Noba Blog

Professors Get Tired of Teaching but a Gratitude Practice Can Offset Burnout

September 6, 2017

By Jessamyn Neuhaus

One of the prerequisites for earning an advanced degree is being a pencil necked geek. In order to become an academic expert, you must sustain a monomaniacal fascination with arcane and highly specified subjects, coupled with an introvert’s ability to spend untold hours in intensive solitary study. Yet these same qualities that served us so well in graduate school often set us up for frustration and struggle as teachers. Intensely intellectual nerds who need a lot of time alone to research, write, and ponder are not natural-born classroom performers. Those of us who want to foster student learning have to constantly push ourselves out of our comfort zone and also continue to educate ourselves about teaching and learning. It can be exhausting. How do we cope? How do we maintain energy for and interest in effective teaching and learning? At my small rural state university, I’ve seen a wide range of strategies, from highly productive (attending teaching conferences, soliciting support from the Center for Teaching Excellence, mentoring junior faculty) to downright dysfunctional (bitterness, alcoholism, despair). I’d like to suggest another option: cultivating a gratitude practice.

Teaching Burnout as Occupational Hazard

A woman with an overwhelmed expression puts her hand to her forehead as she looks at a computer screen.
Negativity bias leads us to fixate on the things that go wrong in our teaching, and our personalities tend toward introversion and obsessive thinking exacerbating our teaching tiredness.

Most of us currently teaching college classes did not set out to become teachers. Rather, we were good students who fell in love with a topic and decided to become students of that topic forever and ever. But because the (paid) job of “Sitting in an Ivory Tower and Thinking Deep Thoughts” doesn’t actually exist, we joined the professoriate although we may well have received little training or preparation for teaching. Thus high-achieving Ph.D.s who are lucky enough to secure a teaching position find themselves, after years of academic excellence, failing as effective teachers—flummoxed by a room full of bored eighteen-year-olds far more interested in Instagram than in whatever high falutin’ thing you think they should be learning how to do.

When introverted bookworms emerge blinking and befuddled after years in the archive or the laboratory, we are ill-equipped to navigate the highly complex and psychologically messy set of human activities that comprise teaching and learning in college. As advances in brain science show, the learning process itself is inherently arduous, even painful [1]. Sure, we loved the mental rigor required to learn our subject but most students don’t. Moreover, college is an economic, emotional, and socially fraught undertaking for which many students are woefully underprepared. Throw in the complicated ways that identity (gender presentation, physical ability, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, economic class) shapes education, and the stage is set for burnout. Teaching and learning are fricking hard.

In addition to these systematic challenges, college professors often face another challenge when they set out to be effective teachers: working with, um, other human beings. As socially awkward dorks, we do not effortlessly interact with strangers, respond well to other people’s emotions, and often don’t make a good first impression. So we have to work our butts off to do things that effective teachers do. Being approachable, fostering a positive classroom environment, and showing enthusiasm for learning takes a lot out of us [2]. Don’t even get me started on departmental and institutional conditions. Sarcastic backstabbing colleagues, clueless bloodsucking administrators, byzantine tenure processes, teaching overloads, adjunct exploitation and so much more! All these things can contribute to teaching fatigue. Practicing gratitude as an educator is a practical way to counteract the burnout by training ourselves to see our teaching context fully, to notice and actively respond to the complete reality of our teaching lives.

 “Gratitude?” But I’m an Intellectual/Scientist/Scholar, Not a New Age Hippie

Look, I get it: “gratitude” sounds almost…anti-intellectual. Lobotomize yourself with “positive thinking” and Oprahesque affirmations and bury your head in the sand, right? On the contrary, a gratitude practice is nothing more or less than slowly training yourself to clearly see reality—reality as it is, not what you fear, hope, desire or expect but simply and only what is, without judgment or commentary. As Kerry Howells explains in her compelling book Gratitude in Education: A Radical View, gratitude can be a helpful strategy for educators facing workplace challenges and fighting professional exhaustion. Drawing on Buddhist mindfulness, the gratitude practices espoused by Howell never require ignoring negative situations or pretending everything’s always okay. Instead, practicing mindfulness and gratitude requires you pay attention to everything that is happening. Doing so doesn’t mean avoiding or denying the negative but it does mean acknowledging the positive by bringing a sense of curiosity to any situation and asking “What is really happening right now?”

That doesn’t sound too flakey, now does it? After all, hardnosed, scientifically-trained researchers have published numerous evidence-based studies demonstrating how gratitude practices reduce stress and enhance our mental and physical health [3]. Chances are that you’re probably pretty good at stuff like “observe” and “focus attention” because you earned an advanced degree by focusing on the minutia of your beloved academic subject. A gratitude practice just means using that focused attention to locate what Howells calls the “gifts” we regularly receive as educators.

Whoa, whoa, whoa—“gifts?” If you are dealing with a full blown case of burnout right now and/or if you work in a particularly negative teaching context, the word “gifts” might understandably grate on your nerves. Stay with me because even though it may sound counterintuitive, Howells is right and gifts are indeed always part of education work.

Go Ahead, Take the Gift

I say “counterintuitive” because as Howells points out, a lot of college teaching and academia generally fosters, well, ingratitude. Professors are trained criticizers, highly skilled in picking apart things and pointing out errors. Even in the best of departments, there’s a lot of complaining—about students, about colleagues, about publishers, about administrators, and on and on. The tiered teaching system with its grossly unfair compensation hierarchies creates a sense of burning injustice, not gratitude. And stressed-out students falling ever deeper into debt rarely bubble over with gratitude when they encounter educational challenges. “Golly Professor, I sure appreciate the chance to learn a valuable life lesson by reflecting on the hot mess I’ve made of my work for your class! I failed your seminar but who cares about grades when I’ve advanced my knowledge of how to do better in the future!”

Howells emphasizes that to say we receive gifts as educators isn’t to pretend that we don’t regularly encounter stressful situations and people, but practicing gratitude allows us to become more aware of our teaching realities. Those realities always contain gifts, along with whatever else they contain. For example, your 9:00 a.m. class is continually disrupted and derailed by Student X. Okay, yes, Student X is a complete jackass who deserves to rot in hell and you better figure out how to deal with him as soon as possible. When you are cultivating gratitude, you don’t ignore Student X. However, you also pay more attention to Students Y and Z. Wow, looky there, Student Y read your feedback carefully, applied it, and did much better on the next assignment! And hey, didja notice that Student Z always arrives early to class, wide awake and prepared to listen and take notes?

“But,” you splutter, “they’re supposed to be doing those things!” Okay, time to put that big brain of yours to use and hold onto two different ideas at the same time. Idea #1: students are merely fulfilling their academic responsibilities. Idea #2: students are giving you a gift. Both of these things are true and real. These students are enabling you to teach more effectively by taking responsibility for their own learning and showing respect for your efforts, thereby gifting you with the ultimate payoff for all those hours you spent preparing and assessing: they’re increasing their skills and knowledge. Climb down off your cross of professorial suffering (Lo, see how I doth suffer and toil over grading these papers that so suckth!). Go ahead and take the gift.

An instructor enjoys a discussion with a group of students during a class.
Training ourselves to notice the gifts we receive and to make a practice of cultivating gratitude can help offset burnout, no rose-colored glasses or meditation mat required.
[Image: Georgia Southern,, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0,]

When you get into the mental habit of acknowledging gifts, you’ll see how many there can be. If it makes it easier for you nerds to digest, think of this in terms of physics. What makes energy grow? Energy. Black holes grow the more planets they absorb. Student X will easily absorb every ounce of your pedagogical energy if you let him, so why not let Students A-W, Y, and Z take up more space and energy in your teaching universe? Or try looking at it from an evolutionary psychology perspective. Negativity bias leads us to fixate on the things that go wrong in our teaching, and our personalities tend toward introversion and obsessive thinking exacerbating our teaching tiredness. Practicing gratitude is a practical, proven countermeasure.

Importantly, practicing gratitude isn’t just a mental exercise. It begins in your brain and in your senses as you work to be fully aware of the reality of any given moment. This is only the first step though, as Howells emphasizes. Expressing gratitude as an action is the essential next step in cultivating gratitude and building up a regular gratitude practice. For instance, you notice Student Z is always on time and ready to begin class so you say to Student Z, “Thank you for being on time and ready to begin class.” No strings attached. You’re not assessing Student Z’s work and giving positive feedback in hopes she’ll continue doing it. You are purely and simply saying “Thank you for contributing to a positive classroom environment today.” After you do that a few times (or many times because it feels weird at first), you can build up to regularly thanking everyone present in class because at the very least, they’re there, and you are taking the gift in that. Recognition of the gift leads to expression of gratitude for the gift leads to a gratitude practice

Practice Does Not Make Perfect

“Practice” is the key word here. “Practice” as in something you do frequently because you enjoy getting better at it and there are real-life payoffs for doing it. Not “practice” as in slogging doggedly towards some unachievable yogic Zen ideal. There’s no teaching nirvana waiting down the road if you do gratitude flawlessly. Nothing is going to miraculously transform the hard work of teaching and learning into rainbows and lollipops. Howells strongly cautions teachers against berating ourselves for not constantly “feeling grateful.” That’s not how it works. Sometimes it’s easy to spot the gift, sometimes it’s not, and nobody can do it every single moment of every single day.

Start really small and really, really, really easy. Notice one thing, just one, during the day, which seemed like a gift. Make a list for yourself of those things. Notice something different every day and start with the simplest and/or most obvious: the class laughed at one of your jokes, your best student earned an award, a colleague paid you a genuine compliment, your department secretary did some extra work to straighten out a paperwork problem. These were all gifts, containing the roots of a potential gratitude practice: You routinely thank all the students in your classes for positive responses to your efforts; you regularly thank exceptional students for the pleasure of seeing them succeed; you often compliment colleagues; you recognize administrative staff for their support.

Maybe when you’ve built up your gratitude muscle and have spent a long time practicing how to recognize what is without preconception, fear, anger, or judgment and to see the gifts therein, you might even be able to see Student X’s disruptive behavior more fully. Maybe deliberately trying to drive you batshit crazy is not actually his sole purpose in life but rather part of a bigger picture in which students resist learning and act out as a way to cope with academic anxiety, unpreparedness, and a host of other issues unrelated to you personally [4]. Maybe then you can stop defensively reacting and instead start deliberately acting in order to productively address the situation—one of the important benefits of a gratitude practice, according to Howells. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll even see a gift in Student X’s incivility, like here is a good opportunity for you to do meaningful work in a world where most people don’t get that luxury. However, this is varsity level gratitude. For goodness’ sake, don’t set yourself up for failure by starting out with your most difficult teaching situation! The whole point is to cultivate a tool for counteracting educational enervation, not to add yet another overwhelming task to your already massive To Do list.

Professors get teaching-fatigue because we are intellectual introverts facing the inherent challenges of teaching and learning in the culture of academia. Training ourselves to notice the gifts we receive and to make a practice of cultivating gratitude can help offset that burnout, no rose-colored glasses or meditation mat required.


[1] On teaching, learning, and the brain, see for example James E. Zull, The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2002).

[2] See for example Elizabeth F. Barkley, Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010).

[3] See for example Robert Emmons and Michael McCollough, eds., The Psychology of Gratitude (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Casaundra N. Harbaugh and Michael W. Vasey, “When Do People Benefit from Gratitude Practice?” The Journal of Positive Psychology 9, no. 6 (2014); 535-546; Randy Sansone and Lori Sansone; “Gratitude and Well Being: The Benefits of Appreciation,” Psychiatry 7, no. 11 (November 2010): 18-21; Martin E. P. Seligman, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being (New York: Free Press, 2011); Michele Tugade, Michelle Shiota, and Leslie D. Kirby, eds., Handbook of Positive Emotions (New York: Guildford Press, 2014); Philip Watkins, Gratitude and the Good Life: Towards a Psychology of Appreciation (Dordrecht: Springer, 2014); Philip Watkins, Jens Uhder, and Stan Pichinevskiy. “Grateful Recounting Enhances Subjective Well-Being: The Importance of Grateful Processing,” Journal of Positive Psychology 10, no. 2 (March 2015): 91-99; Alex M. Wood, Jeffery J. Froh, and Adam W.A. Geraghty, “Gratitude and Well-Being: A Review and Theoretical Integration,” Clinical Psychology Review 30 (2010): 890-905; Mark E. Young and Tracy Hutchinson, “The Rediscovery of Gratitude: Implications for Counseling Practice,” Journal of Humanistic Counseling 51 (April 2012): 99-113.

[4] See for example Rebecca D. Cox, The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011) and Anton O. Tolman and Janine Kremling, editors, Why Students Resist Learning: A Practical Model for Understanding and Helping Students (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2017).


Jessamyn Neuhaus is a professor of U.S. history and popular culture at SUNY Plattsburgh and the author of Manly Meals and Mom’s Home Cooking: Cookbooks and Gender in Modern America and Housework and Housewives in American Advertising: Married to the Mop, in addition to numerous scholarly articles. Winner of the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, she frequently presents on pedagogy and has published articles in Teaching History and The History Teacher. Her forthcoming book Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers will be published by West Virginia University Press.


In addition to her book Gratitude in Education: A Radical View (Boston: SensePublishers, 2012), Kerry Howells’ website offers an online gratitude in education course and has links to videos of her public talks. For more information about the proven benefits of practicing gratitude, see Robert Emmons’ research and The Greater Good Science Center’s “Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude” project. A word of caution: There are numerous guides to cultivating gratitude but many of them do not offer much more than facile advice to “count your blessings.” Additionally, many resources for educators are aimed at K-12 teachers and discuss how to cultivate gratitude in students—a worthy goal indeed but as Howells rightly points out, a project that should only be undertaken after a great deal of careful preparation, research, training, and planning. If you’re interested in specific advice on cultivating a gratitude practice, I’ve found that researchers in the field of positive psychology are generally trustworthy. See for example “31 Gratitude Exercises that Will Boost Your Happiness.” 

The Medium is the Message: Setting a Foundation for Online Learning

August 31, 2017

By Melissa Wehler and Judith Dutill


Apply the Science of Learning to Video Content You Create for Students

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously coined the phrase, “the medium is the message.” We believe that when an educator invests their time and resources into developing original educational videos for their online and blended courses, they are communicating a clear message about the high value they have placed on establishing instructor presence and supporting student learning in their courses.

Using an abbreviated lecture format (called microlecturing) allows educators to lean on the familiarity of the lecture while simultaneously leveraging to their advantage evidence-based principles from the cognitive theory of multimedia learning. These principles, developed by educational psychologist Richard E. Mayer, help educators apply the science of learning to the creation of their instructional videos (and other instructional materials). Ultimately, these principles are designed to help learners manage cognitive load (the amount of mental effort used in working memory) as they are engaged in the act of learning.

Here is a quick review of five principles from Mayer’s theory that you can use to optimize your videos for learning:

1- Coherence Principle

When students are learning unfamiliar information, they are more easily distracted by external noise. For this reason, it’s important to omit purely decorative images, unnecessary animations, distracting sound effects, and background music in your videos. It’s also worth it to ensure your recording environment is clean and tidy and that there are no environmental distractions (such as pets or children when recording at home) before you begin recording. 

Diagram showing the metacognitive process coupled with external demonstration
Adhering to the Coherence Principle: Focus on the relevant information

2- Segmenting Principle

More effective learning happens when we present content in small bite-sized chunks. To begin, this is why we recommend using a microlecture format that limits video duration to 3-5 minutes. 

Another way to break-up content into segments is to incorporate strategic pauses into your videos. This makes room for learners to process new information and engage in reflective learning. Reflective strategies ask students to deepen their learning by periodically assessing their own thinking process. Two methods we use to build reflective pauses into our videos are the honor system (meaning that periodically during the video the speaker will prompt listeners to pause their videos to engage in a specific reflective activity before continuing to watch the video) and using an interactive video authoring tool (free tools such as PlayPosit or Office Mix allow you to build interactive questions into your videos - learner responses are recorded for added accountability).

Segmenting also applies to the visuals you present in your videos. If you are narrating slides, your slide design should follow the six by six rule. This means no more than six things per slide (images or bullet points) and no more than six words per bullet point.

A sample screen of a video made with PlayPosit which allows learners an opportunity to pause and engage with lecture content
Adhering to the Segmenting Principle: Try an application like PlayPosit to build reflective pauses and practice questions into your videos

3- Redundancy Principle

Learning is more effective with just animation and narration. This means that educators who read directly from their slides may be doing a disservice to their learners. Therefore, redundant text should be avoided. This means that it is more effective to provide a narrated animation, a narrated image, or to reduce slide text down to keywords and keyword phrases. 

Sample presentation slides that demonstrate a poor example of the redundancy principle alongside a good example
Adhering to the Redundancy Principle: Narrate images or animations instead of repeating the text that appears on the screen

4- Personalization Principle

Using an informal (conversational) tone will deepen learning. This means it is important to sound like you in your videos. Online classes especially are humanized through video. The occasional audible pause or backtrack on a misspoken word adds to the human factor in your classes. Though, the quality of a video is important, it is not necessary to have perfection in your videos.

5- Pre-training Principle

When students are familiar with key vocabulary and concepts before a lesson begins, they are better able to receive the information you present. At the beginning of your video, remind students if there is any content that should be reviewed before viewing the video in its entirety. When you structure your videos into your classes, use text annotations to add context to video content. This helps prepare students for learning.

screenshot of a video frame with annotations
Adhering to the Pre-training Principle: Add text annotations to put video content into context

Using these principles and best practices, the “message” you communicate to your students is that you value their learning process and that you want to engage them in it. If you are interested in learning more about creating effective online video content, please visit our open access resource, The Online Lecture Toolkit, designed for educators. 


Melissa Wehler, PhD and Judith Dutill, MA are project managers for The Online Lecture Toolkit, an open access resource designed to make the application of evidence-based strategies accessible for educators and instructional designers at every level of technological fluency. Melissa Wehler is the Dean of Humanities and Sciences at Central Penn College. Judith Dutill is an instructional designer at Millersville University and an adjunct faculty member at Harrisburg Area Community College.


Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multimedia Learning. Cambridge University Press.


The Online Lecture Toolkit

How to Avoid Death by PowerPoint

How to Humanize Your Online Class

Mindfulness as an Active Learning Strategy: Building Students’ Resilience and Coping Skills

August 9, 2017

By Julie Kingery

My Own Journey to Discovering Mindfulness

My own mindfulness journey began when I decided to try a yoga class at the local YMCA in Maine during the summer after my second year of graduate school. As a “Type A” personality who was raised in an achievement-focused family, yoga opened my eyes to a world of new coping strategies for dealing with stress. I left each class experiencing a level of relaxation that I had rarely felt before. Since that first experience, barely a week has gone by that I haven’t attended at least one yoga class. The stretching, breathing, and meditation have helped me maintain balance amidst life’s many challenges over the past 18 years.

As a faculty member at a small liberal arts institution for the past decade, I’ve seen students struggling with various academic and personal stressors, with very limited coping resources to draw upon. Prior to the spring of 2017, I had periodically led students in brief mindfulness exercises (e.g., when covering the topic of Stress and Health in my Psy100 class). However, incorporating a formal mindfulness component into a course felt risky to me. I had many doubts, including how students would respond and the logistics of embarking on this new teaching endeavor. 

Scientific Evidence for the Benefits of Mindfulness

To help ease my doubts, I turned to the research literature on this topic. I learned that participation in mindfulness-based programs has produced positive outcomes for college students, including reduced symptoms of anxiety (Call et al., 2014), decreased symptoms of depression (McIndoo et al., 2016), increased mindful awareness and self-control (Canby et al., 2015), and improvements in sleep quality and self-compassion (Greeson et al., 2014). A few studies have even shown that brief mindfulness exercises introduced at the beginning of each class meeting can have positive effects on psychological well-being and/or academic performance (i.e., Ramsburg & Youmans, 2014; Yamada & Victor, 2012). I felt encouraged by this scientific evidence!

Conversations with my talented yoga and mindfulness teacher, Jacoby Ballard, during the spring of 2016 were also helped with the decision to incorporate mindfulness in one of my courses. Jacoby suggested that I read Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning, and he highly recommended that I attend a workshop led by the authors of this book. I felt excited about the possibility of gathering with like-minded educators from across the country to learn more about teaching mindfulness to college students. After talking with Jacoby and learning about the research evidence on this topic, I decided to take the next steps toward sharing my passion for mindfulness with students in my developmental psychology seminar that would be offered in the spring of 2017.

Getting Started

The Tree of Contemplative Practices. The Tree illustrates some of the contemplative practices currently in use in secular organizational and academic settings.
[Image: On Being,, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0,]
To help me accomplish this goal, I applied for (and received) an innovative teaching grant offered through our Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). My plan was to integrate mindfulness into an upper-level developmental psychology seminar focused on developmental psychopathology, a perspective that emphasizes understanding risk and resilience in the lives of children and adolescents. I conceptualized the mindfulness strategies as a form of active learning that would help students build resilience in their own lives. The grant allowed me to attend the “Contemplative Practice in Higher Education” workshop at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York in the fall of 2016. Participating in the workshop helped me develop a better understanding of a broad range of activities that fall under the category of “contemplative” or “mindfulness” practices.


Throughout the fall 2016 semester, I participated in small group meetings every three weeks with the group of faculty on my campus who had received innovative teaching grants. Through these meetings, I developed my ideas about what the mindfulness component of my class would actually look like, obtaining feedback from group members on course design and assignments. Although my yoga teacher Jacoby relocated to Massachusetts during the summer of 2016, I kept in touch with him via e-mail and periodic phone calls. He suggested several helpful resources, and we strategized about ways in which I could strengthen my own daily mindfulness practice in preparation for doing this work with my students.

By exploring the books and other resources recommended by Jacoby, I expanded my own repertoire of mindfulness exercises that I was then able to share with my students. Throughout the spring 2017 semester, I led my seminar students through deep breathing exercises, intention setting, loving kindness meditations, other guided meditations, and yoga, and we also discussed ways to incorporate mindfulness into various daily activities such as walking to and from class.

The students read a chapter each week from a book entitled “Real World Mindfulness for Beginners: Navigate Daily Life One Practice at a Time”, edited by Brenda Salgado, along with other chapters and research articles about mindfulness. At the beginning of the semester, I suggested that each student use the free app called Insight Timer, which has many guided meditations to choose from, allows you to virtually connect with others who have the same app, has a timer for unguided meditation, and logs each session of meditation that you complete. Some students used this app, but several students found other apps that they preferred (e.g., Calm, Buddhify). A few weeks into the mindfulness component of the course, I started a discussion feed on Canvas and asked that students post about their favorite apps/guided meditations within apps, websites, etc., so that everyone in class could refer to this list for ideas. We also shared ideas during in-class discussions. 

In addition to the teaching grant, I obtained funds from the Provost’s Office and the Vice President of Student Affairs to bring Jacoby back to campus to work with students in two different ways. First, he offered an in-class workshop on yoga and mindfulness for the students in my seminar. He also presented an evening campus-wide talk entitled “Mindfulness and Social Change” that my students were required to attend. Jacoby’s campus visit was in early March, after my students had been practicing mindfulness for about four to five weeks. They had many thoughtful questions for Jacoby during his visit and I thought it was very beneficial for them to learn mindfulness strategies from someone considered an expert in that field.

A yoga instructor and a group of students practicing tree pose.
Jacoby leading the workshop on yoga and mindfulness. [Image: Kevin Colton, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0,]

Outcomes –the Expected and the Unexpected

Regarding anticipated outcomes, it was sometimes challenging to set aside time for the in-class mindfulness practices and discussions when there was so much other course material that I wanted to cover. Also as expected, although all students completed the weekly mindfulness logs and reflection papers, some seemed to be more invested in the mindfulness component of the course than others.

Somewhat unexpectedly, I was pleased to see the great extent to which some students benefited from the weekly practices outside of class. Some students ended up practicing more than the required three times per week and described dramatic differences in their stress levels, understanding of mindfulness, levels of self-compassion, etc. throughout the semester. I was also surprised by the quality of the reflection papers, in which many students shared powerful insights and personal struggles that they were facing throughout the semester. This allowed me to get to know students in a different way. I was pleased with how many connections students were able to make between course material (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy for youth with anxiety and depression) and the mindfulness practices. 

Reflection on Student Learning

Schedule of mindfulness assignments and activities during a typical semester.
To help capture the impact of the mindfulness practices on students’ learning, I created an end-of-semester assessment. Through this questionnaire, many students expressed having a broadened understanding of the concept of mindfulness. The mean scores on these questions were all between 4 and 5 (1 = not at all/never to 5= very much/often), with mean scores to specific questions as follows:
  • Change in understanding of mindfulness: 4.50
  • Frequency of practice outside of class: 3.86
  • How much did you enjoy outside/inside of class practice: 3.94/3.84
  • Enhanced learning of material: 3.92

In students’ responses to open-ended questions, the following themes emerged:

  • Learned about how beneficial mindfulness can be
  • Learned that there are many different types of mindfulness practices
  • Practicing mindfulness reduced their stress
  • Majority expressed enjoying the in-class mindfulness exercises

For additional qualitative feedback, I pulled quotes from the students’ final mindfulness reflection papers. Several example quotes are included below:

  • “…participating in mindfulness allowed me to become much more aware of my body and my thoughts…”
  • “I have learned the value of being able to take a step back and take a moment for myself…”
  • “…The exercises opened my eyes and enabled me to be much more kindhearted towards myself as well as patient…”
  • “…Each time I find myself feeling overwhelmed now I always take a few seconds to stop and breathe…

In both the end-of-semester assessment and the final mindfulness reflection papers, the majority of students reported enjoying the mindfulness component of the course, expressed that the mindfulness exercises helped to broaden their perspective and to manage their stress during the semester, and several of them expressed that they planned to continue completing the exercises on their own in the future.

In the final reflection paper I asked students to give advice to future developmental psychology seminar students about the mindfulness component of the course. The advice that they provided was invaluable, and I definitely plan to share this information with my future students!

Lessons Learned and Ideas for the Future

In terms of “lessons learned” from implementing the mindfulness component of the course, I offer the following:

  • Students may be reluctant at first – presenting them with the scientific evidence regarding the benefits of mindfulness (via assigned readings) can be helpful to reduce resistance; emphasizing that mindfulness is a skill that needs to be developed through practice is also key.
  • It is very important for the course instructor to engage in his/her own mindfulness practice, outside of the in-class exercises being completed with students – this approach can help the instructor to identify “pitfalls” and relate more easily to the challenges that students describe as they embark on their own mindfulness journeys.
  • Students enjoyed using apps; they reported being able to engage in guided meditations more easily than unguided; most students had to try several different guided meditations before finding their own favorites.
  • Carving out class time for mindfulness exercises/discussion was challenging, but worthwhile.
  • Bringing in a yoga/mindfulness expert for the in-class workshop and evening talk worked well; it was helpful for students to participate in a “hands on” session led by someone who has devoted his career to yoga and mindfulness; he answered their questions and offered a valuable perspective that students may not have gained otherwise.
  • Some students thought that the weekly mindfulness logs were burdensome, in the future I may consider a different method.

Next spring, I plan to repeat the mindfulness component of this course. By continuing my personal mindfulness practice, I hope to be able to broaden the range of mindfulness exercises that I can offer to my students. While working with my students last spring, my own understanding of mindfulness expanded. I learned a great deal by watching them discover mindfulness for the first time. This teaching endeavor was extremely rewarding, and has transformed my once reluctant stance on integrating mindfulness into the college classroom.


Julie Newman Kingery, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Psychology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. Her research focuses on associations between peer relationships and psychological adjustment during early adolescence, as well as the peer experiences of youth with anxiety disorders. She recently completed a research paper on the relationship between dispositional mindfulness and emotional well-being among college students, and looks forward to future scholarly endeavors related to mindfulness. In her spare time, she enjoys yoga, running, and spending time with her husband and two young children in the beautiful Finger Lakes region of western New York.

Mindfulness Resources


Barbezat, D. P, & Bush, M. (2014). Contemplative practices in higher education: Powerful methods to transform teaching and learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hanh, T. N. (2015). How to relax. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.

Hanh, T. N. (1991). Peace is every step: The path of mindfulness in everyday life. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York, NY: Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are. New York, NY: Hyperion.

Salgado, B. (Ed.). (2016). Real world mindfulness for beginners: Navigate daily life one practice at a time. Berkley, CA: Sonoma Press.

Salzberg, S. (2015). The kindness handbook. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

Salzberg, S. (2011). Real happiness: The power of meditation. New York, NY: Workman Publishing Company, Inc.

Thupten, J. (2015). A fearless heart: How the courage to be compassionate can transform our lives. New York, NY: Hudson Street Press.

Web Links:

1) Talk by mindfulness expert Sharon Salzberg:

2) UCLA website- guided meditations with differing lengths:

3) Sounds True website- download 6 free guided mindfulness practices if you enter your e-mail address, also free meditation music downloads:

4) “Healing Lake Meditation,” a 6 minute guided meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn:

5) Progressive muscle relaxation exercise:

6) Mindful eating raisin meditation:


  • Stop, Breath & Think: To view and sample various guided meditations available through this app, go to: (then click on List of Meditations).


Call, D., Miron, L., Orcutt, H. (2014). Effectiveness of Brief Mindfulness Techniques in Reducing Symptoms of Anxiety and Stress. Mindfulness, 5, 658-668.

Canby, N. K., Cameron, I. M., Calhoun, A. T., & Buchanan, G. M. (2015). A brief mindfulness intervention for healthy college students and its effects on psychological distress, self- control, meta-mood, and subjective vitality. Mindfulness, 6, 1071-1081.

Greeson, J. M., Juberg, M. K., Maytan, M., James, K., & Rogers, H. (2014). A randomized controlled trial of Koru: A mindfulness program for college students and other emerging adults. Journal of American College Health, 62, 222-233.

McIndoo, C. C., File, A. A., Preddy, T., Clark, C. G., & Hopko, D. R. (2016). Mindfulness-based therapy and behavioral activation: A randomized controlled trial with depressed college students. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 77, 118-128.

Ramsburg, J. T., & Youmans, R. J. (2014). Meditation in the higher-education classroom: Meditation training improves student knowledge retention during lectures. Mindfulness, 5, 431-441.

Yamada, K., & Victor, T. L. (2012). The impact of mindful awareness practices on college student health, well-being, and capacity for learning: A pilot study. Psychology Learning & Teaching, 11, 139-145.

The Pitfalls of Portable Technology in the Classroom

August 3, 2017

By Susan Ravizza & Julien Azar


Technology is useful, except when it isn’t.

There has been a whirlwind of technological change in the classroom since I was an undergraduate student in the late 1980’s. Back then, class lectures were written on transparent plastic sheets and were projected onto a screen. Videos were played from VHS tapes shown on a television on a rolling cart. Students would take notes (or doodle casually) in spiral-bound notebooks. Laptops and phones were not around then to relentlessly distract us from the task at hand.

An overhead projector - a common 20th century classroom technology.
Image: mailer_diablo,, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Sometime after the turn of the century, the use of Microsoft PowerPoint became a standard lecture tool. The advantages were obvious: videos and pictures could be included without using a separate device, no more sorting through plastic transparencies, and materials could be digitally shared with students. Students began bringing their laptops to take notes on their own copy of the slides. Instead of seeing a sea of bent heads scribbling notes, today’s instructors are faced with a room full of Apple and Dell logos.

It would be easy to fall into the trap of believing that technology is evil; or, at least, the root of many problems. One study, for example, reported that when people knew they could use Google to find information they would remember the source of the information rather than the information itself (Sparrow, Liu, & Wegner, 2013). I don’t believe that memory is declining because it has been rendered obsolete due to the greater capacity for storage on external devices. It simply means that people have found a better way of using their memory. Even Einstein realized the clear advantages of external memory when he reportedly commented, “Why should I memorize something when I know where to find it?" (Rossett & Mohr, 2004).

Technology in the classroom is not always good, however. While students feel confident in the power of their ‘external memory’, they may not pay as much attention in class. They may begin to use their class time in other ways. When we tracked Internet use during class, we found that students spent anywhere from seventeen minutes to almost an hour of a 100-minute class browsing the Internet on their laptop (Ravizza, Uitvlugt, & Fenn, 2017). Activities included watching videos, shopping, checking out social media, and looking up information to do homework for another class. It will come as no surprise that we found that the longer students spent browsing shoes at Zappos or kitten videos on Instagram the lower were their test scores on the final exam (Ravizza, Uitvlugt, & Fenn, 2017).

The Psychology of Distraction

Distraction in the classroom is nothing new. Students have been passing notes, drawing caricatures of their teachers, and staring out windows since the time of one-room school houses. The Internet broadens the scope of distractions. Passing notes has been upgraded to instant messaging allowing people to “pass notes” to anyone, anywhere. These notes have also been given lights and sounds and emoticons. Texts and instant messages are received from people who are not in the classroom and, therefore, have no insight into how distracting their communication might be. This is also why texting while driving is far worse than talking to a passenger who is with you in the car (Drews, Pasupathi, and Strayer, 2008). 

Internet use, such as compulsively checking texts or emails, can also become addictive (Block, 2008). Indeed, Internet addiction is characterized by excessive use, withdrawal symptoms, and is marked by activity in reward regions of the brain (Dong, DeVito, Du, & Cui, 2012; Turel, He, Xue, Xiao, & Bechara, 2014). Given its addictive properties, it might be difficult for some students to stop using the Internet when they get to class. We did not directly measure Internet addiction in our study, but found that students used the Internet regardless of intelligence, motivation, or interest in the class material (Ravizza, Uitvlugt and Fenn, 2017).

Despite the perils of distraction it makes sense to ask: could the benefits of using a laptop outweigh the potential problems? To answer this question, we measured how much time was spent on class-related Internet use. For example, students sometimes browsed for a term such as “classical conditioning”, a topic which was discussed in class. We found that this type of classroom use was unrelated to final exam score (Ravizza, Uitvlugt, & Fenn, 2017). Using the Internet to directly augment classroom learning did not help the student although it did not hurt them either.

Should technology be used in the classroom?

There are potential benefits of technology use such as laptops in the classroom. Results from research have suggested, for instance, that technology provides a less intimidating way for students to participate in class by allowing them to perform activities such as Tweeting questions to the instructor (Dunlap & Lowenthal, 2009). A laptop or Smartphone is not necessary, however, to encourage participation in class. Devices such as iClickers also allow all students to answer questions without having to raise their hands and do not require students to bring a laptop to class.

Most research on Internet use in the classroom has focused on a lecture-based format. There are courses, however, in which technology may be integrated into the class structure. Some instructors, for example, might encourage Internet research in class to augment small group discussion. Similarly, instructors might mandate that students access on-line learning demonstrations or adaptive quiz technology while in class. Even in such cases, where technology is assumed to enrich learning, there is no guarantee that students are using their computers for the intended purpose. In a high school class focusing on Microsoft Word and Excel certification, for example, the student co-author of this piece (JA), observed other students playing on-line games during class. These types of distractions are just as prevalent at the college level.

Handwritten notes and a related drawing on a lined notebook page
[Image: Ann Althouse,, CC BY-NC 2.0,]
Unfortunately, for many classes, the costs of bringing a laptop to class may ultimately be higher than the potential benefit. In addition to the potentials for distraction discussed above, using a word processor to type notes is not as beneficial for learning as writing notes by hand. Hand writing notes forces the student to summarize, engaging their mind in trying to extract important ideas from the lecture. This deeper processing results in better learning (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). If lecture slides are posted beforehand, students may be even less inclined to engage in summarizing and integrating class information.

Given the abundance of studies showing that poor learning is related to Internet use (Junco, 2012; Kraushaar & Novak, 2010; Risko, Buchanan, Medimorec, & Kingstone, 2013; Rosen, Lim, Carrier, & Cheever, 2011; Sana, Weston, & Cepeda, 2013; Wood et al., 2012), I actively dissuade students from bringing their laptop to class. If students bring their laptop, I ask them to sit in the back so that they will not distract other students who can see their screens (Sana, Weston, & Cepeda, 2013). I have also stopped posting my lecture slides before class to encourage students to take notes by hand. Instead, I post the slides before every review session. In my evaluations, students commented that I went too fast for them to take notes by hand so, in order for this strategy to be effective, keep in mind that you may need to slow down, to allow students to be able consolidate concepts in their notes.

In conclusion, there is little evidence that the benefits of bringing a laptop to class outweigh the costs to note-taking and attention in a typical lecture-based class.


Susan Ravizza is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Michigan State University. Her work on Internet use in the classroom is funded by an NSF Early Career Development grant #1149078 and is part of a larger research program concerned with how people use their working memory efficiently.

Julien Azar is a student in high school. He has insight into the effects of portable devices in the classroom as he has attended some schools where portable devices have been encouraged and others where they were prohibited. He brings a Smartphone to school, but only checks it at lunch.


Baddeley, A. D., & Hitch, G. (1974). Working memory.Psychology of learning and motivation,8, 47-89.

Dong, G., DeVito, E. E., Du, X., & Cui, Z. (2012). Impaired inhibitory control in ‘Internet addiction disorder’: A functional

magnetic resonance imaging study. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 203, 153–158.

Drews, F. A., Pasupathi, M., & Strayer, D. L. (2008). Passenger and cell phone conversations in simulated driving.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied,14(4), 392.

Dunlap, J. C., & Lowenthal, P. R. (2009). Tweeting the night away: Using Twitter to enhance social presence.Journal of Information Systems Education,20(2), 129.

Junco, R. (2012). In-class multitasking and academic performance. Computers in Human Behavior, 28, 2236–2243.

Kraushaar, J. M., & Novak, D. C. (2010). Examining the affects [sic] of student multitasking with laptops during the lecture. Journal of Information Systems Education, 21, 241–251.

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.

Ravizza, S.M., Uitvlugt, M. G., Fenn, K. M. (2017). Logged In and Zoned Out: How Laptop Internet Use Impacts Classroom Learning. Psychological Science, 28(2), 171-180.

Risko, E. F., Buchanan, D., Medimorec, S., & Kingstone, A. (2013). Everyday attention: Mind wandering and computer use during lectures. Computers & Education, 68, 275–283.

Rossett, A., & Mohr, E. (2004). Performance support tools: Where learning, work, and results converge.T AND D,58(2), 34-39.

Sana, F., Weston, T., & Cepeda, N. J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers & Education, 62, 24–31.

Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips.Science,333(6043), 776-778.

Turel, O., He, Q., Xue, G., Xiao, L., & Bechara, A. (2014).Examination of neural systems sub-serving Facebook “addiction.” Psychological Reports: Disability & Trauma, 115, 675–695.

Wood, E., Zivcakova, L., Gentile, P., Archer, K., De Pasquale, D., & Nosko, A. (2012). Examining the impact of off-task multi-tasking with technology on real-time classroom learning. Computers & Education, 58, 365–374.

Making that Horse Drink: Using Persuasion Principles to Influence Student Behavior

July 10, 2017

By Christie Cathey

A Team Approach to Teaching Introductory Psychology

Those of us who teach Introductory Psychology at Missouri State University work closely together as a team of five full-time faculty members. Although we each have our own assigned section with 300 students, the course is highly standardized, and we all share a common syllabus. The team meets together weekly to talk about how our classes are going, brainstorm new class demonstrations and activities, and come up with solutions to the problems we encounter. We’ve tried to structure the course to help our students not only master the course content, but also become more effective learners in all their college classes. (1)

Focus on Study Skills

We spend a lot of time trying to help students develop better study skills, and much of this focus happens at midterm. We time this attack on study skills at midterm, because while many freshmen enter college with ineffective study skills, they don’t necessarily realize that they need better ones until they’ve received a few rounds of feedback on their performance. (2)

Midterm Meetings for Struggling Students

One particular study skills intervention focuses on students who are underperforming at midterm. We email each of our students with grades of ‘D’ or ‘F’ and invite them to meet with us one-on-one to discuss their course performance and to help them devise a more effective study plan for the rest of the semester. During these individual meetings, we give students a “prescription sheet” and have them write down their plan of action with a list of the specific study strategies we discussed.

Our email invitation contains a link to our YouCanBook.Me page and encourages students to sign up for a meeting within the next two weeks. Incidentally, if you’re not familiar with YouCanBookMe, you should check it out. It’s free, very user-friendly, and when students sign up, appointments go directly to your calendar. We think it’s a real life-changer.

Meetings Help!

Over several semesters, we tracked attendance at these midterm meetings and students’ subsequent performance. We found that students who met with us show more improvement by the end of the semester compared to those who didn’t. Obviously, there could be self-selection bias at work here – more motivated students are probably those who are more likely to come see us -- but still, we’re convinced these meetings really helped.

Still image of Tom Cruise's character Jerry McGuire with the caption, "Help me help you."

Non-Stellar Attendance Rates

Given the presumed value of midterm meetings, it frustrated us that so few of the D/F students we emailed (typically around 25%) actually came to see us. Our frustrations about our low attendance rates led us to spend a lot of time in team meetings wringing our hands, muttering stuff like “You can lead a horse to water…,” and fantasizing about grabbing certain students by the shoulders and shaking them while channeling our very best Jerry McGuire.

Using Persuasion Principles to Improve Meeting Attendance

At some point, though, it occurred to us that as psychologists, we should know a thing or two about influencing behavior. There had to be a way we could use what we know about human psychology to manipulate students into doing what’s best for them, and what better place to look than to the work of the great Cialdini, social psychology’s persuasion guru. Surely we could use one of his principles of persuasion for good. But which?

The Six Principles of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini - 1) Liking, 2) Reciprocity, 3) Social Proof, 4) Commitment and Consistency, 5) Authority, 6) Scarcity

The Principle of Scarcity

We began with the principle of scarcity. This technique seems to work well for QVC. Tell an at-home audience that there are only a few mauve sweaters left, and the phones magically light up with calls from people who suddenly can’t live without one. Surely the same would work on our students, right?

That semester, we sent two versions of an email inviting D/F students to meet with us. One version, our control, was the standard invitation. The scarcity condition email contained an additional sentence that suggested that meeting times with us were in short supply.

“These meetings times fill quickly, so be sure to sign up for an appointment as soon as you can.”

Sadly, while the principle of scarcity might motivate people to buy ugly sweaters, it didn’t seem to move our students – there was absolutely no difference between conditions.

Manipulating Social Proof

A few semesters later, we decided to try again – this time with the principle of social proof. The idea behind social proof is that when people are unsure about how to behave in a given situation, they look to similar others and model their own behavior after those people.

For example, Cialdini and colleagues found that simply hanging signs in hotel rooms that say that most other guests reuse their towels leads guests in those rooms to be more likely to reuse their own towels. This really struck us as the perfect principle to try next, because after all, what should be more persuasive to the typical 18-year-old than information about what other 18-year-olds are doing?

Three Email Conditions

For this new attempt at persuasion, we sent three versions of our email to D/F students at midterm. Once again, we had the standard, control invitation to meet. A second version of the email included one additional sentence, which was our manipulation of social proof:

Last semester, more than 60 students took us up on this offer for help.

Note that this number was technically true (when we combined attendance numbers across all sections of the course from the prior semester). Our IRB was fine with this slight deception.

A third version was our attempt to manipulate students’ perceptions about the likely outcome of meeting with us. The additional sentence in this version told the truth:

Of the people who came to meet with us last semester, 83% of them improved their grade by at least one letter.


Once again, we tracked meeting attendance, and this time, we found something really interesting. There was no difference in the attendance rates between students in the control group (22% attended) and the outcome focus group (28% attended), and these rates were similar to what we typically see. However, among students in the social proof condition, a whopping 43% came to meet with us.

Other Applications of Social Proof

The most surprising thing about these findings is that students seem to be more influenced by information about what other students do than by how a particular behavior is likely to pay off for them. This really seems to highlight the value of using information about peer behavior for good, and there are likely many other possible applications of this simple, but seemingly effective, manipulation of social proof to positively influence students’ academic behaviors.

For example, our team’s next move will be to see if we can use social proof information to increase student attendance at the Introductory Psychology help desk in our library that’s staffed by our course’s undergraduate learning assistants. We also have a colleague at a community college in Texas who’s attempting to use social proof to increase attendance at optional Supplemental Instruction sessions.

Being Mindful of Subtle Uses of Social Proof

After considering the influential power of the things we say to students about their peers’ behaviors, it occurred to us that perhaps we unknowingly convey that sort of information all the time. Perhaps it can sometimes have bad consequences.

For example, what about those times when we tell classes about their collective bad behavior in order to motivate them? We’ve all likely said things to classes like, “Not many of you have started this week’s assignments yet.” Given what we know about social proof, shouldn’t such messages actually serve to decrease the behavior we want to see? It seems we’d be much more likely to change behavior if we were to say to a class (even if it’s a white lie), “I’m so happy to see how many of you have already started on this week’s assignment.”

I used to try to convince my students that I truly wanted to see them in my office hours by telling them how lonely I get when no one comes by. I see now that I was likely driving students away by suggesting that not coming is the norm.

As teachers, it might be worth being mindful of how easily we seem to be able to sway students’ behavior (for good or for bad) with subtle changes in wording, especially when those words convey information about how other students behave. So consider putting a positive spin on things when you talk to your classes about typical student behavior. The perceived social pressure might be good enough for them to rise to the occasion and engage in the behaviors that will help them most!


Christie Cathey received her BA from Hendrix College and her PhD in Social Psychology from the University of Connecticut. She’s held faculty positions at Missouri Southern State University and Ozarks Technical Community College and was a visiting professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. She is currently a faculty member at Missouri State University where she is Coordinator for Introductory Psychology. In her free time, she enjoys dominating her opponents in spicy food eating competitions.


(1) For details on how we redesigned our course, its current structure, and the resulting outcomes in student performance, success rates, and course perceptions, see Hudson, Whisenhunt, Shoptaugh, Visio, Cathey and Rost (2015).

(2) For details on an optional study skills class we offer at midterm, see Cathey, Visio, Whisenhunt, Hudson, and Shoptaugh (2016).


Cathey, C.L., Visio, M.E., Whisenhunt, D.L., Hudson, D.L., & Shoptaugh, C.F. (2016). Helping when they are listening: A midterm study skills intervention for Introductory Psychology. Psychology Teaching and Learning, 15(3), 250-267.

Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. New York: Collins.

Hudson, D.L., Whisenhunt, B.L, Shoptaugh, C.F., Visio, M.E., Cathey, C., & Rost, A.D. (2015). Change takes time: Understanding and responding to culture change in course redesign. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1(4), 255-268.

Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R.B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35, 472-482. 

Making Introductory Psychology “Super Better”

June 28, 2017

By Sara Finley


Introductory Psychology is a Platform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incorporating Super Better into Intro Psych

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

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

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

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

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

 Positive Outcomes

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


A sample screen from the SuperBetter app

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

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

Future Plans

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

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

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

Important Links:


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

Stimulating Curiosity Using Hooks

June 7, 2017

By Kentina Smith

Our Biggest Rival for Student Attention

A student sits at a desk using a cell phone hidden behind a textbook.
Image: Intel Free Press,, CC BY-SA 2.0,]

What are students doing in the back of your classroom?

If you’ve taught a class in the past decade you’ve no doubt experienced the infamous long eye-glaze or students’ constant glances to their laps and casual slumping behind a strategically placed purse or backpack. All of this in an effort to conceal something deemed a higher priority or more appealing than course content for the day – cell phone use.

There’s no getting around the fact that cell phone use is an integral part of our students’ daily activity. But cell phone use, unrelated to active class participation, can present a challenge in the educational environment and the process of learning. However, it also provides valuable insight into what interests our students and how we can engage them with course content.

Emotional Student Engagement: Curiosity

“Being curious can help us build relationships, allow us to become more engaged, be more personally invested, and possibly most important, curiosity motivates us to learn.”  – Sue Abeulsamid

Cell phone and Internet use may seem more enticing to students than the opportunity to learn in a classroom for many reasons. It is interesting and dynamic, offering a variety of ways to interact with information and learn what others’ think, feel, and know about any given topic. But perhaps more importantly for us as instructors, it offers a way for students to satisfy curiosity. If we can engender the same sense of curiosity with course content we’ve got a better chance to compete with our formidable rival.

Stimulating Curiosity Using Hooks

To tap into student interests and curiosity, I use the instructional strategy of “hooks” at the start of each class session. I also use “hooks” in professional development sessions. Hooks are brief lesson content teasers, relevant activities, stories, songs, provocative questions, headlines, current events, images, demonstrations, videos, or case studies designed to stimulate interest, curiosity, and active interaction with information that can be connected to course concepts. The key is to not exceed 10 minutes; 5 minutes is ideal. The hook is not the lesson, it is the intriguing trailer for the lesson.

Being curious is the jumpstart to expanding knowledge, testing out ideas, generating hypotheses, and discovery. Research and classroom experiences suggest that student interest, enjoyment, and perceived value of the content are important factors in the learning process. These factors, along with curiosity, describe emotional engagement in the classroom. Emotional engagement is not a requirement, for student learning but it is worth the investment to create an environment and experience where student input and contributions are encouraged, welcomed and valued.

The Venn diagram represents my basic ideal goals, when integrating hooks in my classroom.

Hooks can demonstrate:

  • misconceptions about the discipline
  • student experiences and interests relevant to connecting course content
  • that content can be applied in a variety of ways
  • the importance of being good consumers of information
  • that diverse thoughts and experiences, and being contributive partners in the learning process is important to awareness of differences

Starting a lesson with an engaging hook is one way to introduce or review concepts students tend to perceive as dull or difficult. Intrigue and accessibility are key components of a good hook. The hook should be challenging enough to stimulate critical thinking, relatable enough so students feel confident they can contribute, and interesting enough to grab their attention. 

The hook should be challenging enough to stimulate critical thinking, relatable enough so students feel confident they can contribute, and interesting enough to grab their attention.

An ideal hook allows all students to be actively engaged, even the ones in the back of the classroom. To further stimulate curiosity, I do the following:

a) graciously thank all students for active participation, but avoid giving any specific feedback

b) move on to the lecture introducing new terms, and instruct students to think about how their responses and experiences from the hook connect to specific terms throughout lecture.

During hooks, when students publicly share information – accurate and inaccurate – my strategy is to thank them for contributions and sort out facts from misconceptions later during lecture. During hooks, I respond with general statements like “very interesting”, “hold that thought, it’s going to be really important to help explain key concepts”, “stay tuned” or “we shall see”.

Here are a number of example hooks used in my classroom.

In my courses, students tend to prefer video clips of popular television shows or movies to connect to course concepts. There are a wealth of videos online. Amazon also offers free trailers online. At times, creating and locating hooks that connect with both students and content takes quite a bit of time and effort. However, some can be as simple as one intriguing question, a moral dilemma, professional scenarios, an image, or snapshot you took to share with students. For a comprehensive list of movies, along with their descriptions and ratings, content covered, discussion questions, and activities, check out the website called Teach with Movies, found at

Some hooks will work well with one class but not another class. I find out as much as I can about all of my students so I can value who they are and what they bring by using relatable hooks. Each student completes an online form, to provide me with the following information: major area of study, interests, and why the course can be important in life, career, or personal academic pursuits. Students and engagement matters.

Bottom line: Curious students tend to be engaged; invest in hooks.


Dr. Kentina Smith is an assistant professor of Psychology at Anne Arundel Community College. Her area of scholarship is educational psychology. She has been in the field of education for more than 20 years and holds an advanced professional certification in teaching. Her experience has involved working with toddlers, managing literacy programming, inclusion classroom co-teaching, mentoring teachers, working with adolescents’ social and emotional skills and teaching in middle schools and college.

For further information, contact the author at Anne Arundel Community College at 101 College Parkway, Arnold, Maryland 21012. Email:


Abeulsamid, S. (2016). That’s a really good question: Start the curiosity revolution. Retrieved from

Carter, A. E., Carter, G., Boschen, M., AlShwaimi, E., & George, R. (2014). Pathways of fear and anxiety in dentistry: A review. World Journal of Clinical Cases : WJCC, 2(11), 642–653.

Linnenbrink, E. A., & Pintrich, P. R. (2003). The role of self-efficacy beliefs in student engagement and learning in the classroom. Reading and Writing Quarterly, 19(2), 119–137. doi:10.1080/10573560308223

Mintz, S. (n.d.). Transformational teaching. In Science of learning: The psychology of learning and the art of teaching. Columbia University: Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Teaching Center. Retrieved from

Smith, K. (2015). Student engagement: Getting 21st century students hooked into your instruction. Innovation Abstract, 37(26). National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development: University of Texas at Austin. Retrieved from

Trowler, V. (2010). Student Engagement Literature Review. York: Higher Education Academy. Retrieved from


How to survive (and thrive) when your institution picks a new LMS

May 30, 2017

By Melissa Beers @mjbeers1 Jenel Cavazos @jenelcavazos

It’s hard to imagine teaching today without using an online learning management system (LMS). Almost all universities use an LMS to keep track of student grades, provide a place for faculty to post documents and resources for students, for students to submit assignments and quizzes, and for students and faculty to communicate with each other. These resources have become almost indispensable.

Fast facts about Learning Management Systems in higher education:

● 99% of institutions have an LMS in place

● 85% of faculty use the LMS, and 56% of faculty use it daily

● 83%, of students use the LMS, and 56% say they use it in most or all courses

● 74% of faculty say the LMS is a very useful tool to enhance teaching

Source: EDUCAUSE [

As technology becomes more and more advanced, companies that provide LMS platforms stay competitive by adding new features designed to boost productivity and enhance user experience. As the market evolves, many institutions across the country are evaluating and switching to new systems. Although it is exciting to have new opportunities and features, this can also mean that long-time users find themselves needing to redesign their courses, and new instructors may struggle to find the answers and support they need.

We both work at large institutions that recently switched to a new LMS (in our case, Canvas). We both rely heavily on many different features in the LMS for class management in our courses, which range from 30 to 2,000 students in both classroom-based and online formats. Now as seasoned switchers, here is our best “survival advice” if you find yourself wandering the wilderness of a new LMS at your institution.

"Have no fear if you find yourself wandering the wilderness of a new LMS. We've got you covered." Melissa and Jenel

Survival skill 1: Adjust your attitude

Most instructors find out about the decision to switch to a new LMS once the contracts have already been signed. Often, we have little to no choice but to go along and make the most of the change. Adopting a positive, curious attitude can have an enormous influence on your overall success in making an LMS change. Don’t be afraid to foray out ahead of the pack, too. If you are lucky enough to be able to be involved in the evaluation and selection process, do it! Although it may mean a few more committee meetings and a little more work, you can be in the best position possible to learn about the options and ask questions about the features that matter to you. If your institution is still in the process of deciding on the switch, volunteer for the committee or pilot as early as possible. You will get the most support, an early start, and you can try out all the features while it is still relatively safe to explore.

Survival skill 2: Navigate to higher ground

A hiker stands high on a ridge and looks at cloud covered mountains in the distance.
Remember that your institution’s LMS is the best way to keep students informed about their progress, and it keeps you organized too! It can streamline assignment submission, grading and feedback, and automate aspects of course and program assessment. Think about the aspects of managing your class that are the most challenging and look at your LMS as a way to overcome those challenges. Do you want to improve your ability to give students feedback? Track student progress and performance? Access better analytics? Think about your “pain points” in your old system and think about how you can better leverage your new LMS to improve the class for your students’ benefit and yours. Even though change may be daunting, the results will be worth it in the end. 

Survival Skill 3: Conserve your resources

The reality of such a huge institutional change is that faculty are going to experience an increased workload (Jones, 2015). Of course, some additional effort is to be expected. As you are planning your transition from one LMS to another, you will inevitably run into some snags and points of confusion. Even with the very best support at your institution, learning to speak the language of your new LMS is going to take you extra time, and you may have to rethink aspects of your course you probably haven’t thought about in a long time. For example, Jenel’s university has sent out multiple transition update emails this past year, each containing various tips and tricks to help faculty learn to use the new LMS. She almost ignored one email that focused on grades, figuring that most gradebooks are the same, but eventually read through it anyway. Luckily, she discovered that 0’s are treated differently in the Canvas gradebook than they are in her previous system, Desire2Learn (D2L), and that discovery changed the way she had to calculate midterm and final grades. Not realizing the difference in advance would have resulted in incorrect grades for several hundred students, which definitely would not have been fun to fix! Even though you think you already know how something works, tiny quirks of each system make attention to detail vitally important. Of course, reviewing all this new information takes time. Consider your time commitments especially during your first semester using the new system - learn how to turn the visibility of different elements of the class on and off so that you don’t feel pressured to do it all at once! You can “publish as you go” (but remember to publish!) Assess all your commitments and if you have any flexibility in when to start using the new system, plan to do so at a time when you have relatively fewer commitments so you can budget the extra time into your schedule.

Survival Skill 4: Orient to your new surroundings

A hiker holds out a compass to get a bearing.
Allowing yourself as much extra time as possible during the transition is not only important for your sanity, but also because changing your LMS can sometimes cause (or inspire) you to redesign or restructure your course. Take advantage of the change as an opportunity to improve your course design. Work with your institution’s instructional designers and teaching & learning centers as you migrate your courses and see where you can improve clarity and assessment.

Remember that students as novice learners in your subject will likely perceive the information you present online differently than you do. Novice learners are less likely to see patterns and connections between different elements in your course, even if these are patterns you as the expert think are obvious (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman, 2010). For example, in making the switch to Canvas, Melissa stopped organizing readings for her Teaching of Psychology course as a series of separate articles, and instead created a content page which not only provided overall context for the day’s topic, but annotated each reading and explained why it was assigned that day. This organization can allow an instructor to integrate readings, videos, guiding questions, and links to assignments all in one place. Very quickly it became clear that students enjoyed the readings more, engaged in more productive discussion, and at the end of the semester perceived the readings as a more valuable part of the class than they had in previous semesters - the readings hadn’t changed at all, but restructuring the way they were presented made all the difference. 

Survival Skill 5: Build sound (and accessible) structures

Face it: when you switch systems you are going to have to rebuild some aspects of even the best-designed course. The good news is that switching systems is going to mean your new system will have features and resources you probably haven’t tried before, and maybe some you weren’t even aware existed. As you are exploring and building your new course, make sure the course you are building is accessible for all. When adding images, make sure you add text descriptions so students using screen readers will understand what an image or figure represents. Similarly, taking advantage of the built-in styles to format titles and headings means students using screen readers will be able to understand how you have organized pages and files. Take a few minutes to caption videos before you post them. Doing these things as you go ensures your course will be fully compliant and accessible to all students - and it’s easier on you to take these steps while you are building rather than going back through an entire course later to correct mistakes! Sometimes referred to as Universal Design for Learning (UDL), accessibility means that your course is designed to be inclusive and will accommodate the widest possible audience of students. Wondering how accessible your course is? Canvas users can run an accessibility check in their course websites. For more information, Ohio State’s Office of Distance Education and E-Learning compiled this handy set of resources for instructors to use from planning a course to assessing student learning, including questions to ask yourself at each stage and resources for support.

Survival Skill 6: Signaling and communication in the wild

Remember, you are teaching in a community at your institution. Better yet, whatever LMS your institution selects, there is a community of other users at other institutions, too. Connect with other users in your campus community, or on other campuses using the same LMS. You’ll enrich your network of support and get some great ideas. Talk with other instructors who have already made the jump, either at their institution or elsewhere, who might be able to give some tips and tricks. Seek out colleagues at professional conferences and on social media - we did!

Survival Skill 7: Lead the way for students

A group of hikers walk in a line on a trail through a meadow with forest and mountains in the distance.
Once you feel comfortable and confident and have your own course successfully transplanted, take time to introduce your students to the new system. Remember, they are switching too! Do not take for granted that all instructors at your institution will be using the LMS the same way as you. Make sure the students in your class understand your intention in the way you have set up the course. Take time in class on “syllabus day” (or post a video message if teaching online) to explain the course set-up, structure, and flow to your students. Consider using screenshots or screen capture software to walk them through where to find what (We both like Explain Everything - Make sure to iron out the most important potential issues right from the beginning - students care most about two things: How to contact you, and where to find their grades. If they can get to you and ask questions, and if they know their grades will work, the rest is generally do-able at your own pace. 

If your university is changing to a new LMS, at first you may feel lost in new, unfamiliar territory - we did! By getting a head start, thinking carefully about course design (not just content), collaborating with colleagues and instructional designers, and staying open to change we are now thriving in our new LMS. You will soon be too!


Melissa directs Introduction to Psychology and coordinates Introduction to Social Psychology at The Ohio State University, courses with a combined enrollment of over 3,000 students each year. She focuses on effective teaching practices, assessment of student learning, and how best to prepare graduate instructors for college teaching. Melissa leads a graduate course in the Teaching of Psychology which, in the last 11 years, has been taken by over 200 graduate instructors preparing for their first teaching assignments.

Jenel is the Introductory Psychology Coordinator at the University of Oklahoma. She teaches two large sections per semester (475 students each) and supervises several graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants. Her research focuses on factors that increase retention in first-generation college students.


Ambrose, S.A. Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., Norman, M.K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dahlstrom, E., Brooks,D. C., and Bichsel, J. (2014) The Current Ecosystem of Learning Management Systems in Higher Education: Student, Faculty, and IT Perspectives. Research report.EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research, Louisville, CO.. Available from

Jones, K. P. (2015). Impacts on Faculty Workload During a Learning Management System Transition. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Walden University. Available from

The Pseudoscience Super-Challenge: Helping students spot pseudoscientific claims

May 10, 2017

By Rodney Schmaltz

One of the goals in my courses is to help students separate good information from bad, with a focus on ensuring that students can spot pseudoscientific claims. This can be extremely challenging. Even after a discussion of the difference between science and pseudoscience, I have had students say, “I understand that the research may not be there, but I’ve used homeopathy and my cold was gone almost immediately,” or “I know that most houses can’t be haunted, but I’ve seen something I’m sure even you can’t explain!" One of the biggest hurdles that instructors face is that many of students’ pseudoscientific beliefs are based on anecdotal, but meaningful experiences. For example, I have had several students in my classes claim to have witnessed some form of a ghostly apparition. From their descriptions, I am usually able to provide a counter explanation for their experience, such as the sightings being due to pareidolia or expectation (Shermer, 2011). If not handled properly, these counter explanations will not impact or change the student’s belief. It’s an interesting example of the bias-blind spot (Pronin, Lin, & Ross, 2002), where students recognize how others could fall prey to believing they have seen a ghost when in fact it was only an example of pareidolia, however, their ghost experience was different.

So what’s an instructor to do? Even the best students may have a belief in some form of pseudoscience (e.g., Impey, Buxner, & Antonellis, 2012). In fact, some research indicates that people with higher intelligence tend to be better at defending their own arguments and worse at accepting sound counterarguments. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, for example, was a strong advocate of alternative medicine. On top of this, if discussions of pseudoscience are not handled correctly in the classroom, there can be a backfire effect (Lewandowsky et al., 2012). This means that the students will remember the example of pseudoscience, but will not remember that this claim is not supported by empirical evidence.

To combat the backfire effect, and to help promote good scientific thinking, one classroom activity that I have found highly effective is challenging students to find examples of pseudoscience on or near campus. I call this, the admittedly poorly named, “Pseudoscience Super-Challenge”. Students are asked to work in pairs and find an example of pseudoscience in under 30 minutes. For extra inspiration, I provide the winning group with the prize of a coffee or hot chocolate at the next class meeting. Students are allowed to leave the classroom to hunt for examples. Upon their return to class, each group of students provides a short description of what they have found, and why it is an example of pseudoscience. At the end of the lecture, students vote for the best example. Based on my personal experience, do not allow students to vote for themselves – this will lead to a tie in nearly every instance.

This activity is effective for several reasons. First, students are generally amazed at how quickly they can find an example of pseudoscience. The examples are typically found in books in the library, or in posters promoting questionable study tips such as speed reading. One pair of students went off campus and found a psychic nearby; others have found “medical” offices that offer energy healing, and one group even bought homeopathic pills from a local pharmacy.

This activity also helps prevent the backfire effect when discussing examples of pseudoscience. The backfire effect is more likely to occur when an instructor does not properly frame a questionable or pseudoscientific claim in the broader context of the warning signs of pseudoscience. Warning signs of pseudoscience include –

  • extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence,
  • a reliance on anecdotal evidence,
  • and an absence of peer review (for a thorough list, see Schmaltz & Lilienfeld, 2014).

If an instructor were to describe a dubious healing technique, how it’s supposed to work, and then tell the students that this is an example of pseudoscience, students may remember the discussion of the healing technique, but forget that it is not empirically validated. Providing students with the hallmarks of pseudoscience and then challenging them to find an example places the focus on the warning signs of pseudoscience, rather than any specific type of pseudoscientific claim.

Students find the Pseudoscience Super Challenge highly engaging, and more importantly, it encourages them to consider the warning signs of pseudoscience (Lilienfeld et al., 2012). Having students present their example of pseudoscience and explain why it would classify as such, leads to fruitful class discussion and an opportunity for students to debate the nature of science versus pseudoscience.

If you are interested in trying this exercise in class, here’s a brief overview:

1. Review the warning signs of pseudoscience with your students. Here’s a link to an article by Scott Lilienfeld and myself on the warning signs: We briefly discuss the Pseudoscience Super-Challenge here, as well as other examples than can be used to promote scientific thinking in the classroom.

2. Assign students to work in pairs or larger groups depending on class size.

3. Allow students 30 minutes to find the best example of pseudoscience. I highly recommend having the prize of coffee for the students who provide the best example. It’s a surprisingly powerful motivator.

4. Once students return, allow each group 2 – 3 minutes to describe their example, and why it should be considered pseudoscience. Students will need to draw on the material earlier discussed in class and frame the example in terms of the warning signs of pseudoscience.

5. Following the presentations, allow the students to vote for the best example of pseudoscience.

6. As a follow-up, tell students to look for further examples before the next class. Challenge them to find a better example than the one that won the prize.

Students are often shocked to see how easy it is to find examples of pseudoscience. This activity is a fun way to get students thinking about the claims the see on a daily basis and to work on recognizing the warning signs of pseudoscience.


Rodney Schmaltz is an Associate Professor of Psychology at MacEwan University. His research focuses on pseudoscientific thinking, with an emphasis on strategies to promote and teach scientific skepticism. 


Impey, C., Buxner, S., and Antonellis, J. (2012). Non-scientific beliefs among undergraduate students. Astronom. Educ. Rev.11:0111. doi: 10.3847/AER2012016

Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U. K., Seifert, C. M., Schwarz, N., and Cook, J. (2012). Misinformation and its correction continued influence and successful debiasing. Psychol. Sci. Public Interest 13, 106–131. doi: 10.1177/1529100612451018

Lilienfeld, S. O., Ammirati, R., and David, M. (2012). Distinguishing science from pseudoscience in school psychology: science and scientific thinking as safeguards against human error. J. School Psychol. 50, 7–36. doi: 10.1016/j.jsp.2011.09.006

Pronin, E., Lin, D. Y., & Ross, L. (2002). The bias blind spot: Perceptions of bias in self versus others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(3), 369-381.

Schmaltz R and Lilienfeld SO (2014) Hauntings, homeopathy, and the Hopkinsville Goblins: using pseudoscience to teach scientific thinking. Front. Psychol. 5:336. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00336

Shermer, M. (2011). The believing brain: From ghosts and gods to politics and conspiracies--how we construct beliefs and reinforce them as truths. New York: Times Books.

Use it or lose it: Why and how to provide opportunities for your students to practice course content

April 27, 2017

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)!


Sample of IFAT card
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 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 (

and create html tasks for students to practice (crossword puzzles, fill-in-the-blank, etc). 

Concept Maps

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,, 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.