Doctor Who and Metacognition – A First-Year Seminar

Posted November 7, 2018


A silhouette looking into the distance where a TARDIS stands on a hill. With the words "Doctor Who" superimposed on the image.
From BBCAmerica (Here)

A quote that reads: "Yes, it all started out as a mild curiosity in a junkyard…”The Doctor, The Sensorites (1964)"
Doctor Who and Metacognition?

As a professor at a teaching-focused institution, I am frequently encouraged to offer courses in service areas of the curriculum, such as our first-year program. My general approach when creating these courses is to start with a useful (and hopefully engaging) topic that can be presented through the lens of popular culture. I previously taught courses on the science of a zombie apocalypse (since converted to a summer science camp) and pranking as a form of communication (co-taught with Dr. Paul Muhlhauser–read about it here)(1). For the first-year program, I wanted to focus on metacognitive strategies that students would be able to use to become better learners. That was a topic that I, a cognitive psychologist, felt comfortable covering with a group of incoming students. I also needed to cover some of the basics on how to succeed as a college student and how to acclimate to what many find to be a very novel situation (i.e., being away at college). The goal was to come up with an overarching theme that would allow for the integration of these various topics. At the very least, I needed a numbered list of items (for the demonstration of simple mnemonics) and a story that focused on change. Enter, Doctor Who!

The first episode of the show, An Unearthly Child (1963), quickly establishes its premise and ends with the Doctor and his companions leaving Earth to start their first adventure. I showed this episode for the first meeting of the class during the orientation weekend. I used it to establish the program, but more importantly to establish what the course was going to be–a new adventure in which we would use pop culture to enhance academics(2). I also used a cheesy line about how they would all get to regenerate into whatever they wanted to be over the next four years. I wanted to make sure they knew what type of humor they were in for. It could only get better from there.

A quote that reads: “They call me The Doctor. I am a scientist, an engineer. I am a builder of things. The Doctor, The Aztecs (1964)”.
Who is the Doctor? Why Doctor Who?

Image depicting all of the Doctors Who
Image: From @Aaroonio

Perhaps it would be helpful to clarify some aspects of the show. The Doctor is a time-travelling alien who changes, or regenerates, into new forms and must frequently adjust to new worlds, new friends, and new bodies. On the surface, the show seemed to match the basic characteristics I wanted–the show focuses largely on change, and the various incarnations of the Doctor could serve as an ordered list. As a fan of the show, I decided to make the ultimate sacrifice (3) and dig even deeper into the rich history of the show (55 years and counting) to see what additional connections I could mine for lecture and discussion topics, assignments, and other class activities.

One such connection involved the various incarnations (4) of the Doctor and perspective taking, which might be used to enhance learning. I hoped that trying to take the perspective of various versions of the same character (in addition to a number of other strategies used in the course) would increase the likelihood of transferring the skills learned in this course to other situations (5). Each of the incarnations of the Doctor displays a different personality. I wanted to cover each of the incarnations during the semester so that students were exposed to all of the different versions of the character. At the time of the course, there were 13 canonical incarnations (6). The purpose of covering each was to expose the students to the differences in the personality of the character over time. A number of assignments asked them to take the perspectives of characters from the show, and I wanted to make sure they had viewed at least one story for each Doctor. Additionally, they were required to read the section about each incarnation from the book, The Doctors Are In: The Essential and Unofficial Guide to Doctor Who's Greatest Time Lord. The authors of that text do an excellent job explaining the characteristics of each version of the Doctor and highlighting a few key episodes.

A quote that reads: “First things first…but not necessarily in that order. The Doctor, Meglos (1980)”.
What Learning Objectives Were Considered?

In addition to the general goals I had for the course, it also needed to meet a number of student learning outcomes, some of which were required by McDaniel College. Many of these learning outcomes are similar to what one would find at other institutions and programs for first-year students.

McDaniel College General Education Outcomes for First-Year Seminars 1) Students demonstrate the ability to critically analyze college-level material 2) Students demonstrate effective oral communication, both in class presentations and informal discussions 3) Students demonstrate basic information literacy skills, including research, evaluation and citation. Course Outcomes 1) To learn to better evaluate research, scientific claims, and the limits of those claims 2) To create and implement a study plan based on empirical evidence 3) To learn how to be better college citizens 4) To be active participants in the accomplishment of the above objectives
A quote that reads: “I love humans. Always seeing patterns in things that aren’t there. The Doctor, Doctor Who (TV Movie, 1996)”.
How Did I Address the Learning Objectives?

The course needed to reach a number of goals, and the students and I would need to cover a lot of information over the course of the semester. To facilitate this process, I included a number of assignments that varied in scope and nature. The table below lists some brief information about each one.

Assignment 1: Study Plan Baseline. Description: Students described their current study plan and reasoning for it. They also interviewed a junior or senior and described that student’s current study plan and their reasoning. Reasons for the Assignment: 1) Establish a starting point 2) Get students to think about the reasons for their current strategies 3) Compare their strategies to those of senior students Assignment 2: Reaction to Campus Event I (e.g. speakers, sports, theatre, etc.). Description: Reaction paper, from both their perspective and the perspective of a character from DW (Doctor Who), to a campus event. Reasons for the Assignment: 1) Experience campus life 2) Learn to take other perspectives and use those as a metacognitive strategy. Assignment 3: Reaction to Campus Event II. Description: Refer to Assignment 2 for the second event. Reasons for the Assignment: 1) More practice with reasons for Assignment 2. Assignment 4: Group Article Presentation. Description: Students presented an empirical article on the metacognitive topic of the week. They also had to integrate pop culture when describing to the class how to apply the metacognitive strategy. Reasons for the Assignment: 1) Learn to better evaluate research, scientific claims, and the limits of those claims 2) Improve oral communication 3) Practice using pop culture to explain metacognitive strategies (repeated in blog assignment). Assignment 5: Study Plan II. Description: Students completed a detailed inventory (based on one from Stephen Chew) to help their current approach. They also proposed updates to their study plan. Reasons for the Assignment: 1) Learn to evaluate and revise a study plan 2) Integrate new methods based on empirical evidence. Final Blog Project. Description: Students’ final papers took the form of blog entries. Reasons for the Assignment: Please refer to the text that comes after this table for more details.

For the sake of brevity, I will not go into detail on the logic behind each assignment (7). I do, however, think it might be worthwhile to address the final blog project in more detail.

I wanted the course to be a little different from other first-year courses, especially the main writing assignment. The individuals who oversee the first-year program at McDaniel College strongly encourage staged writing assignments that include a lot of feedback to the students. It was also the case that the students would arrive with a variety of backgrounds (academic and otherwise). I wanted to present a staged writing assignment that would address the learning outcomes mentioned above and allow for the variability in their abilities and interests. I also wanted something that was not tied to a specific system of formatting that my students may not have previously used (8). I had heard of other instructors using blogs as part of writing assignments, and I thought that the variability in the media (word, images, sounds, etc.) students could use as part of the assignment would allow them to approach the assignment in ways that played to their strengths and experiences. This would also force the students to work on their writing and communication skills but also allow for a simplified formatting style that we could create together. I found examples of blog assignments online and spoke with a colleague from the English department who had recently taught a blogging course.

Additionally, this assignment was intended to address a number of learning outcomes (see Table 1) for the course. Specifically, the students would (hopefully) improve as writers and communicators, as evaluators and users of scientific research (improved information literacy), and in their ability to apply metacognitive strategies in various situations.

For the assignment, students were tasked with communicating scientific information to their reader in an approachable way. They were to do this by writing a blog post about a metacognitive strategy of their choice. Students needed to describe the strategy in detail and justify its use with empirical research. Finally, the students needed to show how to integrate the strategy through the use of pop culture. They were permitted to use any pop culture topic, not only Doctor Who (9).

The students responded well to the course assignments and seemed to enjoy them overall. A few questions remain, however: what connection were the students able to make and how effective were the approaches used in the course?

A quote that reads: “I used to believe in magic, but The Doctor has taught me about science. It is better to believe in science. Leela, Horror of the Fang Rock (1977)”.
Student Connections

The students were able to make a variety of connection between works from pop culture and academic topics. They conveyed these connections through various assignments, exam responses, and in-class discussions. Many of the academic topics came from our class, but some came from other classes the students were taking. As you might predict based on the courses first-year students are likely to take, many of those other topics came from introductory courses in psychology, sociology, history, and language. Here are some of the most interesting examples.

  • A number of students discussed examples of characters from the show suffering from confirmation bias.
  • A student used her blog to discuss a long-term approach to learning the canon of Doctor Who. She integrated metacognitive strategies such as prereading and priming in the context of schema building.
  • In a similar manner, a student used the complex canon and collection of characters from the show Supernatural. She suggested the use of semantic networks and concept mapping as the approaches to learning the information.
  • A student used the show The Walking Dead to explain illusion of knowledge and the Dunning-Kruger effect by discussing the various strategies used by characters in the show with leadership roles.
  • A student described detailed connections she noticed between Remembrance of the Daleks and a lecture about rising racial tensions given by visiting speaker and NAACP president Cornell Brooks. Remembrance used a story about the Daleks to comment on racial tensions in the 1960s, so connections to Brooks’ talk were well founded.
  • One of the groups used the episodes The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances as a starting point to teach the class about the Blitz as part of their group presentation. Both episodes take place during that part of World War II.
  • In her blog, a student used Doctor Who to explain structural formulas (chemistry) and connected these concepts to the metacognitive strategy of desirable difficulties. She also discussed false memory as a potential side effect.

I was very impressed by the variety and scope of the connections students displayed over the course of the semester. My hope is that students will continue to make these types of connections and transfer their learning in the future.

A quote that reads: “Time will tell. It always does. The Doctor, Remembrance of the Daleks (1988)”.
Were the Approaches Effective? (and What I Hope to Evaluate Next Time)

As this was my first time teaching the course, my main concern was to create a course that functioned smoothly. Given the time-consuming nature of these types of courses, I wanted to make sure all of the material was in place for the students to have a productive semester. With that said, any course like this should be evaluated for effectiveness. The future iterations will involve more formal measurements. For now, here is what I conclude based on admittedly weak evidence.

1. Some learning occurred.

Students performed reasonably well on the assignments and exams. Not all of the students, but most of them showed retention and application. Many of the students grasped the material at the same level or better than students in my upper-level cognitive psychology course (which is a challenging course).

2. Some information was transferred to other courses.

As the instructor of the course, I also served as the academic advisor for each of the students. This gave me an opportunity to talk with the students about their progression in other classes. They frequently mentioned use of the metacognitive strategies (especially, testing, interleaving, and spaced practice) when prepping for other classes. They also frequently admitted to cramming in some cases, despite knowing it was not ideal. At the very least, they seemed to be able to detect what they were doing inefficiently.

3. The students engaged in the college community.

The students overall gave positive reports about the two assignments that required them to attend campus events. They did not universally enjoy the events they attended, but they reported benefits from the assignment. A number of the students collaborated to start a Doctor Who club. They registered as an official campus organization so they could continue meeting and discussing the show.

Overall, the course appears to have been successful in its first iteration. For the next version (regeneration?) I hope to put into place more formal measures of learning, including some empirically validated assessments. I enjoyed teaching this course, and I hope to make it as effective as possible in the future.

Image: Students, teaching assistant, and instructor from a Doctor Who course at McDaniel College. Photo by Jack Arnal.
Image: Students, teaching assistant, and instructor from a Doctor Who course at McDaniel College. Photo by Jack Arnal.
A quote that reads: “It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for. The Doctor, Logopolis (1981)".

Materials Available on the Open Science Framework (OSF)

Various course materials from this class can be found on the OSF. Please use them as you see fit. If you have questions or suggestions to make them better, please let me know!

The TL;DR Version

Image: A poster about this course was presented at NITOP 2018
Image: A poster about this course was presented at NITOP 2018

A quote that reads: “There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes. The Doctor, Robot (1975)”.


Jack Arnal is a cognitive psychologist at McDaniel College. He received his Ph.D. in experimental psychology from the University of Arkansas. His research interests include prospective memory, false memory, and eyewitness testimony. Find him on Twitter @DrArnal or visit his website for more information.


1. I sometimes wonder how far I can push these topics before they won’t be approved. It is an empirical question, I guess.

2. This matches with the original remit for the BBC and the show: to educate and inform. Many of the older stories focused on historical events as a way of educating the audience.

3. The academic life can be difficult sometimes, but we persist.

4. Let’s skip the dissociative identity disorder jokes.

5. The likelihood of transfer relies on a number of factors, including appropriate retrieval and application at the correct time. Additional instructions and discussion in class was also part of the strategy. For a good review, see Barnett, S. M., & Ceci, S. J. (2002).

6. Of course, 13 is an oft-debated number. You see, the 9th incarnation did not call himself Doctor, and the 11th incarnation (referred to as the 10th Doctor) actually sent his regeneration energy into…I can see why people throw up their hands. Maybe I can turn this discussion into an activity about operational definitions and scientific communication?

7. But feel free to contact me for the details.

8. My experience has been that students come to college with limited experience with APA-style. I have not used MLA or any other type of formatting since the turn of the century. I had little interest in trying to learn a new formatting style for the purposes of one assignment.

9. Sherlock, Adventure Time, Supernatural, and sports were a few of the pop culture items used.