Turning Students into Superheroes through Applied Psychology

Posted September 3, 2015

By Regan A. R. Gurung


Sherlock Holmes has astounding powers of observation. Iron Man has his armor. Superman is invincible. Star Wars has C3-PO who seems to know everything. Powers to make life easier abound in the movies. Envious? Jealous of those fantasy worlds? Don’t be. With just a little positive spin, we can provide our students with many powers to make their lives easier. How, you ask? By playing up the applicability of psychology. One of my goals as a teacher is to make psychology, and the introductory class in particular, as applicable to my students’ lives as possible. Let’s help our students see that mastering psychology can actually gain mastery over many aspects of their lives. It is almost like gaining/developing superpowers. Psychology today is well positioned to engage students if it is well presented. A surefire way of achieving increasing engagement and motivation is to play up the applications of psychology. In this post, I overview some pragmatic ways to make psychology more applied.

Hmmmm, expose them to high doses of radioactive materials and hope for the best . . . . or emphasize the daily applications of psychology? [Image: alc990]

Psychological research explores the enormous complexity of human behavior and contributes in important ways to solving a wide range of problems that students will confront during their lifetimes (APA, 2014). These problems include poverty, global warming, international conflicts, prejudice and discrimination, exploitation and violence, depression and dysphoria, child neglect and parental divorce, and even rising medical costs. Psychology can also help answer questions that intrigue many of our students. What in the brain and body make thought, emotion, and even a sense of self possible? How can you be happy, get a date, make more money, and rock that interview? How can you best deal with life’s stressors? In short, psychology has the tools to change one’s life. These topics can fire a student’s imagination; it is almost like spraying them with special rays that provide them with intellectual superpowers.

We can also make Intro Psych more applicable by more explicitly noting that no one area of psychology fully explains day-to-day life. If a student wants to really understand why some people procrastinate or why others work hard, they must learn about many different areas of psychology and how they work together. Many of the most exciting advances in psychology today are emerging across traditional training areas within psychology and across disciplines (Cacioppo, 2007). For example, understanding romantic relationships can involve neurochemical (e.g., oxytocin), social (e.g., self-fulfilling prophecies), personality (e.g., traits), and cognitive factors (e.g., automatic thoughts).

Psychology is the study of people—how we think, feel, and act. As such, it is easy to personally relate to the core concepts of psychology in a way that might not be as true of mathematics, astronomy, or supply chain economics. What’s more, Introduction to Psychology is a primer for life, equipping students with a basic understanding of learning, research, emotions, and social interactions that should prove useful for the rest of their lives.

Making Intro Psych Applicable

There are a number of explicit ways to embed more application into the classroom (Gurung, 2014; in press). I will use the example of my class to illustrate some key techniques regarding design, class dynamics, and assessment.

Application can be integrated into every element of course design and one of the first considerations relates to content. If you plan on covering every single page of an Intro Psych textbook, it will probably leave little time to build in good application. I assign most of the chapters in the textbook (9 out of 14) and spend approximately one week on most chapters. I spend extra class periods on difficult material such as biology and learning, and also make sure there are many different ways for students to interact with the material.

Unlock the inner-superhero through psychology!

I also use application as a form of assessment itself. During the semester I have students perform between eight to ten group exercises (yes, even in my 250 person Intro class). I divide the class up into groups of four to five and give all of them real world scenarios. They then have to generate answers as a group. For example, when teaching Learning, I describe five different everyday situations that feature some form of classical or operant conditioning. Students have to identify the correct concept being used. Whereas this is not a direct test of whether application itself is aiding memory and retention of psychological concepts, it is another way to push application into the classroom.

One of my assessments directly requires application. I often have students write a short three-page paper at the end of the semester. Even with 250 students, I can read over the papers and assign a grade relatively quickly (I do not edit the papers or turn them back), quickly getting a sense of what the student has learned and how well they can apply the material. I am always open to providing more detailed feedback on papers to students who are concerned by a low paper grade. In short, I ask students to pick a topic from life and apply as much as their knowledge from the course to discussing the topic (full directions for the assignment are reproduced in APA 2014).

To highlight applications I also use a lifespan approach to situate the different sections of psychology. I work to show students how what feel like discrete chapters are actually part of a single narrative: the story of human experience through life. Before discussing the syllabus at the end of the first class, I give them a big picture of the semester where I map out the plan for the semester with a narrative. I embed individual chapters and domains of psychology within the story of life. I mention we will start with tools (Research Method), then the biological building blocks that make us human (Brain and Biology, Neuroscience, Sensation) and then start elaborating on human growth and experience. First we are born and grow (Human Development), we have to learn (Learning), remember (Memory) and then interact with the world (Social) that shapes and is shaped by who we are (Personality). Sometimes things go wrong (Health and Abnormal) and psychology can help fix it (Treatments). Student feedback suggests this is a much more appealing first day. Students report feeling more connected to the class and material.

I also put a key question in front of them: “Why should I care?” I tell students that if they ever find themselves asking this question they have missed something about the content of the class and psychology. Throughout the semester I aim to make the material as applicable to their lives as possible and repeatedly ask this question and have students answer it in class. This approach is particularly useful early in the semester when students are not sure why they have to study research methods or the biology of the brain and nervous system. A student may at first be wary of brain structures and not know why they should care. When I then map out how changes at the neuronal level (e.g., action potentials and strengthening of pathways) can lead to structural changes that lead to memory changes (e.g., more recall of material rehearsed with the consequently more often activated pathways), students begin to care more.

Another critical element of course dynamics relates to the delivery of material and how you present information. I use a lot of personal stories in class but also promise students that every story will have a point and relate to class material. Based on the metacognitive concept of self-referencing, my fundamental approach in encouraging students to read is that the basic concepts in psychology are immediately applicable to all of us. If students see the connections between key psychological concepts and life, students will be more interested in learning about psychology and may retain key ideas long after the course is over. Ultimately, what we each remember from introductory psychology are the stories, whether they are told by the instructor or through the textbook. If you can get students to tell stories about their own life using the material, chances are they will remember the concepts even better (Wang, Bui, & Song, 2015).

At the heart of it, the idea behind my approach to teaching introductory psychology is to make the material applicable, something that effective teachers do intuitively. Even if we have to work a little harder to take complex course material and translate it to everyday life, the effort is well worth it. Engaged students make for engaged instructors (and vice versa). Making the material applicable and encouraging students to look for applications of content not only make the course more engaging, but stand to make the course material more memorable as well. Just like the superhero Batman whose Bat-belt has a tool or device to get him out of nearly any predicament, psychology provides our students with many super-tools to apply to their own lives.


Regan is the Ben J and Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Human Development and Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He is passionate about Intro Psych and has worked on numerous national efforts to strengthen the course (see apa.org/ed/governance/bea/intro-psych-report.pdf - and - apa.org/ed/governance/bea/intro-psych-report.pdf ). A social psychologist by training, Regan is an active pedagogical researcher and is co-editor of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning is Psychology,www.apa.org/pubs/journals/stl/. More here: http://www.uwgb.edu/gurungr/


American Psychological Association. (2014). Strengthening the common core of the introductory psychology course. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, Board of Educational Affairs. Retrieved from www.apa.org/ed/governance/bea/intro-psych-report.pdf

Cacioppo, J. T. (2013). Psychological science in the 21st century. Teaching of Psychology, 40(4), 304 – 309. doi?

Gurung, R. A. R. (2014). Discover Psychology: Instructor's Manual (digital edition). Champaign, IL: DEF Publishers. doi: www.nobaproject.com

Gurung, R. A. R. (in press). Give them something to care about: Engaging students in Introductory Psychology. In D. Dunn & B. M. Hard (Eds.) Teaching Introductory Psychology. Belmont, CA: Cengage.