By Lynne N. Kennette, Lisa R. Van Havermaet, and Bibia R. Redd
We give our students a lot of information over the course of our weekly hours with them, but how often do we give students an opportunity to interact with, apply, or otherwise practice the course content? Not allowing enough opportunity to practice can pose a problem when we later ask students to use this content in some way (e.g., on an assignment). The Jumpstart lesson planning model used at Durham College ensures that lectures are broken up (or chunked) with opportunities for students to practice (with “practice activities”) in between presentations of new content (C.A.F.E., 2012). A previous NOBA post (Kennette, 2016) described the Jumpstart lesson planning model in detail, so you can read that first if you’re interested. This post will first briefly discuss why it is important to allow students to practice course content, then provide examples of tools and techniques to allow students to practice content, and finally, share some tips for success.
Why should students practice course content?
Practice activities allow students to engage with the material in a more concrete way and to practice the skills or knowledge they were exposed to in a particular unit of a course. Research has shown that there are many benefits for learning when students practice what they are learning, including neurological evidence of changes in the brain (e.g., Draganski, Gaser, Busch, Schuierer, Bogdahn, & May,2004; Zull, 2004). And, by allowing students to practice their newly-learned knowledge, they can also get a better sense of how they are doing in the course and whether they are actually understanding the material. That is, are they developing their metacognition, which is a powerful indicator of learning (Wang, Haertel, & Walberg, 1990).
One key feature of any practice activity is that it allows students to retrieve the information that was just presented in the course. Retrieval practice is well-established in the literature as improving outcomes (e.g., long-term retention). For example, Roediger and Karpicke (2006) compared students who had studied the same material four times to students who had studied it once and then were tested on the material three times (so both groups had 4 sessions with the material, the first of which was always a study session). Results showed that, although immediate performance was comparable across the two groups, the students who were tested three times (and therefore retrieved the information multiple times) significantly out-performed the study-only group both two- and seven-days later.
The bottom line is that the features of many types of practice activities are well established in the literature as providing benefits for learning: retrieval (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006), metacognition (Wang et al, 1990), immediate feedback (Dihoff, Brosvic, Epstein & Cook, 2004), collaboration (Rajaram. & Pereira-Pasarin, 2007), etc.
How to practice
The benefits of providing practice opportunities are clear, but finding suitable exercises and activities isn’t always easy. With that in mind, we’d like to provide you with a number of ideas that we have successfully used to help students practice, either in class or outside of class. Because, even if you use this approach of giving students opportunities to practice course content; you may still run out of ideas or resources to provide these opportunities to practice. Below are some examples and resources to use for practice activities including games, tests, and concept maps.
Using games is the easiest both for student buy-in and because they are generally fun due to the inherent features of games (e.g., competition, prizes/winners, etc). Some popular examples include Taboo, Headbandz/Heads-Up, Jeopardy, Pictionary, etc. In each case, the practice activity can be to generate the game (e.g., to create a Taboo card for a concept covered) or to play the game (with instructor-generated materials), or both (have groups of students create the games and then a different group will play it)!
Self-tests are another approach to practice activities in the classroom. Using clickers (or a similar polling app for smartphones) allows students to practice the content individually. Another option which incorporates collaboration is to place students into small groups and give each group an Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IFAT) scratch card and a series of questions for them to answer as a group. These cards (which can be purchased from EpsteinEducation.com) are a cross between a scantron and a lottery scratch ticket. Here, students collaborate, retrieve content, receive immediate feedback (the correct answer is indicated by a star when scratched), and have the opportunity to discuss and select a different answer if they don’t choose the correct one the first time. Another option for students to self-test, especially if teaching online is to download the free program HotPotatoes (https://hotpot.uvic.ca/)
and create html tasks for students to practice (crossword puzzles, fill-in-the-blank, etc).
Concept maps are another way for students to practice, synthesize, and organize the information presented in class. Here, students organize information in meaningful ways (e.g., hierarchically, or grouping in some way) and make links among the concepts. Online resources include Cmaps, Bubbl.us, and MindMeister. Many other opportunities exist as well for students to practice course content. These include case studies, debates,creating infographics or word clouds to summarize material, think-pair-share, more traditional worksheets, etc.
Planning for success
Now that you have some ideas, how should you begin incorporating opportunities to practice in your classroom? Before you begin, remember that the goal is for students to practice (perfection is not the goal at this point!), so students should get feedback (but NOT grades) on their performance on these practice activities. This feedback can take the form of faculty, peer, or self-marking, or the feedback received could be built into the outcome of a hands-on application (e.g., Did the program you coded actually work?). By ensuring that the activities are low/no-stakes, they will encourage students to take risks with their learning and truly practice the content.
Another point to keep in mind is that in some courses and topics, the practice comes more naturally. For example, in a statistics course, you teach a lesson, and the students practice via assigned problems. In other content areas, it will take more effort to develop opportunities for students to practice. For example, when teaching about the history of psychology, it’s not intuitive to have students practice that content, however it is still important. Although practice is important, don’t go overboard or you will exhaust both yourself and your students! Yes, it is important for students to practice the content, but start small, perhaps by developing something to give students the opportunity to practice one particularly difficult concept in the class. Or, consider using the same technique (e.g., IFAT scratch cards) as a weekly feature of the course so that students become accustomed to it.
Also, some of the activities described here may not work for your students. If you have a class filled with general education students, you’ll need to use a different approach for your practice activities than if you have a class of upper-level majors. Finally, you also need to find a balance between the amount of information presented in class and the amount of time spent on practice; too much of either would not be ideal. Typically, you will probably spend about 10-15 minutes providing the content, and then 5-10 minutes on a practice activity, though this may vary somewhat based on the specific topic covered. Regardless, the underlying premise is the same: students need to practice the content they are encountering. After all, if they don’t use it, they’ll lose it!
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) 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.
Lisa R. Van Havermaet is currently a professor of Psychology at Clarke University (Dubuque, IA). She received her Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from Wayne State University (Detroit, MI). Her interests include psycholinguistics, embodied cognition, and pedagogical methods.
Bibia R. Redd received her Ph.D. in Social-Development Psychology from Wayne State University (Detroit, Michigan). She is a Lecturer of psychology in the Department of Psychological Science at University of North Georgia (Gainesville Campus). She is the mother of two daughters, and one granddaughter and believes the transfer of knowledge to be one of the greatest legacies anyone can leave.
I can guarantee you that whenever my fellow graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) and I get together over lunch or a bottle of wine, we invariably complain quite colorfully about all of our time commitments, research projects, clinical work, and teaching responsibilities. We also experience varying levels of support and preparation for teaching and pressure to maintain research productivity. Some of our most common complaints involve (1) doubts about our teaching abilities, (2) the amount of time we spend teaching and prepping, and (3) losing our passion for teaching.
My hope is that this post can help graduate students remedy some of these complaints and give advisors and supervisors additional ideas of how they can support their GTAs.
1. Dealing with Doubts
Graduate school can be an odd place, because one moment you are supposed to be a humble student soaking up wisdom from faculty, and the next you are supposed to present yourself and your ideas in front of your own students with confidence and pluck. It is natural to have doubts about whether your students like you, whether they trust you, and whether they are actually learning anything.
"How do you measure success?"
Benjamin Zander has a wonderful TED talk (Benjamin Zander: The transformative power of classical music) in which he talks about measuring success by the number of "shining eyes" in the audience. Your students who have shining eyes are the curious ones: the ones who come up after class with interesting questions, the ones who make teaching worth it.
The foil to shining eyes, I believe, is shark eyes, which are flat,dull, and lifeless.
It is easy to get bogged down thinking about the students with chronic shark eyes, who make you feel boring and ineffective as an educator. However, you can think about measuring your success by the number of students with shining eyes, or the number of students you convert from shark eyes to shining eyes. Success could also be measured by a student who respects you enough to ask for a letter of recommendation, or receiving even one post-semester thank you email from a student who valued taking your class. Finally, record these moments of success. Print out nice emails, compile a list of positive comments from your students, and write yourself a note about the time your students’ eyes lit up about psychology. Whenever you have doubts about your teaching, open the folder and remind yourself about all of your teaching successes.
For example, in my success folder I have (1) an email from a Chinese student thanking me because she bombed the first exam but asked for help and ended up acing the course, (2) a note I wrote about the time a student wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat had an epiphany after completing an implicit-association test on race, and (3) the end-of-semester evaluation from a student who wrote that they were often tempted to skip class but because I always thank my students for coming they attended every class.
2. Saving Yourself Time and Headache
"I've told them at least 50 times, it's in the f@*#ingsyllabus"
Syllabi are indispensable for outlining course policies, emphasizing learning objectives, and establishing a social contract for the class. Syllabi, however, are not student-friendly. Students read syllabi about as carefully as they read the iTunes terms of service agreement.
In addition to the syllabus, consider making an easily accessible, one-page document of the principal information students want to know: "What do I have to do? When is it due?” and, “Why is it part of this course?" They will still need to reference the syllabus for course policies, but they will be far less confused and anxious about readings and assignments.
Teach by Example
Students often strive to complete assignmentsas quickly as possible while exerting the least effort, which leads them tofind creative ways to format and finish assignments that can be frustrating to grade. A fairly simple solution for this is to create and distribute an example to demonstrate appropriate length of writing, formatting, depth of thinking, etc. A counter-argument may be that the purpose of an assignment is that students think critically and creatively, rather than follow a template. For some assignments I will concede that point, but for most cases, if you want students to write an essay following rough APA format (Intro, Method, Results, Discussion), give them an example or you'll be pulling out your own hair in frustration while grading.
Spread the Work with Your Students
Students frequently ask for more. More practice tests, more examples, more study guides. One option is to say you've given them enough (at the risk of receiving end-of-semester evaluations about how you didn't give them enough preparation for the exams), another option is to spend your evenings creating review materials, or a clever third option is to empower students to generate and share their own study guides and practice tests (read: make them do the work themselves).
When they ask for more examples of applications of concepts, ask them to find and share helpful YouTube videos from channels like Crash Course Psychology,StatisticsLecures, or 2-Minute Neuroscience.
When they ask for a study guide provide them a blank Google Doc they can make with their fellow students.
When they ask for a practice test, assign each student to write 1-2 questions, and with a little bit of time spent editing, you can give them a decent practice test.
And undoubtedly there will be a student who makes flashcards on a site like Quizlet. Ask that student if they would consider making their Quizlet public with the rest of the class.
The whole class benefits and each semester your students can add to the materials created in previous semesters to create a vast library of different review materials.
Spread the Work with Your Colleagues
Finally, after you and your students develop study guides, practice tests, etc., share them with other GTAs. They will appreciate it and then you can ask them to send you any helpful materials they have created. Through this symbiotic interaction you can share ideas and resources with GTAs who may have other specialties! Your program may have an online repository or it may benefit you to reach out to a few colleagues over email.
3. Staying Passionate
Your advisor may or may not be supportive of the time you spend on teaching. It is possible that your advisor considers teaching nothing more than a distraction from conducting research. If so, and especially if you want to pursue a career in which teaching plays a significant role, find at least one faculty member who is supportive and pick their brains about maintaining passion for teaching. It's easy to fall into going through the motions: lecture about this, quiz about that, grade more essays on the same prompt again. Bouncing new ideas off someone can invigorate and remind you about what you love about teaching psychology. Whether that person is your research advisor, an adjunct, a faculty member in another department, or another GTA, it is important to stay fresh and positive. It is also possible to find support among professional networks, teaching conferences/preconferences, and even social media.
“Why are they doing this to me?!”
When you think of the wacky emails you receive from students and their seeming inability to listen to announcements you make in class, it is easy and perhaps tempting to conclude that your students are actively trying to make your life hell. It is potentially healthier for you, however, to first attempt to understand their behavior in other ways.
If you can believe that your student chose to start their email with "yoprof" out of ignorance, rather than malice, it will be easier to respond with compassion and not contempt. Always assume positive intentions from students until you have clear evidence to the contrary! Additionally, there is a movement in higher education to recognize that we are not simply teaching content, but also citizenship. Educating students on email etiquette may indeed be a more valuable lesson in the scope of their life than a clear understanding of the difference between internal and external validity, for example.
In other instances, a student's poor attendance may not be due to laziness or millennial entitlement, but rather they might be working full-time, dealing with anxiety or depression, or struggling with the newfound responsibilities of living independently.Knowing about campus resources for academic advising and mental healthcare can help struggling students and allow you to empathize instead of begrudge students for not taking your class seriously.
Reframing frustrating student behavior can give your work a greater purpose by turning thoughts from "why are they doing this to me" into "how can I help them?"
It should go without saying that graduate students need strategies to help balance work and maintain self-care; especially when the demands of graduate school directly oppose efforts to stay sane and healthy. It is difficult, however, to offer specific ideas for self-care given the idiosyncratic nature of effective self-care. Indeed, another blog post dedicated entirely to self-care and balance in graduate school is warranted. In the meantime, take an inventory of self-care strategies. Keep doing things that work and experiment with new ways to relieve stress, promote happiness, and thrive in graduate school. Above all, feel validated in seeing self-care as a necessary part of your life.
Thinking back to the image of graduate students co-ruminating about the drags of graduate school, a few hours can easily pass with the only result that everyone is angrier than before. One idea I particularly like is to agree as a group that for every minute spent complaining, spend an equal amount of time generating solutions or talking about things that are going well. This enables us to commiserate without fueling any fantasies about dropping out of grad school.
Teaching can be such a rewarding experience, but along with most other aspects of graduate school, it can also be draining. GTAs need good coping strategies to manage doubts, time, frustration, and potential burnout. Defining success and keeping track of successful moments can helpstave off doubts. Creating student-friendly assignment calendars and examples can help reduce emails and empowering students to share study materials can reduce time spent making review material. Finally, finding supportive colleagues and reframing frustrating student behavior can help GTAs retain their passion for teaching.
We study and teach psychology because it enables students to think critically about research, social interactions, mental health, business, public policy, and medicine. In sum, we teach psychology because it makes the world a better place. Adopting ideas to enhance teaching experiences in graduate school and offering support to GTAs promotes positive teaching experiences and empowers GTAs to spend time and energy on teaching that makes the world a better place.
Ziv Bell is a graduate student in the Clinical Psychology PhD program at The Ohio State University, where he researches developmental psychopathology and teaches a flipped Introduction to Psychology course. He studied psychology and music at Willamette University and carries many of the lessons from teaching music into his psychology class. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
To my colleagues teaching PSYCH 1100 for helping me more profoundly contemplate the art of teaching, and Melissa Beers for continuously supporting my passion for the teaching of psychology.
What are students really going to remember many years from now? Some students will struggle to remember your name or even that they took your class. Yet the joy of our profession is that some students will cherish what you shared with them throughout their lives. Occasionally, we will help them overcome potentially damaging misconceptions and improve the way they understand the world in practical and important ways.
Unfortunately, research on the long-term retention of course content is rather discouraging (Custers, 2010; Landrum & Gurung, 2013). Landrum and Gurung (2013) found that the average student is unable to pass an exam from a psychology course just two years later. These findings are important to consider in regards to sequencing curriculum, and should inspire us to embrace both educational and cognitive science so that we can be more successful as teachers. Being aware of factors like decay, interference, failures to store and retrieve, and reconstruction errors is critically important to improve our pedagogy and help students retain the information they encounter in our courses (Lie, Donoso, Foutz, Lasoras, Oliver, 2011).
One approach to combat these negative findings about long-term retention, especially in general psychology, might be to focus more on addressing psychological misconceptions (Bernstein, 2016). Most general psychology students are filling a general education requirement and will not major in psychology; Bernstein (2016) argues that we best serve these students by focusing on addressing misconceptions about psychology, critical thinking skills, and practical knowledge.
In this spirit, novel in-class demonstrations can be effective in creating vivid, longer-lasting impressions (Vander Stoep, Fagerlin, & Feenstra, 2002). For example, it is one thing to know that eyewitness testimony can be contaminated in an abstract way and another to have firsthand experience with false memory. Likewise, it is one thing to memorize that negative reinforcement involves taking something away in order to increase a behavior and another to experience the differences between positive and negative reinforcement.
Here is a demo to help demolish misconceptions about eyewitness memory and another to demolish misconceptions about negative reinforcement, along with some suggestions on how you might adapt them for your classroom:
Can I Get A Witness? Creating Eyewitnesses
Students have seen on TV how powerful it can be when the prosecuting attorney announces, “We have an eye-witness!” Students have watched how persuasive it can be when the eye-witness swears on a Bible and affirms that she is absolutely certain that the suspect committed the crime.
General psychology students do not usually know that eyewitness testimony, like all evidence, can be contaminated. Eighty-seven percent of general psychology students endorse the statement that “memory can be likened to a storage chest in the brain into which we deposit material and from which we can withdraw it later if needed. Occasionally, something gets lost from the ‘chest’ and then we say we have forgotten” (Vaugh, 2002, p. 139).
You may have creative activities that convey principles related to false memory, but are students really altering prior misconceptions and learning in lasting ways? I use the term misconceptions to describe prior conceptions that may be more resistant than mere misunderstandings.
To provide students with their own eyewitness testimony about eyewitness testimony, I once transformed my classroom into a crime scene with the help of the local news. Here is the segment that was aired on our local TV station: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=drQ3i6EejPE.
This demonstration was the most memorable experience of the semester for everyone involved! The students were shocked. They were shocked by the crime, they were shocked by how little they could remember about the suspect, and they were shocked that they misidentified an innocent person as a criminal. They came to clearly understand that memory functions quite differently than how they presupposed.
You could do a version of this activity in your own class with similar success and you do not need a local news anchor to make it work. Here are some ideas about how to pull it off:
1. Set up a video camera or smartphone in the classroom in order to record the “crime.” You could say that you are filming to gradually flip your classroom and for students who are absent or want to review the lecture.
2. Have a student confederate enter the classroom late and steal something in front of the class, when attention is to the front of the room.
3. Be prepared to deescalate the situation quickly. Consider having a teaching colleague step-in to debrief the students.
4. Ask students to respond to questions about the suspect’s description. You might have some students interview other students about the suspect’s description. Consider introducing incorrect information as part of a question. “What color was the suspect’s Nike jacket?”
5. In a few days, provide students with a photo lineup. Consider presenting some students with a simultaneous lineup and others with a sequential lineup.
6. Consider providing half of the students with the disclaimer that the suspect may not be in the lineup.
7. On this subsequent occasion, you could ask students if they saw a/the Nike logo on his shirt. You might even try to phrase the question differently to half of your students, “Did you see a Nike logo on his shirt?” or “Did you see the Nike logo on his shirt?” and see if there are significant differences.
8. Play back the video and/or show a photo of the suspect.
You can then help students think about how memory is nothing like a video recorder in which one can replay one’s experience. Instead, memory is a reconstruction. Memory is prone to being affected by one’s expectations and schemas about events, as well as one’s subsequent experience. Perhaps students will report that they did see the Nike logo on his shirt, and maybe it will even make a difference how you ask the question (Loftus, 1975). You might also discuss how one’s attention, experience, and resultant memory could be negatively affected by the presence of a weapon (Steblay, 1992).
Overall, research on memory and eyewitness testimony has been an area in which psychological science has been applied in practical ways. Psychological research has revolutionized the ways in which authorities gather evidence from observers, and introductory students need to be eyewitnesses to such concrete applications of psychology. Students need to see where the rubber of psychological research meets the road. They need to see that eyewitness testimony can be contaminated. This is a great way for you to help your students witness the importance of psychological research on memory in ways that they will never forget.
Teaching Negative Reinforcement; It’s Not Punishment
Introductory psychology students often struggle to understand negative reinforcement and commonly mistake negative reinforcement for punishment. This mistake was even made on an episode of The Big Bang Theory! Tauber (1988) found that 73% of students believed that negative reinforcement was used to decrease behavior and 76% of students reported that people do not look forward to negative reinforcement. Moreover, professors are often frustrated that students struggle to overcome these misconceptions. I do not have data to report, but it is safe to say that every single professor in the world who has ever actively tried to help students overcome this misconception has been somewhat frustrated. I use the word misconception for a reason! But teaching negative reinforcement does not need to be punishment.
You can use another engaging in-class demonstration to demolish this misconception. The demo not only lets you address confusion related to “negative” and “positive,” which most instructors seem to do well enough, but also contrasts negative reinforcement with other forms of operant conditioning:
Here is the process for an enjoyable and memorable demo that I like to do with my students:
1. Invite a student volunteer to step outside the classroom.
2. In his or her absence, ask the class to select a behavior that they would like to shape, like standing in the corner and/or scratching his or her head.
3. Have the volunteer return to the room and instruct the volunteer that the class has selected a behavior that you will shape by adding and taking away reinforcements as well as adding and taking away punishments.
4. Place a backpack heavily loaded with textbooks on his or her shoulders.
5. When the student starts doing something that approximates what the class has selected for the volunteer to do, remove textbooks (as a form of negative reinforcement).
6. When the student is not doing something that approximates the desired behavior, add textbooks (as a form of positive punishment).
7. As another aspect for shaping the volunteer’s behavior, bring out a cup and some Skittles. Add Skittles to the cup (positive reinforcement) when the volunteer’s behavior moves toward the target behavior and take away Skittles (negative punishment) when behavior is moving off target.
8. Consider doing the demonstration a second time. You might even highlight and emphasize how you are adding something, which is positive, and taking away something, which is negative. The moment that you add something, have the class declare “positive.” The moment that you take something away, have the class declare “negative.”
Note: Sometimes it can help to speed up the process by providing a little verbal information to the student, “Did you notice that when you raised your hand I took a book away (or added a Skittle)?”
As the volunteer engages in various behaviors to gradually manifest the target behavior(s), there are smiles and laughter. When the student volunteer ends up moving to corners of the room, standing or sitting on chairs, scratching their heads, clapping, or even opening umbrellas, you can imagine the enthusiastic laughter. Be sure to create a courteous environment and also thank and reward the volunteer in some way.
You can then help students process and think about the demonstration in order to make distinctions about positive and negative forms of reinforcement and punishment. You might have students do this in small groups. Consider having them perform an additional small group demo in which they take turns shaping one another.
One thing you might emphasize is how a stimulus is considered either a reinforcer or punisher based on how it affects behavior. For example, in some instances, adding heavy books could function as a form of positive reinforcement if the student thought that he or she was receiving the books as gift (perhaps to sell online) or wanted the heavy pack for resistance working out (which would be considered punishment by someone else). The key is how the behavior is affected by the stimulus; does the behavior increase or decrease?
Overall, demonstrations that are personally experienced can be powerful. Experiential demonstrations meet us uniquely and speak to us where we are; some demonstrations can make concepts that are abstract and mysterious so concrete and clear that anyone can understand them. In general psychology, demonstrations can be used to demolish misconceptions, invite critical thinking, and foster practical understandings that last long after students have forgotten course content.
Jon Skalski is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Rockford University. He received his B.A. in psychology from Saint Mary’s University of Winona, Minnesota, M.S. degree in psychology from Brigham Young University, and Ph.D. from the University of West Georgia. He is passionate about teaching psychology and has taught a broad range of courses over the past 8 years.
Bernstein, D. (2016, January). Bye bye intro. Presentation at the annual National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology (NITOP) Conference, St. Pete’s Beach, FL.
Lei, S., Donoso, D., Foutz, K., Lasorsa, M., & Oliver, S. (2011). Forgetting to remember important course information: Instructors' perspectives. College Student Journal, 45(1), 36-46.
Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B. L. (2011). 50 great myths of popular psychology: Shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior. John Wiley & Sons.
Loftus, E. F. (1975). Leading questions and the eyewitness report. Cognitive psychology, 7(4), 560-572.
Steblay, N. M. (1992). A meta-analytic review of the weapon focus effect. Law and Human Behavior, 16(4), 413-424.
Tauber, R. T. (1988). Overcoming misunderstanding about the concept of negative reinforcement. Teaching of Psychology, 15(3), 152-153.
VanderStoep, S. W., Fagerlin, A., & Feenstra, J. S. (2002). What do students remember from introductory psychology?. In R. A. Griggs, R. A. Griggs (Eds.), Handbook for teaching introductory psychology: Vol. 3: With an emphasis on assessment (pp. 8-11). Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
I don’t believe many would fault teachers for believing uncertainty is the kryptonyte of learning. It makes sense that teachers are here to provide clarity in a murky world. We should clear up any misconceptions and provide answers to questions when our students are confused. I mean, the faster our students know the correct answer, the sooner we can move on to tackling the next standard…right? But is there a place for uncertainty in the classroom? Is there power in letting your students hang out on the edge of that educational canyon for a bit? Just to see if they can figure it out themself? In their paper, Harnessing the Power of Uncertainty to Enhance Learning, Overoye and Storm leap from that canyon wall to explore how uncertainty could lead to real gains in learning. They contend that it is in “the attempting to overcome the uncertainty that learning has the greatest opportunity to occur.”
Uncertainty is discussed through two conditions: uncertainty through inquiry and uncertainty through contradiction. Uncertainty through inquiry involves students being required to generate information, as opposed to receive it. Uncertainty through contradiction occurs when students are confronted with information contradictory to their belief or understanding and have to distinguish the correct from the incorrect. No matter the condition, Overoye and Storm set forth a basic principle: uncertainty is not a state to be avoided. When used correctly, it should be employed “as a vehicle to effectively engage and enhance student learning.”
The authors further dissect the two conditions of uncertainty, stating differing types of inquiry that can lead to gains when students are faced with uncertainty having to create answers to questions or prompts or when met with information that contradicts their beliefs.
Uncertainty Through Inquiry
Testing is a first type of uncertainty through inquiry. Using the retrieval process of memories to recall information is a researched strategy that can lead to gains across many content areas and testing types. This testing effect often leads to greater gains on more difficult tests than on easier tests, in particular when testing is delayed. When creating answers for either formative or summative assessments, an uncertainty may set in with the students. Please see The Learning Scientists for more information on differing types of testing and their positive effects.
A second type of uncertainty through inquiry is interrogative questioning. This strategy implores students to answer questions while they are studying. For example, when using elaborative interrogation, students are led to generate their own explanations and reasons about certain concepts. Also, self-explanation, as a type of interrogative questioning, requires students to relate their current knowledge to new information or discuss how they solved a prompt. This questioning or self-explanation forces the students to interact and focus on the text or material, which can lead to an uncertainty that can produce curiosity in the students to further research material, re-read material, etc. for clarification.
A last form of uncertainty by inquiry is generation, which asks students to create new information, often times with uncertainty being a byproduct of this generation. This allows material to be better recalled later, perhaps because of the intrinsic nature of the generation. Also, research has shown generation enables students to be better learners in the future. In a way that other forms of practice don’t allow, generation gives the students a taste of learning how to learn.
Uncertainty Through Contradiction
Through inquiry (testing, interrogative questioning, and generating), students create answers, ideas, concepts, etc. With this level of thinking, students are apt to make mistakes. When students are allowed to make mistakes and are later made aware of their errors, research has shown this actually facilitates learning, calling it error-facilitating learning. Through error-facilitating learning, when students are in a place of uncertainty because of their incorrect answer, they are in a position to more effectively encode and remember the correct information. Furthermore, when students give a cue before being told the correct answer, they perform better when later tested than if they had simply studied without generating incorrect responses. Does the level of confidence the student has in their answer matter? According to research, and perhaps contrary to intuitive thought, incorrect answers given with high confidence are actually more readily corrected by feedback than those given with low confidence.
Doesn’t this contradiction cause a confusion in the student’s understanding that can create a certain level of proactive interference? Actually, no. As long as the correct answer is eventually given, the confusion of the incorrect belief enhances learning. The confusion appears to challenge the student’s schema and forces the creation of a new understanding; a theory called cognitive disequilibrium. Another case for contradictions and confusion is the idea that critical thinking skills and scientific reasoning are enhanced. Allowing for confusion allows students to challenge their beliefs and create new ideas or ways of thinking that may be difficult to cultivate otherwise. This idea of learning how to learn and assimilate new information to accommodate schemas is also very transferrable from subject to subject and is even a much needed skill throughout life.
Allowing for uncertainty in the classroom seems ironic and somewhat hypocritical of the outdated beliefs of school. Students enter our classroom to learn. Teachers should show them the correct answers so they can commit them to memory and regurgitate the answer when needed. While this may lead to more memorization, if certain learning strategies are present, this doesn’t necessarily lead to a better learner. Placing students in a state of limbo with their beliefs and allowing them to fester in the uncertainty of their knowledge leads to better learning and to the cultivation of better thinkers. As Overoye and Storm conclude, “Education is about more than learning facts; it is about teaching students to evaluate what they know and do not know and to think critically about what they learn.”
[This post first appeared on Blake's own excellent blog, The Effortful Educator. We highly encourage you to visit, read, and subscribe.]
Blake Harvard is an AP Psychology teacher at James Clemens High School in Madison, Alabama. He has been teaching for about a decade and received his M. Ed. and B. S. degrees from the University of Montevallo. Blake has a particular affinity for all things cognition and psychology; especially when those areas are also paired with education and learning. He started his blog The Effortful Educator to highlight research being done on learning, memory, and cognition and their connections to the classroom.
Overoye, Acacia L., and Benjamin C. Storm. “Harnessing the Power of Uncertainty to Enhance Learning.” Translational Issues in Psychological Science 1.2 (2015): 140-48.
Each semester I attempt to overhaul a single course based on my assessment of the previous semester. In fall 2014, that class was Learning and Memory. As a memory researcher, I know that frequent testing is a powerful memory enhancer (1), so I incorporated daily quizzes. I also wanted to engage students in psychology research, so students designed their own memory experiments. I saw huge gains in student learning from the beginning of the semester to the end and assumed that students loved the course as much as I did. (Because why wouldn’t they?) On that dreaded day when course evaluations are released and faculty are crying over that one negative comment, I was eager for confirmation that my hard work paid off… only to be completely blind-sided by the amount of negative reviews from students.
One comment read, very simply, “I did not like the quizzes or the paper we had to write.”
“But it was for your own good!” I yelled at the computer screen.
While there was satisfaction in seeing gains in student learning, it was completely overshadowed by their distaste for the course. Consumed by the need to be liked (a feeling that plagues most junior faculty), I concluded that another overhaul of the course was necessary. Inspired by a Psychonomics talk by Dr. Steven Luck on “Using Cognitive Psychology to Improve the Teaching of Cognitive Psychology,” I decided to give students more of what they seemed to hate. After careful research and reflection, I incorporated even more empirically supported techniques into my course, but did so in a way that would garner student buy-in. The six learning techniques described below became the essence of my new and improved Learning and Memory course.
Learning and Memory Revised
Six learning-enhancing techniques were used to improve student learning:
1. Daily Low-Stakes Quizzes. Testing/quizzing is a very powerful memory enhancer (when compared to re-study (1)). There were pop-quizzes at the end of most class periods. These quizzes were a small proportion of their final grade and covered the material presented that day. Students were allowed to use hand-written notes to look up answers, but were encouraged to attempt to retrieve the answer from memory before looking it up.
2. Hand-Written Notes. Hand-writing (as opposed to typing) notes leads to a better understanding of the material (2). Although students were free to type their notes, only hand-written notes could be used on the quizzes.
3. Self-Correcting Exams. Students took the multiple-choice portion of each exam once in class and again at home (with notes) for a chance to improve their score. The average score (from both attempts) was used to calculate the final exam grade. This self-correcting method improves learning because students need to spend more time on the material and they are challenged to find the correct answer on their own (3). Furthermore, research indicates that errors made in high confidence will lead to better learning of the correct answer— a phenomenon called hypercorrection (4). The self-correcting method ensures that students will take a careful second look at their exams.
4. Distributed Practice. At the beginning of each class period, I asked students questions about key concepts from the class period before. Distributed practice helps connect the material and improves retention of information (5).
5. Elaborative Processing. Relating the information learned in class and from the text to one’s own life can improve learning (6). Reflections, in-class activities, experiments, and the group research project reinforced this type of deeper understanding.
6. Collaborative Review Sessions. Students answered practice test questions first on their own, then with a partner, followed by corrective feedback from the instructor. Incorporating both testing and elaborative processing during review sessions increases student understanding of the material by providing an initial retrieval opportunity followed by immediate feedback from peers (7).
These learning-enhancing methods became the theme of the course. Students developed their own experiments related to improving memory, created flyers about study methods and posted them around campus before finals week, and reflected on the process of learning in these ways at several points in the semester. Reflection was guided by the use of prompts that encouraged students to apply the learning-enhancing methods to their studying for the course and their learning in other courses.
Cultivating Student Buy-in
One of the biggest challenges in any course re-design is getting students to buy into the process. On day one of the semester I talked about the six learning-enhancing techniques and how they would be used in this course. I included this information (citations and all) in the syllabus and quizzed them on it.
In the past I had used some of the learning-enhancing techniques, but I never explained why I used them. I foolishly assumed that students would make the connection between the testing effect that we discussed in class and the fact that they took a quiz each day. This time was different. I let the students see behind the curtain.
Although it is a great start, telling students why we do what we do is not enough to get buy-in. Throughout the semester, students read the original research behind these learning-enhancing techniques and reflected on their application to learning in this course and beyond.
Reflection is also a great way to get feedback. The general consensus from my students was that these methods were beneficial to their learning. In their reflections, they even developed interesting ways to incorporate other learning-enhancing techniques into the course such as interleaving (8) and dual-coding (9).
It was course evaluation day. Again. After the last time I was cautiously optimistic. I opened the link to find that I had done it. Not only did I see student learning increase throughout the semester, but their ratings of the course increased significantly as well. They had learned something and enjoyed learning it! When asked what helped their learning, nearly every student comment mentioned the learning-enhancing techniques—especially the daily quizzes. Yes, they liked the daily quizzes because now they could see the value in it.
Applying These Methods to Other Courses
This course design can easily be applied to any cognitive-related course. Applying these techniques in other courses could also be done, but on a smaller scale. Let your students in on why they take quizzes every day in your class, why they are required to take hand-written notes, or why they are engaging in research in a psychology class. At midterm and the end of the semester, have students reflect on their learning and how the daily quizzes, review sessions, and projects they completed helped them understand the material. By implementing some of these techniques and learning reflections, you may improve student learning and be pleasantly surprised when examining those pesky end-of-semester course evaluations.
Jessica LaPaglia is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Morningside College in Sioux City, IA, where she lives with her husband and daughter. She received her B.A. in psychology from Augsburg College (Minneapolis, MN) and M.S. and Ph.D. in psychology from Iowa State University (Ames, IA). She teaches a variety of courses including cognitive psychology, brain and behavior, and research methods.
Special Thanks: To Jason Chan for helping me discover the awesomeness that is the testing effect.
(1) Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. L. (2008). The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Science, 19, 966–968.
(2) Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25, 1159-1168.
(3) Gruhn, D., & Cheng, Y. (2014). A self-correcting approach to multiple choice exams improves students’ learning. Teaching of Psychology, 41, 335-339.
(4) Metcalfe, J., & Finn, B. (2011). People’s hypercorrection of high-confidence errors: Did they know it all along? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning , Memory, and Cognition, 37, 437-448.
(5) Cepeda, N. J., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J. T., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 354-380.
(6) Craik, F. I. M., & Tulving E. (1975). Depth of processing and the retention of words in episodic memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104, 268-294.
(7) Maxwell, E. J., McDonnell, L., & Wieman, C. E. (2015). An improved design for in-class review. Journal of College Science Teaching, 44, 48-52.
(8) Kornell, N., & Bjork, R. A. (2008). Learning concepts and categories: Is spacing the “enemy of induction”?Psychological Science, 19,585–592.
(9) Paivio, A., & Csapo, K. (1973). Picture superiority in free recall: Imagery or dual coding? Cognitive Psychology, 5, 176-206.
In my five-year tenure as graduate student, I’ve asked many students what originally drew them to psychology. To date, none have enthusiastically responded, “Statistics!” If there are students who gush about hand-calculating F-values, they must be attending other schools. More commonly, I get students who say they have (or hate!) to take statistics. All manner of groans, squirming, and eye-rolling follow. They matter-of-factly inform me that they got into this field for the people, not the numbers. They seem to believe that they “don’t need to know this to be successful in psychology!”
Sadly, they do. That said, I don’t blame them for their complaints. Very few students sign up for a psychology major with the end-goal of a quantitative career. Usually, they either want to help people or to understand them (or perhaps even explore themselves.)
Some studies have sought to understand why students come in hating psychology-statistics courses. Researchers often arrive at the explanation that people range greatly in math experience; other experts note greater anxiety as a function of low interest in statistics. Finally, it is possible that beliefs about math ability may play a role; social psychology research suggests women might be anxious about confirming stereotypes (here, being ‘bad at math’)—keeping them from performing at their best. These factors and more can lead students to have a distaste for their required stats course.
In my experience, complaints fall into two general types: “stats class is not fun” and “stats class is not useful to me.” It’s challenging to address these grievances, largely because of the way courses are designed. Even the labs, which should be more hands on and engaging are a source of frustration or boredom for many students.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stats
How can you make lab something that a student would look forward to each week? A little Harry Potter goes a long way. The smaller nature of lab allows me to sort people into small groups, so I bring in a Sorting Hat on the first day. Students pick from the hat to determine their House, and they’re seated near their Housemates. In case you are not familiar with Harry Potter, there are four Houses into which students are sorted—often, members of these Houses have common characteristics. I use the story’s frame to my advantage as an instructor. Students will explore a psychological construct relevant to their House for the duration of lab.
The Data Hallows
In the first week, Houses receive a short survey. They can add to it (with approval) and then collect data from around the university: about 45-50 participants per House. Since the research is not to be published and for educational purposes, our IRB requires no protocol, but you should check with yours.
All surveys should contain the following items: age, gender, grade point average, and any other scales you’d like to use as predictors. However, each House administers a survey that has unique items—5 items each from a validated scale involving their topic above. Hufflepuff might have a few items from the Big Five. Ravenclaw might have IQ-relevant questions. You could use whatever items you would like, but keep in mind that students are more interested by significant effects!
They have a week to collect these data, and then they return next lab to enter it into SPSS together. Students love this about the course, according to evaluations—they often touch upon the data collection. Their data is not invented, like every exercise they see in the book. It’s real! Learning statistics suddenly is no longer a hypothetical exercise; students can now take ownership and carry out their first study by following the course’s guidance. From day one, they’ve gone out into the world and collected new knowledge. And every lesson can unlock a new piece of the puzzle—a veritable alohomora.
This wizarding frame and their House dataset follow them throughout the course. Here were a few specific approaches I used with these critical elements to keep students interested.
A nice thematic touch for giving quizzes is to allow 20 minutes to do something basic in SPSS (or your platform of choice). If you can make the quiz House-relevant, that’s even better. Remember, you do not have to change the data set for each House—just change the wording of the quiz question. For example, one of our quizzes involved correlation. For Ravenclaw House, the two variables were standardized test scores and number of books in the home—playing on Ravenclaw’s thirst for knowledge. Meanwhile, Hufflepuff students had conscientiousness and loyalty: two qualities the House values. The data sets, though, were numerically identical, so the quiz was equal in difficulty for both Houses.
Flourishes and Blots
I stress to my students that much of science flies or flops in the writing, and that I’ll be taking them through all the steps of the process. Writing assignments need not be long (2-3 pages), but they should be somewhat APA-structured: Introduction, Method, Results, and Discussion. Each paper tackles one question about the data they collected at the semester’s start: for example, what the typical participant is like, if there are gender differences, and potential relationships between their variable and GPA.
I give them an opportunity in lab to peer-edit rough drafts—I lead these sessions to teach them what to look for. Like our own process for publication, the students rely on their peers initially to catch glaring issues or limitations with the paper. It’s a friendly environment to introduce them to peer-review. But I still remind them that the final draft heads to the editor—me! At the end of the semester, each student should have three good papers to work with.
The House Cup
Writing these papers becomes meaningful, because at the end of the semester, some professors are gracious enough to hold a mock-conference in lecture. In the last weeks of lab, I teach students how to construct a poster from their paper(s) and present it—I encourage students to have fun with it. Each House chooses their favorite analyses. Professors can award points, extra credit, or prizes. I’ve found that students get very excited about their posters. I’m not sure I’ve gotten all the glitter off from last semester.
What’s interesting about using lecture time is that all five labs come together. Maybe Slytherin groups from all labs will have the same results. In that case, the professor can talk about reliability. If results differ, the professor can talk about difficulty in replication, something very topical to our science.
Fantastic Stats and Where to Find Them
With this structure, students conduct science, making the numbers about logic and truth rather than calculations. Statistics becomes a tool in their skillset, not an obstacle. By the end of class, students begin to learn about psychology from their peers—not passively from professors or assigned readings. They walk through each stage of our research process, from data collection to presentation. And many of them find that it is, well, kind of fun!
Rather than dreading statistics and avoiding it like the Dark Mark, they’ll begin to understand that statistics are a psychologist’s “most inexhaustible source of magic.” Maybe it won’t convert them all to statistics wizardry, but they’ll remember the course for years after.
Tom Tibbett is a PhD candidate in Social and Personality Psychology at Texas A&M University, graduating with an Advanced Statistics certification. He loves his alma mater, the College of William and Mary, where he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and English. His interests include teaching, number-crunching, puppies, and wizards. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
To my colleagues teaching PSYC 203, especially Heather Lench: you’ve been an inspiration and given me the foundation for these ideas. To Kaileigh Byrne: after meeting you, I don’t think I could avoid thinking about Harry Potter if I tried.
For more information
Conners, F. A., McCown, S. M., & Roskos-Ewoldsen, B. (1998). Unique challenges in teaching undergraduate statistics. Teaching of Psychology, 25, 40-42.
Hudak, M. A., & Anderson, D. E. (1990). Formal operations and learning styles predict success in statistics and computer science courses. Teaching of Psychology, 17, 231–234.
Sciutto, M. J. (1995). Student-centered methods for decreasing anxiety and increasing interest level in undergraduate statistics courses. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 22, 277–280.
Steele, J., James, J. B., Barnett, R.C. (2002). Learning in a man's world: Examining the perceptions of undergraduate women in male-dominated academic areas. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 26, 46–50.
Tibbett, T. P. (2017: January). Making statistics psychology: Engaging students with relevant applications. Presented at the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology (NITOP) Annual Meeting.
Wilson, S. G. (2013). The flipped class: A method to address the challenges of an undergraduate statistics course. Teaching of Psychology, 10, 1-7.
"I get paid to teach them physics. It's not my job to care about their personal lives."
This was what I heard from a colleague during a professional development conference. The session emphasized understanding the personal needs of our students, and during an experiential demonstration this is what a professor of physics had to say. To say I was astounded would be an understatement. Flabbergasted? Getting closer. Disgusted? Bingo! How can a professional educator be so obtuse? We are not babysitters, but to suggest that we need have no interest or investment in the personal struggles of our students was so antithetical to everything I thought my job was about left me wondering how this man was still employed. (hint: tenure isn't always a good thing!)
On the other side of the coin, however, we have the student who does feel that their teacher is their own personal sounding board. You probably know that student if you've been teaching for any length of time. She always stays after class to talk about how today's lesson really hits home for her. He always wants to discuss a family member who he "thinks has those exact symptoms." They want you to diagnose them, to second guess their doctor, to fix their friend, or to tell them if they are on the right prescription. These situation call into question the professional boundaries that must be established and maintained with students, and if we are not prepared can leave us fumbling for a way to tell the student that they have crossed the line.
At the 2016 National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology (NITOP) I presented a Participant Idea Exchange that was meant to focus on the over-disclosing student. I had envisioned an interactive discussion about the student who monopolizes class time, often to the chagrin of other students. The idea was born from a section of abnormal psychology I had instructed that included "that student." She was very nice, but did not seem to understand that self-identifying a history of at least one diagnosis in every – EVERY – DSM category had gone beyond useful personal revelation and into the realm of "now the class is your own personal group therapy." But the attendees of this PIE also included the issue of students who do not respect boundaries during office hours, turning that time into a personal psychotherapy session. Too often the student who does is unreceptive to subtle cues and fine spun hints that the conversation is inappropriate. In point of fact, they may be equally dismissive of obvious, direct statements that their needs are more appropriately addressed in a different office.
What are some strategies for dealing with these delicate situations? How do we balance appropriate caring and concern with professionally necessary distance? Where is the demarcation line between trying to help and becoming a de facto psychotherapist? How do we support without offending? The ultimate outcome of this PIE was that there appears to be no singular technique. Some of the suggestions that came forth were as follows:
IN THE CLASS
It all begins with the messages that are given in class and in the course syllabus. A clear statement of what class time and office hours are for is essential, but it may also be necessary to make an equally clear establishment of boundaries.
Dealing with these issues when they first arise, though sometimes uncomfortable, is essential. As we all know, behaviors that are repeated can become entrenched. Thereafter, they become harder to disrupt. So sparing the student a bit of discomfort early can actually set them up for more embarrassment or awkwardness later. Addressing a student in private and making a clear statement of appropriate in-class boundaries is well-advised. Including a plan for how this can be accomplished is also helpful. In the semester following this PIE, I had another student who presented in a similar way. We spoke privately, and agreed on a very subtle facial cue from me (an extended eye blink in her direction) that would be a code for "It's time for you to pull back"). This cue was only needed twice, and her behavior improved within two weeks.
IN THE OFFICE
Keeping the office door open prevents creating a private space where inappropriate disclosures are likely to happen. When a student asks if they can close the door, you may respond by saying, "I prefer to keep it open." There is still some privacy, but not the intimate space that resembles a therapeutic setting. In an era where faculty members must also be cognizant of the appearance of impropriety with students, this is doubly important.
Operating Within Your Expertise
The risk of bruising a student's feelings must sometimes be met head on. Statements like, "I'm sorry but this time is really reserved for classroom issues," "perhaps we can walk together to the counseling center" (if your campus has one), or "these are issues that are not really appropriate for us to be discussing" might be met with some displeasure. At the same time, they provide an unequivocal message to the student about what topics you are and are not comfortable discussing.
I strongly advise that a professor avoid using phrases like, "I'm sorry, but…" before setting a boundary. It sends a mixed message that you may, in fact, be receptive to a topic even if your words are suggesting otherwise. Students with boundary issues are likely to receive a mixed message but to attend primarily to the part of that message that serves their immediate needs.
Kind, but Firm
Be prepared for pushback, and be willing to re-assert the boundary. Students may not be intentionally pushing you into an uncomfortable place, and may need to hear where the line is more than once, in different words.
This list is certainly far from exhaustive, and is open to interpretation based on one's personal style, theory of teaching, and desire to attend to the students' academic and personal needs. Demonstrating sensitivity to our students' personal challenges will only enhance their engagement and ultimately their success in the classroom. But for the student who demonstrates diffuse (or absent) boundaries, the academic professional is well-advised to have some appropriate interventions at the ready.
Jason S. Spiegelman is an Associate Professor of Psychology at The Community College of Baltimore County in Baltimore, MD, where he lives with his wife and three sons. He teaches a variety of courses, including introductory, abnormal, social, and developmental psychology among others. He is an expert in the preparation and revision of psychology textbook supplements, having worked on such projects for over 150 textbooks over the years. He also serves as an advisor and contributor to The Noba Project.
The end of term is a stressful time. There are countless papers to mark. There are students eager to challenge the wording of each item on the final. Deadlines to submit grades. During the crush of work that comes at the close of the academic season a few instructors have been known to complain. I am one of them. I have made jokes about doing my grading at a local bar and I have dished on my students’ failings. I have to admit, however, that complaining about my work and about my students has done little to boost my quality of life.
It is ironic that I so easily fall prey to the temptation to kvetch because I am a subjective well-being researcher. That is, I study happiness and know a fair amount about which behaviors and thinking styles are most likely to pay happiness dividends. In this post, I would like to share with you just one of the many practical suggestions that have emerged from studies on happiness. I do so now—at the beginning of the academic term—so that you have the mental resources to hear the message and use this information to manage stress months from now at the end of the term.
The tip I would like to share is deceptively simple: it is savoring. Simply put, savoring is the act of mentally extending a pleasant moment. Instead of gobbling down a chocolate, for example, you can stretch your pleasure by taking your time and letting it melt in your mouth a bit and appreciating the flavor. The same holds true for your teaching. Instead of focusing on every late student or every bungled Power Point slide you can start cataloging everything that goes right.
Interestingly, experts in savoring suggest that this phenomenon takes a unique form depending on whether you are focusing on yourself or on others. When the focus is internal we call that form of savoring “basking” or “luxuriating.” These are your proudest moments. They include the e-mails you save from grateful students or that minor brag about how you really helped guide someone at this morning’s office hours. When the focus is external, on the other hand, we call that “thanksgiving” or “marveling.” Examples include appreciating a particularly astute comment in class or being awed by an exceptional piece of student writing.
Taking the time to catalog pleasant moments and to share and remember them has been shown to boost happiness (Bryant & Veroff, 2007). This line of positive thinking is the counterpart to so-called “dampening” strategies. That’s right, we all engage in ways of thinking and behaving that drive our happiness right into the ground. Two of the most common dampening strategies are: 1) “fault finding” (spending time noticing and complaining about all your students do wrong and how difficult your job is and how little you get paid and…. Well, you get the idea); and 2) “negative mental time travel” (remembering all the unpleasant moments such as how you made a mistake on the syllabus or how the class was so confused when you tried to explain misattribution of arousal or how you rescheduled to meet a student at office hours and then he didn’t even show up!).
Right now, fortunately, you have a clean mental slate. The term is just beginning and you have countless opportunities ahead of you to log many positive and pleasant experiences. I am not suggesting that you pretend life is exclusively pleasant or that you ignore problems. Not at all. Instead, I am recommending that you take the time—even during the stressful moments at the end of the term when self-care is the first thing to fall by the wayside—to appreciate the many wonderful moments, awesome teaching and student contributions that are really why we are all instructors in the first place.
Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is the senior editor of the Noba Project and author of more than 50 publications on happiness and other positive topics. His latest book is The Upside of Your Dark Side.
By Tabitha Kirkland, University of Washington & Deepti Karkhanis, Bellevue College
We teach with the hope that our students are learning, and we test to find out whether or not they have. At least, this is the traditional approach. We certainly give our students active opportunities to learn during class sessions, but we wondered: wouldn’t it be great if we allowed students to continue learning throughout the class? Traditionally, exams assess rather than create learning. And in introductory classes, these exams are better at evaluating recall and recognition rather than evaluating or even promoting deeper levels of understanding. We suggest that learning can occur throughout the course, even during a test. And if we really believe that deep learning is more important than memorization and regurgitation, we should be willing to reconceptualize the way we approach testing.
So, we’d like to share our adventures in group testing.
How group testing works
We did a series of little experiments at a large community college in Washington, where all classes are for first- and second-year students. We tried several variations on this basic theme, but what all of these had in common were that psychology students had the opportunity to review and discuss their multiple-choice exams during class with peers before submitting it for a grade.
The first round, we gave students the same multiple-choice exam twice: once alone, and then immediately afterward in assigned small groups of 3-5 students. We let students complete individual response forms during both portions, so they were still responsible for their own scores and were not required to agree with the group. We then averaged both their individual and group efforts to calculate their exam score. The results? Almost 20% improvement from individual to group exams -- with some students improving by as much as 40%! (Karkhanis & Kirkland Turowski, 2015)
Importantly, this improvement in learning did not seem to be due to one high-performing student dominating the group conversation. We noticed that almost everyone seemed to be contributing about equally during group exams, and students’ feedback lined up with these observations: in a follow-up survey, they reported that almost everyone contributed equally to discussion.
Scores also improved across the grade distribution: even the highest-performing individual students benefited from the group conversation (improved scores from individual to group exams), suggesting these overall improvements were not simply due to the lower-performing students catching up.
We tried mixing up who was in the groups. It didn’t seem to matter whether the groups were carefully pre-sorted to distribute members across the grade spectrum, or assigned randomly, or even chosen by the students themselves. It seems that what matters for performance is simply the group format, not the specific makeup of the group membership. (Group size probably does matter, however -- smaller groups give more opportunity for individual contribution.)
We also checked to see if there were reliable differences based on class topic (e.g., general psychology vs. lifespan psychology) or instructor or even instructional quarter. Nope. So this suggests that this approach would be appropriate for a variety of psychology classes.
One of us also tried this neat variation: group quizzes followed by individual exams. The rationale was that if students are learning more in the group atmosphere, then that learning should show when being tested on those concepts later. She put students in randomly-assigned pairs for weekly quizzes, then compared their individual exam performance with another class (same instructor) that had taken their weekly quizzes alone. Students in the paired-quiz class performed an average of 10% better on the individual exams!
Why do group exams work so well?
We asked our students what worked for them about these exams.
First, our students enjoyed the opportunity to discuss each answer choice with one another. They found the process of talking, debating, and bouncing ideas off each other to be useful, and they were able to see different ways of reasoning through these conversations. Students reported that they learned more through teaching others and being taught, and sharing these answers boosted their confidence in their own knowledge. Groups used different ways of arriving at a conclusion: some voted and went with the majority, others discussed until a consensus was reached, and others chose their own answers after discussion (remember, they had individual response forms). Regardless, almost everyone enjoyed the group exam format, which can positively affect the entire class experience (Stearns, 1996).
Second, group testing relieved stress and anxiety that often is caused by evaluative situations. Our class sessions tend to be interactive, experiential, and collaborative, and we try to build community to encourage a positive learning environment. But when it comes time to test them, that environment changes. Tests can create high levels of anxiety for many students, yet we know that the best performance under challenging circumstances comes from moderate levels of arousal (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908; Broadhurst, 1959). How do we manage this traditionally? We just tell our students not to be anxious and hope it works out. Building on notions of context- and state-dependent memory, this means we are actually creating incongruent contexts for our students to perform in, while still hoping that they will be able to succeed. We teach this science to our students, so we should really be implementing practices based on it. Some of our students explicitly discussed the stress relief provided by the group-testing environment, and how that boosted their performance and recall. Group testing then not only mitigates test anxiety, it also make in-class testing a more positive educational experience (just like the regular class sessions) (Ioannou & Artino, 2010).
A third reason group exams work: they give students an opportunity to explicitly review their answers and reasoning. If you’re not yet on board with testing in groups, you might just have students take the exam individually, then get them into groups to discuss the exam afterward and figure out why their answers were correct or incorrect together. This would be a more traditional approach -- collaboration during review -- in which one major benefit is simply having students look at the exam again instead of the more common practice of tossing it in their bags and never looking at it again. Of course, we’d like to think that some of the benefits of the group format would carry over to this also, like students learning from one another. But in this format, learning would occur after the fact, so this might work best if you plan to give a comprehensive final or something else cumulative to reward that effort.
Some of you must be wondering about social loafing and individual accountability. We do think it’s important to include an individual component of the grade so as to encourage students to prepare for exams with the same rigor. One way to address this is to implement some minimum cut-off grade that students must earn individually in order to be eligible for group benefits. For example, one of us set a minimum of 70%. Students who scored lower than this on the individual exam did not have their group score count toward their grade. Another strategy is lower-stakes group quizzing followed by higher-stakes individual testing (described in “Variations” above).
We recognize that our suggestions have some possible limitations:
First, we tried all this stuff at a community college, where competition is limited and stakes are lower, and class sizes are fairly small (30-40 students). We think the possibility of group dynamics encouraging collaboration over competition would definitely benefit students at more competitive schools, provided the grading scale allowed for this. And we think it would probably be feasible to do in moderately large classes (e.g., 100 students), provided there is additional instructional support staff. One of us has actually just moved to a large university, and plans to try this out in a larger class, so we will keep you posted on how well this works!
We also did this with multiple-choice exams, on which performance can be more easily quantified. Of course, exams were rigorous -- using a variety of difficulty levels and skewing toward conceptual/application questions -- but we have not tested this out with short-answer or essay exams. We’d imagine that you would have to vary your approach if this is more your exam style, like designating a single group scribe (thus sacrificing a bit of independence) or having meticulous rubrics.
Group exams are good for performance. Students performed significantly better on exams taken in small groups relative to exams taken individually (Bloom, 2009; Karkhanis & Kirkland Turowski, 2015). This improvement in performance was due to a number of factors, including the opportunity to think carefully about the concepts being tested and the ability to teach and learn from one’s peers.
More importantly, group exams are good for learning. Students reported that the group-learning atmosphere helped to relieve stress, increase confidence, and solidify their understanding of course material. And students who completed frequent group quizzes scored higher on midterm and final exams, suggesting that they learned more during those collaborative quizzes than students taking them alone.
We’d love to study this further, including how these effects might change when we take into account question difficulty and level of abstraction. But we’re pretty clear on one thing -- if your class size permits it, you should definitely consider implementing group exams.
Tabitha Kirkland is a lecturer in psychology at the University of Washington. She received her B.A. from the University of California, San Diego, and her M.A. and Ph.D. from The Ohio State University. Tabitha lives in Seattle with her family and enjoys traveling, outdoor adventures, and a strong cup of coffee.
Deepti Karkhanis is an Associate Professor and Department Chair of Psychology at Bellevue College. She received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from Delhi University in India, and her Ph.D. in Applied Developmental Psychology from George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. She is a developmentalist whose teaching interests include lifespan psychology, adolescent and youth psychology, cross-cultural psychology and positive psychology. Dr. Karkhanis explores a variety of pedagogical topics such as collaborative testing, student-teacher rapport, positive psychology in classroom curriculum, and teacher training on social justice and educational equity.
1.Bloom, D. (2009). Collaborative test taking: benefits for learning and retention. College Teaching, 57(4), 216-220.
2.Broadhurst, P. L. (1959). The interaction of task difficulty and motivation: The Yerkes-Dodson Law revived. Acta Psychologica, 16, 321-338.
3.Ioannou, A., & Artino Jr, A. R. (2010). Learn more, stress less: Exploring the benefits of collaborative assessment. College Student Journal, 44(1), 189-199.
Imagine a hotshot graduate student who fancies himself quite the professor-in-waiting. Given the opportunity to independently instruct a section of Introductory Psychology, he selects the perfect book, plans lectures, practices the lectures, practices the lectures, and then practices some more. What he produces is, in some cases, fairly impressive. For example, during the lesson on motivation, he uses the slide below to lecture on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, giving creative examples of people at each stage, and engaging students with some discussion questions. Clear? Professional? Engaging? Check, check, and check.
“But what is the learning objective?” Despite the apparent quality of the lesson, if the graduate student could not answer this question, it would be some seriously bad pedagogical news.
To illustrate why that would be such bad news, take a closer look at the graduate student’s lecture slide and reconsider how you would study it if you were preparing for a test.
Would you memorize the stages? Would you test your ability to describe stages? Would you memorize the teacher’s examples or produce your own? Would you form an opinion about the theory’s validity? Now, switching to the teacher’s perspective, which one of those topics would be on the test? Without a learning objective, all options are equally right and wrong – hence, the very bad pedagogical news.
Based on recent work sponsored by the Society for the Teaching of Psychology, being a model teacher is, at least partially, defined by the use of learning objectives (An Evidence-based Guide to College and University Teaching; Richmond, Boysen, & Gurung, 2016). After reading this post, you should know how to write a learning objective and be able to explain why they are essential to model teaching.
Defining Learning Objectives
Learning objectives are specific, behavioral definitions of the knowledge, skills, or attitudes that students are supposed to take away from a learning experience. Unlike learning goals, which are often so broad as to apply to an entire curriculum, learning objectives narrowly define what students should be able to do with regard to just one, specific educational experience. A course might have only a handful of broad learning goals – they are typically listed on the syllabus – but the number of learning objectives corresponds to the individual lessons that occur over the entire course. Yes, that means you may have 100 or more learning objectives for a course!
Writing 100 or more objectives may seem like an insurmountable amount of work, but it is as easy as ABC: Audience, Behavior, and Condition (Boysen, 2012).
Audience (A): Who will be learning? This is the easy part for most college teachers because it only has to be written once for each course.
Students in [fill in course name] will…
Behavior (B): What will be learned? Here is where the hard work occurs. Teachers must decide what they want students to be able to do after each lesson and put it into terms that can be assessed. Bloom’s taxonomy is an essential tool for writing learning objectives because it defines the levels of cognitive complexity of the learning and can be associated with action verbs that are perfect for plugging into learning objective statements (see Figure).
Students in Introductory Psychology (A) will differentiate classical and operant conditioning (B);
Students in Statistics (A) will calculate t tests (B); and
Students in Biology (A) will construct pedigrees (B).
Condition (C): In what situation will the behavior occur? Conditions help determine what information or tools students will use when they engage in the behavior. They are not always necessary but can add a much-needed level of specificity.
For example, continuing with the objectives outlined above:
Students in Introductory Psychology (A) will differentiate classical and operant conditioning (B) when given real-world examples (C);
Students in Statistics (A) will calculate t tests (B) using SPSS (C); and
Students in Biology (A) will construct pedigrees (B) using human genetic information (C).
Why Learning Objectives Matter
Writing learning objectives is time consuming, but it is a worthwhile investment in model teaching. For the last few years, I have been part of a team effort to define model teaching (Richmond et al., 2016). We define model teaching as the possession of a set of evidence-based characteristics related to pedagogical training, instructional methods, course content, assessment, syllabus construction, and student evaluations. These characteristics are not the ineffable stuff that separates renown master teachers from the rest of us mere mortals (Buskist, Sikorski, Buckley, & Saville, 2002). Rather, it is a list of nuts and bolts fundamentals that anyone can develop and incorporate into their pedagogy.
Why did we include the use of learning objectives as a characteristic of model teaching? Here are just a few of their advantages, with the best saved for last.
Selection of teaching methods. Pop quiz: Why did you choose the specific pedagogical approach you took in the last class that you taught? If this was a difficult question to answer, learning objectives can help. Classes should be designed backwards; decide what students will learn first, then match the teaching method to the learning objective.
Intentional selection of evaluation methods. Imagine that the learning objective for the graduate student’s lesson on Maslow was for students to devise improvements to the theory. What should the test question for this objective look like? Going back to Bloom’s taxonomy, the cognitive skill represented in a learning objective helps determine its evaluation. If the goal is memorization of facts, multiple choice might suffice; evaluation of those facts, however – a high-level cognitive ability – would likely require a detailed written response.
Useful evaluations of learning. Have you ever tried to teach someone to shoot free throws while blindfolded? Me neither, because accurate feedback is needed for learning to occur. Both you and the learner need to know if efforts are hitting the mark. Teachers who have a list of learning objectives can directly evaluate achievement of objectives and then provide detailed feedback. For example, if the objective is to summarize all of Maslow’s stages and student can only summarize half, then the focus of future teaching and learning efforts is abundantly clear.
Increased learning. The 1970s gave us more than classic rock, it also gave us classic educational research showing that students learn more when they have specific learning objectives (Duell, 1974; Kaplan & Simmons, 1975; Rothkopf & Kaplan, 1972). I told you I saved the best for last!
How would you answer the question?
How would the hotshot graduate student have answered the question “What is your learning objective?” In fact, he couldn’t have answered it. I know because it was me. Although I had enthusiasm and dedication at that point in my career, model teaching requires so much more. After many years of development, I can answer that important pedagogical question before I walk into any classroom – I hope you can as well!
Guy A. Boysen is an Associate Professor of Psychology at McKendree University. He received his Bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN and his PhD from Iowa State University in Ames, IA. He is a generalist whose teaching emphasizes clinical topics and the mentorship of student research. Dr. Boysen has studied a wide variety of pedagogical topics included student teaching evaluations, bias in the classroom, and teacher training.
Buskist, W., Sikorski, J., Buckley, T., & Saville, B. K. (2002). Elements of master teaching. In S. F. Davis & W. Buskist (Eds.), The teaching of psychology: Essays in honor of Wilbert J. McKeachie and Charles L. Brewer (pp. 27–39). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Duell, O. P. (1974). Effect of type of objective, level of test questions, and the judged importance of tested materials upon posttest performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 66, 225-323.
Kaplan, R., & Simmons, F. G. (1974). Effects of instructional objectives used as orienting stimuli or as summary/review upon prose learning. Journal of Educational Psychology,66, 614-622.
Richmond, A. S., Boysen, G. A., Gurung, R. A. R. (2016). An evidence-based guide for college and university teaching: Developing the model teacher. Routledge.
Rothkopf, E. Z., & Kaplan, R. (1972). Exploration of the effect of density and specificity of instructional objectives on learning from text. Journal of Educational Psychology,63, 295-302.