Noba Blog

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.

You Should Start a Teaching Conference

February 5, 2018

By Garth Neufeld


“I LOVE this conference! Thanks for organizing.”

“Thank you for an amazing conference that balanced fun, teaching, and evidence based practice.”

“I love the opportunity to connect with like-minded colleagues!”

The most important thing I ever did for my career was to show up to places where teachers congregated. I was fortunate to have this opportunity locally, through a psychology department that gathered weekly on campus, regionally, through annual conferences, and nationally, through the Advance Placement Reading and the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology. Though I think everyone can benefit from conversations about teaching, I also think there are people like me who are more naturally drawn to them. Sure, I could read books and articles about teaching, or I could watch videos and attend cyber-workshops. But, there is just something special about showing up and being around like-minded people. It’s energizing and it makes me a better teacher.

A group of psychology instructors participating in a round-table discussion.
A group of my energizing colleagues participating in a lively round-table discussion at the inaugural TIP NW Conference.

Arriving on the first day of class armed with evidence-based pedagogical decisions has given me so much confidence in my practice. Students appreciate hearing the justification for limiting electronics in the classroom, assessing professional development skills along with content, classroom advising, and the high demands of pre-class preparation. There’s a satisfaction in telling students that this class will actually help them in their lives, their education, and their future vocations. I assume that others, like me, find it difficult to keep up (catch up?) with new scholarship on teaching and learning while trying to balance work and life. But, what if there were places full of fun people who talked about this stuff along the Riverwalk in San Antonio? Over fried cheese curds and beer in Green Bay? Overlooking a fireworks competition from the top floor of a hotel in Vancouver? (All things I’ve experienced.)

In 2013 I decided that I might take a shot at starting a regional conference specifically focused on General Psychology. I had seen the data on the estimated number of students who take the course and after a quick survey of the region’s college catalogues I knew that teachers of Psych 100 were at institutions all over the Pacific Northwest. As a community college instructor, I had taught Intro Psych a lot. I had learned that it was a complicated course, offering so much in terms of skills and content. But, there were so many decisions to be made about how to structure it, how to deliver it, and how to meaningfully assess it. Surely I couldn’t be alone in my struggle to teach this course well. Surely others could benefit from conference programming and networking that had already affected the way I was teaching. And so the idea for Teaching Introductory Psychology Northwest was conceived – it would be a community of teachers, passionate about their practice, who work out the complexities, challenges, and opportunities of General Psychology. And, we wouldn’t just aim for college teachers like myself – we’d recruit all teachers, from high schools, technical colleges, and universities. Our diversity would enrich our conference experience.

Since I had been to so many conferences, I had already noted what I found to be the most engaging parts of conference programming. Through networking at these events I learned about available grants (one need only look at a conference program or website to see which organizations are supporting it). I took one step at a time. I sent an email. I inquired about this and that. I asked for help. Sometimes I made mistakes. I tried to learn from them.Finally, in April 2015 we launched the 1st Annual Conference on the Teaching of Introductory Psychology, Northwest. People came, they ate up the food and the programming, they wore the t-shirts, and they left really nice comments on the surveys. We had pulled it off.

TIP Northwest ( is now in its 4th successful year. Our single-day schedule is always jam-packed with teaching ideas, demos, and tools, and opportunities to network, all focused on the General Psychology course. While most of the programming is reserved for conference attendees to hear from one another, we also include inspiring invited speakers who are leaders in teaching and learning. This year we’re honored and excited to have Aaron S. Richmond as our Keynote.

As I have reflected on the experiences and successes of the past four years it occurred to me that I might have something to share with people who want to build a teaching community of their own in their city or region. So, I made a list - a detailed list that will help you start a teaching conference. And, while I was once making this stuff up as I went, I think I’ve been able to organize the process in a helpful way. Some of these items are quick tasks that simply require sending an email; others take some serious reflection, conversations, collaboration, and/or strategy. But, if you’re up for it, here’s my first and final piece of advice: take one step at a time.

Noba editor Robert Biswas-Diener wearing a TIP NW t-shirt and holding a TIP NW pint glass.
Noba senior-editor Robert Biswas-Diener relaxing in his office with some of his favorite TIP NW schwag from years 1-3.

Get Organized

  • Pull together a small team, identify strengths and delegate. If you can enlist well-connected folks, cross-institutionally, it will serve you well.
  • Start an email list of regional high school, college, and university teachers of psychology.
  • Select a conference date. Reserve a convenient location considering accommodations and parking.
  • Get a devoted conference email address.
  • Run conference finances through your institution or open a no-cost business checking account.
  • Figure out how you will take payment and register attendees.
  • Contact a local hotel to get a conference rate.

Get Money

  • Identify public and private organizations (e.g. STP, APA, APS, State Board of Education, etc.) that provide grant money for your conference.
  • Ask your institution for money.
  • Ask publishers for money.
  • Ask publishers to bring in a textbook author to speak.
  • Determine your conference registration fees.

Get Going

  • Invite excellent keynote speakers to the conference (to talk about teaching – you’d be surprised).
  • Put together a tentative conference program that includes talks, breakouts, meals, start and end times.
  • Email your conference website link to your email list, with a blurb about the conference and keynote speaker(s) and a link to registration.
  • Contact listservs through APA, TOPSS, STP, state college board, and anywhere else you can think of to advertise your conference website.

Get Quality

  • Bring in good conference catering. Leave an impression.
  • Design a good logo.
  • Print high quality conference programs and name tags.
  • Give away a unique and/or useful conference favors for attendees.

So, that’s how you might start a regional psych teaching conference. It looks like a lot of work because it is a lot of work. But keep in mind, the payoffs are huge both professionally and personally. Starting a regional conference will open doors, not only for you, but for anyone who attends. In this teaching-of-psychology world, professional growth is mostly about showing up, saying ‘yes’, and taking a first step.

You really should start a teaching conference.

TIP Northwest 2018 is happening on April 20th at Highline College. Submissions for Presentations are due on March 1st. For more information or to register, visit


Garth Neufeld is at Cascadia College in Bothell, WA. He is the founder of Teaching Introductory Psychology Northwest and the co-founder of the PsychSessions: Conversations About Teaching N’ Stuff podcast. Garth is the STP Director of Regional Conference Programming and the co-chair of APA’s General Psychology Initiative. He has served the national teaching of psychology community through the AP psychology exam reading, APA’s Summit on the National Assessment of Psychology, and APA’s Summit on High School Psychology Education. 

Exploring Sexual Landscapes

January 31, 2018

By Don Lucas and Jennifer Fox


Although we have been tasked with announcing the publication of Noba’s first human sexuality modules, talking about sex often makes people feel—uncomfortable. We certainly do not want to make you feel uncomfortable, so let’s ease into our conversations about sex by first talking about something else.


An illustration of a bicycle on an uphill climb towards the word "sex".

How about we begin by talking about…cycling? Colorado. And mountains.

Cycling down one of Colorado’s tallest mountains, Pike’s Peak, and its 14,115 feet of elevation, is both daunting and awe-inspiring. Imagine yourself doing it. Now put yourself back atop Pike’s Peak with a person named Avery by your side. Avery is eager to cycle the 156 steep turns that compose one of the highest roads in the world. But before descending, Avery turns to you, and says, “This is my first time ever riding a bicycle.

You exclaim, “You’re about to ride down the side of a mountain without knowing how to ride a bicycle!?”

To which Avery replies, “My parents become mute every time the subject of bicycling is broached, my religion says it’s only for making more bicycles, and my school just says, ‘don’t ride;’ but I’ve learned about bicycling from my friends, who are endlessly talking about it, and I’ve watched hundreds of hours of videos on the Internet about it—so I think I’m pretty prepared.”

“Oh, by the way, do I need a helmet; and where do I put my feet?”

Much like cycling down a mountain without ever riding a bike before, today’s sexual landscape is daunting, awe-inspiring, and filled with people completely unprepared for it. Harassment, sexting, unwanted pregnancies, safer sex, same-sex marriages, online dating, sexual consent, HPV, virtual love, gender nonbinary, and Netflix & chill—are parts of this complex sexual landscape, yet few people are properly educated to negotiate it. (Only a small minority of K-12 schools offer comprehensive human sexuality programs; whereas, a significant number of schools offer abstinence-only sex education programs, Guttmacher Institute, September 2017.)

To facilitate people’s abilities for fully exploring their own diverse and ever-changing sexual landscapes, we are pleased to announce the publication of two new Noba modules, The Psychology of Human Sexuality, and Human Sexual Anatomy and Physiology.

The Psychology of Human Sexuality examines the history of scientifically studying sex, sexual consent, sexual behaviors, biological sex, gender, sexual orientation, and definitions of normality. Human Sexual Anatomy and Physiology examines sexual anatomy, sexual response cycles, the brain and sex, pregnancy, birth control, sexually transmitted infections, sexual dysfunctions, and treatments. On their own or combined, these modules provide fundamental overviews of human sexuality.

Since sexuality is a basic driving force of human behaviors, these modules are relevant across all psychology courses. But they are especially relevant for introductory psychology. For example, the American Psychological Association’s publication, Strengthening the Common Core of the Introductory Psychology Course, recommends topics concerning human sexuality be incorporated into introductory psychology courses, so students can address such questions and societal concerns as: “The tendency for both medical professionals and the general public to asexualize people with physical disabilities,” “What are the ethical considerations of conducting sexuality research?,” “Paraphilias,” and “How can psychological research on sexuality improve people’s lives?” (American Psychological Association, March 2014, p. 34). Further, a review of the most popular introductory psychology textbooks found 90% of them significantly address human sexuality topics; and more than a third of them devote an entire chapter to human sexuality (Harrison et al., October 2013). Lastly, if you will allow us to be personal for a moment, in our combined 42 years of teaching, we have taught hundreds of topics within dozens of different psychology courses. And without pause, we both can say, no topics have had greater impacts on our students than topics concerning human sexuality. 

We hope you enjoy reading The Psychology of Human Sexuality and Human Sexual Anatomy and Physiology as much as we enjoyed writing them. We look forward to any questions, comments, or concerns you have about these modules. And we are excited about the potential of your students gaining information that will better allow them to navigate their sexual landscapes.

Don and Jen

Editor’s Note

These wonderful new modules are accompanied by an equally wonderful set of instructional materials, which includes a comprehensive instructor’s manual and integrated PowerPoint presentation, test questions, reading anticipation guides, and an adaptive student quiz. Instructors can access these resources by scrolling to the bottom of each module or by visiting the Instructor Resources section of the Noba website.


Don Lucas is a Professor of Psychology and Coordinator of the Psychology Department at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio, Texas. His teaching over the past three decades has earned him a number of accolades, including the Minnie Stevens Piper Professor Award. He is the author of Being: Your Happiness, Pleasure, and Contentment.

Jennifer Fox is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Advisor of Psi Beta at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio, Texas. As a Human Sexuality Educator and a mother of a spirited 7-year-old daughter, she is passionate about promoting sexual literacy for all ages.


American Psychological Association (March 2014). Strengthening the common core of the introductory psychology course. Retrieved from

Guttmacher Institute (September 2017). American teens’ sources of sexual health education. Retrieved from

Harrison, M. A., Zobler, J. E., Brelsford, G. M., & Koser, M. S. (October 2013). Is introductory psychology asexual? The General Psychologist. Retrieved from

Bell-Ringers: Sneaking Fun into Stats

January 29, 2018

By Janet Peters

For all you stats teachers out there – this one is for you.

TLDR: Negative student attitudes towards statistics can make teaching an already difficult course feel impossible. By incorporating bell-ringers into your weekly routine, you can sneak some applied material, opportunities for practice, and a little bit of fun/humor into your class without using a minute of class time.

The Difficulty of Teaching Stats

I don’t know about you, but I love statistics. I see the concepts in every news article I read, in every decision I make, and in every Facebook quiz I take (which, according to my most recent quiz, I’m 63% Beyoncé, and only 32% Taylor Swift. Who knew?). Unfortunately, the average student does NOT feel this way about statistics (at least in my experience).

Instead, I have found student opinion regarding statistics to be an impressive amalgamation of disdain, fear, and resentment (since the course is required). Indeed, research shows that students tend to have high anxiety and low perceived utility when it comes to taking stats courses. This is the disheartening reality with which anyone who teaches statistics is familiar. If you’ve never had student resistance to statistics and are only familiar with excited, eager students, you can stop reading here, this blog post is not for you (but please email me and share your secrets).

If you’re still reading, we agree that teaching statistics is hard. We want the class to be fun, engaging, informative, useful, and applied. Unfortunately, since we have limited time with our students, we must prioritize those goals. Consequently, we focus on information and memorization, which leads our content to become dry and abstract; we forget to show students that statistics can be fun and meaningful. It is no surprise then, that we undermine our primary goal of student learning and end up driving them away from quantitative courses.

So, what can we do? Obviously, this is a complex question that requires a systematic, multi-faceted response. I can’t give you that (at least not in this short space). However, I can help you take one step in the right direction. Bell-ringers are bite-sized practice problems that are designed to be fun, applicable, and don’t take a minute of class time. No, they aren’t a silver bullet – improving negative perceptions and/or getting rid of math anxiety requires a lot more intervention, but they are small, actionable behaviors that can improve student outcomes.

Example A: This is an example of “Stats in the Wild” wherein a statistical concept is illustrated by an everyday occurrence that a student might experience. Here, you could have them interpret the shape and variability of the distribution. Fun, quick, and applied practice.

What are Bell-Ringers?

The phrase “bell-ringers” is a term I borrowed from primary education. I haven’t found a formal definition of the concept, but the general consensus seems to be that bell-ringers are activities that elementary, middle, and high-school students complete at the beginning of the class to help students get focused after break and to serve as a “warm-up” to the class content.

I was intrigued by this idea and spent the next several semesters figuring out a way to make them work in my class. I’ll spare you the details of my epic failures (in class I would call those “developmental opportunities”), but those developmental opportunities led me to finalize my idea of bell-ringers as 1-2 sentence responses to a visually appealing picture (see below for an example). Essentially, the most important realization I had is that bell-ringers aren’t exams; I don’t need to grill the students for proficiency. Instead, I want to give them a chance to practice previous content (to facilitate retrieval practice) and to improve their attitude about stats by using funny and applied content.

Example B: Around the holidays, I like to get festive with my bell-ringers. An example prompt for this image: In one sentence, explain why this is a scary Halloween decoration.

Why I like Bell-Ringers

The Logistics: How I implement “Bell-Ringers”

The Goals

  • Help students apply and engage with the material
  • Provide low-stakes opportunities for practice and retrieval
  • Added bonus: Get students to attend class (and arrive on time!)


  • Pictures, memes, or any other creative media you might find (videos, songs, etc.)
  • See the “Where to find Bell-Ringers” section near the end of this article for a list of resources to help you get started


Below, I outline my approach to bell-ringers. I have a small class (roughly 20 students), no graduate student TAs, and typically 1-2 undergraduate TAs. The needs of your students may be different, so you should adapt this in a way that works for you and your students.

  • Set-Up
    • Each day, in the 1-10 minutes before class (as students enter the room,) I project one of the “bell-ringer” images up on the board.
    • I use jokes, memes, or even pictures from everyday life that I call "Stats in the Wild" (see example C).
    • As students enter the room and take their seats, they take the few minutes before class to explain how the image applies to concepts from class; usually just a sentence or two. By the time class starts, most students are done and have turned it in to the class TA.
    • To promote retrieval practice, I encourage (but do not require) that students complete the task from memory. 
  • Time
    • I keep the prompts very brief to ensure the responses can be completed in 1-3 minutes.
    • However, depending on the depth of the prompt, I will occasionally give them one or two minutes of class time if necessary (but I don't like to use class time unless I need to).
    • For me, this is the main benefit of bell-ringers: they sneak in practice without giving up precious class time.
  • Potential Adaptations
    • You don’t have to stick to images, you could use songs, video clips, popular novels, etc. For example, when reviewing the scales of measurement, I have a special edition “Disney Bell-Ringers” wherein the students identify the scale of measurement for different Disney scenarios (e.g., the length of Rapunzel’s hair; Ariel’s decision to be a human or a mermaid). I pull a lot from popular culture because I think it’s fun, but I make sure the prompts are written in such a way that the answer does not rely on knowledge of the movie/story/character/etc. For example, you don’t have to be familiar with the story of Rapunzel to know that length of hair is a ratio variable.
    • If you have an online class, you could post these as discussion questions to facilitate student discourse.
    • For more advanced students (an upper level stats class), you could flip the assignment, wherein the students themselves are assigned to find the images. It takes a higher level of learning to identify statistics in everyday life. 

Grading & Policies

Example C: This is one of my favorite images to use because it is so abstract – a perfect example of “Stats in the Wild” that makes students think. Easier prompt: Explain how this picture illustrates normal distributions. More difficult prompt: What course concept does this picture illustrate?
At the end of the semester, I pick 8 random days and give students a half-point of extra credit per day that they completed the bell-ringer (so they can earn up to four points).

Since the goal is to get students engaged with the content and trying to get them to think about stats outside the box, I grade these based on effort and completion. In my experience with these assignments, if the students are worried about their grades, they are less inclined to think creatively (and thus rely more on definitions, which undermines the whole goal of critical thinking and application). Plus, grading based on completion allows my undergraduate TAs to help. This is a win-win for me and the students – I can provide the students with the opportunity to practice course concepts and receive formative feedback without substantially increasing my own workload (though finding the pictures the first time through can be time consuming. Lucky for you I’ve given you a head start with access to a Google drive shared folder; see the “Where to Find Bell-Ringers” section, below).

I don’t allow make-up bell-ringers because they are extra credit and there are several opportunities throughout the semester to earn points. However, if a student is short on time, I always allow them to turn their response in later that day (to the class TA, under my office door, etc.).

Overall, I have found that the combination of formative grading, extra-credit, and flexible deadlines means I receive very few emails (complaints) about missed activities. Of course, you should use policies that work for you and your students!

Where to find these bell-ringers?

I find them everywhere – Pinterest, blogs, Reddit, Facebook, my everyday life, the list goes on. If you don’t spend as much time online as I do (and I hope you don’t), I’ve compiled some potential resources and tips to help you get started.

  • First, I created a presentation with several images I have used in the past (I rotate them based on what I find interesting, relevant, and funny). Please feel free to access this shared folder and I encourage you to contribute to it! If you are interested in contributing, I have created a “Community Bell-Ringers” file that you can add images directly into - I would love to see what you are doing in your classes!
  • Second, I follow the amazing “Not Awful and Boring Statistics” by Jessica Hartnett (she’s a genius). She updates weekly with all sorts of interesting stats content, so definitely worth following, even if you hate everything I have said about bell-ringers.
  • I also use content from Shit Academics Say (I follow them on Facebook to make it easier) and STP’s teaching website.
  • Finding them on your own
    • Pro Tip #1: Finding images is an area where you could leverage your more advanced undergraduate TAs. Assign them to find 3-5 pictures you could use – it forces them to think about the content and it helps you accumulate source material to use!
    • Pro Tip #2: You can also leverage the power of your students! Once they get the hang of the bell-ringers style, you can create an assignment that has them find their own bell-ringers related to the chapter/content that was assigned. I have received many an email over the years from students who stumbled across a stats meme or “stats in the wild” (they observe a concept related to stats in a really unique or abstract way). 


Teaching stats is not for the faint of heart. We do it because we love it, and it’s about time we share some of that passion and intrigue with our students! One way to do that is to incorporate funny, abstract, and visually appealing materials that force students to think outside the box and explain concepts in ways that go beyond memorizing definitions. Bell-ringers can help you do that!


Janet Peters is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychology at Washington State University Tri-Cities. She received her PhD in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from Colorado State University. Her current research interests center on effective pedagogical practices, particularly as they relate to the teaching of Introductory Psychology, Statistics, and Research Methods.

Plug-and-Play Modules for Teaching Scientific Reasoning Skills in Intro Psych

January 4, 2018

By Raechel Soicher


“Correlation is not causation.”

You know it. I know it. If we’re lucky, our students can at least parrot the phrase back to us at the end of the term.

But you and I also know the subtleties underlying this statement. We understand reverse causality and the third variable problem. We know that random assignment and a control group are critical elements for making claims of causality. We know how to look at a figure or table and make inferences about the type of research conducted. We can draw tentative conclusions tempered by the limitations inherent in the methodology used.

A parrot quoting the famous phrase, "Correlation is not causation".

And yet, while our students jump at the chance to tell us “correlation is not causation”, do they really know what it means? They typically understand that there are different types of research and we shouldn’t make any bold causal claims from the results of most of them. But they aren’t usually able to identify research methodology from a real-world example. They tend to try to identify independent variables in observational or correlational research. They confuse random sampling and random assignment. And while they’re busy getting confused in the details, they’re also missing out on applying scientific thinking to real-world examples and to topics that are relevant and interesting to them. They’re missing the bigger picture of being a critical consumer of information. They’re unable to tap into skills that will help them to better understand the world around them.

So, if you’re like me, you’ve likely spent an inordinate amount of time tweaking your teaching - choosing a different textbook that describes research methods better, emphasizing learning objectives related to scientific thinking in your syllabus, creating class assignments that help students practice scientific content and thinking. And, if you’re like me, you’ve been frustrated by the seeming lack of results that comes from modifying your teaching over and over again. So the gist of this post is that I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news. The bad news is that we’ve got a long way to go. The good news is that I’m about to introduce some teaching modules that have been shown to improve students’ scientific reasoning skills.

What are these magical modules?

In brief, the “Intro Psych Scientific Reasoning Modules” are a set of 8 independent classroom activities that can be used throughout the course of a regular introductory psychology class.

There are a few really great things about these modules:

  • They are about topics relevant to students. From distracted driving to study habits, from the relationship between sleep and academic success to naturopathic treatments for depression, each of the modules helps students understand that psychological science has interesting, real-world applications.
  • The modules are designed around one or more published scientific studies. We don’t always have to use made-up examples to help students understand research. Which is great because only real research studies come with the requisite messiness that helps students grow more comfortable with ambiguity and the gray areas that accompany most scientific explorations.
  • These modules are truly “plug-and-play” - they come with everything you could need to implement them immediately. This includes an instructor guide (complete with APA Guidelines 2.0 Objectives and a section at the end specific to GTAs and others new to teaching), PowerPoint slides, and student handouts. Just spend half an hour or so reviewing the materials before you want to use them in class and you should be ready to go.
  • The modules address a wide range of scientific reasoning skills including reading graphs and tables, making predictions, identifying variables, designing studies, and drawing conclusions.

A sample bar graph from the learning modules described in this post.
This figure appears in the “Methods” module which asks students to critically evaluate Karpicke and Blunt’s (2011) comparison of two study methods (practice retrieval and elaborative encoding) on test performance.

How do we know they work?

These modules were originally designed as a collaboration between Dr. Kathryn A. Becker-Blease at Oregon State University and Dr. Courtney Stevens and Dr. Melissa R. Witkow at Willamette University. This work was funded by the National Science Foundation DUE # 105060. In two separate, published studies, Dr. Stevens and Dr. Witkow tested the use of the modules in both community college and liberal arts college classrooms (see citations at end). In the first study, students in two sections of Intro Psych at Willamette University received instruction with a single module during their regular term. On their final exam, students answered data-based reasoning questions similar to those now on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). Students in the experimental sections performed better on MCAT questions than students in two control sections not receiving the modules. In a second study, the modules were similarly tested in classrooms at both 4-year and 2-year institutions. Again, students receiving the modules performed better on scientific reasoning outcome measures. Currently, Dr. Becker-Blease and her colleagues at Oregon State University are preparing evaluation data from large sections at a public university for publication. Spoiler alert: the results are favorable.

Anything else we should know?

Overall, researchers have found that implementing these modules in a wide variety of real college classrooms - large or small, 4-year or 2-year, seasoned instructors or graduate teaching assistants - is both feasible and effective for improving students’ scientific reasoning skills. More recently, the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP) funded a project to make these modules accessible to students with visual impairments. As a result of this generous Instructional Resource Award, a set of modules now exists complete with alt-tags, figure descriptions, and digital files for printing tactile graphs - everything a student with visual impairments would need to learn the same skills as our sighted students. Tactile graphs can be easily printed with a SwellForm printer - something most Disability Access offices already own (ask at your institution!). And, if your school doesn’t have this nifty machine, the School of Psychological Science at Oregon State University has some copies of the tactile graphs to be loaned out. Just email me.

How do I get these magical modules?

You can access all of the materials for the modules, including a “How-To” file at Yes, it’s that easy. The accessible materials are still under review, but you can request access by sending me an email ([email protected]). All modules are under a creative commons license which allows you to copy, remix, and distribute for any purpose.

Suggested Reading

Stevens, C. & Witkow, M.R. (2014). Training scientific-thinking skills: Evidence from an MCAT-aligned classroom module. Teaching of Psychology, 41(2), 115-121.

Stevens, C., Witkow, M.R., & Smelt, B. (2016). Strengthening scientific reasoning skills in Introductory Psychology: Evidence from community college and liberal arts classrooms. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 2(4), 245-260.


Raechel N. Soicher, M.A. is currently a PhD student at Oregon State University, focused on translating cognitive laboratory science to psychology classrooms. She has been teaching psychology for almost 10 years, cycling through all roles - adjunct, tenure-track professor, and now GTA. Raechel has a long history of working to improve psychology students’ outcomes and advocating for instructors at community college. As a member of the APA Graduate Student Science Committee, she works to bring attention to the role of pedagogical research in the larger field of psychological science. She can be reached via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @rnsoicher 

Thinking like a Psychological Scientist

January 3, 2018

By Erin I. Smith

Conversations about science, overheard in the hallway: “It’s just a theory, scientists haven’t proven that [what I believe is wrong]”, followed shortly by, “well, new research proves that [what I believe] is right.”

Sound familiar? As an instructor, I have had multiple experiences of students dismissing a well-accepted scientific theory because of personal beliefs or the over-extension of scientific research that is still ongoing. Perhaps you have had these experiences, too.

An illustration depicting a man with a digital information tidal wave of 1s and 0s about to break over his head.
[Image: Mark Smiciklas,, CC BY-NC 2.0,]
We live at a time in history when people have access to more information than ever before, a time where a simple internet search can yield millions of conflicting results in a fraction of a second. Yet the quantity of information does not address the quality of that information. In an era where science and pseudoscience can be packaged similarly, it’s increasingly important for students to develop the skills required to differentiate these claims.

With these challenges in mind I’ve authored a new module for Noba called Thinking like a Psychological Scientist. The module is designed as an introduction to the qualities of scientific thinking and theories that make science a trustworthy way to answer questions about the world, even if the claims are never proven. The module tackles concepts from the makings of a good scientific theory to null-hypothesis significance testing to the role of the scientist as an active participant in the scientific process. The goal of this module is to help students understand why science is a valuable tool in knowledge—even though its claims are based on probability—and how that knowledge is derived. For example, I spend some time in the module discussing how a researcher can interpret research results. When the data support their hypothesis, has the hypothesis been proven? When the data do not support their hypothesis—or are even in the opposite direction of the hypothesis!—does that mean that the hypothesis has been disproven? No! After any of these circumstances, there are a number of important questions that researchers, and their peer-reviewers, will ask. I spend some time on these different outcomes to help students understand research in context.

Although the module is primarily conceptual (rather than a practical how-to of research), I believe it can complement a variety of classroom goals. For example, it can be used at an introductory level to lay the foundations to the methods of scientific thinking. It could also be used at a more advanced level, as instructors guide their students in identifying and applying these concepts to real research. Throughout the Instructor Manual and PowerPoint presentation that accompany the module, I have highlighted various optional activities that can be removed for a basic introduction or used to enhance more advanced students understanding of these concepts. You’ll also be happy to know that for this module instructors have access to test questions, an adaptive student quiz, and a reading anticipation guide

It is my goal that this module will not just be another piece of information; I hope that you will find the module useful in your instruction and in the formation of your students as developing scientific thinkers. I invite you to check out Thinking like a Psychological Scientist, give your feedback on it, and consider recommending it to your colleagues whose students may also benefit from its use.


Erin I. Smith is Associate Professor of Psychology at California Baptist University. She earned her PhD in Developmental Psychology at the University of California, Riverside. She was recently a visiting scholar in science and religion with SCIO (Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford) and currently serves as the director for the Center for the Study of Human Behavior at CBU. Her research focuses on the psychological processes that influence how individuals engage in the science-religion dialogue, especially as related to science rejection, and the empirical measurement of the effectiveness of church ministries for children.