In our experience, students benefit when they have the opportunity to be oriented to a new course. A well-designed onboarding or START HERE module is not only consistent with evidence-based standards for online learning (e.g., the Quality Matters Higher Education Rubric), but it is wise practice in all of on-campus courses too. A robust course orientation affords us critical opportunities to:
describe the ultimate learning goals of the course and their purpose and relevance,
outline the carefully constructed learning path - lined with helpful materials, technologies, activities, interactions, and assessments - that our students will traverse to successfully accomplish these goals,
begin the critical work of building a positive learning community, rich with timely and supportive opportunities for faculty-to-student, student-to-student, and student-curriculum interactions,
convince students that there is an active, caring, reliable, competent, and accessible learning facilitator in the course (and within the institution) eager to help them learn and excel,
ensure that students are prepared and ready to learn, stay motivated, and be productive across the course, and
inspire curiosity about the relevance of the course right from the start.
We are always looking for ways to improve the start of our courses and over time have found several technologies to be helpful, including, for example, annotation tools like hypothes.is and discussion tools like Flipgrid. Today, we are going to walk you thought why we employ these tools right from the start in our courses.
Annotation tools like hypothes.is allow students to collaboratively annotate documents, articles, websites, and other media. The use of collaborative notes in a class offers students a collection of perspectives, ideas, questions, answers, and resources that are more comprehensive than their individual notes might be. The hypothes.is platform has both a free option and an institutional paid option. The free option works great in most settings and uses a browser plug-in or similar feature to add annotations to the web. This option allows you to set up private groups for different courses or sections (or even small groups of students within large courses) to manage students’ contributions and keep their comments private. In some cases, you can use the free option right over your LMS to have students annotate content pages. The paid version has additional benefits of being able to embed into your LMS and does not require students to sign-up for a free account. The package also allows you to add your own documents such as PDF chapters of open-source texts, journal articles, and more. Perusall is another collaborative annotation type platform that is freely available for instructors to assign readings, videos, podcasts, etc., require engagement, and includes elements for grading. A low-tech option for collaborative annotation is also available by having students use comments in a cloud-based shared file such as Google Docs or Office365.
At the start of a course, the use of a collaborative annotation platform to annotate the course syllabus gets students engaged right away. First, this activity reinforces the habit of reading a course syllabus closely by requiring students to make some contribution by, for example, asking questions, explaining something within the text, or providing links, by awarding low-stakes points to the activity. Second, it allows students to begin to make connections in the class. With collaborative annotation, students can see each other’s contributions and respond to them, offering discussion opportunities that spontaneously occur based on student’s needs and interests rather than contrived discussion boards. Students also get a meaningful connection to the instructor by posing questions and getting a response from the instructor. This helps build rapport with the knowledge that the instructor welcomes questions and is there to help the student learn. At the beginning of a class, these interactions serve as informal way to build the class community, particularly in a fully online course. A third benefit is that by reviewing the contributions that students make to the annotations, the instructor gets to see which aspects of the syllabus are somewhat unclear right away. Sometime when presenting syllabi in the classroom or leaving students to review it on their own, students don’t know what questions they have in the moment, or don’t want to ask them. Using an annotation assignment requires students to think about the content more than a surface level skim they might usually take. Finally, if collaborative annotation is integrated throughout your course, annotation of the syllabus is a low-stakes, relatively simple way to get students oriented to an activity and technology they will use throughout in the semester. This also allows the instructor to identify and smooth out any kinks in the process or troubleshoot problems students are having in completing the task. Again, this occurs in a low-stakes environment to relieve the pressure that technical problems can have on activities worth more points.
Flipgrid, a free multimedia collaboration tool, offers an engaging and creative way to build course community and demonstrate instructor presence in start-of-course introductions, as well as continuing discussions and collaborations across the course. For example, rich, multimedia introductions afford students the opportunity to introduce themselves, describe their program of study and career goals, discuss why they are taking the class and what they hope to learn, and share how their previous experiences might offer them unique insights on what we are going to learn together. To make things especially fun and interesting, you might also encourage students to share their pets, family, friends, favorite stuff, or favorite places (and perhaps even offer a low-stakes bonus for being especially creative and fun). Of course, instructors should participate in the introductory discussions and comment on the introductions of others. In some cases, that might mean distributing your time across the first several weeks to respond to each student in a meaningful way. To promote rich, back-and-forth discussions, you can also require meaningful welcome to class comments on the introductions of other learners and (as appropriate) courtesy comments back to those who respond to your introduction with questions. It is especially helpful from the instructor perspective that Flipgrid offers a customizable rubric feature, and you can pin or spark especially provocative videos and select videos for a class mix tape. The introductions grid also serves as a helpful resource to refresh your memory on students before any one-on-one discussions. It’s great to reflect again on their major, career expectations and dreams, and relevant experiences and it helps to show that you are making efforts to address each students’ unique needs and perspectives. Plus, if you want to focus on inclusion right from the start, you can model sharing your pronouns and require students to do the same.
It’s rare that we use one-and-done technologies. Flipgrid, like hypothes.is, can be used across a course. For example, you might:
publish brief videos to update students as they embark on new learning modules,
create a Q&A grid for as-needed back-and-forth discussions,
create a water cooler grid for more personal chat and sharing,
use grids for online gallery walks, jigsaw classroom activities, or other student engagement techniques, and
Over the years, Flipgrid has expanded its features and, as a result, offered more possibilities for the classroom. For example, Flipgrid now offers a Discovery Library with over 35,000 discussion starters from curators across the world, including museums, the media, and more. Flipgrid also offers a robust whiteboard feature that could even be used for online lecture videos. Flipgrid is available as a web tool and as an iOS and Android app. To help students excel in Flipgrid, you are urged to demonstrate how to join a grid, post a video topic, and post comments. Students should be encouraged to have fun and play with some of the many features available, including:
uploading your own video,
applying filters (including some that can be used by especially shy students),
adding text, stickers, photographs, and URLs,
using a frame, and
sharing via a whiteboard.
In conclusion, our teaching philosophies hinge especially on helping students get off to a great start. A robust, fun, and positive course orientation can help make sure all students are prepared to learn and succeed. Ultimately, the technology we share works for us because they align with our learning outcomes and goals. We want our students to collaborate and think critically in meaningful ways and hypothes.is and Flipgrid support those endeavors. However, don’t just take our word for it, try it out for yourself and capture feedback to guide how and if you use technology. But regardless, do invest serious time to thinking about how you help your students get on (and stay on) your course’s learning train.
Dr. Bob DuBois is the Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies and a teaching professor in psychology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK). Bob also teaches psychology as an adjunct online professor at Spokane Community College in Washington. Prior to joining UTK, Bob taught psychology full-time at Waukesha County Technical College in Wisconsin. Bob earned a Ph.D. in educational psychology from Marquette University in Milwaukee in 2012. He has also earned master’s degrees in counseling psychology and industrial/organizational psychology from the University of Texas at Tyler and Western Kentucky University at Bowling Green, respectively. Before teaching psychology full-time, Bob worked as a consultant in industrial/organizational psychology in military and commercial settings.
Dr. Ciara Kidder is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Marian University in Wisconsin, where she has taught for the past 5 years. Prior to teaching at Marian, Ciara earned a Ph.D. in Psychology with an emphasis in Social Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Texas at El Paso in 2016. She earned her MA in Experimental Psychology at the same institution in 2014, and graduated with a BS in Psychology from Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania in 2010. Ciara is the founder and editor of The Novice Professor blog which bring together authors from various institutions and different teaching experience to share ideas, thoughts, and research about teaching. She loves teaching online, open educational resources, creating infographics, Taylor Swift, coffee, her family, and being a Ravenclaw.
Dr. Ed Diener, Noba’s founder, passed away on April 27th in Salt Lake City (USA).
Ed was born in Glendale, California and raised in California’s Central Valley. He attended California State University-Fresno and, in his junior year, married his high school sweetheart, Carol Diener. After completing his doctorate in psychology at University of Washington, the family moved to Champaign, Illinois, where Ed joined the psychology department at University of Illinois.
Known as “Dr. Happiness,” Ed is credited with being a pioneer of research into well-being. For 40 years, Ed investigated the psychological concept of happiness. His short measure of life satisfaction is the most widely used measure of happiness in the world and has been cited 30 thousand times and translated into 38 languages. He also published hundreds of academic articles on many aspects of happiness: the relation of money to happiness, cultural influences on happiness, and the health outcomes of happiness. Diener’s publications have been cited more than 257 thousand times, making him the 172nd most highly cited scientist in the world, across all fields of study. Later in his career he was a champion of well-being policy and consulted with the United Nations and other governmental bodies.
Diener was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a senior scientist at the Gallup Organization. He won the highest awards in psychology including the Award for Distinguished Scientific Contribution from the American Psychological Association (APA) and the William James Fellow Award from the Association for Psychological Science (APS). He served as president of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA), the International Society for Quality of Life Studies (ISQOLS), and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). In the early 1990s, Diener was the editor of the top journal in his field, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. He was also the founding editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies and Perspectives on Psychological Science.
Ed was devoted to education. He was an award-winning teacher and mentor. His dedication to cultivating a new generation of psychologists can be seen in his founding of Noba, an open education publisher that provides free, expert-written materials for teachers and students of psychology. Noba has been used as a primary textbook by nearly a quarter of a million students around the world, representing collective cost savings in the millions of dollars. More than 6.4 million people have visited the Noba website with more than 25 million page views of Noba materials.
Ed was more than an academic. He was widely known for his playful nature and sense of humor. He enjoyed hosting parties with unusual activities such as Spam carving, walking on broken glass, and impromptu speeches. His grandchildren, especially, knew him as someone who would frequently create scavenger hunts, friendly athletic contests in the family pool, and hide money in the pages of books around his home. Ed was also driven by widespread curiosity and a desire to create: he fabricated fireworks, made a chess set, painted, and was interested in genealogy.
He also had a passion for travel, instilled by his own parents on trips to Uganda, Hawaii, and Alaska in the 1950s and 60s. Ed believed that interacting with other cultures was a great education. In 1980, he traveled with his family to Haiti and South America to show his children the diverse ways that people live. Ultimately, he traveled to 70 nations and all 50 U.S. States. In his last week of life, he said “I have no bucket list. I have done everything I wanted to do and am proud of my family. My only regret is that I will leave Carol by herself.” He is the epitome of a life well-lived.
Those inspired by Ed’s life can memorialize him by contributing to Noba. Please send checks made out to the 501c3 charity, the Diener Education Fund:
Last year, I began entertaining the idea of swapping out traditional multiple-choice final exams for oral exams. You read that correctly: I began considering having my undergraduate students do the type of oral exams most commonly associated with dissertation defenses. I know what you’re thinking: “I work at a big university and even my smallest classes have 150 students in them. There is no way that I can make an oral exam work for a class that large.” I thought the same thing when I came across this article (https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1218283.pdf), in which instructors in an anthropology department used an oral exam in a class of ~250 students. Inspired by this team of academics, I piloted a similar exam in an upper-division developmental psychology course of 150 students at a large research institution, and it actually saved time. Here’s how I did it.
First, I want to talk a little bit about the goal of assessment. If you’ve written a multiple-choice exam, you’ve probably caught yourself trying to make sure that the questions aren’t too easy or too tricky. At the end of the day, it’s downright difficult to write a good multiple-choice question that assesses students’ full engagement with the material. It’s much easier to write more surface-level questions that ask students to show what they know. On Bloom’s taxonomy of learning, multiple-choice questions—especially of the “factual” and “conceptual” variety—primarily address the lowest two rungs: remember and understand. What we want, instead, is for students to leave our classes at the top of the taxonomy, with the skills to create, evaluate, and analyze ideas that they learned in our class and take that full knowledge forth into future classes.
This goal can be accomplished through the use of essay questions, which ask students to draw connections between class concepts or to defend a thesis using evidence learned in class. However, grading essay questions can be both time-consuming and difficult to calibrate fairly. Oral exams mitigate both of these challenges. First, because grading happens during the administration of the exam itself, professors and teaching assistants don’t have to spend hours proctoring and then more hours grading. Second, this method can level the playing field where communication skills are concerned because you can ask students to clarify their meaning on the spot.
Here’s how my oral exam process worked. Students were asked to answer one of five randomly-chosen questions that were all provided in the syllabus on the very first day of class. Each question asked them to take a position on a controversy in developmental psychology and support their position with relevant empirical examples from the course. Rubrics were also provided on the first day, so students understood exactly what we were looking for in a strong response. Students were understandably anxious about this foreign testing format, but my teaching assistants and I worked together to scaffold their learning in several ways.
First, at least once every class, I connected a concept directly to one of the exam questions to show students how they might incorporate class examples into their arguments. This served the dual benefit of illustrating what was expected on the final exam and reminding students that studying for this exam cannot be left to the last minute.
Second, for their midterm exam, students were asked to write a response (~500 words) to one final exam question of their choosing. Whichever question they chose would not be asked of them on their final exam. That meant that if there was a question that students found particularly daunting, they could write it up for their midterm to ensure it would not be asked on their final exam. Teaching assistants provided detailed feedback on these responses to show students where they could have improved their answers.
Finally, the last day of class was spent in small groups (or breakout rooms via Zoom) with students working together to quiz each other and strengthen their answers with the help of a teaching assistant.
On the day of the final exam, students signed up for a 3-minute time slot with me or one of my teaching assistants, wherein they answered one of five questions which was randomly chosen for them on the day of the exam. Students were allowed to bring any notes they wished, including full write-ups of each question. Most questions could be fully answered in about 90-180 seconds, so we had a little bit of time afterward to ask clarifying questions or to prompt students to provide additional examples which bolstered grades. Grading was weighted with 80% for content and 20% for comfort and ease of delivery of their material. The entire exam including proctoring and grading took only 8 hours of instructional time. I split the testing load with my three teaching assistants, so with only 2 hours of work each, we proctored and graded a high-level final exam in an upper-division course of 150 students.
This exam format is easily adjusted for in-person and online course offerings. Due to COVID-19, we proctored all exams using Zoom, but this would have worked just as well in an office or classroom. Even in a class of 150, we had only 1 student whose technology failed her during the exam, and we were able to reschedule her later in the day. In the future, I would provide students with a google voice number to conduct the exam by phone and build in a 5-10 minute pocket of time in each hour to make up for lateness and technical difficulties. Overall, grades were higher in this format than in previous years when I used traditional multiple-choice/short-answer formats by about 5%, and students reported feeling confident that they’d retain the material for a long time to come.
After using this exam format once, I can definitively say that I’m hooked! Overall, this was less work for me as an instructor and it required more thorough engagement from my students. Moreover, this exam format helped students to develop skills that translate into other classes and fields of study. This assessment pushed students to form an idea and defend it using scientific evidence, and to communicate their thoughts clearly and concisely. For me, helping students hone that skill while also deeply learning about a new topic (i.e., developmental psychology) is exactly what higher education is about.
Brianne Coulombe is a 5th year PhD student in the Developmental Psychology program at the University of California, Riverside. Her research interests include the development of prosocial behavior (i.e., behavior intended to benefit others), children’s social interactions in school settings, and risk and resilience. When she isn’t working on her research or devising creative activities and assignments for her classroom, you can find her browsing food blogs to find new recipes to try in the kitchen or, when the pandemic is over, practicing acroyoga outside with her friends.
Like many others, my daughter has been attending school online since the start of the pandemic. Although it is not the ideal situation, we all try to make the best of it. I know that many have struggled with this transition, however, dare I say, my daughter loves her third-grade class. I mean, she looooooves it! She loves her teacher, and she loves her classmates. But how? It’s all online! Shout out to my daughter’s third-grade teacher! What is her secret? Could my college students ever express this exuberance for one of my classes?
I decided to investigate to find the hidden gems of what makes her class a success to apply them to my online college classroom. Sure, a nine-year-old is different from an eighteen-year-old, but human connection is universal. The following are tips that I recently learned that you can immediately implement in your online classroom.
Think about what message your homepage conveys
Just because this is college, your LMS’s homepage does not need to be stark and boring. Remember, it is called a “home” page. Make your home inviting so students will want to visit it often! Add a Bitmoji of yourself, use customized buttons and banners, or add images. I love Canva for creating my own designs. One of my students commented that she appreciated the effort I made in making the layout of the course “not boring” because it showed that I cared about my students. I recommend making a welcome video that gives students a virtual tour around the class. Loom works well for recording this, so students can see you at the same time you are capturing the screen. Show your smiling face so students can see the wizard behind the curtain.
Make sure your students know the best way to contact you and what you prefer to be called. In interactions with your students, be sure to use their preferred name, whether in an email response or feedback from an assignment. Canvas recently made this easier by allowing students and instructors to add their preferred pronouns. Consider adding a class wall discussion where you and your students can introduce themselves through video, audio, text, or images. Make it an assignment for students to update their LMS profile with a picture of themselves or a picture representing them. Encourage creativity, so you get to know your students, even in the virtual environment.
If you teach live online, incorporate breakout rooms so students can get to know each other, and you can pop into the small groups as well. Zoom works well for facilitating this. My daughter commented that she has gotten to know her classmates better through online breakout rooms than during in-person learning. She also became friends with new students that she might not have otherwise.
Be flexible and try new things
Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and try a new program or assignment. Without having the in-person environment to do hands-on activities, the course may be a bit dry. Assessment does not have to be just multiple-choice questions and essays. What are other ways to engage students while assessing their learning? I started adding Peardeck to make my Google slides more interactive in real-time. As a bonus, it takes attendance for me and ensures that students are participating. After the class, I send each student the slides with their personalized responses on them with one click. Another program that students of all ages enjoy is Kahoot, which gamifies the quiz-taking experience. There might be a bit of a learning curve at the beginning for you and your students, but the gain is usually worth the initial pain.
Think like a student
When designing your class, make sure it is easy to navigate. Have your significant other, friend, or child walk-thru your class to make sure that it makes sense to them. Trust me, your kids will find this to be a fun activity, and they have good feedback! Hide extra buttons that might make navigating your course confusing. Less is more! You can also apply this to choosing your class’s content, which is why I love Noba. I can pick and decide which modules make the most sense to include in my materials and what order they should go in. I often cut down the modules to make them shorter and more focused for my students while still meeting the course learning objectives. Keep your audience in mind for your particular course on what makes sense to be included. A textbook does not need to be 700 pages to be effective.
So, there you have it. Teaching third grade and college students online may not be that different after all. With all of the physical disconnection that the pandemic has brought, we can try to increase our online connection with each other. For some students, this may be one of the few outlets they have for connection outside their immediate family. Meeting the learning objectives for our courses is essential, but we can help students be more motivated to learn through connection. This process has also allowed me to enjoy online teaching in a new, more fulfilling way. It’s a win, win for all!
Julie Lazzara is a professor of psychology at Paradise Valley Community College, where she has taught since 2009. She teaches primarily Introduction to Psychology and Lifespan Development courses in various formats including Honors sections. She is currently a 2020-2021 OER Research Fellow for the Open Education Group and was recently a 2020 UNSDG Open Pedagogy Faculty Fellow. She participates in professional development whenever she has the opportunity, including attending and presenting at numerous teaching and psychology conferences. She has co-authored, reviewed, and edited several articles, texts, and ancillary materials. Her research interests include the scholarship of teaching and learning, open educational resources, open pedagogy, and emerging adulthood. She enjoys introducing students to the field of psychology and helping them make the connection of how they can use it in their own lives no matter what their major is.
You’ve finished another remote class, and you’re drained.
There are multiple reasons for “Zoom fatigue.” With nonverbal cues delayed or invisible, we can’t tell who wants to talk next. We get distracted by our own face. It’s too easy multitask. But remote classes also rob us of the fundamental human experience of sharing attention with others.
Some background: In social media teaching circles, the conventional wisdom is that instructors should not require students to have their cameras on. This policy is more inclusive (some students have poor internet connections or laptops without cameras). It’s also more private (students should not be expected to share their home environment with the class). For these good reasons, many students appear as black squares during my own remote classes.
I am on board with inclusivity and privacy. But “cameras off” comes at a price. According to University of Tennessee psychologist, Garriy Shteynberg, shared attention is focusing on some aspect of the world at the same time as others. The state of shared attention is instantly motivating. When we perceive that others are also attending to some message, image, or film clip, we more often remember the message, enjoy the image, or react emotionally to the film. People unconsciously and automatically divert mental resources to the things we are attending to together.
Empirical Examples of Shared Attention
In one study, Shteynberg asked people to study word lists simultaneously with a few others. Some participants perceived that they were studying the same words as people who shared their avatar (i.e., an ingroup). Other participants thought they were studying different words. As predicted, people were best at recalling the shared attention words—the ones that their ingroup had attended to at the same time. Shared attention enhances memory.
In another study, people watched emotional videos either alone or with another person sitting on the other side of an opaque partition. Shteynberg and his colleagues found that the paired-up viewers felt happier during happy videos and more scared during scary videos.
A third study, led by Erica Boothby, found that sweet chocolate tastes better—and bitter chocolate tastes worse—when we’re simply sitting next to a person who’s tasting the same thing. These and other studies demonstrate that shared attention enhances motivation, memory, and emotion. It even leads people to adopt new behaviors—they copy actions they’ve watched with others.
Shared Attention: A Tool for Communities
Shared attention is adaptive for us humans because it enables ingroup coordination. If you and I have shared attention directed to some threat, then not only do I know about the threat; I also know that you know about it. Furthermore, I know that you know that I know about it. We can skip the preliminaries (“hey—do you see that fire?”) and jump right into solving the problem. Shared attention leads to common knowledge, which helps people work together.
According to Shteynberg, shared-attention states are common—they occur in stadiums, living rooms, and auditoriums (notably, many places that the pandemic has temporarily shuttered). In such settings, we can activate shared attention by announcing something publicly. In an in-person classroom, I might start the day by activating prior information—reminding my students what WE’ve been talking about. I know that individual students could review such material on their own before class. But shared attention theory suggests an added benefit to these public shout-outs. When I say it out loud, then we all know that we all know. We can jump into class discussion, collaboration, and problem-solving more efficiently.
Shared Attention and Digital Learning
When classes move to Zoom, shared attention instantly becomes less certain because most of the cameras are off. I can make public statements, but the students and I cannot be sure they have landed on all of our ears. Without the assurance of simultaneous attention, our classroom lacks the benefits of certain common ground.
My Twitter friend Dr. Brandy Tiernan wrote her 6-word teaching philosophy as “Learning happens best in a community.” I completely agree. Students can learn individually, of course. But we’re drawn to community teaching and learning because we are social animals. Experiencing our learning with others is immediately and implicitly motivating. We enjoy attending together, in real time, to valuable content, critical perspectives, and novel arguments. Zoom steals that from us.
Shteynberg speculates that shared attention can potentially break down in an in-person classroom, too. When certain students’ attention is diverted by laptops or phones, these attention defectors don’t just distract themselves and the students around them—they also, he argues, interrupt the shared attention of the class.
I’ll wager that certain university administrators are eager to convert our newly-acquired remote teaching skills into larger-scale, potentially-profitable “course delivery systems.” Call me a skeptic: Remote learning cannot replace the uniquely human magic that happens in in-person learning communities.
Approximating Shared Attention in Remote Classes
Since we can’t get the magic back by requiring students to turn their cameras on, what can we do? In my own remote classes, I have two ways to amplify shared attention. (I bet you use these, too, but here’s the shared attention twist.) First, I use regular polls. Zoom’s polling function is a good replacement for clicker questions, which already offer multiple pedagogical benefits for student learning, including immediate feedback, retrieval practice, and illustrating fine gradients of meaning. When you also share the polling results with students, they get to see that others are participating. (And here’s a pro-tip: Set up just one Zoom poll with A, B, C, D, E responses, and reuse it; put whatever questions you want on a slide.)
My other strategy is to use the chat window. Students can answer a simple content question, share their pet’s name, or reveal their favorite team—it doesn’t matter. Shared attention theory suggests that students will benefit just from seeing everyone’s answers flying by.
These ideas can help us muddle through until we’re all vaccinated, but they’re not foolproof. Ultimately, we might just need to hang in there. Next fall, we can celebrate being back together in the classroom, sharing attention to big ideas and to one another.
Author note: I am grateful to David Myers, Christine Brune, and Kathryn Brown for several helpful comments and edits on this post.
Beth Morling is a Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Delaware. At Delaware, she regularly teaches research methods, cultural psychology, a seminar on the self-concept, and a graduate course in the teaching of psychology. She attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and received her Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She maintains a blog (everydayresearchmethods.com) that helps students and instructors find contemporary examples of psychological science in the news. As a board member at NITOP (nitop.org), Beth helps put together an annual conference on the beach in Florida, which helps teachers of psychology network, update their content, and explore teaching ideas. She lives near Delaware with her family, including three sons and an elderly puggle.
I teach Introductory Psychology, and like many instructors of freshman-level courses around the country, I’m required to submit midterm grades for my students. The goal of giving midterm grades is for students, who are relatively new to college, to benefit from feedback about their course progress. Mid-semester is, in theory, an ideal time for this feedback, as there is still time for students to make needed adjustments to their academic habits before the end of term. Although I always dutifully submitted my midterm grades, I have to admit that I was never completely convinced of their effectiveness. For example, what do we know about how students actually respond to their midterm grades? Do they even look at them? Do students with low midterm grades take the feedback those grades provide and adjust their behaviors accordingly? Moreover, is it possible that midterm grades have an unintended consequence? For instance, it’s certainly possible that low midterm grades cause some students enough anxiety that they respond by sticking their heads in the sand and avoid thinking about the course altogether. Relatively little research has been conducted on the effects of midterm grades on subsequent course performance, so we really don’t know for certain how students respond to the feedback they provide.
Intervention at Midterm
Recognizing that merely telling students their midterm grade might not be as helpful to students as we’d like, our Introductory Psychology instructional team at Missouri State University has employed numerous midterm interventions aimed at helping students use midterm feedback to improve their course performance by the end of the semester. For example, we found one-on-one meetings with the instructor to be highly effective at increasing students’ performance over the second half of the semester. Each semester, we would invite all students with midterm grades of D or F to meet with us, and in those meetings, we would look together with students at their grades from the first half of the semester, talk with them about their typical study habits and strategies, and help them devise a plan for the second half of the semester. The student would leave the meeting with a “prescription” that listed all the course-specific academic behaviors they plan to engage in through the end of the semester.
Unfortunately, given our high enrollment (over 300 students per section), these meetings were time-consuming for instructors, and even though we discovered effective methods of increasing attendance at these meetings, still, relatively few students actually showed up. Moreover, we wanted to offer an opportunity for all students, not just those with low midterm grades, to take advantage of the benefits of self-reflection and study planning afforded by our midterm meetings. We therefore devised a new midterm intervention we call “the midterm wrapper.” This assignment takes relatively little time on the part of students and the instructor and can therefore be easily offered to all students, even in very large classes.
The Midterm Wrapper
The midterm wrapper is a quick and simple, online assignment modeled after the exam wrapper (Lovett, 2013). For an exam wrapper, students reflect on their performance on a single exam and devise a plan for preparing for future exams. For the midterm wrapper, the scope of the assignment is expanded such that students reflect on their performance on all components of the course over the entire first half of the semester rather than on just one single exam. That is, students consider all their behaviors and performances that ultimately went into the determination of their midterm grade.
Students first complete a worksheet that lists all assignments, exams, and other course activities with the corresponding points possible for each. This worksheet is just for students; they don’t turn it in. To complete the worksheet, students access their Blackboard gradebook and, looking at their own grades, they list the points they earned for each component of the course.
After completing the worksheet, students open a link to an online survey that contains the midterm wrapper questions. These questions ask students to refer to the worksheet they just completed while answering questions about specific aspects of their pre-midterm course performance. For example, students list their score on the first exam, reflect on how happy they were with that score, examine a checklist of successful study behaviors, and mark the ones they themselves used to prepare for that particular exam. After answering a number of these sorts of questions about specific assignments, students list three things they plan to do over the second half of the semester to improve their performance (or to maintain it, if they’re happy with their current grade) and they tell us what we can do to better assist their learning. We use Qualtrics to deploy the midterm wrapper, because this online survey tool allows us to easily statistically analyze students’ responses. However, for those without access to Qualtrics, the testing feature within any learning management system would also work just fine. (Click here to see the complete assignment.)
Grading is Manageable, and Feedback Can Be Meaningful
An instructor’s method of grading the midterm wrapper can be tailored to the size of the class to keep it from being an overly taxing and time-consuming task. For example, given the large size of our classes, we don’t read through each students’ responses to every question. Rather, we assign grades based solely on students’ successful submission of the online survey; if they submit it, they receive full credit. Our spot-checking of responses has convinced us that virtually all students take the assignment seriously and provide accurate and thoughtful answers, so we feel comfortable not grading based on content.
We do, however, read each student’s response to the question that asks what we can do to better help with their learning and we then reach out to individual students via email, as needed, based on their response to that question. For example, if a student says they’d like help studying for exams, we might write and remind that student of specific opportunities available for one-on-one tutoring with our undergraduate assistants. Instructors with smaller classes might want to go further and check in with all students individually a few weeks after midterm to see how they’re doing with the three study-related behavioral intentions they set in the wrapper. We believe these efforts on the part of the instructor go a long way toward showing students that we truly care about their success and can turn the midterm wrapper into a conduit for meaningful, caring interaction with individual students.
Evaluating Wrapper Success
We were curious to know if completing the midterm wrapper would influence students’ subsequent course performance. We initially piloted the midterm wrapper in the spring semester of 2018 as an optional, extra credit assignment, so we were able to compare those who chose to complete the assignment to those who opted out. We compared these two groups on post-midterm class attendance, weekly homework scores, exam performance, and final semester grade. Though the midterm wrapper takes students less than 15 minutes to complete, our findings suggest it provides quite a bit of pedagogical bang for the buck! Students who completed the assignment performed significantly better on exams that took place after midterm, completed more of the six post-midterm homework assignments, and ended the semester with a final grade that was, on average, 4% higher compared to students who did not complete the assignment.
We recognized the possibility that highly motivated students might have been more likely to complete the midterm wrapper assignment, and that this motivation is what led to differences in post-midterm performance. However, in all analyses, we statistically controlled for students’ performance prior to midterm and still found better performance among students who completed the midterm wrapper.
We were over-the-moon when we saw these findings, as they suggest that a simple, pain-free assignment can lead to notable improvements in students’ course performance; therefore, we now require the midterm wrapper of all Introductory Psychology students at our institution, and we’re continuing to see positive outcomes. For example, we asked students at the very end of the fall 2019 semester to rate their perceptions of the midterm wrapper using a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). Even seven weeks after completing the midterm wrapper, students agreed that the assignment…
caused them to keep better track of their grades (M = 5.35, SD = 1.39, 25% strongly agreed).
showed them what they needed to do to improve their performance (M = 5.50, SD = 1.32, 22% strongly agreed).
motived them to work harder the second half of the semester (M = 5.22, SD = 1.46, 20% strongly agreed).
We plan to do further research to examine which specific aspects of the midterm wrapper actually impact student performance. For instance, is it the process of listing all one’s scores that helps students see where they’ve been leaving points on the table? Or is it devising a plan of action for the second half of the semester and making a somewhat public commitment to that plan by writing it for the instructor to see that makes the difference? Regardless of the precise cause, our research shows that assigning the midterm wrapper is a simple yet effective way for instructors to encourage students to keep their heads out of the sand and to engage with midterm grades in a productive way that leads to academic success.
Lovett, M.C. (2013). Make exams worth more than grades: Using exam wrappers to promote metacognition. In Using Reflection and Metacognition to Improve Student Learning. Kaplan, M., Silver, N., Lavaque-Manty, D., Meizlish, D., eds. San Francisco: Sterling.
Christie Cathey is an associate professor of psychology and Coordinator for Introductory Psychology at Missouri State University. She received her BA in psychology from Hendrix College and her MA and PhD in social psychology from the University of Connecticut. As a student, she had opportunities to spend two years abroad, one in Oxford, England and one in Grenoble, France, and those experiences led to her passion for developing opportunities for students to study abroad. She has organized and led three trips for psychology students to conduct research abroad, including one to China, where the focus was on the study of culture, power, and perspective taking. In 2009, she and her husband hauled their tiny kids to Beijing, China where they both served as a visiting professors at Tsinghua University. When not at work, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two teenage daughters and dominating her competition in spicy food eating events.
Imagine a device that allows you to measure objective behavior using the latest state-of-the-art sensors, a device so powerful that it can measure physical activity, sleep, social behavior, and even attention span. Now imagine that you do not need a large grant, or any funding for that matter, to use this device in your research or teaching. Of course, that device—the smartphone—already exists, waiting to be harnessed as a versatile and free tool of teaching.
Phones as Measurement Tools
The most obvious behavior that smartphones allow us to measure is phone use. The iPhones (iOS 12 and later) now come with a native Screen Timefunction, which shows people’s total screen time, number of notifications, and phone pickups. A pickup captures any activation of the screen even without unlocking the screen. Screen Time also breaks down use by app and app category (e.g., social, entertainment, or information). For Android phones, students can download the Digital Wellbeing app, which provides similar metrics. Instead of phone pickups, for example, Digital Wellbeing measures the number of phone unlocks.
The data can be eye-opening for students. We all know that we use our phones frequently but numerically tracking that frequency, as well as types of use, can enhance self-awareness. This might be an opportunity to introduce research methods, basic statistics or to discuss applied research and behavior change.
Phones can also measure other objective behaviors. The native iOS Health app, for example, measures the number of daily steps, though this function is more accurate when the phone is paired with a smartwatch. Since smartwatches are not as widely adopted as smartphones, it is best to stick to metrics that can be captured by the phone itself. To measure sleep, for example, I have asked students to download the Sleep Cycle app. This can provide useful feedback for class discussions on the psychology of sleep or on health psychology.
Phones as Tools of Experimental Manipulation
In addition to being measurement tools, phones can also be used as a way to manipulate behavior. Both Screen Time and Digital Wellbeing allow users to limit their phone use—from setting time limits on specific apps to scheduling time away from the screen each day. Downtime in iOS and Focus Time in Android, for example, both allow users to limit access to distracting apps during specific times each day. Students can also set regular bed and wake times. The phone will then remind them when it is time to sleep while making it more difficult to unlock the phone. This can allow students to track behavior change and can be a springboard for discussions about psychological interventions.
One manipulation—that students dislike yet find very effective in reducing phone use—is to set the phone screen to grayscale (via the Accessibility settings in iOS and within Digital Wellbeing in Android). Everything on the phone screen becomes gray, weakening the phones’ grip on the user.
Onboarding & Data Collection
By now, it should be clear that you can harness students’ phones in your teaching without any special research apps, knowledge of JSON files, or experience with raw sensor data. In fact, you need no direct access to students’ phones at all. Rather, you can ask students to report the metrics from their phones using whatever survey software you are familiar with. If you are concerned about compliance, you can ask students to upload a screenshot including the metric alongside their report of the metric. You need not code or analyze the screenshots, but this ensures that reporting the correct metric is easier than making it up.
All you need is to take students through a few basic steps to make sure they are all reporting the data you want. For example, Screen Time in iOS can be found under the Settings app. Be sure to instruct students to activate the metrics by selecting Screen Time and then tapping Turn on Screen Time. Ask students to make sure that Share Across Devices is toggled off unless you want the metrics to include use across all their Apple devices.
Students with Android phones will need to first download Digital Wellbeing from the Google Play Store. Note, however, that iPhones’ default measure of screen time is the daily average for the current week (starting on the previous Sunday), whereas Android’s default measure is screen time during the current day. Since students will vary on what time of day they complete the survey, it may be best to ask students to report their metrics for the previous day.
Activities and Designs
You can harness the versatility of measures and settings of smartphones for a range of class activities—from brief class demos to daily-diary intervention studies. Here are a variety of ideas for doing so:
1. Self-report accuracy. To demonstrate inaccuracy in self-reports of behavior when teaching Research Methods, you can ask students to guess their screen time. Research suggests that your students will likely underestimate their phone use compared to the objective measures, which are striking. If your students are anything like mine, they may average 3.5 hours of screen time a day with a modal response of 6+ hours a day!
2.Measurement accuracy and bias. The same demo can be harnessed to teach more advanced topics, such as measurement accuracy and bias. Self-report measures of phone use are not an accurate measure of phone use. Yet, people tend to correctly guess where they stand compared to others because most people underestimate their use. Thus, self-reports of screen time are a poor way of estimating average use, but self-reported and objective screen time could still yield similar correlations with other measures.
3.Research design. Phone can also provide a fun and hands-on way of teaching about cross-sectional, longitudinal, and experimental designs. For example, you can ask students to report their daily notifications as well as their mood. Past research shows that limiting notifications can be beneficial to well-being, but the number of notifications is often positively correlated with well-being. This can provide a fruitful discussion of confounds and the difference between correlation and causation. Having more friends, for example, might result in both receiving more notifications and feeling better. You can then ask students to silence their notifications for one week, allowing you to explore causality. This design can also provide a great way to discuss issues with compliance in experimentation (as students are bound to un-silence their phones at times).
4.Specific topics. You can also use phones to teach more specific topics, such as in Social or Health Psychology. In Social Psychology, you can ask students to set an app limit for their most used social media app. What are the costs and benefits of social connection, well-being, distraction, learning, or productivity? In Health Psychology, you can use the bedtime settings to help students sleep more and establish a consistent sleep schedule. Did their mood improve? Was the effect mediated by sleep? You can even compare this with another condition in which students are instructed to sleep more. Was the phone manipulation more or less effective?
5. Student projects and papers. Finally, instead of having to pick one manipulation from the plethora of options, you can ask students to conduct their own self-experiments. They can decide what features they want to try, seeing which ones work best for them. As educators, we always strive to teach our students lessons that will serve them well in the long term. A self-experiment might just provide such a lesson, allowing our students to reap the benefits of their phones while discovering how to mitigate their costs—long after the final exam.
The ubiquity of smartphones makes them powerful tools in the classroom. This is not to say, however, that every single student will have one—either by choice or because they may not be able to afford one. I approach this issue directly in class by simply saying that students need not have a smartphone to participate in the activity. I instruct those who do not have a smartphone to simply self-report their metrics. It is important to reinforce this message in the very design of the surveys. You can ask students to first report if they used an app to objectively measure their phone use. If they say No, your survey will simply ask them to estimate their phone use. Notice that because all the measures—objective or not—are self-reported, the option of not reporting objective measures applies to iOS or Android users. In other words, to make these activities as inclusive as possible, you should make sure that all students can decide whether they want to estimate or report objective measures. Regardless of how your students engage with these activities, the very existence of smartphone technology presents an opportunity to teach psychology.
Kostadin Kushlev is an assistant professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He holds a doctorate from the University of British Columbia. Kostadin studies a broad range of questions related to wellbeing, from its predictors to its consequences. Lying at the intersection between digital technology, happiness, and health, his research attempts to answer basic scientific questions about the role of digital technology in health and wellbeing, with both theoretical and applied implications. Methodologically, Kostadin’s research aims to elucidate psychological processes as they occur in the field by monitoring behavior and health in people’s daily lives while employing advanced statistical approaches, such as machine learning and multilevel modeling. His theoretical work has been published in Psychological Bulletin, Current Directions in Psychological Science, and Current Opinion in Psychology; his empirical work has been published in top journals, including Psychological Science, Emotion, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and Social Psychological and Personality Science. He has also had his work featured beyond the world of academia in The New York Times, The Economist, and Slate, and covered by BBC, NPR, CBC, and many others. Follow Dr. Kushlev on Twitter https://twitter.com/KushlevPhD or find him at www.kushlev.com
Most psychology majors offer courses in mental illnesses and their treatments. However, as common as these courses are, they rarely incorporate the expressive therapies such as psychodrama, art, music, and dance therapies. Although these treatments have been around for years and show evidenced-based efficacy, they are often considered experimental, ineffective, or niche. Another reason they are so rarely found in courses on psychopathology is that many instructors do not understand these treatments well. This post introduces art therapy as a common and effective practice that may interest your students. Here, I provide you with the basic instructional points and activities to help you teach about this exciting topic.
Part One: Key Concepts in Teaching Art Therapy
What Is Art Therapy?
Art therapy has become more common, and earned a better reputation, because of its role in helping veterans cope with PTSD over the last two decades. Still, even though it has been an established field since the 1950’s, many people are surprised that it even exists. It often elicits a mix of responses from curiosity (“What is art therapy?”) to confusion (“So, you are doing therapy with artists?”) and even, sometimes, alarm (“I can’t even draw a straight line!”). Sometimes, the very mention of art therapy evokes what we call art trauma—childhood memories of being chastised for coloring outside of the lines or ridiculed for trying to draw something realistically. You might consider opening a lesson on art therapy by having students discuss or write about their experiences with art and how these have affected their own attitudes toward self-expression.
Who Is Art Therapy For?
Because making art is often associated with childhood memories it is commonly assumed that art therapy is for children. Indeed, it is. It is also for teens, adults, seniors, couples, families, people coping with addiction, trauma, stress, depression, anxiety, developmental delays, chronic physical conditions, or even people who are well but want to be even better. In essence, art therapy is really for anyone who wants to be happier and improve the quality of their lives.
Why Art Therapy?
The rationale behind art therapy is two-fold. First, making art is, in and of itself, an experience. Whereas talk therapies use discussion to talk about life experiences art therapy uses art to create an experience in the moment. That, in and of itself, is healing. In addition, making art often induces a flow state, a sense of relaxation, shifts in attention, catharsis, and a sense of self-efficacy. This is true even for people who are not artists or do not think of themselves as creative.
Second, art communicates. We are all familiar with the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Indeed, making art activates parts of the brain that are not used at other times. Artwork, no matter how rudimentary it might be, provides a visible glimpse into the maker’s internal world.
Art is also metaphorical, and one of the benefits of working with metaphor in a clinical setting is that these abstractions provide emotional distance from problems. They also provide an entry point for conversation between the client and the therapist. For example, instead of directly discussing abuse or feelings of depression, therapists can explore metaphors that emerge in the artwork of clients who are struggling with these issues, such as “being attacked by a bear” or “dark clouds”.
Healing or Insight?
These two distinct aspects of art—its experiential nature and its communicative nature—give rise to an interesting choice for art therapists. On the one hand, they can employ art as a mechanism for healing. For example, when working with patients who suffer chronic pain, the therapist might introduce art as an attentional distraction. The therapist might do the same with children with ADHD; using the art process to channel energy, enhance focus, and encourage a sense of mastery. When working with someone with anxiety, we might use coloring or the pottery wheel to induce flow and increase relaxation. The evocative colors and fluid nature of paints can help people express and release strong feelings.
On the other hand, there are times when they want to help their clients learn something new and different about themselves and the situations they face. In this instance, art can be used to promote personal insight. For example, if a therapist is working with a client who is struggling with frustration and anger, she might have the client explore and articulate her feelings through color, line, shape, and symbol (see Image 2 for an example). Using the artwork as the source for a therapeutic discussion, this approach can uniquely reveal the internal workings of a psychological experience.
There are also formal assessments that art therapists can use to promote client insight. For example, if a client complains of feeling stuck in her life, the therapist can use the Bridge Drawing assessment (Hayes & Lyon, 1981). In this exercise, clients are asked to draw a bridge and place themselves somewhere in the picture. This offers a glimpse into their self-perception and their interpretation of their challenges and resources. It can also provide a foundation for a discussion about managing these challenges.
You can see an example of the bridge activity in Image 3 in which a client in substance abuse treatment drew himself smiling under a shining sun. You can use this image to ask your students what types of questions they might ask such a client. Possibilities include the lack of foundation on the sunny side of the picture, curiosity about the placement of the person in the picture, the figure’s relationship to the bridge, and/or the direction and quality of the marks in the different sections of the picture.
What Is the Difference Between Using Art In Therapy and Art Therapy?
Many mental health professionals—social workers, psychologists, and counselors—
use art in their work. What differentiates art therapy from these practices is subtle but significant. Art therapists are trained to combine psychological principles with in-depth understanding of the creative process and art media and use that knowledge as the primary instrument for change.
Usually, art therapists train within a particular theoretical orientation, such as Adlerian or cognitive-behavioral, and then focus their work on how the creative process interfaces with that specific approach. In other words, art therapists are trained like many mental health professionals: their theoretical orientation governs how they conceptualize the cause and experience of mental illness, and how they approach its treatment.
Part Two: How to Teach Your Students About Art Therapy
To understand how art affects psychological states, students need to do art themselves! Begin by announcing to your class that they are going to draw. They may experience some distress if they do not identify as artistic or even if they do. This parallels what usually occurs with our clients—non-artists are worried they’ll make something childish and artists believe they have to make something beautiful. You can use these initial responses as an opportunity for small group discussion such as prompting students to discuss A) how facing the discomfort of making art in the therapy room might be helpful for someone facing challenges in life?, or B) If you were an art therapist working with a client who was nervous about getting the art “right” what might you say to him or her? After the discussion, introduce the drawing activity.
Exercise: Scribble Drawings
The Scribble Drawing exercise (Cane, 1951), encourages students to find an image in a random design. With eyes open or closed, they draw scribbles marks (you can also make a template such as Image 7 and copy it). After looking at their scribble from different angles, they find and develop an image. This serves to stimulate creativity and to awaken different parts of the mind.
Once your students have completed their scribble responses, you can have them form small groups and share their responses to the exercise. When working with your students and—by extension—with clients, discourage them from evaluating their own or their fellow classmates’ artwork (“Mine is so childish!” or “Yours is so beautiful!”) and from jumping into analyzing its meaning. Your students, again just like clients, will have a natural tendency to prize scribble responses that seem clever, more realistic, or are visually striking. Instead, encourage the small groups to focus on the process (what was it like for you to find an image in the scribble?) and what meaning they, themselves, derive from their image.
The Art Therapy Term Paper
Finally, if you are an instructor of a course that deals with mental illness or its treatment, consider offering art therapy as a potential topic for a term paper. This will give students interested in expressive therapies permission and opportunity to follow their curiosity. They (and you!) can learn more about art therapy using the resources below:
Brandoff, R. & Thompson, A. (2019). Quick and Creative Art Projects for Creative Therapists with (Very) Limited Budgets. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Cane, F. (1951). The Artist in Each of Us. Craftsbury Common, VT: Art Therapy.
Darewych, O. (2020, in press). Positive Psychology Art Activities. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
American Art Therapy Association. (2017). Ethical considerations regarding the therapeutic use of art by disciplines outside the field of art therapy.
Hays, R. & Lyon, S. (1981). “The bridge drawing: A projective technique for assessment in art therapy.” The Arts in Psychotherapy, 8(4), 207–217.
Wilkinson, R.A., & Chilton, C. (2018). Positive Art Therapy Theory and Practice: Integrating Positive Psychology and Art Therapy. London: Routledge.
Rebecca Wilkinson, MA, ATR-BC, LCPAT is Licensed, Registered, and Board Certified art therapist. She is co-founder of Creative Wellbeing Workshops, LLC which provides individuals and organizations with training and resources for managing stress, preventing burnout and increasing wellbeing. She is co-author with Gioia Chilton, PhD, ATR-BC, LCPAT of Positive art therapy theory and practice: Integrating positive psychology to art therapy and teaches on the topic at the George Washington University’s Graduate Art Therapy Program. She is a visiting Wellness Counselor/Art Therapy Specialist at Miraval Resorts in Arizona and author/illustrator of The Miraval Mandalas Coloring Book. She can be reached at [email protected].
Organic chemistry. Differential equations. Statistics. It’s common to hear about dread courses for students and the effects they have on student learning and self-efficacy. But let’s introduce two other terms: accessibility and accommodations. Although ultimately good things, these words have sort of become “dread subjects” for teachers and university faculty. In some ways they have become buzz words that carry little meaning, but they’re also words with a great weight attached. When talking about accessibility, I merely mean ensuring your content is usable by students. Accommodations refer to anything you provide to students to make content accessible. Barriers to accessibility include (but certainly aren’t limited to) problems with one of the five senses (particularly sight or sound), hyperactivity or behavioral disorders, or other psychological disorders such as depression. Accommodations would consist of things like making sure your online content can be read by a screen reader, upping the size of your font in presentations and handouts, and offering alternative assignments to students who may struggle with an in- or out-of-class activity. We’ll go into specifics later.
A question I’ve heard asked in a lot of discussions is: Why now? Why are these needs revealing their faces all of a sudden? Truth be told, these needs have always existed, they’re just now getting the attention they deserve. Students who would have previously been cast out of school or dropped out because they felt inadequate are now receiving attention and have opportunities to succeed that they deserve. Before we go on, it’s important to differentiate two different needs for accommodations (and discuss why they lead to the same outcome). There can be state or trait needs for accommodation. Because of this, your entire class should be accessibility-friendly regardless of whether you’ve had contact with Disability Services (or your university’s equivalent) about a particular student in class. A trait need for accommodation would be a documented disorder (either physical or psychological) where a student has contacted Disability Services and gathered the appropriate paperwork. Trait needs are usually accounted for but not always. Sometimes students don’t know who to contact in order to receive accommodations or have a fear about revealing their condition and decide to suffer silently. Either way, it’s not unreasonable to assume you have a student who could be registered for Disability Services and isn’t. But not all needs are documented or lifelong. There are also state needs for accommodations. Sometimes students don’t have a condition, but something temporarily comes up in their life where they would require the same accommodations as someone with a trait need. For instance, let’s say someone gets an eye or an ear infection and has trouble with vision or hearing respectively. They would now require accommodations that students with sight/hearing problems have but would have no way to get that approved in a reasonable amount of time. Thus, it is critical that you make as few assumptions about the ability of your students as possible.
Needs can take on many forms, but I believe this is best demonstrated through analogy. Imagine you are on a construction site and are tasked with painting the side of a two-story building. You will need to use a scaffold to work on some part of the building. Let’s say that the scaffolding your boss provided doesn’t have a ladder and you are thus prevented from doing your work. You try jumping to the ledge to pull yourself up but are unable to do so after several attempts. At the end of the day, your boss comes by and sees that no work was done and decides to write you up. How unfair! You could have easily done the work if you could simply reach the proper height, and it’s not fair for your boss to punish you when the equipment they provided was insufficient. You bring this issue to your union and they go and ensure this doesn’t happen in the future: all scaffolding equipment must either have a ladder or something built-in that allows you to climb up to your needed workspace. What if a fellow employee—a brilliant painter—was unable to climb the ladder that worked for you? Perhaps the bars were too skinny and they have an injured foot or a motor control problem that makes climbing up that specific ladder dangerous. Should they be written up? The easy answer here is no, they should also approach the union and see if there’s anything they can do to allow them to reach the needed height to perform their work. It wouldn’t make sense for your boss to get upset that they needed a different ladder any more than it would be for them to be upset you needed a ladder if some employees were able to climb up the scaffolding without assistance. This situation may seem implausible, but only because labor laws have been in effect for a number of years and safe working conditions have become the norm.
The employee who could jump up the scaffolding without a ladder represents your most gifted and able students. They have no limitations to receiving or understanding your class material. The second employee, the one who needed a “standard” ladder to do their job, represents your average batch of students. They may go through state needs of accessibility on occasion and would benefit from standard accommodations (e.g., loud videos, instructions on slides for activities). The third employee represents those students with significant state or trait barriers that require accommodations usually sanctioned by your university’s Department of Disability Services. It is safe to assume you have all three types of students in your class. This assumption only becomes more reasonable as societal barriers are removed precluding those with disabilities from attending college. In this case, however, these aren’t employees you’re paying to do a job laid out in advance. They’re students paying a great sum of money to receive instruction in topics that (hopefully) interest them. As such, it is even more critical to implement healthy accessibility practices—in some ways, they’re your boss. Regardless of the need of the individual, modern accessibility practices are helpful. It’s not as if a ladder with wider steps will be harmful, indeed it will help all students. One may ask: Isn’t it a lot of work to make a classroom accessible? The short answer is yes, no, and it doesn’t matter. Let’s take a look at different dimensions of your class and how they relate to accessibility:
Classroom policies and procedures
Do you have a strict “no late work accepted” policy?
Classroom policies are probably the easiest domain for you to change since it requires no work on your end. Refusing to accept late work can be problematic for a number of reasons, including for students who need accommodations. Some students simply need additional time to complete an assignment. One month to complete a paper may seem reasonable on your end—and if your class was the only one they were taking it may be reasonable—but students are taking many classes concurrently and going through a difficult transition period. Couple that with the fact it may take them additional time to write six papers across their classes due to some need and a month may no longer seem reasonable.
Do you take attendance and count late students as absent?
Punctuality is a cultural construct, so there are many potential problems here, but consider a case where someone has OCD and they’re late because their compulsions kept them from leaving for class on time. Would it be fair to penalize them for being late then? What if they were in a wheelchair or crutches? Had a limp? You get the point.
Do you require participation from your students in class discussions?
The last policy involves class discussion. Are you forcing students to talk once a semester? Once a unit? Once a class? Hopefully it’s none of these. If you force students to talk during class (and you’re not teaching public speaking), this can cause trouble for international students and those with anxiety disorders. There need to be alternatives in place—half sheets turned in at the end of class or posts in online discussion boards—that would allow students to earn credit if they didn’t participate in the class discussion. These alternatives also allow you to better assess their learning since they’ve had time to think through their thoughts before putting them on paper (as opposed to extemporaneously giving them during class). This also applies to assigned groups. It is important for students to have agency. Assigning groups is a tactic that teachers should sparingly—if ever—use. It has all the same problems as above, but you’re preventing students the opportunity to find someone they feel comfortable talking to for the duration of the activity (a problem worthy of its own blog post). Classroom policies can be summed up with two words: be flexible.
Classroom materials and distribution
Are your PowerPoints loaded with words? Are they designed with accessibility in mind?
These are big ones. They deal with how your students receive the content they’ll eventually be tested on. If this isn’t up to snuff, the students don’t even have front-row tickets to your class—they have nosebleed seats and aren’t going to enjoy the event. Verbose PowerPoint slides are all too common. Split one slide into three if you need to. A wall of text can be dreadful for students, is harder for them to see (because smaller font is required), and takes longer to write down. If you pride yourself in a 30-slide lecture, but it’s really more like 90 slides, you have a 90-slide lecture. There isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but I usually adhere to the four-by-five rule. That is, no more than four bullet points and five words per point per slide (unless I’m directly quoting someone). That means I almost never have more than 20 words per slide and I often have less than that. This not only makes your presentations look cleaner, it also ensures you can increase your font so your students can see it. Also make sure your PowerPoints have appropriate contrast between the text and background. You can get this checked by a reader online, but common sense usually applies here (read: usually). I prepared two versions of my semester slides and had my students vote on day one: dark background and light text or light background and dark text. The overwhelming majority preferred the dark background with light text. This may not be true for every group, so I plan to take this vote every semester. But never put light text on a light background (e.g., don’t put yellow or orange or related colors on a white background). The same goes for dark text on dark backgrounds. You might be able to see it on your computer. I promise it is worse on a projector. Make sure your slide contrast is acceptable by using a template or by checking it with an online reader (Google “ADA contrast checker” and thank me later).
Are images on your LMS site paired with alt text? Do your videos have closed captions?
These last two situationally require a lot of work. If you have images on your learning management system (LMS) site (e.g., Carmen, Blackboard, Angel), they should have alternative text (alt text). Alt text provide a very brief description of what a picture says/represents so screen readers can read it. This also holds for images in your PowerPoints if you post those for your class. Additionally, make sure videos you present have closed captions when available. Instead of downloading .mp4s of your videos and putting them in your slides, go to the native site (e.g., YouTube) and turn on whatever captioning the website has. This goes a long way for everyone. Whether the student has trouble hearing or not, they will benefit from this practice for reasons described earlier.
Are you providing verbal and written instructions to your students?
Whenever you assign something in class there should be instructions given verbally and written on the board or given in your slides. It is quite possible something you said is unclear and a visual referent for students would save you a lot of clarifying questions. This also ensures you’re accounting for students who may have trouble hearing or seeing. This is an easy habit to develop and one all instructors should work on.
Do you allow students to audio record your lectures?
Allowing students to audio record your lectures is usually good practice. It is possible that your class is a safe space for students to share sensitive or personally-identifying information. I took an Abnormal Psychology class where we weren’t allowed to record lectures because it was quite possible students would be self-disclosing sensitive information during class. That is a nontrivial concern and thus this is situational. You could go one step further and ask students who are recording a lecture to pause before a sensitive group discussion. Recording is particularly important for international students and those with hearing problems, so it’s not a bad thing to allow students to do this when the class content calls for it.
Do you provide rubrics for your students (and do they match the assignment instructions)?
In my experience as a student, rubrics are relatively rare. Whether this is because they take work to create and think through or for some other reason, this is an item many teachers ignore when creating a writing assignment for their students. I don’t believe this should be ignored for a number of reasons (e.g., objectivity in scoring students), but particularly because it gives students clarity who may have trouble understanding your instructions/expectations (students who may need a time extension on assignments anyway). Rubrics should match your assignment instructions to the letter but provide breakdowns on how they’re going to be scored (e.g., are you grading writing mechanics or conceptual understanding more?)
There is no such thing as a lazy student. They may be going through traumatic life events, excessive daily hassles, or dealing with some kind of physical or mental disorder that prevents them from coming to class or accessing the material the way it is currently being taught. The above examples are only a few of many, many ways for you to ensure your class is accessible for students who do (and don’t) need it. They are far easier to implement while your class is being developed, but—with some effort—can be quickly implemented into an existing class. The benefit for your students absolutely makes the workload worth it (and as we’ve discussed, it’s not as much work as you would expect).
At the end of the day, accessibility is here to stay whether you like it or not. You can let it be something that drags you out of the store while you kick and scream, or you can embrace it, learn from it, and let it inform your perspective about the needs of your students (and community at large). Educators provide a service to their students, and it’s one that they—and taxpayers—pay good money for. Attacking these issues early on in course development goes a long way and ensures your students are equipped to receive the material in a way that works for them. Teachers scaffold material for their students so they can learn the material and become better scholars (and hopefully better citizens of the world), but it only works if there’s a ladder.
Jacob Coutts is a dual-degree graduate student in Quantitative Psychology and Applied Statistics at The Ohio State University. He earned his BS in Psychological Sciences from Northern Arizona University with a minor in Communication Studies. His research interests involve advancing quantitative methods (e.g., dyadic mediation analysis) and programming statistical tools that make these methods easy for substantive researchers to use. His teaching philosophy is in the same vein: to make the subject matter interesting, accessible, and personally relevant to students. In his “free time” you can find him at the movies, at the gym, or on the stage doing stand-up comedy. If you want to connect, you can reach him on Twitter or his website at jjcoutts.com.
By Leonard A. Jason, Olya Glantsman, Jack O’Brien and Kaitlyn Ramian
We are in the middle of a catastrophic pandemic that will change the very fabric of our society. Millions have been infected with COVID-19 around the world and nearly a million have died. The elders in our families, as well as those with pre-existing illnesses, appear to be at particular risk. Others have lost their jobs or have seen their incomes negatively impacted. The COVID-19 epidemic has also exposed economic and racial inequalities. For our students, this is a stressful, frustrating, and often overwhelming time. As educators, we have a special role in guiding students through these tumultuous times. We would like to share a couple of activities that use a community psychology approach to navigating these tumultuous times.
Community Psychology, which seeks to understand behavior in the context of individual, family, peer, and community influences, can offer a way to help students begin to heal, comprehend, and communicate about the state of our current COVID-19 crisis. The birth of Community Psychology in the United States was during a period when the nation was dealing with other crises and faced protests, demonstrations, and intense struggles over topics such as the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. Community Psychology focuses on topics that are as relevant today as they were in the 1960s: respect for diversity and active participation of community members, for example.
Faced with the current circumstances, some students will feel called to take action or might wonder how they can make a difference. There is nothing wrong with encouraging students to try exactly that. In fact, you can use the community approach to engage your students in this timely topic while simultaneously teaching about the science of psychology. For example:
To Mask or Not to Mask
Challenge students to consider how they would go about increasing mask use on campus. This will likely feel more relevant to students who attend schools in which students are in residence. For students who are receiving all of their learning in a distance format, you can substitute “neighborhood” for “campus.” This can be done as an individual paper, a group project, or a series of in-class discussions. You can use these prompts to encourage discussion and planning:
How would you go about determining how prevalent mask use is on campus (or in your neighborhood)? How would you find out about student attitudes regarding masks? How could you use research, itself, to shape attitudes?
How might you persuade students (or neighbors) that mask wearing is effective and beneficial? Consider the importance of prevention, evidence, and agency in the process of attitude change.
Consider campus clubs and organizations (or neighborhood and community organizations). After all, they are integral parts of the community. How might you partner with these to increase widespread community involvement with the initiative? What obstacles might you foresee and how might you address these?
What about the school leadership (or community policies)? What are the current policies regarding mask use? How are they communicated? How are they enforced? What ideas do you have for how they might be improved?
Are there groups that might have an easier or harder time with mask use? Might there be biases and/or inequalities even on campus around mask use? What might these be and how might they be addressed?
Now that you have explored ways to enhance mask wearing, there are other behaviors that you can influence among your peers, and these include parties where social distancing rules are not being enforces as well as other settings where too many people are congregating. Can you now think of ways to help reduce these types of risks that students also encounter in both school as well as their communities?
Potential Key Teaching Points: survey methodology, action research, attitudes, social cognition, persuasion, community psychology
COVID is Social as well as Biological
Much has been written about the ways that the current pandemic has exposed racial and other inequalities. Here, you can engage students in a conversation about racial inequalities and then tie these discussions back to psychological science. Use the following prompts:
It is easy to assume that when people get sick—such as contracting COVID-19—they will seek out treatment at a hospital. What do you believe are some of the reasons that certain groups, such as people of color, might have less access to health care than others?
Design a study that investigates this issue (e.g. the rates at which different people access healthcare and the obstacles to doing so). What might researchers learn from conducting such a study? What does this tell you about how research can be applied?
The global pandemic has resulted in a number of “stay-at-home” or “lockdown” orders. This means that people in different housing situations will be affected differentially by COVID-19. How so?
Design an educational campaign to raise awareness about how housing is connected to COVID-19 inequality. How might you use community engagement to improve the effectiveness of this campaign? How might you use the principles of persuasion to do so?
Potential Key Teaching Points: survey methodology, action research, identity, equality, persuasion, community psychology, public policy.
When Greta Thunberg spoke out about climate change her work inspired student strikes on this topic throughout the world in 2019. Students in your classroom might not be able to duplicate what Thunberg did but this assignment will bring potentially abstract psychological concepts to life and allow them to focus on potential solutions instead of feeling defeated or just complaining about problems. Students can be change agents and the current generation of students is defined, in part, by their engagement with social causes (especially through social media).
In conclusion, if you are looking to explore avenues to speak about current events with real-life application of concepts, you may wish to explore some of the ideas presented above. Additional resources, such as the free online Community Psychology textbook or Noba module are great for exploring Community Psychology. Some of the ideas presented above can enhance classroom environments, increase knowledge retention, and empower students to become agents of change.
Leonard A. Jason is a Professor of Psychology at DePaul University and the Director of the Center for Community Research. His interests are in public policy, community building, recovery homes, addiction, reducing stigma for those with chronic health conditions (i.e., chronic fatigue syndrome and Myalgic Encephalomyelitis), and preventing violence among urban youth.
Olya Glantsman, is a senior professional lecturer at DePaul University and a director of the Undergraduate Concentration in Community Psychology and a co-coordinator of the M.S. in Community Psychology. Her research interests include cultural diversity, improving academic environments for students and faculty, community psychology values, and the teaching of psychology.
Jack F. O’Brien is a graduate student in DePaul University’s Masters of Science in Psychology program and a research assistant with the Oxford House Research Team at DePaul’s Center for Community Research. He graduated from DePaul with a BA in Psychology with a Community concentration in 2018. His research interests include substance abuse recovery with an emphasis on recovery residencies; Community Psychology education; and advocacy for ethical practices in psychology.
Kaitlyn N. Ramian is a graduate student at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Kaitlyn earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Community Psychology from DePaul University, where she also served as a research assistant at the Center for Community Research. Kaitlyn has participated in psychological research since 2015 and has experience working with diverse populations of children and adolescents in clinical and community settings.