Noba Blog

Serious About Studying Psych? Why You Should Get Involved with Research ASAP.

June 13, 2016

By Carly Haeck

Like most psychology majors, I was given the advice by my college advisor that I should "get involved in research" sooner rather than later if I wanted to pursue a career in the field. It was the beginning of my sophomore year, and I had enjoyed my psychology classes immensely to that point, so I figured I should give this research thing a try.

Wait. We don't get lab coats?
[Image: Miles Cave, https://goo.gl/RfTmmo, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, https://goo.gl/Vj13vk]
Although I read about the results of many empirical studies in my textbooks, I didn’t know much about what happened behind the scenes in research. When told to “get involved with research”, I pictured myself in a white lab coat attaching electrodes to the heads of freshman volunteers, or maybe as a confederate in a social psychology experiment, dropping my books as I walked down the hallway to see whether an unwitting research participant would pick them up.

Despite my cluelessness, I landed a position as a research assistant in a social psychology lab. While I did run participants through a study, there was unfortunately no need for a confederate. The job turned out to be very unglamorous; I collected saliva samples (yes, SALIVA!) from participants, videotaped them as they gave speeches, and then re-watched the hours and hours of the video footage to look for specific behaviors. Finally, I meticulously entered data into a spreadsheet until I couldn’t see straight.

Yet, in spite of all the tedium, I am still so grateful that I had this first research opportunity. Through this job, and several others, I discovered the many reasons why professors and advisors encourage students to seek out research assistantships:

1. Research experiences will help you better understand your course material

My undergraduate education was great - don’t get me wrong - but I sometimes felt like my psychology classes were a bit lacking in the research methods department. When reading research articles for class, I used to be able to follow along during the introduction and most of the methods sections, but by the results section I was lost. I couldn't quite grasp how researchers could give participants a questionnaire about something, and then somehow turn their answers into numbers to use in complicated statistical analyses. My stints as a research assistant finally connected these dots.

While most undergrad research assistant jobs involve doing tedious tasks, such as entering data into a spreadsheet manually, I found that these duties turned out to be critical to my understanding of measurement. Turning the answers of participant questionnaires into values helped me understand how researchers quantify abstract concepts, create scores from scales, and deal with issues such as missing data.

2. Research experiences will help you A LOT when doing your senior thesis project

Many psychology majors are encouraged to conduct research for a senior thesis project, a daunting and often intimidating undertaking. Not only do you have to come up with an original idea for a study (that also hopefully interests you), but you also have to carry out the experiment, clean and analyze the data, and then write up the results. I often heard my fellow classmates complain about how hard it was to find a thesis advisor in addition to learning how to use statistical software.

Early research experiences can have a big influence later when trying to make important decisions about senior projects. [Image: Tom Simpson, https://goo.gl/jTqXd2, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, https://goo.gl/stTYKP]
My advice to students who are thinking about doing a thesis would be to plan ahead and find a research assistant job during your sophomore or junior year. Professors want to help you learn things! Oftentimes if you tell professors that you are interested in helping them out with their study and also in learning how to use SPSS or STATA, they will be more than happy to give you a chance to practice running analyses with their datasets. These experiences can be extremely useful when figuring out what the heck you’re supposed to do with your own data down the road.

When it comes to thinking of an original research idea, students are unfortunately limited in terms of what they can realistically do. If you want your thesis to be about the psychological effects of cage diving with sharks in South Africa, you are probably going to have a pretty hard time collecting that data and finding an advisor who will be able to help you navigate the complexities of that project.

An easier approach to finding a reasonable research question is to first work for a professor who does research with the population that interests you. If you come to a professor you barely know with a specific research idea, they might be less willing to take the time out of their busy schedule to accommodate you. However, if you’ve already been helping out on a study involving a specific population that you’re interested in, you could think of an additional question that could easily be added to that study.

For example, during my junior year I worked with an amazing professor who creates web-based positive psychology interventions. These interventions were intended to reduce depression as well as increase subjective well-being and positive affect. One day, I had the thought, “Could these interventions increase positive body-image as well?” I pitched the idea to my professor, and he encouraged me to find a short body image questionnaire that could be added to the study.

3. Research experiences can open doors to other opportunities

Even if you don’t think you want to get a PhD in psychology, understanding how data works and getting to know professors is always helpful. From the beginning of sophomore year until I graduated, I worked in four different psychology labs. I never once failed to be amazed at how generous and supportive professors can be. Seriously! They want to help you succeed.

I've heard many friends complain about how hard it is to get to know professors well enough to ask them to write grad school recommendations. If you go to a school with giant lecture classes, you probably are going to have to take additional measures to ensure that a professor remembers you. Being a research assistant is one such way that you can form meaningful relationships with professors while also showing them your individual strengths.

Professors are also wise and know how confusing it can be when you don’t know exactly what your interests are. The summer after my sophomore year I worked for a professor who used to take time out of his schedule once a week to sit me down and teach me things that he felt were important for an aspiring psychologist to know. He then introduced me to someone who he thought I’d enjoy working with, my future thesis advisor. Both of these professors have provided me with invaluable mentorship over the years. My thesis advisor even helped me network to get a full-time job after college. And, when I went through a post-college crisis of not knowing what I wanted to do with my life, he continued to provide me with rational and helpful advice.

Conclusion

College students are repeatedly told to get involved on campus in addition to doing internships, getting leadership experience, and figuring out how to run off minimal sleep in order to be competitive for future employers. Basically, college is a constant juggling act. There were many extracurriculars that I would have loved to get involved in that were probably more exciting than entering data into a spreadsheet (i.e., eating club), but I seriously doubt I would have learned nearly as much as I did during my time as an undergraduate if I hadn’t taken the opportunity to get hands-on experience as a researcher. If you are serious about studying psychology, I whole heartedly encourage you to take this opportunity, too.

Bio

Carly Haeck is a Couple and Family Therapy master's student at Thomas Jefferson University. She is interested in working with grief and loss, trauma, eating disorders, and intimacy issues. Carly also hopes to integrate positive psychology concepts, such as resilience and post-traumatic growth, into couple and family therapy, and has researched the efficacy of positive interventions in the past. 

How to Keep your Friends and Still Study

June 13, 2016

By Kristen Hamling

@HamlingJohn

I no longer have time for sex, drugs or rock’n’roll! Instead my time is divided between Spiderman, doing dishes and regression analyses.

This can only mean one thing: I am the mother of two young boys who is completing her own advanced studies in psychology. Since I began eighteen months ago I have learned that achieving a degree is not a solo affair; your friends and family are along for the ride as well. It can be tough to balance healthy relationships against the demands of studying. To succeed, I turn to my superpower for answers.

Cue Positive Psychology . . .

My area of research is wellbeing. It turns out that the same topics I study can provide insight into my own happiness. By applying positive psychology to my relationships I have managed to stay connected to those I love. Instead of giving up on me, my loved ones provide me with lots of support and encouragement.

Specifically, I apply the useful acronym “PERMA” to my relationships. Let’s walk though these now… 

Positive Emotions

Families and friendships are like a finely tuned car, when everything is working well together you achieve superior performance. But to keep your car running well you need to keep it topped up with fuel and oil[1].

[1]Your car may need more than fuel and oil to keep it running well. Really, I wouldn’t know, I just liked the analogy. If you want to know about cars, perhaps go to www.auto.howstuffworks.com/10-ways-to-proactively-.... If you want to know how to proactively protect your relationships while you study, then read on.

In a similar vein, to keep your relationships running well consider topping them up with positive emotions. This means having ‘fun’ together and getting regular doses of positive emotions. Do you remember fun, or have the demands of school made you forget? As a reminder, the Oxford Dictionary defines fun as “enjoyment, amusement, or light-hearted pleasure”. It’s something you do just because it feels good. Finding ways to have ‘fun’ and play with your friends and family, even briefly, can keep the bond between you. A playful snapchat, a funny Facebook post, a walk with a friend or a quick Nerf gun war with my sons, keeps the positivity alive in my family and friendship circles.

Do you remember fun? [Image: Cats fall on their feet, https://www.flickr.com/photos/21724909@N00/2404393... CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/...

Engagement

We are all time-poor nowadays—hey, some of us even time-bankrupt-- so we need to get the most bang for our buck in the way we spend our time with loved ones. Think about the types of activities that energize you and your loved ones. Personally, for my friends and I it is a D&M once every few months. But my husband is not a big taker, so if I want to feel close to him we will go for a mountain bike ride. By engaging with friends and family in a way that activates each of your values, passions and interests, you maintain a sense of intimacy, even when spending less time together.

Relationships

There is no time for mediocre relationships while you study. Personally, I need all the support I can get. To reinforce positive interactions within your relationships, consider using a technique called Active Constructive Responding (ACR). ACR teaches people to respond to each other’s good news in an enthusiastic and capitalizing manner. Rather than, “oh that’s nice”, I aim for “OMG that is so fantastic, tell me all about it, how did you feel, and what will happen next?”

ACR is a terrific way to keep your relationships nourished and strong. Make every conversation count.

Meaning and Purpose

If you are passionate about what you are doing at school then share this passion with your family and friends. Show them what you are doing and why you feel it is meaningful and worthwhile.

I recently needed to practice for an oral examination. I bribed my family and friends with wine and a roast dinner in exchange for feedback on my performance. Fortuitously, I got far more than I expected. My friends and family became excited in what I was doing, they understood how important it was to me and why my study was worthwhile. This has generated far more support, patience and forgiveness of my social absences than I ever expected.

Accomplishment

Accomplishment will mean different things to different people, depending on their mindset (growth versus fixed). For instance, a student with a fixed mindset is more likely to perceive a D Grade as a poor accomplishment, a sign that they might not be smart enough to complete the qualification. Whereas a student with a growth mindset will see a D Grade as a challenge, an opportunity to learn and do better next time. The accomplishment is more procedural for this student as they believe that hard work, overcoming setbacks, practice and perseverance is what leads to success (growth mindset), versus natural ability and talent (fixed mindset).

By sharing accomplishments with your friends and family (the good, the seemingly bad and the ugly) you give yourself the opportunity to see things from a different perspective. For instance, my father used to tell me that school is as valuable for the experiences you gain along the way as it is for the final qualification. He also used to say that all anyone could ask of me was to do better than I did yesterday; consequently my accomplishments are interpreted through a growth mindset.

Tap into the support of your family and friends to help you through the tough times, spur you on through the low times and celebrate with you in the high times. With their support you have a greater chance of interpreting all of your experiences as accomplishments, not just the good ones. 

PERMA Your Friendships and Family

So there you have my experience. Positive emotions, Engagement, positive Relationships, Meaning and purpose, and a sense of Accomplishment have all been used strategically to help maintain my relationships whilst I study. What better way to graduate than with the full support of those you love the most.

Bio

Kristen Hamling is a registered psychologist, having worked in the army reserve, private practice and with many organisations as an ‘expert’ on employee well-being. She has recently stepped out of her ‘expert’ role to learn about well-being from the first hand experiences of first responders (police, firefighters and paramedics) in her doctoral studies at the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand. She aims to improve well-being initiatives for first responders.

References

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity. Three Rivers Press (CA).

Lambert, N. (2015). Positive relationships. Retrieved September 8, 2015, from http://nobaproject.com/modules/positive-relationsh...

Seligman, M. E. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Simon and Schuster.

Principles vs. Publishers

June 9, 2016

By Rajiv Jhangiani

@thatpsychprof

[This post originally appeared on Rajiv's own excellent blog on June 3rd, 2016]

This has been an interesting week. Yesterday I made the decision to formally withdraw a chapter from an edited volume about themes for teaching Introductory Psychology. It was not an easy decision because I had put a lot of thought and energy into the chapter, made the necessary revisions, and even saw it accepted by the editors more than a year ago (a change in editorial staff at Cengage prompted the massive delay). So you can imagine my surprise a few weeks ago when I received a very curious email from a “Product Manager” at Cengage. It started out nicely enough, saying nice things about OER in my discipline:

“I’m familiar with some of the platforms but my favorite (and the one I most worried about) is Noba. Obviously the scholarship is first-rate but I like the organization and the way it hyperlinks too. It’s a pleasant user experience. I believe I would give it a 2nd look if I were an instructor.”

Full disclosure: I serve as an Associate Editor with NOBA, so you might reasonably suspect this is the equivalent of “hey, have you been working out?” On the other hand, why yes, I have been working out. Nice of you to notice.

But the email went on to request a series of changes that would make my previously-accepted chapter more palatable to the publisher. In the PM’s words, “We would like to see a few more value statements made around traditional publishers’ offerings.” Yeah, no conflict of interest there.

These changes (detailed later by the editors) included:

  1. Toning down my critique of traditional publisher practices. This included references to the 1041% increase in textbook costs and the prevalence of “new editions” with only cosmetic changes.
  2. Including a description of their new business model: PM: “Publishers are not interested in selling hardbound textbooks. Our economics discipline team isn’t even going to publish them next year. The prices are hiked 33% at the bookstore and they are bought and resold 9 times. That’s not a good business for us in 2016.”
  3. Adding strong cautionary language about OER such as “and the academic buyer (i.e., instructor) should beware”

I initially attempted to work with the editors, checking to ensure that these requests reflected their own judgement (they were not copied on that email from the PM, although they had sent me an email a month earlier requesting similarly-themed revisions, some of which I made). I even indicated a willingness to look at revisions that they would write (and that the PM would vet). Ultimately, however, the changes they felt were necessary to appease the publisher (for whom this book is evidently a “service project”) were a bridge too far for my conscience to travel.

Image: davidmulder61, https://www.flickr.com/photos/113026679@N03/157718... CC BY-SA 2.0 - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
In reflecting on this experience I have been thinking more broadly about change and how and when it is possible to introduce it. I have seen how change is sometimes more easily introduced from the outside (I think any internal pioneer can attest to how much more enthusiastically an outsider with the identical message is embraced). But despite this perceptual barrier there is great value in fighting the good fight to introduce change from within. Indeed, it is precisely my knowledge that the volume will be read by many traditionalists that leaves me with a tinge of disappointment at having had to withdraw my chapter.

I face a similar dilemma with my research: Do I publish my research on open education in more traditional (paywalled) journals that are read by colleagues who are unaware of OER? Are exorbitant article processing charges (APCs) the price of avoiding hypocrisy?

I would love to pledge an unwavering commitment to only review for and publish in (truly) open access journals (I am almost there), but I also want to speak directly to the unconverted. And that might just involve periodically soiling myself by supporting the very publishers whose nefarious practices have catalyzed the birth of the open access movement. Of course I recognize that the Gold OA option–tainted as it is–is one of privilege, granted to me via an OER research fellowship funded by the Hewlett foundation (how does anyone without a source of funding pay those APCs?). But I confess that even while I do not have to personally bear the brunt of this cost right now, paying them at all still makes me feel slightly unclean as I balance pragmatism with idealism.

We really do need a cleanse for openwashing.

Post script (June 7, 2016): Although I sincerely appreciate the supportive comments I have received in response to this post and the article in Insider Higher Ed, I fear that one thing may have got lost in the noise: That despite my disagreement with them on what constitutes a balanced perspective on the textbook industry, I greatly respect and admire the two editors who have certainly poured a lot of energy into this volume. I believe that they accepted my proposed theme for the chapter because they saw value in it. They subsequently made many excellent suggestions that helped me to improve my writing. And they have always been supportive and encouraging when I speak at psychology conferences. I would not want this story to cast aspersions on their integrity.

Bio

Rajiv Jhangiani teaches Psychology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, BC. Since 2013 he has also served as an Open Learning Faculty Member at Thompson Rivers University. Rajiv also serves as an OER Research Fellow with the Open Education Group, an Associate Editor of Psychology Learning & Teaching, the Associate Editor of NOBA Psychology, the Director of Research, Resources, and Special Initiatives on the Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s Early Career Psychologists Committee, and as a member of the APS Teaching Fund Committee. From 2014-2015 he served as a Faculty Fellow with the BC Campus Open Textbook Project.

Active Learning in the Classroom – Now What?

May 25, 2016

By Claire Gravelin

@clairegravelin

I already use active learning strategies in my classroom, why should I make more changes to my course?

Because more can be done!

Congratulations! You’re riding the active learning train and you and your students are surely witnessing the benefits that arise from learner-centered instruction. But don’t stop now! What we view as best practices in teaching are continuously evolving and your class should be, too!

In this post, I overview some simple changes I made in one of my upper-level psychology courses to enhance student learning and engagement with course material. These changes enhanced my already active and student-centered classroom and resulted in even greater gains in student learning. The best part – the changes were small, but made a huge impact.

Image: Government of Prince Edward Island, https://www.flickr.com/photos/55216729@N06/2619725... CC BY-NC-ND

About My Class:

I was teaching an upper-level psychology course, Psychology and Social Issues. The goal of this course is to expose students to empirical and theoretical research in social psychology and apply these ideas to real world problems and events. Like many of our junior/senior-level classes, this course was discussion-based; students read the assigned articles outside of class and were expected to come to class ready to discuss the articles and apply what they learned to current events (e.g. implicit racism and shooting unarmed Black men).

Traditional” Active Learning:

During my first semester teaching this course, dubbed the “Traditional” Active Learning approach, I served as the discussion leader for the first few weeks to model how discussions should take place. Then, as the proponent of learner-centered teaching that I am, I passed the baton to the students. Thus, students took turns leading the discussion on that days’ assigned readings, which were always discussed in a full-class round-table format. With each reading assignment, I also posted a series of learning objective to help guide their reading.

The problem: Discussion quality was highly variable depending on how prepared the student discussion leader was. Poor preparation by the discussion leader meant the entire class suffered, and even when the discussion leader was prepared, the class was not. Often students took the fact that they weren’t the discussion leader as an opportunity not to closely read the material. This meant we often spent more time in class discussing the basic concepts from the readings and not getting the chance to apply these concepts to real world social issues like I hoped. Worse still, in polling the students, most admitted they didn’t use the learning objectives to guide their reading, and only used them when it came time to prepare for the exams.

“Enhanced” Active Learning:

I decided I needed to make some changes – but I didn’t want to completely abandon the learner-centered approach. It would have been easy to throw up my hands, declare that my students couldn’t handle the responsibility of leading discussions, and resort to leading the course myself. But I knew students would be missing out on an incredible learning opportunity. So instead, I made the decision to give my students more responsibility (whhaaaaatt!?). Here’s what I did:

  • Scaffold student preparation. Discussion leaders were responsible for submitting a reading guide and a list of discussion questions to me a week before their discussion day. 
    • Reading guides served as a brief outline of the assigned reading that would be posted for the class as a study tool for the exams. I returned to them detailed feedback on areas in their guides that needed correction or expansion, and pushed students to think of deeper discussion questions beyond rote memorization of concepts.
  • Switch up the Discussion Format. Prior to turning the reigns over to the students, I modeled the traditional full-class discussion format and an alternative small-groups format. In the small-groups format, students broke up into groups of 5-6 students each to discuss the basics of the reading assignment, with myself and the discussion leader walking around the room as “experts” to aid in their understanding of the material. After discussing the basics of the reading, a delegate from each group had to post four questions their group couldn’t reach a consensus on to the white board for full-class discussion.
    • These could be definitions/concepts that were unclear, but were usually deeper-level application-based discussion questions. When we returned to the full group, the discussion leader now had their own pre-prepared discussion points, and also a pool of discussion questions generated by their peers to pick from.
  • Let them Choose. After modeling both discussion formats, I encouraged discussion leaders to adopt whichever format they felt most comfortable with when it was their day to lead the class.
    • I found a pretty even mix between discussion preference. This was good because it kept the class (and me!) on their toes!
  • Re-engage with the Material. Following class, discussion leaders revised their reading guides to elaborate on any specific topics/concepts in need of greater clarification in response to course discussion and to briefly summarize what was discussed in class.

Did It Work?:

Discussions were of much higher quality and more in-depth in the “Enhanced” Active Learning class compared to the “Traditional” Active Learning class. Students came to class prepared more often due to the increased responsibility of having to generate quality discussion questions in small groups even on the days they were not the assigned leader. Forcing discussion leaders to engage with the material early by submitting a reading guide and discussion questions to me allowed me the opportunity to correct any misinterpretations they had before class and allow them time to generate deeper-level discussion questions than they might have otherwise.

Students who are more resistant to participate in large-group discussions found it easier to participate and contribute when given the opportunity to talk in smaller groups.

But Did They LEARN More?:

Yes! There were a total of 51 multiple choice and 6 short answer exam questions common across both semesters. I used these items to compare performance across the two Active Learning Approaches:

Students in the Enhanced class performed an average of 25 points higher on the multiple choice compared to those in the Traditional class, t(37) = 15.14, p <.001;d= 4.84, AND they performed an average 2.5 points higher on the short answer items, t(37) = 4.87, p <.001; d= 1.57

Now It’s Your Turn:

Regardless of the format of your course, I hope this post has inspired you to think about what more can be done in your classroom. Push the envelope and try something new. As demonstrated above, even relatively small changes can have substantial impact on student learning – and isn’t that what we’re all here for?

Bio

Claire Gravelin is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, KS where she has taught a wide range of face-to-face, hybrid, and online courses including social psychology, statistics, and research methods. Her research focuses on exploring the causes and consequences of the marginalization of women focusing on the domains of sexual assault and the underrepresentation of women in positions of leadership and STEM fields. Claire is also actively engaged in the scholarship of teaching and learning and is always looking for new ways to challenge and improve best practices in teaching.

Using Students’ Intrinsic Need for Self-Knowledge to Teach Personality Psychology

May 6, 2016

By Sara Branch

“Who are you?” asks the caterpillar to Alice. “Whooo. Arrre. Yooou?”

“Well, I hardly know, sir. I’ve changed so many times since this morning, you see.”

 Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Who are you? This is the first question I ask students in my personality psychology course (with the drawn out “whooooo” and all). Who are you? Knowing oneself is notoriously difficult, if not impossible (Silvia & Gendolla, 2001). But that doesn’t stop most of us from trying. The “self-improvement” industry represents a $10 billion per year industry in the U.S. alone (Forbes, 2009). Seemingly random online personality quizzes go viral - who can resist knowing which city they should live in or which ‘Friends’ character they are (Slate, 2014)? And even researchers maximize response rates simply by compensating participants with feedback about themselves (Vazire, 2006)!

The need for self-knowledge also motivates students to take psychology courses – especially personality psychology. Fortunately, psychology classes are well positioned to engage students by giving them the opportunity to reflect and learn about themselves (while, often unbeknownst to them, teaching them something about psychology). In this post, I discuss some ways that I have transformed a human need for self-knowledge into engaging class assignments.

Using Students’ Intrinsic Need for Self-Knowledge to Teach Personality Psych

Who are you? Students have a surprisingly difficult time answering this question. Sometimes out of shyness, but often because they really don’t know (they’re far better at discussing who they think I am). As a part of my personality psychology course students complete a series of low-stakes writing assignments that ask them to actively engage with some aspect of the material and then reflect on their own traits, needs, or motives.

Over the course of the semester, students complete 4 low-stakes writing assignments. Each assignment has two components: 1) a structured active-learning exercise, and 2) a written self-reflection.

An Example Assignment

One popular assignment asks students to create two separate online profiles – one for their current self and one for their ideal self (Higgins, 1987, 1999). Each profile includes a photo, descriptions of their interests/hobbies, occupation, personality, values, and goals. What they include is left somewhat open-ended so that students can draw on what is important to them. They are given the option of creating a profile in on online social network (like Facebook), using some other program, or doing it by hand (paper and pencil). However they chose to do them, however, they have to be able to share them with me.

After constructing both profiles, students compare them. They write about the defining features of each self, the factors that have influenced the development of these selves, how similar or different their current self is from their ideal self, and how that similarity/difference influences them. The last question is perhaps most important. It asks students to apply Higgins argument that self-guides have motivating properties – in this case, focusing attention on achievement and goal accomplishment.

Why “Low Stakes”?

“Low-stakes” means that the students’ grades on the project primarily reflect the degree to which they have thought critically about the material, appropriately applied it to their self-analysis, and articulated their understanding, rather than writing mechanics. The goal of low stakes assignments is to get students to think, learn, and understand course material (Elbow, 1997). It removes pressure or anxiety associated with fears of writing or a lack of skill and instead gives students the opportunity to express their thoughts. I have found this to be particularly valuable when students are writing about themselves.

Why the Self?

Everything we know about ourselves hangs together in our memory in a nicely organized, well-developed network of information (Markus, 1983). When students think about new concepts in regard to the self, they are better able to elaborate and organize that information (Symons & Johnson, 1997).

What do Students Think?

Each semester, students provide informal feedback on the class, including their opinions about the various components of the course. Here are some of their evaluations of the reflection papers:

“Fun and interesting way to apply material to real life.”

“They helped me gain a better understanding myself.”

“These really helped me understand core concepts because I learn material better when I apply it to my own life.”

“My favorite part of the course!”

“[Add] more reflection papers. They were really fun to do and I learned a lot.”

It is rare that students explicitly advocate for having more of any given assignment in my classes, so I’ll take that as a win.

What Hasn’t Worked?

Most of the time these assignments help me get to know my students. There is a noticeable difference in the rapport I build with students in my personality psychology class compared to my other courses. When students share parts of themselves and their lives with me in their writing, it creates a sense of familiarity that builds a sense of community in the classroom. However, a few students have noted in their evaluations that they felt uncomfortable disclosing information about themselves. No one has ever asked to be excused from a project, and for those projects that require self-disclose of potentially sensitive information I always allow students to edit what they submit. But this is a challenge to be aware of – it may be beneficial to give students a set of potential assignments and ask them to complete a subset of them that they select.

Who are you? I ask this question again on the last day. Whether students have really discovered who they are or not, who knows. But I do know that they embrace their roles as amateur personality psychologists (Larsen & Buss, 2014). They are better able to think about how their personalities influence their experiences of the world, and vice versa. And if they leave with that, I consider the semester a success.

Bio:

Sara Branch received her Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Purdue University. She is an Assistant Professor of Personality Psychology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Her research focuses on the intersection of social and cognitive psychology as an approach to scholarship of teaching and learning.

References:

Elbow, P. (1997). High stakes and low stakes in assigning and responding to writing. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 69, 5-13. doi: 10.1002/tl.6901

Higgins, E. T. (1987). Self-discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect. Psychological review, 94, 319-340. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.94.3.319

Higgins, E. T. (1999). Promotion and prevention as a motivational duality: Implications for evaluative processes. In S. Chaiken & Y. Trope (Eds.), Dual-process theories in social psychology (pp. 503-525). New York: Guilford Press.

Larsen, R.J., & Buss, D. M. (2014). Personality psychology: Domains of knowledge about human nature. New York: McGraw Hill.

Lindner, M. (2009, January). What are people still willing to pay for. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/2009/01/15/self-help-industry-ent-sales-cx_ml_0115selfhelp.html.

Markus, H. (1983). Self-knowledge: An expanded view. Journal of personality, 51, 543-565. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.1983.tb00344.x

Roller, E. (2014, January). Which type of Internet user are you? The unstoppable rise of the Buzzfeed quiz. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/life/culturebox/2014/01/buzzfeed_quizzes_taking_over_facebook_feeds_what_makes_them_so_shareable.html.

Silvia, P. J., & Gendolla, G. H. (2001). On introspection and self-perception: Does self-focused attention enable accurate self-knowledge?. Review of General Psychology, 5, 241-269. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/1089-2680.5.3.241

Symons, C. S., & Johnson, B. T. (1997). The self-reference effect in memory: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 121, 371. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.121.3.371

Vazire, S. (2006). Informant reports: A cheap, fast, and easy method for personality assessment. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 472-481. doi: doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2005.03.003

Jumpstart Your Teaching with the Jumpstart Lesson Planning Model

April 20, 2016

By Lynne N. Kennette

We know that each of our students learns in different ways, and have a preferred way of receiving and interacting with information to learn it. Because of this, it can be a challenge for instructors to ensure that we meet each of their needs. We also know that students have an ever decreasing attention span, so lecturing for an hour (or even 15 minutes!) is not ideal. When preparing to provide learning opportunities for our students in class, it is sometimes difficult to keep all of these things in mind while planning lessons (especially since we have a preferred way of learning/teaching as well!) Struggle no more! Use the Jumpstart model for your lesson-planning and you WILL be able to address the many types of learners in your classroom (and make teaching/learning more fun and active in the process).

The Jumpstart Lesson-Planning Model

At Durham College (Oshawa, Ontario, Canada), we use the Jumpstart model for lesson planning, which captures students’ attention, chunks content into short lessons, and enables students to manipulate or practice the material immediately after each chunk. This helps instructors to structure their lessons to include multiple ways for students to receive, interact, and practice the material.

The Jumpstart model contains 4 different types of components: connection activity, content activity, practice activity, and summary activity. 

Adapted from café.durhamcollege.ca. More details and ideas of activities can be found at Durham College’s website for the Centre for Academic and Faculty Enrichment (http://cafe.durhamcollege.ca/index.php/teaching-le....

To begin each unit (this can be a chapter, topic, learning outcome, or class period), you first engage students by connecting what they already know to the material that will be covered. This makes the link between the content and the student’s real life (or future work life) and answers the question “why should I learn this?” This can take the form of an image, case study, discussion, video clip, newspaper article, poll, etc.

I use this image (from https://redfaze.wordpress.com) to jumpstart our discussion of social psychology and the fundamental attribution error.

Then, for each topic within your unit, you present small chunks of information (Content activity) followed by the opportunity to practice that content (Practice activity). The Content activity provides students with the information (i.e., what they need to know) and the practice activity allows them to practice this new knowledge or skill to let students gauge whether they have mastered the content being taught. Here are some examples:

  • show a video clip (e.g., nervous system) and have students create a concept map
  • have students engage in an experiment or watch your demonstration of a phenomena, then complete a worksheet
  • present information using a brief traditional lecture, then ask students to self-test (you can create fun assessments using Hot Potatoes (dowloadable for free from https://hotpot.uvic.ca/) or purchasing IF-AT scratch cards from Epstein (http://www.epsteineducation.com/home/))
  • ask students to present information on a topic to their classmates (e.g., defining features of a disorder), then ask the class to practice identifying disorders using case studies 

This content-practice cycle is repeated (and varied) for each topic within the unit.

Fill-in-the-blanks Practice activity following an in-class experiment (Content activity).

At the end of the unit, a Summary activity provides students with the opportunity for synthesis and metacognition, reflecting on their mastery of the unit content and figuring out how all of the pieces fit together. For example, students can create test questions (or review games/activities such as Taboo-style cards) in a small group or summarize the unit in one sentence, or write down what is still unclear about this unit (muddiest point).

Student-created Taboo-style cards for unit review.

 Theoretical Foundations of the Jumpstart Model

Durham College’s Centre for Academic and Faculty Enrichment (C.A.F.E.) developed the Jumpstart unit planning model to organize lesson plans to appeal to each learning style and provide students with active learning experiences (this project was headed by Ruth Rodgers, now retired, based on her previous work at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology). The Jumpstart model is loosely based on Kolb’s idea of learning styles, and also fits with more recent neuroscience work by Zull. Both of these are briefly described below.

Kolb proposed that each person has a preferred style of learning as part of his experiential learning theory (Kolb & Kolb, 2005). Some people learn best by doing, others by feeling, others by watching, and others still by thinking. His four learning styles assign learners to one of these learning styles: Diverger, Assimilator, Converger, and Accommodator. 

  •  Divergers need to be convinced to learn the material, so they benefit from the Connection activity in the Jumpstart model.
  • Assimilators just want to be given the information that must be learned, so they prefer the Content activities
  • Convergers want to try it for themselves, so the Practice activities are most valuable to them.
  • Accommodators want to explore this new knowledge with peers and so the Summary activity is their preferred learning style.

Zull’s research has expanded our understanding of the physical, neurological changes that occur as a result of learning. He proposes that learning occurs by using 4 different regions of the cortex:

  • sensory cortex (get information through experience)
  • temporal integrative cortex (make meaning through reflection and observation)
  • frontal integrative cortex (generate new ideas and hypotheses)
  • motor cortex (act on these new ideas by actively testing them).

Thus, his proposal is to engage the whole brain during the course of learning, which the Jumpstart model allows you to do with minimal effort.

Zull (2004) proposes that learning (i.e., changes in the brain) requires practice and the experience of emotions. When students solve a difficult problem, for example, the reward chemicals that are released result in a feeling of intrinsic motivation for them. Practice is especially important because it results in physical changes in the brain (Draganski, Gaser, Busch, Shcuierer, Bogdahn, & May, 2004). Draganski’s team demonstrated this by having novices practice juggling. After practicing and achieving mastery, these jugglers showed increased density in some areas of the brain; this increased density was reversed when they stopped practicing to juggle, which resulted in a reduction in their juggling skills.

So, Jumpstart gives your students the opportunity to use their whole brain during your class and ensures that at some point, your unit lesson will appeal to each student, regardless of their preferred Kolb learning style. Zull (2004) summarizes the benefits of varied learning opportunities: “If teachers provide experiences and assignments that engage all four areas of the cortex, they can expect deeper learning than if they engage fewer regions. The more brain area we use, the more neurons fire and the more neural networks change and thus the more learning occurs.”

My Experience

Having used this lesson planning model for the last 4 years, I can honestly say that it has made planning lessons easier and helps me to include more variety (activities). I find it an easier way to organize my thoughts and plan my lessons. Typically, I work backwards from the LOs, then plug in the activities/demos/experiments, and then fill in the gaps. Specifically, this model ensures that you’re always thinking about how students can practice what you’re teaching them, which is an area that many forget to include (I know I was sometimes guilty of this prior to joining Durham College and using the Jumpstart model).

As with any teaching technique, it’s not fool-proof. If you plan to use the Jumpstart model, I would suggest that you try it with one class/lesson (one that you want to improve right now anyway!) and work from there. Additionally, ensure that your lessons include a variety of tools to deliver the material, practice, etc. If you’re still lecturing for the majority of class time, you’re not using this to its fullest potential. One vastly under-utilized resource in the classroom is other students. Our students’ networks look different than ours, so it can be more difficult for us to present course content at their level; sometimes using peers to deliver the content can be beneficial to bridge that gap (Bowman, Frame, & Kennette, 2013; Zull, 2004).

Finally, take some risks. It may not always work out exactly as you had planned (e.g., technological issues), but I think students would rather see you try something new and fail (fully or partially) than bore them with traditional lectures for 3 hours/week. 

Bio:

Lynne N. Kennette received her Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology (Psycholinguistics) from Wayne State University (Detroit, Michigan). She is a professor of psychology and program coordinator (General Arts and Science program) in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at Durham College (Oshawa, ON, Canada). She has won numerous teaching awards, including two from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology. She is passionate about psychology, teaching, and learning. 

References

Bowman, M., Frame, D. L., & Kennette, L. N. (2013). Enhancing Teaching andLearning: How Cognitive Research Can Help. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching: Brain-Based Learning (Special Issue),24(3),7-28.

C.A.F.E. (2012). The Jumpstart unit planning model. Centre for Academic and Faculty Enrichment, Durham College. Retrieved from http://cafe.durhamcollege.ca/index.php/teaching-learning/the-jumpstart-model

Draganski, B., Gaser, C., Busch, V., Schuierer, G., Bogdahn, U., & May, A. (2004). Neuroplasticity: Changes in grey matter induced by training. Nature, 427, 311-312.

Kolb, A. Y., & Kolb, D. A. (2005). Learning Styles and Learning Spaces: Enhancing Experiential Learning in Higher Education. Academy Of Management Learning & Education, 4(2), 193-212. doi:10.5465/AMLE.2005.17268566

Merriam, S. B., & Brockett, R. G. (2011). The profession and practice of adult education: An introduction. San Francisco, CA: Wiley.

Zull, J. E. (2004). The art of changing the brain, Educational Leadership, 62(1), 68-72. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el200409_zull.pdf

Internationalizing Psychology Courses: A Small-Scale Primer

April 6, 2016

By Ken Abrams

Though much of the world is focused on and affected by the glut of international oil and warring factions in the Middle East, the trend toward “globalization” is not happening at just the corporate and political levels. It’s occurring in education as well – undergraduates in many countries are increasingly sitting among and interacting with fellow students from around the world.

Psychology has an important role to play in an increasingly connected world. Today psychologists are more frequently contributing to conversations on globally-focused topics ranging from environmental degradation to epidemic prevention to international development. In line with this trend, the APA recently endorsed “sociocultural and international awareness” as a major goal for undergraduate education.

With that in mind, one might reasonably expect international perspectives to be regularly incorporated into psychology courses. But are they?

[Image: Vancouver Island University, CC BY-NC-ND, https://www.flickr.com/photos/10217633@N02/8159223760/]

Behind the Curve

Unfortunately, the psychology curriculum remains dominated by Western values, assumptions, and theories. Around 96% of samples in studies published in top APA journals are from Western industrialized countries, whose populations combined comprise only 12% of the world’s. As a result most textbooks and articles assigned in psychology courses (outside of cross-cultural psychology) only infrequently cover international or comparative research, if at all.

This is problematic on many fronts. A more culturally diverse presentation of psychology offers many benefits that most current students don’t receive. The infusion of international perspectives can, for example, enhance self-awareness, reduce stereotyping and prejudice, and produce more competent researchers and teachers.

An internationalized curriculum can also be valuable for students who choose to study abroad or travel independently. Students exposed to international perspectives in their coursework are more likely to act with greater sensitivity and openness while abroad and are better prepared to respond to the cultural challenges that await them. Upon return, they benefit when courses allow them to reflect upon and integrate their international experiences.

Inching Forward

So, how can faculty make their courses and curricula more global in nature? Below I list four ideas – consider it a starter list.

1. Assign articles from journals that have an international focus and high percentage of foreign contributors, such as The International Journal of Psychology, The International Journal of Social Psychiatry, The Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, The Journal of Multicultural Counseling & Development, and Transcultural Psychiatry.

2. Ask students to watch and write reflection papers on relevant international films. For example, in my Health Psychology course, the students watch the South African film Yesterday, which revolves around a Zulu woman who simultaneously takes care of her daughter, her dying husband, and her own bout with HIV and AIDS.

3. Require students to write a paper in which they apply principles from the course to social, political, or health problems specific to a particular geographic region or cultural group. For example, in a learning and behavior course, students might be tasked with identifying, in a culturally-appropriate way, how the Thai government could employ principles of operant conditioning to decrease the spread of STIs among sex workers.

4. Consistently challenge students to consider the extent to which psychological theories and research findings are likely to apply to other cultures. In my psychopathology course, we discuss common theories of depression and consider whether they would apply equally to cultures that are more collectivistic in nature.

Looking for additional tips? Many can be found in a book recently published by the APA that I co-edited titled Internationalizing the Undergraduate Psychology Curriculum: Practical Lessons Learned at Home and Abroad.

Bio

Ken Abrams is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. He taught in the Czech Republic for two years in the mid 1990s, speaks Czech, and has directed six cross-cultural psychology study abroad programs in the Czech Republic. He regularly presents on the topic of internationalizing the undergraduate psychology curriculum and can be contacted at kabrams@carleton.edu

My Struggle with the Move away from Content

March 28, 2016

By Dominic Carbone

I was so excited this year to get funding to go to the 2016 NITOP Conference in St. Petersburg Florida. I had been hearing about NITOP for years from colleagues at my college. Some of the innovations that they spoke about were fascinating to me.

The most fascinating innovation represented by a small wing of the presenters, was the move away from standard course content in favor of topics of the moment of interest to students. What?!? What about content? I was a little surprised and concerned to hear about this trend. How can we have courses without content? What would we be teaching? I left for Florida with my ears perked up, ready to ask these and other questions about this new trend.

At various points during the conference, I heard mention of the trend away from course content at the start of most of the presentations I attended. I waited patiently during each presentation to hear how the presenters planned to teach a course in Social Psychology, for example, without covering such important content as “cognitive dissonance”, “social perception”, “attribution theory” and “stereotyping and prejudice”. I attended sessions regarding a variety of pedagogical innovations and during the demonstrations of implementation of said innovative techniques the presenters invariably relied on content. Yes, while each of the presentations that I attended started out with the premise that there was an overall de-emphasis on the course content, it was in fact the content that fueled the engine that allowed the techniques discussed to be practices and enacted.

Is there not a cannon of core content that students must master before they graduate and should they be allowed to graduate with a psychology degree if they failed to demonstrate mastery of this core content? [Image: University Library of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, CC BY-NC-SA, https://www.flickr.com/photos/55198750@N08/2411207...

Then came the plenary session.

The plenary session entitled, “Bye, Bye Intro”, was given by Douglas Bernstein. He started with the contention that “most students remember just a few facts and concepts from their undergraduate education”. Dr. Bernstein went on to promote student-directed topical discussions of current events that were related to random psychological concepts that might be found in any psychology course. This method of randomly generated course content sounded tempting at first. With students generating the content and topics how could they not be engaged and retain this knowledge for later use?

Well, my issue with this approach is that is starts with an assumption that is based anecdotally on what “most” students are assumed to remember post graduation from college. Even if this were empirically demonstrated, it focuses on the destination rather than the journey and what the journey provides. I also wondered what would happen if students were not able to generate topics relevant to content or if they might feel like I was not competent to generate topics on my own. What would an accreditation body think of such a syllabus?

Let me indulge in anecdotal accounts from the graduates that I encounter. Many of the psychology graduates of my acquaintance appreciate and use the content that they mastered in my courses in their further graduate studies, personal lives, professional lives and lives as engaged citizens. While historical dates and names might not be freely recalled, the concepts and content has provided them with a framework from which to understand the world as a psychological thinker. They have been changed for the foreseeable future in profound ways. The content becomes the fuel for the pedagogical vehicles from which we give students that experience. While I think it’s a great idea to involve students in offering examples of real world experiences that illustrate the various psychological concepts that we cover in our classes, I do think that we need to direct the content by establishing it at the start of the course.

If Dr. Bernstein is correct and “most graduates” are truly remembering little content from their undergraduate experience, should we be solving this issue be removing critical core content from higher education? Is there not a cannon of core content that students must master before they graduate and should they be allowed to graduate with a psychology degree if they failed to demonstrate mastery of this core content? Content does matter. It’s what gives definition to each discipline and begins the journey for those engaged in a particular field of study toward content expertise. This view was reinforced by the majority of the other presentations that I attended at NITOP.

I think that it is inaccurate for a small minority to say that moving away from content in our discipline specific courses is in any way innovative and improving the teaching of psychology. We may just be fooling ourselves out of a job. 

Bio

Dominic J. Carbone earned his BS degree in Psychology at Fordham University, an MA degree in Developmental Psychology & Education at Columbia University, an MS in Human Development & Family Studies, and a PhD in Clinical & Developmental Psychology from Cornell University. He is a full time faculty member at Sussex College in New Jersey and at the State University of New York. He is a practicing, state licensed clinical psychologist in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

What Teaching Means To Me

March 4, 2016

By Meera Komarraju

I find teaching to be a profoundly fascinating and rewarding experience. My earliest memories of teaching take me back to my teenage years when I was asked by my father to “tutor” my younger siblings. However, I did not step into my first formal instructor role until I was a graduate student – and then I was hooked. Twenty years later, after teaching in different countries (United States, India, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan) and in a variety of settings (large, small, undergraduate, graduate, and executive employee courses), I find myself reflecting on what teaching means to me. Quite honestly, the time I spend in the classroom is the best part of my workday. As my administrative responsibilities keep increasing I find myself missing my teaching more keenly. Why do I like teaching so much? Well, I hope the five reasons I offer resonate with you as an instructor interested in or engaged in the teaching enterprise.  

 1.  Teaching is a tremendously creative process. I find crafting a 50 minute lecture to be akin to an artistic composition of ideas and words. As an artist, I visualize the end product from the audience’s perspective and try to offer an absorbing, instructive, and satisfying experience. I spend a lot of preparation time in composing an introduction that captures the imagination, stories that engage the emotions, as well as inserting pauses and questions at the right spot to enhance student engagement and learning. I compare this process to arranging a bouquet of flowers, choreographing a dance, composing a sheet of music, or writing a poem. It has that same creative feel to it. When I observe others teach I find myself paying close attention to how they arrange ideas and the underlying principles that maximize their effectiveness.

Try it Yourself:

  • Take time to craft engaging introductions
  • Pay attention to the best spots to stop for questions and discussion
  • Use stories or other material to facilitate an emotional experience

2. Teaching is about creating a relationship with students. I think the classroom experience has a dynamic, interactive, and social-emotional aspect to it and the quality of the student-teacher relationship has a strong influence on the learning process. Teachers who are able to establish a strong rapport get immediate positive feedback. Since I have been teaching mainly introductory psychology in large lecture auditoriums, it has been quite a challenge to create a personalized experience for a class that is largely freshmen and non-majors. I have learned that letting students know that I love teaching and that I am deeply invested in their learning is a wonderful way to build community and establish a meaningful connection. Students are quite perceptive and if they sense that you are authentic they tend to respond positively and become more engaged. A majority of my students come from diverse backgrounds (first generation, rural, racial/ethnic minority, or inner city) and I find it energizing to be a part of their lives as they figure out the college experience. By getting to know my students I find it easier to include content and examples that are relevant to their lives.

Try it Yourself:

  • Do your best to learn the names of as many students as possible
  • Explicitly discuss your passion for the topic
  • Take time at the beginning to establish rapport and a sense of community
[Image: Jirka Matousek, http://goo.gl/5cm2PX, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/]

3. Teaching is about believing that your students can learn. I am convinced that all students entering my classroom can learn. As the teacher, I think of myself as a catalyst, as someone who has the opportunity to stimulate curiosity and inspire learning. From day one, I let my students know that despite their previous academic achievements, when they come to my class they can choose to excel. I encourage them to do their best and express their potential. I consciously communicate this expectation when I respond to their questions, give them feedback on their assignments, or ask for their input. I realize that students quickly pick up on what I say and also what I convey implicitly and nonverbally.

Try it Yourself:

  • What is your metaphor for teaching? Coach? Tour Guide? Parent?
  • Consider your view of student potential; do you treat high and low achieving students differently?
  • Reflect on how you discuss your students with your colleagues

4. Teaching about teaching. Typically, most instructors start their teaching with very little training or preparation. Few academic departments have the resources to offer a teacher training program. I too started teaching with almost no guidance or preparation. However, I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to provide training/orientation to a group of about 20 teaching assistants every year for the past fifteen years. During a week of training prior to the start of the semester and in a weekly Teaching Practicum during the semester, the TAs and I discuss strategies for generating participation, grading papers, addressing plagiarism, managing classroom procedures, handling problem students, and motivating students to attend class and complete course assignments. Throughout all these fifteen years, it has been particularly gratifying to watch TAs apply psychology in managing the classroom and student behavior. We discuss novel pedagogical techniques and experimenting with them to bring psychology to life and enhance student participation and engagement. I find myself sustaining my fascination for teaching through my involvement with my Teaching Assistants and teaching them about teaching. 

Try it yourself:

  • How do you mentor teaching assistants?
  • Set aside time for reflection on your own teaching effectiveness
  • Keep up with the latest research from the science of teaching and learning

5. Teaching is a developmental process. I have often reflected on whether certain individuals are born to be teachers or whether it is possible to perfect teaching through practice. Based on my teaching experience, my research, and years of working with my Teaching Assistants, my sense is that teaching is a developmental process. When a person first starts teaching, they may be at a particular spot along a continuum. However, with experience and with conscious effort an instructor can gradually progress through a process of continuous improvement. The more confident and competent an instructor begins to feel, the more likely they are to enjoy the teaching experience. Instructors who enjoy teaching will find it hard to keep all the joy to themselves and will soon find it spreading throughout their classroom and infecting their students!

Try it yourself:

  • Create a timeline of your own teaching history and mark important milestones
  • What is your philosophy of how great teaching develops?
  • Who are your inspirations in the world of teaching

Bio

Dr. Meera Komarraju is Professor of Psychology and Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale; Fellow of MPA and APA-Division 2; and recipient of the SIUC Outstanding Teacher of the YearAward-2012.

Bringing Excitement about the Brain into the Classroom

March 1, 2016

By Robert Franklin

How Did I Get So Excited about the Brain in the First Place?

The brain is intricate, complex, and full of mystery. I can think of few things more interesting than knowing that there is a direct relationship between the chemical and biological processes in our heads and my thoughts and behaviors. This is why biological psychology is my favorite subfield of psychology.

But almost all of my Introduction to Psychology students don’t see it that way. After hours studying and memorizing terms and topics as riveting as the axon hillock or location of the parietal lobe, it’s no wonder many students are turned off by the brain.

How many future neuroscientists are stopped right here?

I grappled for a long time with this question. And I wondered why I became so interested in the brain. How did I, trained as a social psychologist, become the “brain person” at my university?

It goes back to one moment at the very beginning of grad school. I volunteered to be a test subject for other students testing equipment in the new, expensive EEG lab. I sat as they spent thirty minutes placing a cap of electrodes on my head, waiting as they adjusted them, and readjusted them…and adjusted them again. At this point, when I could hold my boredom out no longer, they stopped, and I saw squiggly lines on a computer screen.

My thoughts, once held secret in my mind, were now laid bare before everyone. And even though it would take hours of data processing before anyone could make any sense out of those squiggly lines, I was hooked. I could see the brain.

Having access to an EEG lab with expensive, sophisticated equipment is a luxury well beyond the reach of most psychology instructors. [Image: Institute of Psychology Szeged EEG Lab,  CC BY-SA 3.0]

How Could I Get My Own Students Excited about the Brain?

Fast forward to my recent experiences as an instructor. My lectures are full of demonstrations, from group conformity to visual illusions. Students do not have to search long to find examples of memory processes. YouTube is full of videos of young children making predictable mistakes trying to understand the world. But I wasn’t able to show the brain in action. The best I could do was show cartoon diagrams that have no relationship to thought or behavior. The technology to demonstrate the brain, like when I was in grad school, could cost up to millions of dollars, which was just barely out of the budget of our small department.

But fortunately technology never stays still. Sensors such as the Neurosky MindWave EEG headset can begin to show the brain for less than $100 for a headset. The headsets use Bluetooth to pair to any computer or tablet, or even an iOS or Android smartphone, and after only seconds of preparation output their data into an app which shows the raw EEG brain waves along with different types of brain waves, such as alpha, beta, and theta waves, as well as a measure of attention and meditation. Through its Mobile Learning Initiative, Anderson University where I teach provides iPads for each of its students, so I had an opportunity to literally let students see their brains in action. However, I was unsure whether such an inexpensive system would even work, let alone give an accurate representation of mental processes.

The Neurosky MindWave EEG Headset. [Image: Rain Rabbit, CC BY-NC 2.0]

With a generous grant from the South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities Excellence in Teaching award, I was able to purchase a classroom set of these headsets. I then developed a lab exercise where students wore the headsets and engaged in several activities, such as resting with eyes closed, doing mental arithmetic, or reading. Students had to try to figure out what brain waves were associated with the different tasks. After that, the student wearing the headset would close their eyes and either rest or do mental arithmetic and the other students in their group would have to guess what they were doing using what they learned from the first part of the exercise.

Even with EEG headsets that were more like a toy than research-grade hardware, students were able to see differences between different activities. Even as the lab ended, the students kept testing out new ideas, for example seeing if listening to different music would lead to different brain activation. They tried raising their meditation scores by relaxing and found out that biofeedback might actually work. Most importantly, the students were excited to learn more about how the brain works and the techniques we use to understand the brain.

I was surprised about how much students liked just seeing their own brain waves, given that the brain waves do not tell us very much about how the brain works or where certain activities are located in the brain. But I suppose I should not have been surprised, given my memory of seeing my brain work for the first time. And I learned how a relatively inexpensive device could possibly encourage a future generation of neuroscientists.

How You Can Let Your Students Experience the Excitement Too

Even though I was able to get a full classroom set of headsets, even one or two of the headsets would be enough to get a class excited about neuroscience. The headsets only take a few seconds to start working, and several people can try the headset in a single class. If only one or two of the headsets are available, or if an instructor has a large classroom, there are many ways to convey that same level of excitement. First, just passing around a tablet that shows another student’s brain waves is enough to put someone’s brain activity literally in a student’s hands. Having students ask a volunteer to do different tasks while watching their brainwaves is an easy way to see how different behaviors change brain activity. For larger classes, the instructor can show the brain waves of a volunteer by installing an application on a presentation computer or by using an app to mirror what a student is seeing on a tablet with the presentation computer in the classroom (such as Apple Airplay). I’ve even done this in class before, watching a volunteer student’s brain waves change as they became drowsy listening to a lecture!

There are a few practical considerations to note. The Mindwave Mobile EEG uses Bluetooth to connect and thus it can be difficult pairing several headsets to tablets at the same time. It is best to pair the headsets to different devices one at a time. I recommend trying out the system with only one or two headsets before trying to use it in a larger classroom. In addition, having alcohol on hand to sanitize the headsets makes it much easier to share the headsets.

I believe the Mindwave EEG headset is a viable way to bring the brain into the classroom and has many ways to excite students, depending on what an instructor needs. The headsets are available on the Mindwave online store (http://store.neurosky.com/) as the MindWave Mobile: Brainwave Starter Kit.

Bio

Dr. Robert Franklin is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Anderson University, in Anderson SC, where he teaches courses in neuroscience, statistics, and research methods. His research interests involve understanding how people read social information from faces and how aging affects these processes. However, one of his greatest passions is increasing student interest in the research process by helping students examine questions they find most relevant and interesting. Robert is also co-author of the Noba learning module Attraction and Beauty.