Noba Blog

The Beginning of the Semester: The perfect time to talk about the end of the semester

August 30, 2018

By Robert Biswas-Diener


Students often don’t seek help until it’s too late. Encouraging “preventative problem solving” may help.

Anyone who has been an instructor for even a single term can point to specific formative moments that influence their teaching. It may be the first time you catch a student cheating or a time a student gave you a thank you card. Perhaps it was the first time you said “I don’t know” in answer to a question or a time when an activity went perfectly. In my tenure as an instructor I accumulated many such moments.

One of them stands out acutely. I was teaching Social Psychology at Portland State University. Because of classroom constraints the course was held in the school’s old and uncomfortable movie theater. There were, of course, no windows, the seats could not be moved, and the projection of my class slides was of preposterous proportions. Despite these challenges my class was engaged, curious, and enjoyable. One young man—a foreign student from Kenya—attended regularly and paid attention. Then, toward the end of the term, he just quit showing up. I didn’t see him for the last two and a half weeks, including the day of the final. As I left the movie theater that last day with my bundle of completed exams in hand, the young man approached me on the sidewalk. It turned out that his brother had died several weeks before and he was grieving. The sudden loss has interfered with his studies and he pleaded—in a way that will be familiar to seasoned instructors—for “extra credit or any way to make up missed assignments.”

This episode revealed two insights to me. First, that students often view courses in terms of credits and points. This might sound obvious, but I—myself—never thought in this fashion. I always thought of my college courses in terms of the volume of learning; a yardstick for educational success that had only a modest correlation with test scores, grades, and extra credit. The second insight-- and the more important one—was the idea that students tend to deal with academic problems too late to be effective. This hypothesis was proven time and again as students came to me after missing huge amounts of class and assignments. I’ve had students show up on the last day of class, after missing virtually the entire course, pleading for consideration in order to save their scholarships, their GPAs, or their on-time graduation.

Person crossing out the word “Problems” and replacing it with a word “Solutions” in chalk on a blackboard.
Solutions Focus [Marco Verch.]
As a result of my experience with this young man, I changed my first day policy. Like most instructors, I use the initial class session to cover the syllabus. My students and I discuss norms and expectations, course content, technology and grading policy. And I throw in this piece of advice:

“There are 100 of you in this course. I know from past experience that some number of you— perhaps 10—will suffer some hardship this term. Maybe it will be a prolonged illness, or the death of a family member, or some other unforeseen event that legitimately interferes with your ability to study well. For some people, getting a little behind can be paralyzing. Then, the further they get behind, the more powerless they feel. I know that it is easy to feel guilty and crushed and desperate. Instead of that, here’s what I want you to do: I want you to remember this conversation. When some set back happens—and it might—please come see me immediately. You and I both want you to succeed and this is the best way to do that.”

I cannot, of course, generalize about the effectiveness of this policy. I can, however, tell you that, in my experience, it appears to be fruitful. Students routinely seek me out in the middle of the course for additional help. Their stories vary from the practical (I had to sell my car to pay for school and getting here is difficult for me) to the emotional (I got divorced). In each case, however, it is encouraging to see the students take charge of their educational destiny and I do my best to accommodate this effort.

One final note on the potential wisdom of preventative problem solving. It can also be used to effectively convey self-care information at the beginning of the term, before it is needed. We know that during the stressful period of mid-terms and finals, student health behaviors fall apart. They drink more coffee and alcohol, exercise less, sleep less, and engage in personal hygiene less. Pretty much exactly the opposite of what you would recommend for effective learning. The beginning of the term is the best possible time to encourage good diet, sleep and exercise. It reinforces information they are already receiving from other campus offices. Unlike many of those materials, however, your words can be more impactful than an e-mail or a poster. The students have a relationship with you, respect you (hopefully), and have frequent contact with you. Your encouragement also arrives before they need it and when they are most likely to be able to hear the message and build the health habits required.

Summary of preventative problem-solving advice I give to students:

  • If a major setback befalls you, come see me IMMEDIATELY so that we can address it together
  • Build health habits now so that they will be in place during the more stressful parts of the term
  • Don’t let exercise or sleep be the things you give up during exam periods; they are likely as important to your grade as are study sessions


Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is the senior editor of the Noba Project and author of more than 50 publications on happiness and other positive topics. His latest book is The Upside of Your Dark Side.

Turning Students Into Scholars by Reducing Resistance to Learning

August 8, 2018

By Anton Tolman & Trevor Morris

Anton Tolman: I remember a moment, several semesters ago, in my Abnormal Psychology course. We were exploring diagnostic issues related to personality disorders. A student raised his hand and asked a relevant question. I paused, and because I wanted the class to apply the integrative biopsychosocial model we had been using all semester, I returned fire with a follow-up question, pushing them to think about the issues involved. In response, one student got an incredulous look on her face and with a come on, really? voice said out loud, “Why can’t you just answer the question?” 

I was surprised by this reaction. This was a normally good student overtly pushing back against my pedagogical approach. However, instances like this are not unique to my classes. “Student resistance” happens all the time, in all kinds of classes, whether we recognize it as resistance or not, and it is especially common in courses that emphasize active learning. 

. . .

Why is this important? As John Tagg in the forward to our book Why Students Resist Learning (Tolman & Kremling, 2016) wrote so well: 

The irony is blatant and really quite agonizing if we dwell on it. What works to get students to learn, to learn resiliently, to learn what they can use and when to use it, is something students do not naturally like nor are necessarily drawn to. They fight what is good for them. We have the cure for what ails them, but they resist the treatment. (Tagg, 2016, p.ix). 

The implications of resistance are far-reaching. When students resist course activities and assignments or put in minimal effort, they are not learning content nor are they building critical skills. Worse yet, they see resistance as necessary, a response to external demands instead of recognizing their own responsibility to learn. In a very real sense, student resistance threatens the purpose of education and its value to a civil society. The good news is that by understanding its sources, we can proactively address them, reduce resistance in our classes, improve learning, and enhance the joy of teaching. We’ll share some ideas of how to assess and intervene to lower student resistance. 

I Don’t Have Resistance in My Classes…..or Do I?

We would argue that it is fairly easy for faculty to not recognize resistance when it happens, for a variety of reasons. One of these is that the teaching literature has not really addressed this issue head on. Most of the time resistance is mentioned or described with lists of proposed reasons why students are behaving this way but lacking a coherent definition. So, we decided to propose one:

Student resistance is an outcome, a motivational state in which students reject learning opportunities due to systemic factors (Tolman & Kremling, 2016, p.3).

This definition is useful because it describes resistance as the outcome of interactive systemic factors -- in other words, it can be understood; it results from known, inter-dependent factors that can be assessed and for which interventions can be planned. 

Trevor Morris: I think I develop good rapport with my students. Their feedback is generally positive. I work to reduce resistance by explaining to them the rationale for the pedagogical methods I choose. As a result, I would classify resistance in my classes as low. 

However, student resistance can arise at any time even for faculty who do not often see it. For example, I had been using Eric Mazur’s peer instruction technique for three semesters. Students used clickers to respond to a question and then discussed it before answering again. Early on in the new semester, I explained the technique and how it has an impact on learning. But after a couple of class periods a student insisted that she couldn’t use the clicker because it caused her too much stress. Not only that, she had recruited another student to her position! I tried again to explain my reasons for using this particular technique, but to no avail. They insisted that I make accommodations for them because they wouldn’t be using clickers. 

. . .

Trevor’s example illustrates active student resistance, but resistance can come in many different forms, not all of them easily identified. Instructors are likely to dismiss active resistance as due to ego, perfectionism, entitlement, or other internal explanations. But as psychologists, we should recognize this as the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). To get past this common human foible and understand the deeper reasons for resistance requires a conceptual framework – an alternative way to understand and explain what is happening. Take a look at the Student Resistance Matrix.

We believe that resistance stems largely from two motivational sources: students are trying to protect themselves, to “get through” the class without taking too much damage, or to get grades to secure their future goals; alternatively, they may be “pushing back” against the teacher or a system that they believe is trying to force them to change who they are, or to adopt a set of ideas or a worldview they disagree with. This can include student perceptions of negative elements of societal power that often are embedded in our institutions or in our own thinking such as sexism, racism, and other -isms. Resistance can also take active or passive forms. 

While our two examples in this essay are active, it is even easier to dismiss passive resistance as student laziness or lack of interest. However, this should set off our FAE red-alert lights again. The situation is more complex than these easy-to-jump-to conclusions. The Student Resistance Matrix is the first step forward – it helps us recognize when resistance is occurring. It tells us that student resistance occurs for a reason – it has a purpose and a goal. It is a communication SIGNAL. Students are telling us something by these behaviors, and once we realize that, we can begin to figure out what is happening and how to reduce resistance to open up student motivation to learn rather than to resist. 

Systemic Forces

As noted in the definition of student resistance, these behaviors are the outcome, the result, of interactive systemic forces. Looking broadly across the pedagogical literature, we identified five systemic factors that usually interact to produce student resistance, each making their own contribution. We call this the Integrated Model of Student Resistance (IMSR):

As you can see in the graphic above, the IMSR consists of five interacting elements. We will skip the “institutional culture” element which shapes and influences both environmental forces and educational experiences because we want to focus primarily on interactions in the classroom. Here is a brief description with an example of the other four elements of the model. As you read these, consider how these forces would interact as well as shape both passive and active forms of student resistance in class.

1. Social and Environmental Forces: These include many different aspects of familial and social forces that shape student expectations about education, influence their thinking about the amount of effort that is “reasonable” to use in learning, and that contribute to student stress and sense of alienation in our classrooms. 

Example: Imagine a first-generation or immigrant student who is struggling to feel comfortable on campus; then a family member becomes ill, and she believes her primary moral obligation is to help her family rather than to study or turn in homework.

2. Negative Prior Experiences: Students do not come to our classes as blank slates. They bring with them their own histories of previous educational encounters with institutions and teachers; unfortunately, for many students these previous interactions have been negative and shape what students expect of their teachers and influence how they interpret and react to instructor behaviors. In our book (Tolman & Kremling, 2016), there are also stories of how instructor misbehaviors and lack of interpersonal attention and warmth towards students also has significant negative impact on student expectations and motivation to learn. Even though you may believe you are supportive and careful in your teaching, your students may bring with them the wounds of these prior experiences. 

Example: In the book, a student describes a history of painful interactions in elementary and middle schools (including being told she had a “dumb math brain”) that convinced her that she was academically incompetent and unable to succeed; it took her years and many experiences to convince herself that she was capable of success and to enter higher education. Imagine such a student in a class with an instructor who, for good reasons, is encouraging students to stretch beyond their comfort zones and to take risks.

3. Cognitive Development: Multiple scholars have documented the developmental paths in adult cognition that shape how students see the world around themselves and their view of the purpose and goals of education. At lower levels of development, students tend to be very concrete and believe that the goal of education is to learn “the right facts” and tend to be focused less on skill development and critical thinking and mostly on memorization and acquisition of factual knowledge. Students can make progress and develop, but it can take time as well as scaffolded and supportive experiences for this to happen. 

Example: Imagine a student who believes the instructor’s role is mostly to convey and describe important facts and concepts in a field being asked to work in collaborative projects with other students he views as being as ignorant as himself; he is likely to view the teacher as abdicating their proper role to teach.

4. Metacognition, or the Lack of It: Many students come to our classes with little awareness of study strategies or what produces better learning. Hopefully, they learn basic study skills in middle or high school, but many never progress beyond memorization. Even in higher education, students may learn some more effective study strategies, but they often do not transfer these skills to other courses. Thus, if they struggle in classes that are more demanding or that require them use critical thinking skills, they frequently see the problem not as their own fault, but as lack of competence by the instructor. 

Example: Imagine a student who mostly succeeds in school by doing exactly what the instructor asks and has honed efficient methods for memorization. She then takes a course requiring analysis of case studies and the use of problem-solving methods to solve complex cases. The exams use applied questions, and she finds herself consistently performing below her own expectations.

In addition to understanding each of the areas of the IMSR, it is helpful to consider how these elements interact. Consider a student entering school with consumerist expectations (learned at home or from others), who is also lower in cognitive development, unaware of his own mastery level with regard to important learning outcomes, and who has a history of being praised for quick memorization of vocabulary and definitions in the past. Now imagine that student entering a course where the rules are different, where collaboration and active participation are required, and where course objectives include demonstration of effective communication and problem-solving skills. Hopefully, the IMSR provides teachers with a lens on these important elements that contribute to resistance. To some degree, each student’s resistance is their own, but it is fairly common that there will be patterns across many students in a course of how these elements interact, depending on the nature of the institution, the schools that provided prior instruction to students, and the demographics and cultural elements of the region. 

 Getting Started

You’ve probably heard the question, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer is “One bite at a time”. While we do not advocate consumption of pachyderms, this approach has some merit. Once an instructor begins to understand that resistance, both passive and active, is a signal and not noise, has begun to determine the motives that drive it, and uses the IMSR to determine what is causing it, the next step is to do something about it. The question is where to begin, and the answer is that it will vary with each instructor.

One idea is to begin where you can. It begins with understanding the signal the students are sending – and that signal may be different depending on the instructor, the course itself and where it fits into the major program, the student population, and other factors. Consider the course(s) you are teaching and given what you have determined about the sources of resistance, identify a target for change. This may involve redesign of the course, identifying new objectives, or better aligning assignments and assessments to those objectives or changing assignments to better develop and scaffold new skills; in another class, it might entail beginning the semester by involving students in discussions about the value of the pedagogy and how it will help them achieve their professional and personal goals (see Smith, 2008 for some ideas); another class may involve directly addressing concerns about stereotype threat and working to build support for open discussions from all perspectives, and so forth.

Consider the IMSR as a tool for intervention, not just assessment. Is the largest source of resistance coming from negative experiences students are bringing with them? If so, enhancing your relationship with students, being open and asking for their input and experiences may be very valuable. If it is lack of metacognitive awareness, consider using brief metacognitive tools, reflective assignments, and explicit instruction in how to succeed in class as key pieces to enhance student learning. (See the appendix of Tolman & Kremling, 2016 for some examples).

Learning to effectively and usefully address student resistance is a learning process for the instructor as well as the students. The more practice we gain at seeing resistance and using the IMSR, the more we are able to respond constructively. You don’t have to address all areas of the IMSR at once; resistance is a systemic outcome. This means a couple of important things: the system itself will resist change – systems tend to establish homeostasis and try to remain stable. On the other hand, by intervening at one strategic point, you can begin to influence the whole system; as you gain understanding and experience and have significantly addressed one part of the IMSR, you can shift to another and increase your success. One bite at a time.

We believe that student resistance is one of the major sources of frustration and burn-out for those who teach. The more we learn to reduce our students’ resistance to learning, the more joy and engagement we experience as teachers. We also help students develop into more responsible, actively engaged scholars in our classrooms. They begin to see the value of education more clearly in their lives, and we all improve as learners.

Additional Resources

For those who want to learn more about how to identify and overcome student resistance, the book Why Students Resist Learning is worth investigating. Available from Stylus Press, it can be purchased through the end of 2018 at a 20% discount by using code WSR20.


Anton Tolman received his degree from the University of Oregon (go Ducks!) and is Professor of Behavioral Science and former Director of the Faculty Center for Teaching Excellence at UVU. His research interests focus on classroom power dynamics, metacognition, and student resistance. He and his wife live at the feet of beautiful Mt. Timpanogos in Utah, and he is a strong advocate for the value of board games in bringing joy to life. Anton can be reached at [email protected]

Trevor Morris received his Master’s degree from Palo Alto University. He has taught as an adjunct faculty member for the Behavioral Science department for over six years. He is a Faculty Development Specialist for the Office of Teaching and Learning at UVU, and he has worked in faculty development for over seven years. Trevor can be reached at [email protected]


Smith, G.A. (2008). First day questions for the learner-centered classroom. National Teaching and Learning Forum, 17(5), 1-4.

Tolman, A.O. & Kremling, J. (2016). Why Students Resist Learning: A Practical Model for Understanding and Helping Students. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Tagg, J. (2016). Foreward. In A.O. Tolman & J. Kremling (Eds). Why Students Resist Learning: A Practical Model for Understanding and Helping Students. Sterling, VA: Stylus. 

Stop Wrestling, Start Dancing: Supporting Student Success with Motivational Interviewing

July 31, 2018

By Jeni Dulek


Brian is a first-generation college student with a family, full-time job, and a history of starts and stops in his community college education. He’s enrolled in four classes this semester—one of which he’s already failed once—and just a few weeks in, he’s already behind. He struggles to come to class on time—and sometimes doesn’t come at all. He skips assignments here and there, never the larger term projects, but he has missed enough of the formative assignments that his instructor is concerned about his progress. When she emails him about it, he doesn’t respond. When she attempts to discuss it with him after class, he shrugs and tells her he’s doing his best, but he’s got three other classes and a lot of things going on his life.

The Righting Reflex

Brian’s instructor knows a little about his life outside of school, but still can’t help question whether he’s truly motivated to learn. She recognizes that his failure to engage with her via email and in person is at least in part due to his hectic schedule, but she finds herself thinking, “If he really cared about school, wouldn’t he make the time to meet with me?”

Her thought process is a familiar one for me, and probably for many other college instructors, too. When we think about our students’ lives in relation to their educational goals and performance, so many of us start our thoughts with “You would think . . .”

You would think that low grades would cause her to come to office hours . . . join a study group . . . cut back work hours . . . show up to class on time . You would think that failing a class would . . .

You get the picture. As instructors we know what students need to do to be successful, if only they would heed our suggestions. When we do get a chance to speak with them about their performance in our courses, whether academic or behavioral, the temptation is to fill the conversation with these suggestions. This is known as the righting reflex, and while it’s certainly well-intentioned it’s often useless. Students don’t need to be told how to fix their problems; they need to find the motivation to change things for themselves. 

“But that’s what I’m doing when I offer them suggestions!” you may find yourself thinking. The problem is, students have likely already considered these solutions and found some reason or another why they won’t work. “Come to office hours? I have to get home so my wife can take the car to work.” “Comply with school dress code? I can’t afford the shoes you’re requiring me to wear.” “Cut back on work hours? I’ve already done that once and my boss said he’ll fire me if I cut back any more.” So in reality, you aren’t motivating students by offering these suggestions, just giving them a reason to argue against them.


While change itself may happen quickly, getting ready to change takes time. Ambivalence is part of that “getting ready,” and it’s a normal human experience. “Should I change, or am I comfortable with the way things are?” we ask ourselves—about our careers, relationships, weight, and about nearly everything in life. We are constantly considering if doing something different would be possible, would help us reach our goals, or would make sense for us at this time. Sometimes we see many good reasons for change and we proceed; other times we decide it isn’t worth it, we aren’t ready, or we need to figure out a way to change in the future.

Our students are no different. One part of a student’s mind may want to change something about how he is going about school, but the other part argues against it. So when out of care and concern we approach a student with all the reasons why and how he should change, that part of the student’s brain that argues against change gets fired up and engaged. The student focuses on all the reasons why he can’t change, and stays stuck—sometimes failing a course, getting dismissed from school, or dropping out as a result.

Wrestling and Resistance

We often label this state of “stuck” as resistance, and in turn label the student who is experiencing it as “resistant.” We may experience our interactions as wrestling matches, with the student countering each move we make, seemingly entrenched in not allowing us to “help” him or her move forward. What we fail to realize here is that in attempting to provide the help, we actually caused the resistance by how we approached the conversation. Resistance doesn’t reside within the person but comes out of the interaction. This is good news—because we can’t control other people, but we can influence the kinds of interactions we have with them!

Motivational Interviewing

That’s where Motivational Interviewing, or MI, comes in. Simply put, Motivational Interviewing is a way of talking with people about change that can help resolve ambivalence and identify their own reasons to change. Notice that I said “talking with people” rather than “talking to” them. This is one of the key concepts in MI; it’s a collaborative approach that takes the instructor or counselor out of the expert role and recognizes that the student is the expert about his or her own life. Using MI leads to conversations focusing on the student’s perspective, beliefs, and desires rather than our own, and when it works, students make the arguments for change rather than against it; interactions become more of a dance than a wrestling match as the instructor allows the student to take the lead and matches his steps along the way.

MI originated in the 1980s as a technique used in the treatment of substance abuse, and since then has been applied and proven to be effective in many other situations requiring behavior change. I was originally trained to use MI with clients who have co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse, so when I started teaching in an occupational therapy program and encountered students who needed support in changing their behaviors, its practice immediately came to mind. I did some reading and found that it has indeed been researched in educational settings at both the K-12 and college levels.

Recent research has demonstrated the use of MI with helping students to make changes such as studying for exams (Reich, Sharp, & Berman, 2015), arriving on time to class, submitting assignments, participating in class discussion, improving compliance with policies, engaging in positive peer interaction, and seeking assistance from instructors and peers (Herman, Reinke, Frey, & Shepard, 2014; Rollnick, Kaplan, & Rutschman, 2016; Sheldon, 2010; White, Gazewood, & Mounsey, 2007). The best part for me as a busy instructor and program director is that most of these changes were demonstrated after just 15-20 minute interactions between students and instructors using MI.

Using MI with Students

MI not only can work quickly, it is fairly simple to learn. That doesn’t mean that it won’t take practice to master, but some basic knowledge and a willingness to try will set you on a path of dancing with your students toward change.

To establish that basic knowledge, let me introduce to you the spirit of MI and what are known as its “core skills.” I should point out before we begin that there are many other elements and skills useful in MI, including its principles and strategies. There are countless books, workshops, and other resources that can help you build your MI skills, and I encourage you to explore them. I will list a few at the end of this post for your reference. Keep in mind, too, that formal training in MI is available around the country and is well worth the investment. What I offer here should get you going in using MI and hopefully will spark your curiosity and passion to learn more.

The Spirit of MI

One of the primary things to keep in mind when learning and practicing MI is called “the spirit of motivational interviewing.” This sets MI apart from the more manipulative, sometimes pushy-salesperson-type approach that gets people to do things they don’t actually want to do. The goal with MI is to help clients resolve ambivalence so that they can take action toward their own goals and desires.

I’ve already mentioned collaboration, which is one of these vital aspects of the MI spirit. MI is done with and for students in a partnership toward change. It is not up to the instructor to tell the student what to do, but to guide the student in identifying the changes that he wants to make and figuring out how to make that happen. This shows respect for the student and honors the student’s expertise in his own situation and aspirations.

The second aspect of the MI spirit is acceptance. This key to MI means that while the instructor may not approve of the student’s choices or behaviors, there is a recognition that the student has strengths and a respect for the student’s autonomy.

The next consideration when using MI is compassion. This highlights the importance of helping students make changes that benefit them, not us. That’s not to say that the things we may help students change won’t be rewarding to us, but that we must focus on what our students choose for themselves, even if that means them making no change at all.

And lastly, we have evocation. The idea here is that students have within them the strengths and knowledge to be successful. While I recognize that there is always room to help students learn how to study more effectively, communicate more clearly, or present themselves more professionally, I know that my pre-MI attempts to cajole them into doing this got me—and them—nowhere. It isn’t until the student finds the motivation to make these changes that any advice I might give will be useful, so I choose instead to focus on helping my students evoke from within them exactly what they need to be successful. I look at ambivalence as the proof that students already have the arguments for change in their minds, and my role is to help bring these about so that students can use them to prompt action.

Core Skills of MI

Now that we have covered the spirit of MI, which will lay the foundation for you as you approach your students, you’re probably wondering “But what do I do? How do I know what to say in these conversations with my students?” That’s where the core skills of MI come in. They are: open-ended questions, affirmations, reflections, and summaries. As an acronym, this spells “OARS,” and they can be seen as the paddles that move your boat forward.

Open-ended questions are common in education, and have a pretty simple definition: Questions that can’t be responded to with a yes or no, but that require elaboration to sufficiently be answered. Asking something like,” What have you done in the past to keep up with your schoolwork?” can get students talking and sharing their perspectives rather than just agreeing (or disagreeing) with whatever their instructor has suggested. Asking open-ended questions of students helps them hear their own thoughts and to share them with you. This builds awareness and rapport.

Affirmations highlight students’ strengths and successes. They affirm for the student that he or she has been successful in the past and can do it again. An affirmation in MI shouldn’t come from you as the expert, but from what you’re hearing the student say about himself and his experiences. As an example, if a student responded to the open-ended question above by saying, “I used to have more energy to stay up late and get my homework done; sometimes I had to pull all-nighters,” I might respond by affirming the student’s dedication to his schoolwork, even if it seemed apparent that that wasn’t happening currently in my course. When students focus only on their struggles and problems in conversation, you might point out, “You’re talking with me today because learning is important to you.” Affirming students’ strengths and positive attributes helps to instill hope and generate motivation to try again.

The “R” in OARS stands for reflections, which is the most powerful of the core skills. Reflections of both content and feelings demonstrate that you’ve listened to the student and that you understand his perspective, and can help move the interaction forward by allowing the student to process what he has said. During conversation about improving in-class behavior, a student once told me all the reasons why her eye-rolling, arm-crossing, and sarcastic comments were justified. When I reflected these comments by stating, “Your instructor doesn’t deserve respect because she doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” she was taken aback, and went on to tell me several reasons why the instructor actually did deserve her respect. Pretty soon she was asking me to let her know if she ever demonstrated this behavior in the classroom again! That is how powerful a reflection can be. Good MI technique uses more reflections than any of the other core skills for this reason.

The last core skill is “S” for summaries, which are basically a collection of reflections. Summaries allow the instructor and the student to pause and reflect on what they have discussed, and to decide together what should happen next.   

Back to Brian

We began here by considering the case of Brian, a student struggling to come to class on time, skipping assignments, and dismissing his instructor’s attempts to reach out. Could a motivational interviewing approach have helped both Brian and his instructor explore and hopefully resolve this situation?

We don’t know much about how Brian’s instructor first approached him to talk about his performance, but if it was anything like how I used to approach my students, it was not with the collaboration, acceptance, and compassion that is the spirit of MI. Instead, it may have been something like, “Brian, you’re at risk for failing this class again. You’re not putting in the time you need, and you really need to work harder at this. You’re repeating the same behaviors you did last time, and that did not work out well for you. If you fail again, it’s going to cost you even more money and time. As your instructor, I recommend that you start getting to class on time and studying harder. You really need to pass this class.” With the instructor’s righting reflex, Brian’s defenses go up and he argues against change, sharing all of the reasons why these changes that she suggests are not possible—exactly the opposite of what the instructor intends and what Brian really needs.

With the concepts of MI in mind, the instructor’s approach moves away from the judgmental, authoritarian style that likely shut Brian down and caused him to shrug and say he was doing his best. Instead, motivational interviewing leads the instructor to partner with Brian to examine his situation and determine what, if any, changes he is motivated to make to improve his school performance. The goal is a conversation where Brian takes the lead in identifying his goals, strengths, and necessary actions, and the instructor simply guides him in this process:

Instructor: “I asked to meet with you today so we could talk a little about class. What are your experiences and thoughts about your performance so far?”

Brian: “I know I’ve been late a few times, and have missed a few assignments, but there’s just so much going on in my life right now. I’m doing the best I can.”

Instructor: “There’s some things getting in the way of you concentrating fully on class, and you’re doing everything within your power to focus on school.”

Brian: “Yeah. I mean, we only have one car between my wife and me so I have to drop her at work and the kids at school before I come to class. I’m working more so that we can buy another car, but that means less time for homework. I’m hoping to get another car next month, but until then, this is just the way it has to be.”

Instructor: “You’d like to focus on school more, and you plan to as soon as you’ve taken care of this setback with the car.”

Brian: “That’s the plan, yeah. School is important to me. I wouldn’t be doing all of this if it wasn’t. I would have withdrawn by now because this is really hard for me. And my family.”

Instructor: “You and your family are making many sacrifices for your education and a better future. What that means right now is that you may not get the grades you are capable of because sometimes you have to come late and miss assignments.” 

From here, they could go on to further explore what he had tried so far to address these barriers, but instead of focusing on these as reasons for his academic difficulties and reinforcing his belief that they are unchangeable, the focus would be on exploring how these issues align with Brian’s goals and steps that he might take to begin to change them. By reinforcing Brian’s strengths and highlighting his dedication to school even in the face of such barriers, the instructor could assist Brian to resolve his ambivalence and resistance, and begin to elicit motivation from within him to make changes to support his academic success.

Next Steps

My hope is that reading about Brian has helped you to examine your own views of student motivation and to see the possibilities of eliciting and evoking the motivation to change from within your own students. Just as in the sample interaction above, motivational interviewing has broadened my understanding of the challenges facing my students and has deepened my appreciation for the attempts they have made to focus on their learning, even when these attempts have not always resulted in success. It places the responsibility for change in the hands of my students while communicating my belief in them to find the resources and make and carry out plans to improve their likelihood of success. Changing my own approach to one of partnership and true respect has helped move interactions with students away from frustration and conflict to understanding and encouragement. The motivation that they have uncovered in the process has led to stronger communication skills, increased engagement, and improved academic success—and to dancing instead of wrestling.


Dr. Jeni Dulek is an occupational therapist, educator, and lifelong learner. She is a founding member and Program Director of the Occupational Therapy Assistant Program at American Career College in Anaheim, California, where she uses the motivational interviewing skills that she learned in clinical practice to help her students succeed. She holds a clinical doctorate in occupational therapy with an emphasis in education, and is currently pursuing a masters in instructional design and technology. In her free time, she enjoys reading, running, baking, and spending time with her family, friends, and rescue dog, Holly.

My professional portfolio:

My MI page from my portfolio:

My MI playlist on YouTube:


Herman, K. C., Reinke, W. M., Frey, A. J., & Shepard, S. A. (2014). Motivational interviewing in schools: Strategies for engaging parents, teachers, and students. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

Reich, C. M., Howeard Sharp, K. M., & Berman, J. S. (2015). A motivational interviewing intervention for the classroom. Teaching of Psychology, 42(4), 339-344.

Rollnick, S., Kaplan, S. G., & Rutschman, R. (2016). Motivational interviewing in schools: Conversations to improve behavior and learning. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Sheldon, L. A. (2010). Using motivational interviewing to help your students. The NEA Higher Education Journal, 153-158.

White, L. L., Gazewood, J. D., & Mounsey, A. L. (2007). Teaching students behavior change skills: Description and assessment of a new motivational interviewing curriculum. Medical Teacher, 29(4), 67-71.

Recommended Reading

Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2013). Motivational interviewing: Helping people change (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Miller and Rollnick’s book is the classic text on Motivational Interviewing, and covers all the basic skills and applications. This is highly recommended as a complete overview of the practice of MI no matter the setting or population.

North, R. A. (2017). Motivational interviewing for school counselors. (n.p.): Author.

Reagan North has self-published this simple and accessible book detailing the use of MI in a school setting. His focus is on working with high school students, but the application is the same no matter the population. Not only does North do an excellent job making the case for using MI with students, he offers very powerful examples of how it can be applied in this setting to help students foster change.

Rosengren, D. B. (2018). Building motivational interviewing skills: A practitioner workbook (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

This is a very practical resource for learning to use MI, as it is a workbook designed for self-study. It includes very clear guidance and examples to follow, so if you’re ready to jump right in to learning and using MI, this is an excellent place to start, as it will cover what you need to know and will challenge you to apply this as you complete the worksheets.

Improving Study Habits and Test Scores with a “Learning How to Learn” Assignment

June 27, 2018

By Carolyn Brown-Kramer

A student ambushed me as I returned from the drinking fountain. “Hey professor,” he began, “I want to talk to you about my test grade.” He explained how carefully he had read and reread the assigned chapters, showed off his heavily highlighted textbook, and demonstrated his memory for the definitions on his flash cards. “I studied for twelve hours. How could I have gotten a D?” he finally concluded.

In reply to this all-too-common complaint, I asked, “What do you think about when you study?” He looked confused. I continued: “Do you ever think about how the content is related to other material or to your own life? Do you draw your own diagrams or make your own detailed outlines? Do you practice answering or writing test questions before you go in to take the test?”

The student was flummoxed. Why, he reasoned, would he need to do these things when rereading, highlighting, and flash cards had gotten him through high school just fine?

A tired college student sleeps with his head on his desk with his laptop nearby.
Unfortunately for our students, effort and time spent studying do not always lead to the results they want. But with the right kind of assignment, we can show them how to use that effort and time more effectively. [Image: Svein Halvor Halvorsen,, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

The Problem

For years I’ve been trying to tell students about better learning strategies than the ones they’re in the habit of using. There are well-established guidelines for more effective strategies (practice testing, distributed practice, self-explanation, interleaving) and less effective strategies (summarizing, highlighting or underlining, rereading; Bartoszewski & Gurung, 2015; Dunlosky et al., 2013).

But as it turns out, there are two problems with this “tell them what they need to know” approach. First, it’s hard to reach the students who are most in need of a study habit tune-up, because relatively few of them come to see their instructors for help. (Check out Christie Cathey’s blog post for a neat way to address this issue: Second, those who do come in often seem to want a simple trick to fix the problem—something like, “Just read your book one more time” or “More flashcards!” In other words, just because students are introduced to better practices it doesn’t mean they will adopt them (Balch, 2001). If my suggested methods don’t meet their initial, low-effort expectations, they are likely to reject those suggestions and continue on with their current, ineffective strategies.

My Previous Attempts

I started trying to address students’ problematic study behaviors a few years ago. Each semester I teach Introduction to Psychology, I take time in the first week to introduce students to Stephen Chew’s excellent “How to get the most out of studying” YouTube video series). In class, we complete a version of Chew’s levels-of-processing demonstration (from video part 2 of 5) and follow up by watching the “Cognitive principles for optimizing learning” video (part 3 of 5). Students discuss the demonstration and video, we talk through it as a class, and the content is represented on the first exam to increase accountability and attention. I find that while many students can answer questions correctly about why spaced studying works and highlighting doesn’t, they often don’t take the next step of applying better learning strategies to themselves—hence the frequent conversations with students like the one above.

Dr. Chew stands in front of a board in a classroom with the word 'metacognition' written on it.
A still frame from one of the summer's blockbuster superhero movies starring Dr. Stephen Chew.

I also post a 1-page document on my course website called “How to be successful in this class” (available at The document presents evidence-based recommendations for increasing processing depth, spacing studying, self-testing effectively, and more. Sadly, many of my students who really need help with their study habits ignore this helpful tool.

In the fall of 2017, I decided to try a more in-depth way to show them. And it actually worked.

What I Did and Why I Did It

I implemented a learning strategy intervention sneakily disguised as a term paper assignment in my Introduction to Psychology class. I had four goals:

1. To increase students’ knowledge of psychological research methodologies via reading and writing about an empirical research article, as they always do in this class;

2. To improve students’ study habits via metacognition;

3. To improve students’ performance in the class as a result of their improved study habits; and

4. To do all of this without increasing the grading load—an important consideration for a class of 400-plus students.

I already had a paper assignment in which students read an empirical psychological research article and wrote a short paper summarizing and analyzing its methodology. In fall of 2017, all students read an empirical research article about two studies that tested a particular learning strategy. They then wrote a paper doing the same methodological analysis and critique as I used in previous semesters, and added a brief commentary on how they could apply the learning strategy to their own life.

Here’s the catch: There were actually four different empirical research articles, each covering a different learning strategy. Students were randomly assigned to read and write about one of the four articles. This allowed me to compare the effects of the assignment on students’ study behaviors and performance across the articles. All articles were matched for length, difficulty, and research design. The learning strategies included:

  • Distributed practice (Seabrook, Brown, & Solity, 2005, experiments 2 & 3)
  • Rereading (Rawson & Kintsch, 2005)
  • Repeated testing (i.e., the testing effect; McDaniel et al., 2011)
  • Imagery use (Schmeck et al., 2014)

Again, the idea was to see if getting students to read an entire research article about a learning strategy, making them think about the evidence underlying the strategy, and having them consider how it applies to themselves would convince them to change their studying behavior more effectively than the tactics I’d tried in the past.

Did It Work?

In a word, yes.

Because the paper assignment still focused on research methodology, as it always had, it met goal 1. Because it involved the addition of only one short section on how students could apply the learning strategy to their own life, it met goal 4. The big questions were whether it could meet goals 2 and 3.

Study habits

I surveyed students at the beginning and again at the end of the semester about their learning strategies (based on Bartoszewski & Gurung, 2015). Students used more high-utility practices (practice testing, self-explanation, interleaving, and use of keywords) and fewer low-utility practices (underlining/highlighting, summarizing, and rereading) at the end of the semester than at the beginning. Goal 2: Met.

Interestingly, there wasn’t much difference among groups in students’ use of the learning strategy they had been assigned to read about. For instance, students who read the article about the benefits of self-testing increased their use of self-testing and spaced practice, and also decreased their use of underlining/highlighting and rereading… but so did students who read the other three articles.

This suggests that, rather than making students reconsider their use of a particular study habit, the assignment primarily strengthened their metacognition about all their study habits—good and bad—and reminded them about how they should be studying overall.

Test performance

What about actual performance in the course? If students use better learning strategies as they complete course work and study, they should achieve better scores on exams. And that’s exactly what I found.

In order to see whether the new version of the paper assignment improved student performance, I kept the course as similar as possible to the previous fall semester— the same textbook, lectures, exams, attendance requirements, enrollment, and student characteristics—and varied only this one assignment. I compared student performance on the four exams from fall 2016 (control semester) to fall 2017 (experimental semester) when I introduced the learning strategies variation on the paper assignment.

Students were assigned the articles halfway through the semester in both courses. Scores on the first two exams—before the articles were assigned—were equivalent across semesters. Scores diverged on the third and fourth exams, however. Students in the experimental semester scored 3.7 percentage points higher on exam 3, and 2.6 percentage points higher on exam 4, compared to students in the control semester.

Perhaps more impressively, students in the experimental semester earned about 1/3 of a letter grade higher—an average of 80.9% (B-) in the experimental semester versus 78.9% (C+) in the control semester. The improvement was especially strong among underperforming students—the percentage of students earning Ds or Fs in the course dropped from 22% in the control semester to 15% in the experimental semester. I consider that a win for goal 3.

What about differences across learning strategy article conditions?

I compared exam scores across groups. Students who read about repeated testing did the best on average, beating the previous semester’s exam 3 and 4 scores by 7% and 4%, respectively. Students who read the article about distributed practice did the worst on average, performing no better than the previous semester’s students on exams 3 and 4.

Not surprisingly, the same pattern held for overall course grades: Students in the repeated testing condition did the best, earning about 5.5 percentage points higher overall (B vs. C+) compared to the previous semester. Students in the distributed practice condition did the worst, earning about 1 percentage point lower overall than those in the previous semester.

Surprises, Cautions, and Recommendations

A pretty easy tweak to the term paper assignment I’d been using for years actually worked. By substituting the research articles I had used in the past with articles about learning strategies, and by adding a short application section to the paper assignment, not only were students still learning about research methodology, but they were also gaining better study skills and earning higher grades on exams and in the course overall. There were, however, some surprises and bumps along the way.


As mentioned above, students’ study habits improved pretty much across the board, regardless of which article they read. It seems that thinking hard about learning strategies encourages students to improve their studying, even if they don’t adopt the particular strategy they’ve been reading about.

It might be that reading in depth about certain learning strategies for their individual assignment influenced students to make better use of other strategies from Chew’s videos or the “How to be successful in this class” document. Introducing these resources early and then directing students back to them mid-semester as they reconsidered their study habits was very effective for my students.


There are two important caveats I should mention based on my experience with this assignment. First, despite my efforts to select articles that were well matched on length and difficulty, students really struggled with the article on distributed practice (Seabrook et al., 2005). This article wasn’t as novice-friendly as the others because it was more methodologically complex and introduced several new operational definitions that students weren’t familiar with. Many students came away frustrated and confused by distributed practice because they misunderstood the samples and methodologies in the article—for instance, that distributed practice pertains only to young children, it can only be used in a laboratory setting, or it includes only studying in three 2-minute chunks throughout the day. Students who read the other three articles had a much stronger grasp on both the methodologies and the take-home messages of what they had read.

The second caveat is that my student evaluations of teaching (SETs) took a small but substantial hit in the semester I implemented this project. Compared to the control semester, my summary evaluations dropped about 1/3 of a point on a 7-point scale. This could be a concern for new faculty members or those whose departments or institutions scrutinize every small fluctuation in SETs. In my opinion, having slightly less happy students is a reasonable price to pay for a 2% improvement in overall course grades, and a 7% drop in the number of students earning Ds and Fs. In the future, I will try to manage student expectations and anxiety by talking about how I will grade fairly and consistently across articles, posting the rubric earlier in the semester, and breaking the assignment into smaller pieces so students have a strong understanding of their article before writing the paper.


Here are some suggestions based on my experience, which hopefully can help save you a lot of hassle as you encourage the adoption of high-utility learning strategies in your own classes:

  • Select one article with the greatest benefit, and have all students read it. Of the four articles I tested, I recommend Mark McDaniel and colleagues’ 2011 article on repeated testing. It produced the greatest benefit in terms of student exam and overall course performance, and is probably the most readable for first-year undergraduates. Choosing just one article will also curtail student concerns about grading fairness and consistency.
  • Talk about learning strategies early and often. My students respond positively to Stephen Chew’s videos, but often forget about them by the second exam. Return to the topic of learning strategies periodically, and get students to discuss why some study habits are better than others. You can easily incorporate this into your Intro Psych course material by talking about principles of human memory, reinforcement and punishment, and even belief perseverance (e.g., students’ persistent belief in the importance of matching their “learning style” with how a class is taught).
  • Incorporate self-reflection and planning. We all learn by making information self-relevant. By having students reflect on their current versus ideal learning strategies, and by having them make explicit plans for implementing high-utility strategies, they are much more likely to use what they’ve learned rather than treat it as just another academic paper. You can do this as part of a formal assignment, or as a journal or group discussion—whatever gets them thinking about what they do now, how they can do it better, and why they’d want to change.

High-utility learning strategies are valuable tools. As experts in learning, it’s our job to help students like the young man who ambushed me in the hallway—the one with the rereading, highlighting, and flash card habit—learn to use those more effective tools themselves.


Dr. Carolyn Brown-Kramer is an Assistant Professor of Practice at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. A social psychologist by training, she teaches courses in introductory psychology, social psychology, advanced social psychology, and motivation and emotion. Outside the classroom, she loves food, music, reading, and spending time with her spouse and two young children. She is always on the lookout for good audiobook suggestions.

R – The Future of Psychology Statistics is Open Source

June 21, 2018

By Robert Franklin

Four years ago, I threw out everything I knew and changed how I taught statistics. I started teaching statistics using R, a free and open-source program used for statistical analysis. Previously, my students used other programs with point-and-click menus, which resembled spreadsheets where they entered data and selected their analyses from menus. But now I took the plunge into the world of teaching statistics using a program with typed commands, where there were very few textbook resources for help.

The logo of the open source statistics software "R".

Why did I take the plunge into teaching R? And why should you? The reason is simple: R is the future. I’m going to try to use this blog entry as a way to explain why we should teach R to undergrad psychology statistics students, and advocate for the development of free and open resources to help students learn, using R.

The field of statistics, especially how it applies to psychology, has reinvented itself in the last decade. Data science and data analytics are growing career fields as businesses and other organizations are increasingly using data in order to inform decisions. Interactive, informative, and beautiful data visualizations have now created a sub-field of journalism, as popularized by examples like Vox , FiveThirtyEight and The Upshot. These fields, which combine the data analytics of statistics and the theory of research methods, represent new opportunities for our students. Psychologists have been training students in statistics and research methods since long before “Data Science” became trendy, but our classes need to change in order to stay at the forefront of these changes.

A student-created statistics visualization representing concepts like probability distribution and regression analysis.
A 2017 Kantar Information is Beautiful Award winner created by a team of undergraduates at Brown University.[Image: Daniel Kunin, Tyler Dae Devlin, Jingru Guo, and Daniel Xiang,]

At the same time, a series of crises has changed how psychology research uses statistics. The basic theories taught in stats classes a generation ago, including null hypothesis testing, are increasingly under attack. In 2016, the American Statistical Association issued a statement designed to “steer research into a ‘post p< .05 era’”. In addition, the inability to reproduce basic research findings in psychology and biostatistics has led many, such as the Center for Open Science , to call for researchers to openly share data and findings in a way that allows for observers to reproduce statistical analyses.

These issues require many answers, and embracing R is a first step in revolutionizing psychology statistics. There are many advantages of using R. First, R is open source, so that it is free for anyone to download, use, and modify. Students do not need to visit computer labs or buy student versions of other software, which are expensive and often limited in what they can do. Because R is open-source and free to modify, over 10,000 free packages, or add-ons, exist to do any possible statistical technique, from complex visualizations to models. Almost any new statistical technique developed comes with a new package in R. This flexibility and power is why graduate programs in psychology are increasingly teaching in R.

Nonetheless, R is rarely taught in undergraduate psychology statistics courses. As part of a poster I presented in NITOP in January 2018, I found that of the sampling of fifty statistics syllabi I collected, only two undergrad courses used R. At the same time, the use of R has grown exponentially in psychology research, as indicated by citations in journal articles.

So why isn’t R popular in the undergrad classroom? R is a statistical programming language, using typed commands to enter data and do statistical tests. The downside is that this makes it hard for students to see the data and often leads to more errors from misspelled commands. Though there are add-ins to R that allow for point-and-click menus, such as R Commander, the command line approach is very powerful because it allows for students to learn good data practices incorporating reproducible data analysis from the very beginning of their training.

Another problem for adopting R is the lack of educational resources for teaching R in psychology statistics. Even though R is becoming more popular, very few of the most popular textbooks for teaching basic psychology statistics incorporate materials using R. Most of the educational resources for R are geared for students with a more significant math background, making it hard for students to apply the material. The lack of resources to teach using R, along with the inherent difficulty of teaching a command-line based approach, probably explain why R is not popular in the classroom.

There are a few good resources for learning R, such as Field’s Discovering Statistics Using R. In addition, many resources were featured in the May 2017 edition of the APS Observer. However, many of these resources are geared for advanced students, which underscores the necessity of developing undergraduate instructional materials for teaching R to psychology stats students. As part of a grant from the Center of Innovation in Digital Learning at Anderson University, I developed a freely-available open source textbook using R, which is available in a beta form on iBooks.

Cover of Dr. Franklin's statistics book titled, Statistics: The Story of Numbers

The final reason for teaching R is anecdotal. Students feel accomplished conducting analyses in R. The initial learning curve becomes a sense of accomplishment when students learn how to do their own command-line based analyses, edit their own scripts, and then apply this knowledge. Several of our students have commented how helpful this is in graduate work, where their knowledge of R has let them jump right into graduate research projects.

The use of open-source software in teaching statistics is both the future of psychology and in the spirit of the Noba Project and the broader open-education movement that aim to remove barriers to college. Though R is free, and as such reduces the financial burden on students, we need additional accessible and freely available materials to use R in the classroom. I encourage other teachers of psychology stats and research methods to contribute to this effort by looking into using R in the classroom, and creating and sharing open-source resources to teach R. I am open to any collaboration or initiative to help develop these resources, so please contact me if you have any feedback on the textbook or would like to collaborate on developing more resources.


Dr. Robert Franklin is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Anderson University, in Anderson SC, where he teaches courses in neuroscience, statistics, and research methods. His research interests involve understanding how people read social information from faces and how aging affects these processes. His teaching interests involve student collaborations with research and spreading the good news about R. Robert is also co-author of the Noba learning module Attraction and Beauty. You can find out more at his website: 

If You Assign It, Teach It: Strategies for Effective Group Projects

May 31, 2018

By Mary Dixson


I teach a course on small group communication. My class consists of mostly upper class communication majors. Many dread the course and its promise (or threat) of a semester-long group project. I can’t really blame my students. In my course, we spend our first class day listing all of the terrible things that each student has experienced with group work: emotional drama, excessive time commitments, scheduling conflicts, absentee members, excessive tardiness, slackers, obsessive Type-A members, abusive leaders, and a total lack of consensus on everything related to the project. Additionally, they complain that their "group projects" are often simple reports or presentations that could be done by a single person. In the end, one person does the work; everyone else sits out. Everyone hates group work.

Who teaches group work?

The problem stems from one of two mistaken beliefs. The first is that, when it comes to groups, we learn through experience. If students participate in group projects, they will begin to develop the necessary skills to succeed. The second belief is that someone else is teaching the necessary skills for group success. My experience leads me to believe that both assumptions are incorrect.

My data comes from an unscientific poll I take each semester in which I establish the existing levels of knowledge about running group projects. In four years of teaching the course, only two students have acknowledged any explicit training in teamwork, meetings, or group communication. Those were student leaders who participated in an off-campus leadership institute. Even for those two, the amount of training was small. The bottom line is that faculty assign and assess group work without teaching it.

A group of college students sit around a table talking and looking through textbooks and notebooks.
If we want happy, productive groups in our courses we can't assume our students come with the skills and experience necessary to manage their group work successfully. [Image: Public Domain, CC0,]

But I don’t teach communication

If you feel overwhelmed by the need to teach both the crucial content in your course and the extra skills related to group communication, you are not alone. I conduct workshops on this topic across the country to faculty in every discipline, and most feel the same way. In these sessions, I provide information to help faculty create meaningful group experiences that teach fundamental teamwork skills. I encourage faculty to take a few minutes at the beginning of class to include teamwork lessons or, if time is short, to create an online module that students can go through as part of their course work. Here are a few of the topics and resources I typically encourage faculty to include:

What do we need to teach?

1. Students do not inherently understand how to construct a productive agenda and keep useful minutes. Agendas and minutes are crucial pieces for successful group projects. Agendas allow members to prepare, provide an opportunity to assign topics for discussion, and to keep the meeting moving forward. Minutes offer accountability points, acknowledgement for points of agreement, and record keeping of who attended and what was said or done. Anyone who has suffered through an academic meeting without these two crucial documents understands what happens when agendas and minutes are not provided. Teach students to create agendas and meetings for each meeting, and then grade them as part of the group project. Help students use their minutes as documentation that holds members accountable for the parts they play in the group. I’ve created a handy slide deck called “Keeping Groups Organized: Agendas and Minutes” for faculty to include either in their class or to place in their online teamwork module. 

2. Students do not know how to manage time and tasks to move projects forward. Whether managing an hour-long meeting or a semester-long project, students always seem to struggle with their use of time. Extremely cohesive teams spend time enjoying each other’s company rather than working. Struggling teams stall and fail to move the project forward. Teams argue over tardiness and deadlines. It all stems from a basic lack of understanding about how different people view time and how time can be managed over the course of a project. Faculty can help by asking students to set up ground rules about tardiness and deadlines. In my classes, we call this a team charter. The document helps students discuss and agree upon a set of behavioral and procedural norms for their group. I created a 5-minute presentation called “Norms and Charters” that you can use in class or inside your teamwork module. 

3. Students do not have training in basic conflict management skills. Conflict avoidance and escalation are two of the most common problems found in my nascent student groups. In most cases, my students are able to recall negative or hostile group climates that in some cases have led them to avoid the group entirely and to stop attending meetings. These experiences perpetuate the myth that the best conflict is an avoided one. In reality, we come into conflict with co-workers every day. When students describe years of doing projects on their own, I ask why they didn’t confront those they thought were slacking. Most admit that it was easier to do the work than confront another person. By using some fundamental conflict management strategies, we can manage our disagreements, and even use them to move a project forward. One important lesson I share is called “Improving Group Climate.” And this brief presentation on Conflict Management helps students understand conflict and provides strategies for managing it.

4. Students have not learned to divide work and hold others accountable. Lazy group members is the number one complaint I hear from students. Everyone else slacks off and one person does the work. The assumption is that other people are just slackers. We know from research on social loafing that human beings’ natural tendency is to reduce their own effort when they know others are working on a collective task (Karau and Williams, 1993). The question is, how do we reduce this tendency and even out the workload? The answer is a combination of the previous three points. First help students learn to keep track of tasks, and how to set reasonable deadlines. You might encourage them to create a weekly calendar or offer a list of common tasks that your groups are expected to complete. Second, teach students to use agendas and minutes to track tasks and due dates. Finally, provide language for productively confronting others when work isn’t done on time. I share this post from Harvard Business Review to show how this issue comes up in a business environment, and offer strategies for dealing with it. 


Unlike writing, the teaching of these skills is not currently woven into many classes, and most students will never take a group communication course. Ideally, faculty should offer short group work lessons or resources as part of their existing course. Our team at The University of Texas at San Antonio Teaching and Learning Services has created a set of resources , some of which I’ve mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, which can be presented in class or adapted for use in a Learning Management System module like Canvas or Blackboard. You’ll also find resources on how to give group presentations, another skill we typically assess, but don’t always teach.

All workgroups, even the most enjoyable ones, offer a multitude of challenges. That is precisely the reason we need group work in a wide variety of courses. It is unfair, however, to continue to set students up for failure or create unnecessary struggles, because we are not providing the necessary tools and fundamental knowledge that leads to success. 


Mary Dixson currently serves as Associate Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Services for The University of Texas at San Antonio. She leads faculty development efforts to promote teaching excellence across the university. She has twenty years of experience teaching communication courses at various colleges and universities. She holds a PhD in Communication Studies and certification in nonprofit management from the University of Texas at Austin. She conducts workshops and consults with organizations and individuals on communication skills and team building. She is also a lucky wife, a devoted, if sometimes frazzled mother, an avid gardener, and a slow runner.


Karau, Steven J.; Williams, Kipling D. (1993). "Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 65 (4): 681–706. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.65.4.681. ISSN 0022-3514.

Making the Case for Case Studies

April 4, 2018

By Amber Chenoweth


The Dilemma

Professor Andrews has been struggling to find a way to engage her students in ways to be scientifically literate and be aware of pseudoscience. All she gets are blank stares from her students when she brings up the topic! “How can I engage them in thoughtful discussion and help them see the relevance in their daily lives?” she thought to herself.

A student sits in the back of a classroom with his arms folded and a blank stare on his face.
Recognize this look? [Image: Torres 21,, CC BY-SA 2.0,]

Finding a Solution

Professor Andrews approaches a colleague, Professor Smith, with her dilemma. Professor Smith suggests that she consider using a case study.

“A case study? How would that work? And where would I find the time to create one? My class is tomorrow!” laments Professor Andrews.

“There are a lot of great resources out there for case studies. Many are already peer reviewed, classroom tested, and ready for you to use,” replies Professor Smith. “Go to the website for the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science. They have over 700 peer reviewed case studies, complete with materials to help you use them effectively in the classroom.”

“But aren’t those for courses in Biology?” inquires Professor Andrews. “Where am I going to find something appropriate for my Intro Psychology course?”

“While a good number of their cases are developed by instructors in and geared towards the ‘hard sciences,’ they have cases written for and can be translatable across many disciplines. I've found several that work wonderfully in my Psychology courses,” replies Professor Smith. “Look – this one will work for the exact topic you’re wanting!” Professor Smith shows Professor Andrews a case study called Tragic Choices: Autism, Measles, and the MMR Vaccine.

“Perfect! And the teaching notes look helpful, too!” exclaims Professor Andrews.

The following week Professor Smith and Professor Andrews talk about her experience using the case study in class.

“It was great! The students were engaged in the material and with each other. The class discussion was so much richer – the case stimulated more creative thinking, and they wanted to learn more.” says Professor Andrews. “They’re already asking about when we’ll use another one in class!”

Reality or Wishful Thinking?

You may be asking yourself, “Does this seriously work?” I get it. It sounds too good to be true and seems like a way to get out of lecturing. But we need to get away from only lecturing! The literature is clear: when students are engaged in the learning process, they develop better critical thinking skills, and retain concepts for a longer period of time (Krain, 2010). Case studies are just one of a multitude of ways to achieve this level of engagement, and I would argue one of the easiest to implement.

I have used case studies as a part of my own pedagogy in the last three to four years, having stumbled upon a case study website in pursuit of Open Education Resources for another project. My initial interest in using case studies was further strengthened by attending a weekend conference in 2015 hosted by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (NCCSTS) based in SUNY Buffalo. There I learned best practices for using case studies in the classroom, and attended a session on how to write my own case studies. Overall, the take-home message was clear: case studies can be used in a variety of courses to engage students in special topics and strengthen understanding of existing concepts.

As an example, one of the topics I like to explore with my students in my Biopsychology course is on the distinction between sex and gender, particularly as awareness of transgender issues has become more prevalent on my and other college campuses. I like to use the case Nature or Nurture: The Case of the Boy Who Became a Girl, which presents the real life story of David Reimer who was born Bruce, but after a botched circumcision was gender reassigned as Brenda and raised as a girl. The Biopsychology text I use talks about the same animal research evidence discussed as part of the case study, but presenting this case as a story where students can explore additional aspects beyond the science – the clear ethical questions, and deeper discussion about gender identity – makes for a richer experience and understanding.

Screenshot of a case study from the NCCSTS website
The NCCSTS offers a catalog of case studies that is easy to search and which includes high quality instructional resources. [Image: NCCSTS,]

I also like to use Tragic Choices: Autism, Measles, and the MMR Vaccine mentioned in the vignette above in an interdisciplinary course I team teach with a theatre colleague, exploring Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) through performance. A goal of this course is to gain an understanding of the science of ASD, which includes students critically thinking about the evidence presented about causes of and treatments for ASD. In addition to looking at the scientific evidence supported, we can expand the discussion to explore how social influence perpetuates pseudoscience.

As a final example, I enjoy using the case Joe Joins the Circus (or Elephant Love): A Case Study in Learning Theory when covering the concepts of classical and operant conditioning in Introductory Psychology, and can push students beyond the case when used in my Learning course. This case guides students to think critically about the types of conditioning used, as well as applying the learning principles to the characters in the case. This application component is key to increasing student retention of the concepts. The NCCSTS case study search feature on their website is also quite helpful in finding cases to address specific concepts, methods, and even level of education to best meet your student outcomes. When I first started looking for cases to illustrate learning principles for my Introductory and Learning courses that led to finding Joe Joins the Circus, for example, I did a simple keyword search for “learning theory,” and it was among the top results.

The Positives

As noted in my experiences above, there are many positives to using case studies in the classroom. First, the story-telling format is engaging and relatable. Many of the students get into the story, and for some I even have them act it out and become the characters.

Case studies lend themselves to small group work. In my observations, I have found that this allows for more opportunities for participation, particularly from my quieter students. By discussing their thoughts to the question prompts in the case in a smaller group, I can see that they are engaged, even if they opt to not be the group spokesperson when it comes time to share as a larger group.

I have also observed in my own students a desire to go beyond the questions in the initial case prompts. Students want to find meaning and application for the concepts covered in courses, and to understand why and how something happens. Often times this pushes me to extend my own thinking on the topic, and I can model how I approach and grapple with critically thinking through these ideas. This translates into allowing a more in-depth experience with a topic that might only get superficial coverage in a text, as I noted above in my example of exploring sex and gender in my Biopsychology course.

Be Prepared

While the case study approach, in my experience, is overwhelmingly positive, there are things that instructors need to be aware of when adopting case studies into their pedagogy.

First, classroom time management is key. Cases can often take longer than you may anticipate. One feature as part of the cases found on the NCCSTS website are that they include an approximate time frame. However, to allow for learning differences in the classroom, as well as extended discussion on topics, I try to allot some buffer time. One tip that has also come in handy is to hold firm to time limits. Set a timer for students to work on a given section of the case and hold them to it. For longer cases, or ones that draw upon supplemental literature, you can also make use of a flipped format, asking students to complete readings outside of class and come prepared to apply the concepts to the case to be discussed in class.

An instructor stops to interact with a student group.
Case studies give instructors the chance to practice their skills as "guide on the side". Monitoring discussions and offering input when groups get stuck or off topic is essential. [Image: Georgia Southern University,, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0,]

Second, and this will come as no surprise to even the most inexperienced instructor, students + small group work = off-topic chit-chat. While this may seem inevitable, there are some ways to mitigate. One method I often employ is to assign the small groups so students are less likely to end up in a group of just their immediate friends in the class. Another method, regardless of group assignment, is to be present in the room, walking around, checking in on understanding, and holding them accountable as they do their small group work. This can also provide impromptu opportunities to identify concepts that multiple groups may be struggling with and taking a class “time out” to clarify issues, or to offer encouragement as they discuss their responses to the case prompts. This has the added benefit of giving you some ideas for students to call on when you come back together as a group.

Additional Recommendations

Use the case study beyond the classroom session. In my experience, students are more engaged with the case if it is used beyond the single classroom session. I often make “call back” references to case studies in later class sessions, or ask them to incorporate what they learned from applying concepts in the case to later quizzes, exams, or other assessment opportunities. For example, I will have students do follow-up assignments with the cases, challenging them to expand upon the key points covered in the case and incorporating additional literature.

Modify cases to fit your needs. The cases available through NCCSTS have been developed by instructors to meet the needs for their own courses, but their specific learning outcomes may not match yours. The NCCSTS actually encourages instructors to modify cases to fit their needs, and even provides instructions. I have done this for cases where I may want to have students focus on the psychological concepts of a case that may include more advanced biological concepts.

Can’t find a case that fully meets your needs? Create your own case studies. Or even have your students create cases. I have personally found developing my own cases as fun opportunities to engage in creative writing that can be fulfilling in ways that scientific publication does not always allow. You can also share your cases with the teaching community through an easy submission format to NCCSTS. They also have workshop and other training opportunities for you to learn about how to use case studies in the classroom as well as how to develop your own case studies.


The following semester Professors Andrews and Smith are talking over coffee.

“I’m so glad you suggested using case studies last semester,” exclaims Professor Andrews. I’ve added more cases to my Intro Psych course this semester and the students are more engaged and even scored better on their first exam compared to last semester.”

“That’s wonderful! What topics have you done? I’m always looking for more ideas,” replies Professor Smith.

“I found a great one for learning theory, and cases on eyewitness memory and psychological disorders. I also found a great case to use in the social psychology unit that looks at unintentional racism, and another I use in the development unit that examines autism.”

Professor Andrews found many cases to meet the needs of her class. What topics in your course could you enhance with a case study?

Author note: This blog post was adapted from a presentation delivered by Dr. Chenoweth at the Society for the Teaching of Psychology Annual Conference on Teaching in San Antonio, TX, October 2017.

Author Bio

Dr. Amber M. Chenoweth is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology, and Honors Program Director at Hiram College (Hiram, OH). She recently completed a Mellon Fellowship to develop with a team of her colleagues Hiram’s Connect initiative to engage students in reflective and integrative learning. Dr. Chenoweth teaches courses on the psychobiology of behavior, introductory and career preparation courses in the psychology major, and team-taught interdisciplinary courses, ranging in topics from autism spectrum disorder to study abroad courses in Australia and Zambia. She is passionate about teaching, advising, faculty development, and using technology creatively in the classroom.

Building Relationships with Online Students

March 26, 2018

By Ann Kwinn

Why Do I Care About Developing Relationships with Students?

There is an element of my life that has been a quest to uplift the introvert. I even wrote an article once called Diary of an Introvert (the magazine changed it to The Introverted Trainer) in which I said that I wished I could wear a contraption at conferences that dispensed business cards, saying: “Please take a card”, in an automated parking gate voice. Clearly, the first introvert I had to uplift was myself, but then I branched out to others.

In academia, we cannot really automate our compassion for our students. It must be done in a one on one fashion, but we can plan for it. We can create assignments that allow everyone to participate, not just the eager few in the front rows, like Mark Holscher who always stole my jokes in grade school. We can have an intention and strategy for learning every student’s name. Flashcards, anyone? There are many methods we can use to build relationships with and among our students that contribute to greater learning. Even in the online environment which might seem fundamentally less a place where genuine connections are possible we can establish meaningful “social presence” in our courses.

Social Presence

Social what? Did I just hear the record needle scratch across the record? Social presence is the sense of being with another (Biocca, Harms & Burgoon, 2003), the degree to which a person is perceived as a real person (Gunawardena, 1995), and a student’s sense of belonging in a course by way of their ability to interact with other students and the instructor (Picciano, 2002). Learning environments with social presence are sociable, warm, and personal.

Students in blended learning (online and face to face) environments report higher satisfaction in classes that promote social presence (So and Brush, 2008, Richardson and Swan, 2003). Picciano (2002) found a positive correlation between the level of students’ perceptions of social presence in their courses and higher results on learning measures.

Social presence requires that students feel known. Various tools and techniques can help to promote social presence.

Discussion Boards

One of the great things about online learning is that everyone participates in discussions. It’s all laid out and tracked. You can see who participates – Check that off the list. But are the students feeling it? Some guidelines for developing discussion board/forum questions that make best use of the sharing aspect of the tool are:

● Ask principle-based questions versus procedural ones. Principle-based tasks are not done the same way every time. They require judgement (i.e. how to conduct some type of therapy vs how to fill out a form).

● Ask students to write out applications of a task or examples of a concept (i.e. describe someone who is displaying one of the five personality types we discussed in class) vs asking for memorized guidelines or definitions.

● Ask students for a personal aspect in the answer (i.e. Have you ever met someone who exhibited such and such characteristic? Please describe how they behaved. Otherwise, cite someone from literature.).

 Some benefits of the last recommendation are:

● Students cannot copy each other’s answers and

● Students’ talking about themselves increases social presence. 

Personalized Feedback in Grading

When I taught for Walden University (online), they asked us to give positive comments publicly and negative ones privately. In terms of discussion boards, you can use the discussion board grading/comments feature or private e-mail to criticize, challenge, etc. and create a discussion board reply or the announcements to praise. A good practice is to ask questions in the forum about the forum posts. This is a positive way to be constructive. Say “yes, and” such as in: “Yes, learning objectives do include action and condition statements as you mentioned, Evelyn, and they also include a statement of criterion."

Here we see that wonderful tool for social presence, using the student’s name. They say it is the most beautiful word in the English language to those who hear it.

Collaborative Work

While some students groan at the thought of group projects - aka the Slackers vs the Control Freaks epic rap battle - when structured correctly, group projects can help students get to know each other in a positive context. Rather than quickly assembling students into a team to complete a rough assignment, follow these guidelines: 

● create 2-5 member teams

● assign membership based on a variety of skill levels, interests, etc.

● use a defined collaborative methodology, such as problem based learning or jigsaw

● give assignments that are complex enough to benefit from collaboration

● assign team roles

● give clear directions

● give individual, group and peer grades and

● provide a space for online collaboration such as Google Hangout. 

Use of Synchronous Sessions

Google Hangout is one of many synchronous, web conferencing or virtual classroom software tools you can provide to students for group work or for you to conduct live online class sessions, meetings, office hours and so on. Other tools include Zoom, GoToMeeting, Adobe Connect, Microsoft LiveMeeting and Elluminate. You have probably used one of these tools if you have attended a webinar. They can save time and travel for meetings and they can also promote social presence for online courses that are otherwise asynchronous (following the more traditional model of faculty posting assignments, students’ completing them and then faculty grading them - all at different points in time).

The gold standard for virtual classes is high participant interaction with the use of features such as polling, chat, audio, whiteboard annotation and use of emoticons - all of which are supported by most virtual classroom tools.

Use of Faculty Video

Faculty can also create asynchronous video that students can view anytime. Our university installed a video recording studio or “one button studio” last year for faculty, staff and students. It was designed to be very easy to use, with the camera mounted on a track on the wall and all equipment powered by one switch and controlled by a few buttons. Faculty can be on camera or speak over a slide deck or other media running from their computer.

Screencastify is another tool we promote. It works with the Chrome browser and provides desktop video and screen capture - for intro videos, software demos, recorded slides, etc.

Video allows students who would not otherwise have much or any contact with you as a real living person to see you in motion, hear your voice, and get to know you. Paloff and Pratt (2007) stated that the leanness of text or its lack of visual and auditory information and the fragmented quality of asynchronous online interactions can lead to a “sense of loss among learners” (p. 31). A way to combat this is to strive to increase students’ social presence with the use of video. “Online video helps with establishing a social presence for both the instructor and student.” (Conrad, 2015).

Final Thoughts (and Lyrics)

I recently watched the movie, The King and I. In it,Deborah Kerr sings a song my dance group used to sing:

As a teacher I’ve been learning.

You’ll forgive me if I boast.

And now become an expert

On the subject I like most:

Getting to know you. 

Getting to know our students is not elective. It is not just a pleasant tangent in the course of teaching. It directly promotes learning and is especially essential in online courses. Relationship building or the creation of social presence can be fostered through the use of simple-to-use and readily available tools and techniques like discussion boards, personalized and supportive feedback in grading, collaborative work, synchronous sessions and faculty video.

So uplift your introverts and harness the best energy of your extroverts and everyone on the continuum in between. You’ll build a more enjoyable classroom environment for everyone and boost learning in the process.


Ann Kwinn is Associate Professor & Director of Instructional Strategy for the Office of Innovative Teaching & Technology at Azusa Pacific University, consulting with faculty and developing programs in instructional technology strategy. Ann was VP, Interactive Learning for CallSource and Director of e-Learning for Clark Training & Consulting co-writing the book, The New Virtual Classroom, with Ruth Clark. She is co-author of the e-books, The eLearning Guild’s Handbook on Synchronous eLearning and the Guild Research 360 Report on Synchronous Learning Systems. She has consulted with and taught for Bellevue and Walden Universities and is on a board at UC Irvine.


Biocca, F., Harms, C. & Burgoon, J.K. (2003) Toward a more robust theory and measure of social presence: review and suggested criteria. Presence, Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 12(5), 456-480.

Conrad, O. (2015) Community of Inquiry and Video in Higher Education: Engaging Students Online, ERIC Research Report, May.

Gunawardena, C. N. (1995). Social presence theory and implications for interaction and collaborative learning in computer conferences. International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 1 (2/3), 147-166.

Palloff, R. M & Pratt, K (2007) Building online learning communities: Effective strategies for the virtual classroom (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Picciano, A.G. (2002). “Beyond student perceptions: Issues of interaction, presence and performance in an online course.” Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 6(1).

Richardson, J. and Swan, K. (2003). “Examining social presence in online courses in relation to students’ perceived learning and satisfaction.” Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 7(1). Retrieved from

So, H. J., & Brush, T. A. (2007). Student perceptions of collaborative learning, social presence, and satisfaction in a blended learning environment: Relationships and critical factors. Computers & Education. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2007.05.009 

Were cavemen (and women) happy?

March 7, 2018

By Robert Biswas-Diener

Prehistoric psychology may be an overlooked opportunity to help students develop critical thinking skills.

A backpacker on the trail.
In 1992, while still a teenager, I grabbed a backpack and headed to Asia. I spent months exploring remote corners of India and Nepal. I am guilty—I admit—of wearing the memory of this trip as a badge of superiority. Occasionally, when I speak with a millennial about to embark on a modern version of the same voyage, I am taken aback. Because of the Internet, my younger counterparts are able to book rooms on-line and use Google Earth to explore their destinations right down to individual park benches and shady spots at the beach. “The good ol’ days,” I am tempted to say to them, “when traveling was an adventure!” Of course, in these moments of weakness I am reminded of the aged hippies I met in the Himalayas in the early-nineties. They shook their heads sadly at me and said, “you should have been here in the sixties; now, that was real travel!” I am certain that my great grandmother could have scolded them on their fancy air travel; advocating for the good ol’ days when ship travel ruled. It is a familiar trope: Back and back we can go. Each generation longing for the times of old when, certainly, things were better.

Which brings us to the intriguing question: If we go back all the way—to the paleolithic era and the advent of modern humans—were times, indeed, better? A fascinating new Noba chapter on Paleolithic happiness by Darrin McMahon, the Dartmouth historian and author of Happiness: A History, ponders exactly this question. While McMahon cautions against romanticizing the lives of our Stone Age forebears, he also suggests life may not have been awful. Perhaps it had a little more Flintstones fun and not as much Jurassic Park terror. It is difficult to pinpoint the quality of life of paleolithic people but, despite the absence of written records, it is possible. According to McMahon:

  • The small human population likely meant that turf wars and border skirmishes were less common than they are today.
  • The fossil record seems to suggest that our nomadic hunting and gathering ancestors died of starvation at a lower rate than did their post-agricultural revolution counterparts.
  • The “work week” of hunter-gatherers is significantly shorter than the modern work week (many estimates based on modern hunter-gatherer societies suggest a 20-hour work week).
  • Smaller family and community groups also suggests much lower rates of the spread of epidemic illnesses.
A cave painting of human figures.

Are these indicators proof that prehistoric humans were happy? Not really. Even so, more free time, better health, greater good security, and the ability to flee violence appear desirable. McMahon’s most interesting argument is not found in food, health, or work. Instead, he makes the case that human psychology has changed in important ways over the last ten millennia or so, and that this change can clearly be seen in the case of happiness.

In English, “happiness” is a word that was originally associated with good luck. To be happy, in other words, was to have good fortune. In olden days, a person’s happiness was an “easy come, easy go” phenomenon. Some days had good weather and plentiful fruit to eat and other days had rainstorms and the occasional rampaging mammoth. It is even possible to see vestiges of this type of fatalism in traditional societies in the modern era. Certainly, the ability to accept the whims of fate represented a psychological resilience in the unpredictable landscape in which our ancestors lived.

It is easy and interesting to contrast that attitude with the contemporary one. Nowadays, people—especially those in technologically and economically developed societies— have a very different mindset. Most of us believe that we are agents in our own lives: capable of affecting outcomes ranging from finding meaning at work to adjusting our optimism about the future. We believe—at least intuitively—that we are so powerful that we can make missing luggage appear by complaining or affecting the sales of products and services by leaving on-line reviews. While this modern attitude makes us feel powerful, it is also quite a responsibility to bear. Simply put, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that if we aren’t happy it is somehow partly our own fault.

In the end, the question of whether cave people were happy is less about arriving at a single factual conclusion and more about how to make a reasonable case one way or the other. McMahon offers evidence to support his conclusion but it is easy to think of refutations. Here is where a chapter like this can be used as a classroom or homework assignment to promote students’ research acumen and critical thinking. Consider the example assignment below:

Target article:

McMahon, D. M. (2018). From the Paleolithic to the present: Three revolutions in the global history of happiness. In E. Diener, S. Oishi, & L. Tay (Eds.), Handbook of well-being. Salt Lake City, UT: DEF Publishers.


In the target article referenced above, the author makes the case that early humans enjoyed a relatively—even surprisingly high—quality of life. He offers a review of research and of historical trends to support his conclusion. After reading the article, reflect on the degree to which you found it persuasive. Did the author convince you? Do you have lingering doubts? If so, what are they? Write a one-page response paper in which you assess the evidence presented by the author. Present any concerns you have about gaps in the evidence, or evidence pointing to a different conclusion. To do so, you will need to conduct a brief literature review and cite sources.

The chapter on paleolithic happiness is just one of 60 new chapters available at Noba’s scholarly sister-site, Noba Scholar. Where Noba Project provides modules for undergraduate and high school level instruction, Noba Scholar is intended for an advanced understanding of psychology (Honors or graduate students, or those holding an advanced degree). Currently, Noba Scholar is host to the Handbook of Well-being. This handbook is an edited volume that includes chapters on culture, assessment, theories, intervention, correlates and other areas related to happiness. More comprehensive handbooks on other topics will be published in the future. Feel free to check it out, share it, and let us know what you think.


Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is the senior editor of the Noba Project and author of more than 50 publications on happiness and other positive topics. His latest book is The Upside of Your Dark Side.

Maximizing our Time: Tips for Students and Faculty

February 28, 2018

By Rodney Schmaltz

It’s almost that time of year again…midterms are here, assignments are due, and students are panicking. In fact, based on the literature, the majority of students are not as prepared as they would like to be. Nearly 70% of students report that procrastination is a problem, with a meager 4% reporting that it is not an issue (Schowenburg et al., 2004). As instructors, we’ve all experienced the frustration of telling students to start studying early, to avoid cramming, and to schedule properly. While these are all sound pieces of advice, I wonder how many academics actually follow them? Perhaps part of the reason that students do not use their time effectively is that they have poor role models – their instructors! Academics are known to struggle with many of the same issues as students. For most of us, there is always that manuscript that can wait another day, or the research project that will get off the ground as soon as there is enough time. It’s not surprising that a small number of academics account for the majority of published work (Boice, 2000). What makes these academics different?

A student sitting between a clock and a calendar puts his head down on his desk in frustration.

To help both students and faculty, I recommend following the guidance of Robert Boice. Boice studied academics and was interested in what separated those who were productive from those who were not. While his work focused on college and university faculty, there are aspects of his rules that are beneficial to students. I initially incorporated these rules into a lecture at the beginning of term for students in my advanced level courses. I realized though, that students benefit from receiving this information earlier in their studies. As such, my introductory classes now receive a similar lecture. Here is an adapted version of the key rules that I discuss with students.

Rule 1: Wait.

Boice (2000) found that people who managed their time well did not jump into work. This may seem counterintuitive to anyone who has a busy schedule. Often we feel like we are running from one task to the next. By “waiting”, Boice recommends taking a few moments and gathering your thoughts or meditating before starting work. One way to think about this is to consider what you do when you start your work day. Do you turn on the computer and jump straight to email? Does the day begin rushing into the classroom? If that sounds like you, consider taking a few moments before beginning a task and relaxing, while deciding how best to spend the next block of your time. Even as little time as a few minutes to gather and compose your thoughts can be valuable. The mindset of someone who has taken a few minutes to relax and reflect is much different than a person who rushes into work in a panic. The quality of the work will very likely be higher, and the task will be less stressful. This applies to students. Before a study session or work on a paper, I tell students to take two minutes to take a few deep breaths, consider exactly what they want to get done with the time they have allotted to study, and then to begin the work. A student who rushes into a study session worried about all the material that has to be covered will have a much different experience than a student who relaxes, decides what needs to be done, and approaches the material in a calm and focused manner.

Rule 2: Work in Brief Daily Sessions.

Boice was a strong advocate of starting tasks well in advance of deadlines and working in brief daily sessions. It’s well established that binge working is a poor strategy (e.g., Boice, 1989). In fact, Boice (1997) found that binge working is associated with poor health, lowered creativity, and leads to more binge working. By starting tasks early, and in regularly schedule intervals, there is time to reflect on the nature of the task and a reduction in stress. One reason that both students and faculty do not start early is that they do not feel prepared to begin. The reality is that with a difficult task, we rarely will ever feel ready to begin. By this, I mean that if we feel completely prepared to begin a task, it’s likely not one that we consider difficult!

By forcing ourselves to start early, we allow ourselves the flexibility to determine the best approach and have time to consider alternatives. When I discuss this idea in my courses, there is near unanimity among students that this is a good idea. However, when I ask the class a week later if anyone has actually implemented this strategy, the number of students who have started to work in brief, regular sessions is usually zero. To combat this, after I lecture on the value of this approach, I provide students with a handout of a weekly calendar. I ask them to cross out all of the times they know they are busy, such as scheduled classes. I then instruct them to schedule the brief, daily sessions. To help reinforce this, I have students share with each other in small groups when they are going to complete their brief, daily sessions, and on what assignment or task they will be working on. The addition of these social contingencies seems to help, as students start talking about who has maintained their schedule.

Rule 3: Know When to Stop.

An illustration of a professor in a hurry to get to class.
By knowing when to stop, we can refer to two things. One is the idea that we should recognize when we are no longer productive and either take a break at this point or move to a different task. The other, and perhaps more important idea, is that we need to stop and allow ourselves enough time to prepare for future important tasks. William James, who published over 54, 000 pages during his lifetime (clearly a busy fellow), would stop what he was doing ten minutes before any class that he was teaching. He would use this time to go for a quick walk, clear his mind, and focus on the material and task ahead. Compare entering the classroom with this mindset versus a professor who works until the last minute before class, runs to make it to class on time, and jumps into the lecture material. Who is going to give the better presentation? On top of this, students pick up on the hurried pace of the instructor and can sense the anxiety.

This advice applies to students as well, and ties back to the first point of waiting. Before beginning an intense study session, students may want to consider taking a brief walk, or some other activity to clear their minds and prepare for the task ahead.* That is, they need to stop what they are doing and give themselves enough time to adequately prepare for the next task at hand.

(*I advise against staring at a computer screen. It can be more beneficial to get some fresh air, or even just walk around campus (e.g., Passmore & Holder, 2016).

Rule 4: Moderate Overreaction and Overattachment. 

It is difficult to deal with criticism. Boice found that people who are successful are able to take criticism and find value in it. As academics, we receive our fair share of criticism through rejected manuscripts or less than enthusiastic student evaluations. Students receive a stream of criticism through incorrect exam answers, feedback on papers, and grades in general. As instructors, we’ve all encountered students who come to our office hours angry with the amount of red ink on a paper they have written. I always sympathize with students in this situation, as in general, we are not trained on how best to receive criticism. Students do not realize the amount of work that goes into grading a paper and providing feedback, and that the reason we do this is to help them improve. I begin many of my courses by explaining the value of criticism to students, and importantly, what to do with criticism. Nearly all criticism can be of value. Rather than being threatened by criticism, students should look over feedback, and decide how best to use this feedback to improve. This is a valuable skill. As students enter the workforce or graduate school, they will continue to receive criticism. Those that can take this information and use it to their advantage will be more successful. 

Nihil Nimus

Boice states that if there is an overarching theme to what he has found, it can be stated as ‘nihil nimus’, roughly translated as “everything in moderation”. By easing into work, scheduling brief, daily sessions, knowing when to stop, and moderating emotions, both faculty and students are going to be more productive and less stressed. I’ve only covered a small sample of the rules that Boice found. I strongly recommend that faculty look at Boice’s book, “Advice for New Faculty Members” (2000). As the title implies, this book is a great resource for new faculty, though I argue that his findings apply to anyone in academia who feel that they are not maximizing their time. As faculty, let’s lead by example, by teaching as well as demonstrating how to manage our time effectively.


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


Boice, R. (1989). Procrastination, busyness and bingeing. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 27(6), 605–611.

Boice, R. (1997). Which is more productive, writing in binge patterns of creative illness or in moderation? Written Communication, 14(4), 435–459.

Boice, R. (2000). Advice for new faculty members: Nihil Nimus. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Passmore, H.-A., & Holder, M. D. (2017). Noticing nature: Individual and social benefits of a two-week intervention. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1–10.

Schouwenburg, H. C., Lay, C. H., Pychyl, T. A., & Ferrari, J. R. (Eds.). (2004). Counseling the procrastinator in academic settings. (pp. xiii, 250–xiii, 250). Washington: American Psychological Association.