You mean I have to actually APPLY what I’m learning?!

Posted October 19, 2016

By Jennifer M. Knack and Melisa A. Barden

The Application Challenge Project is meant to inspire students to take psychology outside the classroom and apply it to real-world issues.

Missed Connections Lead to a Challenge

We’ve all been there. Staring out into the sea of blank, tired student faces. We tell ourselves it’s the time of day (Too early! Need an after lunch nap!) or the students (Senioritis! Non-major!). It couldn’t possibly be the material, right? I mean, who doesn’t love PSYCHOLOGY! Especially SOCIAL psychology! This material is so applicable and interesting that there must be another reason for their lack of attention. Although we may think that just talking about the material will cause fireworks and lightbulbs in our students’ heads, sometimes we need to acknowledge that our teaching style may need to be adjusted in order to facilitate said fireworks. How can we make the material we cover more relevant to our students and help them connect it to the real world?

This question led us to a brainstorming session while walking on the beach in Florida during a break at the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology (NITOP) conference. Since we both teach Social Psychology, we started sharing ideas to get our social students more involved and invested. We talked about the long history of social psychologists conducting research to understand and address societal problems. We thought it would be great if we could bring this important tradition into our classrooms. As our conversations continued they evolved into an assignment we called the Application Challenge Project where students work in groups to identify a real-life problem and then use social psychological concepts to develop a solution.

Two of the most essential elements of the project are a high degree of autonomy for the students and the requirement to apply social psych in meaningful ways to the world outside our classroom. When students can choose a topic that interests them, they become more invested and engage in deeper learning (e.g., Heilman et al., 2010; Walkington, 2013). Then by challenging students to come up with solutions, they realize the real-world implications and how the course material can truly make a difference.

We have used the Application Challenge Project now for two semesters of Social Psychology and in the opinions of both instructors and students it has been a clear success. So successful that we are inspired to share the idea with you, our colleagues. We’d like to offer key steps and suggestions for implementing this project in your classroom.

1.The dreaded ‘C’ word: Getting students to care!

Our students are at an idealistic age, so when given an opportunity to do something good in the world they’ll usually jump at the chance.

  • We leverage this on the first day of class by showing a series of attention-getting videos addressing social problems (traffic deaths, hygiene, public health, etc.). Then we discuss the purpose of each and the ways they were successful in delivering their messages (catchy songs, emotion, humor). Viewing these videos puts students in the right frame of mind to think about social change.
  • Then on the second day we task them with identifying other current issues that social psychologists might be interested in addressing. We encourage them to think about local issues as well as broader issues in the state, country, and world. The more personally relevant the issues are, the better!

With ideas starting to flow in their heads, it’s time to get them into groups and on to the real work of the project.

2. A little bit of logistics goes a long way

  • Dividing students into groups can be a challenging task. We decided on 4 - 6 students per group so the division of labor would be appropriate but groups would not be so big that students would have trouble coordinating their efforts.
  • Although students tend to prefer to pick partners themselves, we assigned them to groups to avoid a number of typical issues (shyness, pressure to work with friends, etc.)
  • If this sounds like too much work for you, then feel free to allow your students to pick their own groups.

3. Finding a real-world problem: So many to choose from! [Where do we even start?!]

  • We found that students typically generated ideas of problems that are quite large and multi-faceted (e.g., improve people’s health) and needed guidance in focusing their topic to something manageable within a semester (e.g., persuading parents to vaccinate their children). So we created a topic statement assignment.
  • As a group, students submitted a brief one to two paragraph topic/problem statement that explained the importance of the problem and described the major tenants/components of the problem. The problem statement helped students come to an agreement on what they were going to address and also gave us a chance to help students make specific enough choices.

Here are some examples of the questions they chose to investigate:

  • How can California residents reduce their water consumption during the drought?
  • How can police brutality be reduced?
  • How can the stigma associated with mental health problems be reduced? 
  • Are there ways to reduce students’ stress during finals week?
  • How can universities reduce binge drinking among first-year students?

4. The nuts and bolts of the process and the final reveal!

  • With topics decided and approved, each individual group member then conducted a literature search and found two relevant empirical peer-reviewed research articles that supported the group’s topic. In an attempt to reduce social loafing, each group member wrote a short summary (i.e., one to two paragraphs) of each article and how it was relevant to the group’s problem. We made a point to tell students that group members should coordinate to make sure they were not reporting on the same empirical articles.
  • Each group submitted a short proposed solution for their topic/problem. We told students we wanted to see that they had thought critically about the problem and potential obstacles to rolling out their solution. For example, the group trying to increase water conservation wanted residents to be aware of their water use so they needed to discuss how water use would be monitored (e.g., Will residents really check a small water gauge? How often do residents need feedback?).
  • In addition to the written assignment, groups gave short informal presentations in a “speed dating” fashion where one group explained their problem and proposed solution to another group in approximately 5 minutes with 2 minutes for questions; groups then switched roles (the group who first presented their project listened to the other group’s presentation). This format allowed students to practice communicating about their project multiple times and helped students refine how they presented their arguments (or highlighted where additional work was needed!).
  • After incorporating the feedback from the “speed dating” presentation and their written proposals, each group formally presented their project to the class in an 8 - 10 minute presentation.
  • Each group then submitted a final paper that included (1) a statement about the topic/problem at hand, (2) a discussion about relevant social psychological concepts used to address the topic/problem, and (3) a proposal on how to solve the topic/problem.
  • Knowing that some students would be likely to put in little effort whereas other students would likely put in a lot of effort, each group member evaluated the other group members’ contribution to the group as well as their own contribution throughout the semester-long project ranging from 0% contribution to 110% contribution. We let students rate contributions up to 110% in order to account for students who went above and beyond to carry the group. We had students include a short rational for their rating. Students’ final grades on all group assignments were adjusted based on the average contribution rating.
Having student groups go through a "speed dating" type of presentation format really helped them improve how they discussed their topics and lead to better final presentations. [Image: UniPID,]

5. We found the glitches so you don’t have to!

  • Some students have a really hard time narrowing in on a suitable topic and time can be lost if you’re not careful. The topic statement assignment (#4 above) helped get groups on the right track early.
  • Next time we do this project, we plan to give students a hypothetical budget (e.g., $5,000 - $10,000) to help them think more specifically about how they could address the problem.
  • Social loafing remains a problem. Next time we do the project we might have students rate each other’s contribution for each assignment so that it is a more salient reminder that students need to be consistently contributing to their group.
  • Students seemed to put more effort into their projects when they knew someone from outside our classroom would be listening to their presentation (i.e. someone from the university/community who had a real interest in the specific topic). Even though inviting guests took some effort and coordination, it seemed to be worthwhile for students and guests alike.

6. Final thoughts: A project worth continuing

Most students seemed more engaged with the course material and were excited to see practical ways to use the information they were learning about. After one of the small group discussion days when we gave quite a bit of feedback and challenged students to dig deeper into ways to use course material in their projects, one student commented, “I really like this class because we actually have to think. It’s fun! I wish more classes were like this.” We also saw projects extend beyond the classroom. For example, several projects were presented at a local conference, while another extended into a film class and became the subject of a documentary.

Several groups selected problems that were relevant to their anticipated careers. For example, one group of pre-medical students all volunteered as EMTs because they were concerned about the high rates of PTSD among emergency responders. Another group of pre-medical students addressed the issue of parents not vaccinating their children. Both of these groups reported that they learned how difficult it can be to change people’s behaviors and attitudes. They even commented that it was helpful to read the literature and learn how to use what is already available to solve problems.

Most of the projects were successful in meeting the objectives of integrating course material to address a real world problem. However, some groups stayed at a surface level and recycled solutions that have already been used rather than developing more creative or novel solutions. Given that this course is a 200-level course comprised of students across all four years (but primarily freshmen and sophomores), it was not surprising that some projects were stronger than others.

We consider this project a success! In addition to students being more engaged in Social Psychology, students interacted with members of the university and local community and learned about ways they could continue their projects. This project could easily be adjusted and tailored to other courses (e.g., Health Psychology, Cognitive Psychology, Developmental Psychology) to help students engage more with the course material. We hope you’ll consider using it with your own students.


Melisa Barden is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Walsh University in Canton, OH. Her recent research focus has been on the teaching of psychology including the use of “clickers” in the classroom. In her free time, she enjoys watching her 4-month-old develop and spending time with her friends and family.

Jennifer Knack is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Clarkson University in Potsdam, NY. She studies the antecedents and mental and physical health outcomes of being bullied. She has two cats -- Nimbus and Albus Weasley -- and enjoys hiking and going to the beach.


Heilman, M., Collins-Thompson, K., Callan, J., Eskenazi, M., Juffs, A., & Wilson, L. (2010). Personalization of reading passages improves vocabulary acquisition. International Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education, 20, 73-98. doi: 10.3233/JAI-2010-0003

Walkington, C.A. (2013). Using adaptive learning technologies to personalize instruction to student interests: The impact of relevant contexts on performance and learning outcomes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105, 932-945. doi: 10.1037/a0031882