (p. 15).

Emotional Resilience: “the ability to access positive emotions at will” (p. 16).

Physical Resilience: “your body’s ability to withstand stress and heal itself” (p.14). 

Players increase their resilience in each of these categories through “quests” that help them to develop goals, conquer weaknesses, and develop allies. What inspired me so much about the book is not only that the book provides real, science-backed activities to help build their resilience ( the “quests”), but the book presents many of the concepts found in Introductory Psychology courses in an accessible, approachable format. Several key concepts include the spotlight theory of attention, self-efficacy, psychological disorders, and the importance of peer reviewed studies in the science of psychology.

SuperBetter is a game that anyone can play to become stronger and more resilient. Each small, achievable quest explains the science behind its underlying goal. Players complete quests as they read the book, but they can also engage with an online version of the game (also as an app). These activities allow the player to cultivate allies (social resilience), recognize and fight ‘bad guys’ (the things that keep you from achieving your goals, whether it’s negative thoughts, triggers, or actual people), and to set goals, all based on the science of motivation and behavior.

Incorporating Super Better into Intro Psych

The cover of the book SuperBetter
I was so impressed with how clearly SuperBetter presented concepts, research, and key ideas from introductory psychology, as well as the science behind the SuperBetter approach, that I thought that perhaps SuperBetter could be used to help make my introductory psychology class even better (SuperBetter), and to achieve more of the promise that introductory psychology has to offer. 

I had no idea how to incorporate SuperBetter into my course, but I figured if I didn’t make a commitment that I couldn’t back out of, I wouldn’t do anything with it. So, I decided to assign the book as required reading in my Spring 2017 PSYC 101 course. I included the course readings in the syllabus, assigning about one chapter per week. I tried to get students excited about the concept of SuperBetter by watchingJane McGonigal’s TED talk (https://youtu.be/lfBpsV1Hwqs) on the first day of class. We discussed what it means to be resilient, and how games might help support the development of resiliency.

Because the book was required reading, I spent time in class covering topics discussed in SuperBetter, and how it related to course content. For example, I spent extra time in class discussing the spotlight theory of attention, and when and how gamefulness might help instill self-efficacy. I also included questions about SuperBetter on the exam study guides, and included 1-3 questions on each exam that either directly or indirectly linked to the book.

The biggest way that I incorporated SuperBetter into my PSYC 101 course was to gamify the assignments. Instead of calling them assignments, I called them ‘Quests’ following the SuperBetter format. I tried to include resiliency objectives within the overall learning objectives for each assignment, explaining to students how each activity is designed to help them increase their, mental, emotional, physical, or social resilience. While referring to assignments as quests may seem like little more than ‘rebranding’ I tried to make assignments that would feel more like games. For example, my students’ first quest included a scavenger hunt, requiring them to actively seek out information about psychology, particularly at PLU. They were required to meet with two faculty and ask them questions about their sub-discipline. Students were also required to research well-known psychologists, particularly women and scholars of color. While I did receive some pushback on this assignment (students reported not having time to meet with faculty or the idea being ‘silly’ or anxiety provoking), the majority of the students completed the task, and reported learning a lot about psychology, and feeling more connected to the psychology faculty. One student even reported considering majoring in psychology after her meeting with a PLU faculty member.

 Two of my favorite gameful quests included ‘Brain Games’ and ‘Ending the Stigma’. Brain Games involved students creating a game, song, artwork, or some piece of media, to help teach themselves about the major brain areas and their functions. Their objective was to make it fun and creative, but to also really learn the material. This assignment was a blast to grade. Students created actual board games, video games, songs with originally composed music, sculptures and other artwork that really impressed me. Ending the Stigma involved students creating a print ad or video PSA that aimed to help to end the stigma of mental illness by using facts from the course. One of my favorite submissions was a comic called ‘Stigma Monster vs. Fact Man’ in which the Stigma Monster would recite myths about mental illness and the Fact Man would bust the myths with facts, and eventually annihilate the Stigma.

 Positive Outcomes

After completing my first iteration of including SuperBetter in my PSYC 101 class, I can definitely say that the overall experience was positive. Students reported positive outcomes with many of the assignments. Students also reported more excitement and willingness to participate in research (as part of the psychology research familiarization requirement) and was reflected in the number of students who successfully completed the requirement. In Spring 2017, over 95% of students successfully completed the requirement– a jump of more than 10% from Fall 2015, when I last taught the course. Student grades also appeared to improve, overall by about half a grade. 

Challenges

A sample screen from the SuperBetter app

While I would definitely say that incorporating SuperBetter into my introductory psychology course was an overall positive experience, there were definitely some challenges. First, incorporating SuperBetter was time consuming, both for me as well as for my students. Students are already stressed about not having enough time to do all the things required of them, and many felt overwhelmed with the extra reading (and the extra item to purchase), and the extra work required to complete an assignment creatively. Of course, one can argue that putting in the extra effort to read the book, complete the quests, etc. can pay off in the end, as students may be more likely to both build resilience and learn more about psychology. Because incorporating SuperBetter into my lessons required a lot more time and energy, sometimes I fell short in terms of full integration of the SuperBetter content into my lessons. Another challenge was that while many students completed amazingly creative assignments, other students really did not put in the effort necessary to learn the material. It is not clear how to inspire students to put in the extra effort to be creative and learn the material in a gamified, or even a different way. While I did make an effort to provide ways for students to apply principles of gamification to their own lives (such as links to the SuperBetter website and app, and invite codes for games that they can play with me, such as Words with Friends and Givling), students did not appear to be engaged in the App, and they certainly were not interested in playing games with me.

Another challenge with incorporating SuperBetter into my course was that the timing of the psychological content discussed in the book was not always in sync with the material we were covering in a particular week, making it difficult for students to see the connections between the SuperBetter book and regular course content. One place where I felt this was successful however was in an activity that had students complete three short quests from SuperBetter in class. These quests involved creating their own super hero identity by selecting personality traits that they have and personality traits that they admire in others. This fit nicely with the chapter on personality and the concept of traits and individual differences. 

Future Plans

While there were challenges to incorporating SuperBetter into my course, I plan to continue to think about how to use gamification and the concepts from SuperBetter in my teaching. I believe that SuperBetter has the power to help students apply psychology to their own lives, and to help them understand psychology in a way that could help them become more resilient. Of course, understanding whether and how SuperBetter might do these things is extremely important. My plan is to experimentally control for the use of SuperBetter in PLU’s PSYC 101 courses. My course will serve as the experimental condition, and another course, which uses the same textbook (but different instructor) and similar layout (multiple choice exams and short writings) will serve as the control condition. With the help of undergraduate student Kristina Kreamer, we’ve modified scales of self-efficacy, resilience, and basic knowledge of psychology. We hope to see whether students who engage with SuperBetter show higher rates of self-efficacy and resilience, and whether that relates to their persistence in college.

My Fall 2017 introductory psychology course will include SuperBetter as required reading, but I am hoping to do more to encourage students to interact with the apps, and to play games with each other and myself, to help boost their social resilience. I also plan to modify the quests to have clearer learning objectives relating course content to SuperBetter content. I will continue to use gamified activities in class, such as the super hero activity, but to do more to integrate the concepts from the book into the course.

In the future, it may turn out that requiring students to read the book isn’t necessary, but what may be important is incorporating and instilling a gameful mindset in the introductory course to give students more, and better tools to help them to be more successful in their education and beyond.

Important Links:

https://www.amazon.com/SuperBetter-Living-Gamefully-Jane-McGonigal/dp/0143109774

https://www.superbetter.com

Bio

Sara Finley (finleysr@plu.edu) is an assistant professor of Psychology at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA. She received her PhD in Cognitive Science from Johns Hopkins University. Her research focuses on language, and language learning, integrating methods from psychological science with linguistic theory.