On a quick read of some educational research, you might be left with the feeling that university students don’t have much of an attention span. Recent reports that about 60% of online students abandon video lectures in under 10 minutes (1), and countless studies showing that student attentiveness fades quickly into mind wandering (2,3) have not helped debunk this comparison either. In video recorded lectures, staged live lectures, and even selected authentic live lectures, mind wandering tends to increase quickly over time. So, we were saddled with a critical disconnect: On one hand, there was loads of research showing that mind wandering, or inattention, increases pathologically over time within lectures. On the other hand, we had our own anecdotal observations that while students obviously (and unfortunately for instructors) had a base rate of inattention, it didn’t seem to increase all that dramatically over time. Thankfully, we hadn’t really seen an increase in that glazed over look that every instructor or speaker dreads. Yes, the telltale signs of mind wandering were present, but no, they did not seem to be noticeably or dramatically increasing, despite what the in-lab research seems to say. We wanted to explore mind wandering in a real, live, lecture setting to resolve this discrepancy.
When students are actually enrolled in a course, the outcome has very real consequences for their futures. Studying attention during staged lectures in the lab might lead to quite different results than studying the real thing in the wild. Some researchers have looked at the interplay between attention and retention in actual lectures (2,4,5), but few have looked at how this behavior changes over time, or on a scale larger than one lecture, or a few lectures. So, we designed a few long-term experiments, conducted in actual live lectures over entire semesters. Instructors often use clicker remotes to ask quiz questions during lectures, both to measure attendance and to check understanding. We simply piggy-backed on this technology and asked participants to tell us, using a quick button press, whether or not they were mind wandering, whether they were doing so intentionally, or the degree to which they were mind wandering just before they were asked. Our motivations were mainly to observe and describe the way students’ minds wander in lectures. Here is what we found (6,7):
Rates of Unintentional Mind Wandering Are Relatively Low
Mind wandering is usually described as a failure of attention that occurs even though people are trying their best to pay attention. But, recent research shows that people often choose to mind wander, or mind wander intentionally during boring tasks. Surprisingly, in our lecture study, students were mind wandering about a third of the time during lectures, but more than half of this mind wandering was intentional. This is a different issue than the previously conceptualized student who helplessly succumbs to inattention. Instead, it seems that students are purposely tuning out. This might be an issue of motivation. Our research has repeatedly shown that motivation is related to mind wandering, especially of the intentional sort. One way of combatting this intentional mind wandering might be incentivizing student attention. This could be accomplished quite easily by making in-class quiz scores contribute directly to the students’ final grades. In any case, the large proportion of intentional episodes of mind wandering tells us that in reducing mind wandering during lectures, a fruitful target for intervention might be the intrinsic motivation of the student to retain information in class.
Mind Wandering Does Not Increase Over Time!
Unlike most research exploring attention during lectures, we found essentially no evidence that mind wandering increased over time within a lecture, in any of our three studies. The rates of intentional or unintentional mind wandering did not increase, and neither did students’ depth of mind wandering (the degree to which they were mind wandering). Of course, this does not mean that no students increased in mind wandering over time, but on the whole, rates and depth of mind wandering remained surprisingly stable.
However, mind wandering did increase over the course of the term or semester. People have a tendency to mind wander about current concerns or issues in their lives. With deadlines and exams steadily stacking up, people are likely dwelling more on those concerns, leading to a greater incidence of mind wandering as the term marches on.
Effects on Academic Performance Do Occur, But Are Not Catastrophic!
At the end of each class in our study, we quizzed students about information taken from the lecture. We mainly asked questions about slides that the professor spoke about right before, and right after mind wandering responses were given. This allowed us to get a really good sense of the immediate consequences of students’ zone outs. We were also able to get a sense of the long-term consequences by looking at students’ final grades in the course.
The immediate consequences of mind wandering were clear! In both studies where information was available, people did worse on quiz questions based on material they mind-wandered through and their scores were actually lower as they mind wandered to greater degrees. Also, the more people reported mind wandering overall, the worse they did on quizzes overall. Mind wandering was associated with poorer final grades, but the impact was not that large. To put this in perspective, a 10% increase in mind wandering rate was, on average, associated with only roughly a 2.3% decrease in final grade.
The Differences between Live and Video Recorded Lectures Are Important!
We showed a new group of students a video-recording of one of the lectures. So, this new group viewed the exact same lecture, and told us about their mind wandering at the exact same times as the in-class group. The only difference was that the new group watched the video lecture in the lab, while the original group viewed the lecture live.
The results were striking! We were surprised to see that the new group, the people who viewed the video lecture, did show an increase in mind wandering over time, but the group who viewed it live in class did not. Even more interesting is that half of the people in the new group were students who were currently taking the class that the lecture was taken from (in a subsequent term), and the other half had never been enrolled. There was essentially no difference in the trend in mind wandering between these groups. This tells us two things. The first is that research on mind wandering in the lab might not so readily translate to real-life situations, so we need to be careful in drawing general conclusions from these studies. The second is that it might be much more difficult for students’ to maintain their attention when they are not physically present in a classroom. These things, especially the latter, are very important for instructors to consider when using online or video-lecture content.
We have our work cut out for us in uncovering the reasons for our findings, but some studies are underway. These look both at the role of motivation in dictating mind wandering, and the importance of instructor-student interaction in rate-changes in mind wandering. We are currently investigating mind wandering during lectures using a small desktop app that independently monitors students’ attention by showing them a pop-up response window during class, and we also video-recorded some of these lectures. We can then compile students’ responses and associate them with students’ class-by-class alertness, sleep and motivation, as well as instructors’ movement, hand-waving, and speech inflections. It is our hope that we can use this to determine what people on both sides of the projection screen (instructor and student) can do to minimize inattention in the classroom, hopefully improving learning and retention along the way.
Jeff Wammes received his B.A. from Western University in London, Ontario, and is currently completing his PhD at the University of Waterloo. Jeff's research focuses very generally on the intersection between attention and memory. This includes exploring how mind wandering influences performance in academic settings, as well as looking at the detrimental effects of dual-tasking on memory, and how these effects can be alleviated using encoding strategies.
Thanks to those who collaborated on the work (alphabetical):
1.Kim, J., Guo, P. J., Seaton, D. T., Mitros, P., Gajos, K. Z., & Miller, R. C. (2014, March). Understanding in-video dropouts and interaction peaks inonline lecture videos. In Proceedings of the first ACM conference on Learning@ scale conference (pp. 31-40). ACM.
2.Young, M., Robinson, S., & Alberts, P. (2009). Students pay attention!: Combating the vigilance decrement to improve learning during lectures. Active Learning in Higher Education, 10. 41-55.
3.Risko, E., Anderson, N., Sarwal, A., Engelhardt, M., & Kingstone, A. (2012). Everyday Attention: Variation in Mind Wandering and Memory in a Lecture. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 26, 234-42.
4.Lindquist, S. I., & McLean, J. P. (2011). Daydreaming and its correlates in an educational environment. Learning and Individual Differences, 21(2), 158-167.
5.Varao-Sousa, T. L., & Kingstone, A. (2015). Memory for lectures: How lecture format impacts the learning experience. PloS one, 10(11).
6.Wammes, J. D., Boucher, P. O., Seli, P., Cheyne, J. A., & Smilek, D. (2016). Mind wandering during lectures I: Changes in rates across an entire semester. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 2(1), 13.
7.Wammes, J. D., Seli, P., Cheyne, J. A., Boucher, P. O., & Smilek, D. (2016). Mind wandering during lectures II: Relation to academic performance. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 2(1), 33.
In my first year as a professor, I was tasked with teaching introductory psychology. I felt a lot of pressure to make this an enjoyable course for my students because when I was a freshman taking this course was a life-altering experience. It changed the trajectory of my undergraduate major and led me to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology. However, one thing that I struggled with during this first year was the constant chatter in the classroom and the noise from 300 students packing up 5 minutes before the end of class. What disappointed me the most about these “student incivilities” (Nilson & Jackson, 2004) was when students would come up after class and tell me they were really enjoying the course but had a hard time paying attention because their classmates talked throughout the entire class period.
My fellow introductory psychology colleague, Dr. Martin Smith, and I used student learning contracts the following semester as a way to address incivilities. Student learning contracts can take on different forms. For example, they can be used to set expectations about the completion of activities outside of the classroom, class or office hours attendance, or to set goals for self-directed learning (e.g., Barlow, 1974; Frank & Scharff, 2013; Chan & Wai-tong, 2000). In this post, I focus on using student learning contracts to set expectations for behavior in the classroom.
How to create learning contracts
The basic premise of a learning contract is to create a set of guidelines for students and instructors to adhere to. Rather than preparing a contract in advance for students to sign, we work with our students to create a set of guidelines. Our approach is similar to one described by Nilson and Jackson (2004) as a “student-generated code-of-conduct contract.” Here are the steps we used to implement student learning contracts in our classrooms:
1. Create a student contract template.In the example below, we have three sections: (1) inappropriate behaviors, (2) appropriate behaviors, and (3) how to decrease inappropriate and increase appropriate behaviors.
2. Discuss. Organize students into small groups (2-4 students) and ask them to discuss what behaviors bother them or impede their learning in the classroom and what behaviors help facilitate their learning in the classroom.
3. Decide on the content of contract.Ask the class to share what they discussed in their smaller groups, write their suggestions on the board, and decide which behaviors should be included in the contract. In our experience, there is generally agreement on the appropriate and inappropriate behaviors (from both the students and instructors) so we decide informally what goes into the contract. However, you could also use a personal response system (e.g., iClickers) to have students vote on which items to include in the contract.
4. Complete and sign the contract.Each student fills out the contract with the agreed upon bullet points, signs it, and the instructor collects the contracts. In our experience, we have not had students refuse to sign the contract. However, if this is a concern, see Nilson and Jackson (2004) for a suggestion on how to deal with this.
5. Post the completed contract on the course website.Make the contract easily accessible for students to review. Here’s an example of a completed contract:
While a syllabus outlines the expectations instructors have for their students, many students fail to read it (see Raymark & Connor-Greene, 2002 for how to administer a syllabus quiz). Students might also not want to adhere to a set of rules imposed on them (Nilson & Jackson, 2004). By using a student-generated learning contract, students are directly involved in the process of creating classroom guidelines.
There are several reasons why student-generated contracts can help create a positive classroom environment:
Discussing and generating ideas with their peers in small groups can enhance cognitive elaboration of appropriate and inappropriate classroom behaviors (Cooper & Robinson, 2000).
Students may realize that they are not anonymous in class and that their behaviors impede learning in others.
Students realize that the things that bother them in class also bother other students.
Students have control of the content of the contract thereby increasing motivation to adhere and enforce the contract (Barlow, 1974; Frank & Scharff, 2013).
It may allow for deeper processing of the content of the contract.
I have outlined reasons why student learning contracts may be beneficial but they may not be necessary for all types of classes. As with any teaching tool, it really depends on the context. For example, while I use student contracts in my introductory level psychology course I have not used them in my upper-level courses. As I mentioned previously, my introductory psychology course has over 300 students and the majority of them are freshmen. In contrast, my upper level courses are much smaller (60-70 students) and are comprised of juniors and seniors with more experience in the college environment. Previous research suggests that students feel more anonymous and engage in more disruptive classroom behaviors in larger classes (Alberts, Hazen, & Theobald, 2010; Carbone, 1999; Elder, Seaton, & Swinney, 2010). Therefore, it could be especially beneficial in these larger classes to spend time creating a contract about classroom behaviors and expectations. Moreover, in classes that are predominantly freshman, using student contracts can help establish insight into the appropriate behaviors for future courses.
I hope that by sharing one of my challenges as a first-year instructor and what my colleague and I did to address it with learning contracts can help you decide whether you would want to implement student-generated learning contracts in your class and give you the tools to create your own.
Louise Chim received her Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University where she studied how cultural context shapes the affective states people want to feel. She is currently an Assistant Teaching Professor in psychology at the University of Victoria in Victoria, B.C., Canada where she teaches introduction to psychology, statistical methods, and cultural psychology.
Alberts, H.C., Hazen, H.D., & Theobald, R.B. (2010). Classroom incivilities: The challenge of interactions between college students and instructors in the US. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 34, 439-462. doi:10.1080/03098260903502679
Barlow, R.M. (1974). An experiment with learning contracts. The Journal of Higher Education, 45, 441-449.
Carbone, E. (1999). Students behaving badly in large classes. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 77, 35-43. doi: 10.1002/tl.7704
Chan, S.W., & Wai-tong, C. (2000). Implementing contract learning in a clinical context: Report on a study. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 31, 298-305. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2648.2000.01297.x
Cooper, J. & Robinson, P. (2000). The argument for making large classes seem small. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 81, 5-16. doi: 10.1002/tl.8101
Elder, B., Seaton, L.P. & Swinney, L.S. (2010). Lost in a crowd: Anonymity and incivility in the accounting classroom. The Accounting Educators’ Journal, 20, 91-107.
Frank, T., & Scharff, L.F.V. (2013). Learning contracts in undergraduate courses: Impacts on student behaviors and academic performance. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 13, 36-53.
Nilson, L.B., & Jackson, N.S. (2004, June). Combating classroom misconduct (incivility) with bill of rights. Paper presented at the 4th Conference of the International Consortium for Educational Development, Ottawa, Ontario. Retrieved from http://www.umfk.edu/pdfs/facultystaff/combatingmis...
Raymark, P.H., & Connor-Greene, P.A. (2002). The syllabus quiz, Teaching of Psychology, 29, 286-288. doi: 10.1207/S15328023TOP2904_05
1. I hook you with important and frustrating questions
How many times have you heard students ask some variation of the following question, “What does this have to do with the real-world?” Or, “When am I ever going to use this information outside this classroom or this test?” I’m assuming that you, like me, have fielded that lovely question more times than you care to admit. Do you have a good answer? Or are you fantasizing secretly about smacking the smirk off that smart-alecks face? (I may have just revealed too much about my level of frustration around this subject.)
Maybe students don’t feel empowered in the traditional classroom. What if the classroom actually separates students from the means of empowerment? The problem of empowerment may be related to the perceived separation of an unreal world of education from a real world context. Can it be argued that traditional education keeps students from participation in civic life? Does higher education really give students the skills and knowledge they need for such participation?
2. I answer with profound(!) wisdom
Do I have a solution for you? (Well, yes I do, or I wouldn’t be writing this blog post.) Service learning is a way to overcome the separation of the unreal and the real through integration and engagement. Service learning brings together research, teaching, and service. It combines community work with classroom instruction. It prepares students to participate meaningfully in civic life, thus uniting theory and practice. When students have opportunities to actively use classroom knowledge, they develop an understanding of when and how knowledge can be applied. This deep approach to learning teaches students critical thinking skills, integration of knowledge, and moves them up from the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy to the higher levels of analysis and synthesis.
There are a lot of definitions and descriptions about service learning, so I am going to combine what I like about the various things I have read and bless you with the Sheafer synthesis of service learning (that’s some serious alliteration there folks). Service learning is a course-based educational experience in which students participate in an organized service activity that meets community needs and is integrated with educational objectives. In order for students to benefit from service learning, reflection is an imperative part of the process, because this is the bridge between community service activities and the educational objectives of the course.
At this point, the literature in support of service learning is overwhelming, so let me summarize some of the highlights of what we know so far.
Service learning has positive effects on students’ personal outcomes, such as personal efficacy and identity, spiritual growth and moral development, interpersonal development, leadership, and communication skills.
Service learning has positive effects on students’ social outcomes, such as reducing stereotypes and facilitating cultural and racial understanding, developing a sense of social responsibility, and a commitment to service.
Service learning has positive effects on students’ academic learning (course grades, GPA), their ability to apply what they have learned, and on thinking skills (complexity of understanding, problem analysis, critical thinking, cognitive development).
Service learning has positive effects on students’ career development.
Service learning also has positive effects on students’ relationship with your institution, such as stronger faculty relationships, satisfaction with college, and higher graduation rates.
But wait, the benefits are not just for students or the institution. If you act now, you can receive the following: faculty using service learning report increased satisfaction with quality of student learning and faculty using service learning report a commitment to research that informs and improves their teaching.
Are you convinced yet, because I could go on…and on…and on. (My students are nodding their heads in agreement.) And I think I shall, because psychology has a long history of using service learning. I have found studies on service learning related to just about every psychology course you could think of. Here’s a partial list (because I got tired of looking at the computer screen as my eyes screamed enough’s enough):
Developmental (lifespan, child and adolescent, aging)
and Intro (see the reference list below)
3. I share the vast wealth of my experience with Service Learning
My journey into service learning began in the spring 2013 semester. I decided to use a service learning assignment in my Learning and Cognition class. The first part of the class is an exploration of three learning theories—classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and social learning theory. I have found, in teaching this course through the years, that students have a hard time grasping the intricacies of each theory. I have tried to use a wide variety of handouts, examples, and demonstrations, but I found my students continue to struggle with keeping the theories straight and being able to apply those theories to real-world contexts. This first group of students gave very positive feedback about their experiences, so I decided to continue to use the assignment with subsequent Learning and Cognition classes.
I required my students to participate in a service learning project that had two components, a minimum of three hours of community service and a written paper. The paper had three sections:
A description of the service site and the services provided at the site,
An application of learning principles (classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and social learning theory) from their textbook and classroom lectures at their community service site, and
A reflection on lessons learned during the service learning experience. The grading rubric (which is included in my syllabus) also has points dedicated to certain aspects of APA Style that I want them to practice (title page, reference page, in-text citations, etc.). Since students just love mastering APA style, I try to throw that in wherever I can.
I also included a service learning timesheet in the syllabus which requires the signature of a staff member at the community agency to verify their service learning hours. This page contains a statement linking falsification of the timesheet to our University’s academic honesty policy with its responsibilities and consequences. The student also signs the page. The majority of the students fulfilled their community service hours at the Boys and Girls Club, which is a five minute drive from our campus. I have also approved other sites in advance of student service.
Students filled out a 15-question survey to evaluate the service learning project after they completed their service hours and reflection paper. Results showed that their perception of the project was positive. All items were above the mid-point of the scale (1 “strongly disagree” through 7 “strongly agree”), and four of the items had means above six. These items were
The Professor should continue to use this project in the future with other students,
This project was an interesting learning experience,
I gained a deeper appreciation of service learning as a result of completing this project, and
Writing the paper reinforced what I had learned in class about learning theories.
Part of the student written paper was a reflection on what was learned through the service learning project. Two main themes emerged. The first theme was the value of seeing learning theories in action.
What students learn in the classroom becomes more meaningful and easier to understand when they see it demonstrated in real life. Illustrations offered in class or through a textbook can offer this too, but it is not the same thing as being there yourself, seeing it firsthand, or even living it. (CM)
The second theme was the value of serving one’s community. Students’ eyes were opened to the needs of the community in which their university is located. They took on a new and bigger perspective. Students also realized that they can contribute to their community in ways that make a difference in the lives of children—teaching, loving, and encouraging them. Many students also mentioned the impact of this experience on their faith.
The reality is that there are kids, less than five minutes driving distance of me, who need love, acceptance, and praise. They are precious to God, which makes them precious to me. I have been reminded of the bigger picture. (HB)
4. Here’s how you can share the wealth to create your own SL experience
Now that we have defined service learning, explained why it is effective, and talked about my experiences with service learning, it is time to talk about issues involved with designing service learning experiences. All of the women reading this blog post know that one size does not fit all no matter how much they say it does. The men may not understand this analogy because for some reason men’s clothes never say “one size fits all.” Seriously, what shirt is going to fit every woman in this country? Sorry, I digress.
There is no one way to do service learning. The flexibility is actually a great strength. However, I believe that there are some basic tips that will help service learning to benefit the student, the faculty member, and the community partner alike.
The faculty member needs to set clear learning goals for the student. These goals need to be tied to at least one course objective, preferably several course objectives. It is important that the student understands the purpose of the service learning experience and does not see it as just “one more thing they have to do.” The faculty member also needs to establish criteria for the selection of the community partner/placement. The criteria used for selection should again be connected to the course objectives. It would make little sense for my learning and cognition students to be placed at a community agency where they could not observe learning in action.
It is also important to develop projects that are appropriate for linking service learning to the course in which it is embedded. Any activity should encourage students to use material from the course. My learning and cognition students start their service learning hours after we have covered the three learning theories in class. Now they are prepared to look for and understand examples of learning in action. Their reflection paper then ties these real life examples to the theories they read about in their textbook and talked about in class.
Each faculty member will have to consider how best to integrate the service learning activities into the course and into classroom activities. The faculty member also needs to make decisions about how many points the activities will be worth and how many hours of service will be required. My service learning paper was worth 15% of their overall course grade for learning and cognition. I started on the low end of what I have read about in researching service learning. I have seen anywhere from 3 hours to 100 hours of required service time. I started with three hours, and none of my students have complained about that being unmanageable. In fact, many of them actually recommended I increase the service time. I am going to increase my requirement to five hours the next time I teach the course and see how that is received. Content does not need to be sacrificed to free up time for service learning activities when the service learning activity itself is linked to course objectives.
I have also learned that it is important to encourage students to reflect on the service activity in multiple ways throughout the semester. This helps to reinforce the importance of service learning to the course. I am going to add more discussion time the next time I teach the course. The experience is something that I, and the students, referred to throughout the semester, but I am going to add an entire class period dedicated to reflection about the experience when the paper is due. This is yet another way the students can connect the learning objectives to the service learning activity.
Incorporating service learning into courses requires effort. Establishing a relationship with community partners takes time. It will require some meetings prior to, and possibly, during and after the semester. Once the relationship(s) has been established, this concern becomes less time consuming. If your university has existing relationships with community agencies, you may be able to tap into that already functioning relationship. For my students and me, the relationship with the Boys and Girls Club and our university had long been established, and the agency had a number of excellent experiences with our students. When I went to meet with the Director for the first time, I had a foot-in-the-door and good will already engendered. When I found out that she was a psychology major as an undergraduate and a member of Psi Chi, the deal was done! Agencies and universities may differ on how formal the relationship needs to be. Make sure you check with both to see if forms need to be developed and signed, if students need background checks, etc.
5. I’m bringing it home with a stirring conclusion!
By now, we should all agree that service learning is the best thing since sliced bread, or air conditioning. I do live in Texas after all. And since everyone is doing it—you should too. In my mind, my childhood-self is saying this to my mother, and she is telling me something about a bridge and everyone jumping off it. I think her point was that I wasn’t supposed to jump off a bridge even if everyone was doing it. In no way, do I want to argue with my mother (you know she is going to read this—I love you, Mommy), but I think the use of service learning is an exception to the bridge rule. This is something that everyone can incorporate in some way in some course at some time. Consider it another empirically supported best practice for your toolbox. For some of you, this just confirms what you and your students have known all along-- service learning benefits students, faculty, and community partners in many, many ways. For the rest of you, now is the time to get on board. You may be late to the party, but everyone is welcome!
Vicki Sheafer received her B.S. in psychology and sociology from Union College in Barbourville, KY, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She is currently Professor of Psychology and Chair of Undergraduate Programs in Psychology & Counseling at LeTourneau University in Longview, TX. Her research interests revolve around the scholarship of teaching and learning in psychology, specifically digital storytelling, service learning, and the use of social media in the classroom. She is also involved in interdisciplinary research with an engineering colleague investigating creativity in engineering design. The project was recently awarded a three-year National Science Foundation grant.
1. Using Service Learning to Teach Classic Learning Theories by Vicki Sheafer (Listserve requires a password)
I am in my 24th year of formal education—stretching way back to kindergarten-- and I still struggle with writing papers. Regardless of the topics or length I find it difficult to motivate myself. I’ve attempted to trick myself in all sorts of ways but nothing seems to work. On second thought, the paper I began writing a year and a half before it was due, as well as the paper I forgot about until the day before it was due were both—ultimately-- written and turned in.
Yes, one was better than the other, but not by as wide a margin as you might think. So quality of the finished product aside, and self-diagnosed ADHD aside, why is it so hard for me to engage in the process of writing exactly when and for how long I want to? If this question sounds relevant to you, I will go ahead and make one important assumption: there is something else you’d rather be doing in that moment than writing a paper. There are plenty of other factors that can play into this, but if you’d rather be doing something else, then we have stumbled on an issue of self-control. In this context the better question is “why don’t I have enough self-control to just write this paper?”
There are at least three reasons why you can’t which means there are at least three solutions to this dilemma. Rather than a typical self-control bootcamp, however, all of these solutions involve avoiding using self-control.
Reason 1) You can.
Short of getting sick or being rushed to the hospital, you can (and probably will) write that paper. This does not mean it will be easy or fun, but if there are external systems in place to hold you accountable by rewarding or punishing you, that paper will likely get written. Increased motivation has been found to be key to overcoming self-control difficulties, and that motivation increase typically comes from outside sources. Joe Rogan has made a career on the TV show Fear Factor by showing how external motivation (in the form of a $50,000 prize) can make people perform crazy acts of self-control – like laying in a pit and being covered by cockroaches for five minutes or letting tarantulas crawl across their faces.
Solution 1) Find an external system whose rewards or punishments are so important that you can write this paper.
If Joe Rogan won’t pay you $50,000 to do it, the next best option is to procrastinate until the fear of failure is motivation enough. It’s an effective strategy, but not ideal. However, if you can incentivize yourself in a similar way – by agreeing to turn in drafts early, scheduling meetings to review your paper, or even making bets with colleagues that have steep payoffs or consequences – you can control your environment to motivate the paper writing for you.
Reason 2) You’re just not used to it.
Even if it feels like you’re always writing a paper, you’re not. How often do you actually sit down to write without an impending deadline? Probably less often than you think. Yet some people regularly perform extraordinary acts of self-control (like waking up daily at 4am to swim, or passing on dessert every single time). The secret is these people aren’t actively exercising self-control, they’re passively performing automatic responses of ingrained habits. Some recent research has shown that people who are touted as having “a lot of self-control” actually don’t use self-control all that often. Instead, people with higher self-control are more likely to form automatic healthy habits that resemble self-control.
Solution 2) Write. All the time.
Write a lot, write for hours. Get in the habit of writing so that it takes inhibitory action to NOT write on a given day. This is a strategy advocated by many academics, including Paul Silvia in “How to Write A Lot”. People with the highest self-control are successful because the engage in good habits.
Reason 3) You don’t want to.
It’s a simple desire/goal conflict. The short-term goal of sleeping/relaxing/socializing eventually outweighs long-term goal of having the paper done THAT NIGHT. It’s not that you don’t want to finish the paper, or reap the long-term rewards such as graduation, publication, or job offers. But in the here and now, those goals are not as salient as the short-term desire to binge on Netflix.
Solution 3) Find something you want to do.
Seriously. Align your desires and goals so that your short-term desire is in line with your long-term goals. Find a way to write about something so awesome to you that Netflix seems like a punishment. We all have to do things we don’t want to do, which is an ability strongly related to achievement in many life domains. But if writing a paper is truly that depleting to you, consider that as information. Perhaps writing papers on other topics are less depleting? I am not advocating to only do what comes easy to you, but it is useful information you can incorporate into intentional decisions about what you spend your time doing.
So grind out those papers when you need to, but the most successful people find ways to not flex that self-control muscle. Perseverance in the face of adversity is an honorable trait, but the path of least (or less) resistance has its virtues too.
Dan Blalock is a PhD student in Clinical Psychology at George Mason University. Dan's interests focus broadly on self-regulation, motivation, and their impact on behavioral change both generally and within treatment contexts. This interest includes a strong focus on the phenomenology of self-control. More generally, Dan is also interested in research methodology, psychometrics, and transdiagnostic factors in clinical disorders.
 Hagger, M. S., Wood, C., Stiff, C., & Chatzisarantis, N. L. (2010). Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: a meta-analysis.Psychological Bulletin,136(4), 495-525.
 Hester, R. K. (1995).Behavioral self-control training. Allyn & Bacon.
 Inzlicht, M., & Schmeichel, B. J. (2012). What is ego depletion? Toward a mechanistic revision of the resource model of self-control.Perspectives on Psychological Science,7(5), 450-463.
 Galla, B. M., & Duckworth, A. L. (2015). More Than Resisting Temptation: Beneficial Habits Mediate the Relationship Between Self-Control and Positive Life Outcomes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(3),508-525.
 Tangney, J. P., Baumeister, R. F., & Boone, A. L. (2004). High self‐control predicts good adjustment, less pathology, better grades, and interpersonal success.Journal of Personality,72(2), 271-324.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity. Three Rivers Press (CA).
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:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
“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.
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.
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. (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.
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/10.1037/1089-26188.8.131.52
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.