Tag Archives: Intro

“Writing-to-Learn” in Intro Psych

While flying to the APS convention in Washington DC today, I was perusing a back-issue of the journal Teaching of Psychology. I came across an interesting article that made me consider a new paper-writing option for my intro psych class. In two studies, the researchers asked intro psych students to upload 16 brief (1-2 paragraph) statements that expanded on one concept from a 10-concept shortlist from each chapter. The paragraphs were graded for completion only (just a check to make sure they were topical), and were then coded for topic choice. Students responded better to midterm exam questions on topics they had previously written about than to questions on topics they had not previously written about–even when students had been told specifically which concepts to write about (Study 2).

What I’m finding particularly intriguing about this study is that (a) students seemed to learn the concepts better after writing about them, (b) the task seems pretty simple and straightforward for students (“What I learned about the concept is…” or “An example of the concept in my life is…”), (c) it may promote strong study habits that can be transferred to other topics and courses, and (d) because it’s ungraded and tracked online, it seems logistically manageable in a very large class.

Indeed, my classes are pretty large (depending on the year/term, they range from 250 to 400 students). Couple that with very limited TA resources, and fitting in writing is always a challenge. Currently I assign one 600-word application-style paper in each term. Recently I added a peer feedback step using peerScholar software, and that worked out pretty well. Informally, students reported learning from reading others’ papers, yet few seemed to revise their work at all, let alone implementing changes based on others’ feedback.

Maybe the assignment in this study could be a worthwhile pursuit. In this research paper, the authors noted that completion of all 16 was worth 10% of the students’ grade. I’m not sure I could offer that just for completion… we have pretty strict grading standards here in UBC Psych. But once I cut it in half (separating term 1 101 from  term 2 102) that’s only 5%… that seems more manageable.

I continue to ponder… as I lie awake… on Pacific time… in Eastern timezone.

Is “active learning” in the classroom helping you learn or wasting time?

Check out my latest article for the Ubyssey (UBC’s student-run newspaper). And in case you don’t feel like clicking the link, here’s a copy…


The other day I said to my class, “Please turn to the person next to you, and together come up with an example of a time when you or someone you know experienced classical conditioning,” a concept which I had just described.

Many students enthusiastically took advantage of this learning opportunity. But as I looked around the room, some students were checking email, some students were talking about other things, and others were simply staring blankly into space. I thought to myself: why aren’t more people taking advantage of this chance to study? The midterm is next week! This experience prompted me to think (again) about why I ask students to engage in particular activities on their own during class – and I thought you might be interested in knowing, too.

Why do I ask my students to do things like this? Because it works. The broad framework of what’s called “active learning” has taken higher education by storm over the last decade or two. Every time I ask students to discuss ideas and problems with people around them, participate in demonstrations, privately write a summary of what they just learned or engage in a team test, I am using some of the techniques of active learning.

There are dozens of examples of studies that have compared courses or topics that use active learning approaches to those that don’t. The specifics differ by course and discipline, but the message is clear: active learning results in improved student learning, relative to traditional lecture format. Granted, not just any activity will do; those that are tied to specific, measurable learning objectives are best. My teaching practice is far from perfect in this regard, but I strive for such synergy daily among my in-class activities and learning objectives (and assessments too, but that’s another story).

So why is it that some students choose to take advantage of active learning techniques in the classroom, and others sit idly? Maybe the idle students are idle when I’m lecturing too, but I just don’t notice as much. Perhaps some students are unmotivated by the task or are failing to take care of their physical health and therefore zone out. Okay. But I think another part is not realizing just how valuable those active learning opportunities can be.

Based on research from cognitive psychology, I suspect that active learning works because working with the material promotes recalling it, which strengthens memories. It can also help people attach new ideas to existing memories, so the new ideas stand a better chance of being recalled and perhaps even applied in new situations. By taking five minutes to think up an example from your own life of a concept — like classical conditioning, if you’re in my intro to psych class — you will remember it better than if you didn’t. Even if you’re tired or uninterested or thinking about your weekend plans or otherwise don’t feel like participating in active learning, remember that. Learning is challenging. It takes work on the part of the person trying to learn.

On the first day of each of my courses, I warn my students: I’m here to create conditions in which you might learn, but I’m not going to guarantee anything. You must make the choice to learn. And that’s what it comes down to. It’s your choice to waste your time or to help yourself learn.

Welcome back!

September 2012 is here, and the first week is already over! I forgot how tired I feel by Friday afternoons — wow! It’s like I can feel my body powering down. But my fatigue is warranted. This has been such a fun week! My husband and I kicked off the school year with a whirlwind trip to Ontario to witness my friend’s wedding last weekend. She and I lived together all through undergrad, and were basically inseparable during that time. A few of our other lovely friends from undergrad were there too, so it was wonderful to catch up and reminisce about good old Waterloo. The experience also served to remind me of what a profound impact my undergraduate experience had on my life, both intellectually and socially… which got me pumped to be a part of other people’s undergraduate experience!

On Tuesday I arrived in class at 5pm… and sat down in the student chairs. Yes, I’m taking a course! Why, you ask? Well, I want to. I value the classroom as a rich opportunity to learn, and I felt it was time to sit down and feel what it’s like to learn in that way again. I chose the course Psyc 312A: History of Psychology for many reasons. First, Dr. Andrea Perrino is amazing. I was a TA for her a long time ago and was inspired then by her enthusiasm. I wanted the chance to learn from her, as one teacher to another, to consider her pedagogical choices and prompt me to reflect on my own. Faculty rarely ever watch each other teach; I was grateful she agreed I could take her class for this rich opportunity. Second, I am (finally!) interested in the content! I’ve been teaching intro psych (3 years and counting), research methods (5 years and counting), and statistics (recently renewed after a few years’ hiatus). These are broad, generalist courses: my training in my home area of social psychology is useful but not always directly. Over these years these courses have prompted me to cultivate an interest in the discipline as a whole, and I felt it was time for me to really consider the origins and development of my discipline to enrich how and what I teach in these generalist courses. Psychology is only about 150 years old, so it shouldn’t be too hard, right? Ha!

One of the things Andrea (I mean… Dr. Perrino) did on her first day was started foremost with an introduction the the history of psychology. The topic. Not the syllabus. Sure, that came later, but she kicked off with a passionate rationale for why this course is important. It was inspiring, and influenced the way I began my courses on Wednesday. Instead of starting with the syllabus, I started with the topic, the reasons why it’s important to take this course. Based on feedback after that first class, I seem to have succeeded in inspiring at least some students to be excited about our course (even research methods!). In fact, I barely covered the syllabus at all in Intro, but did so using an i>clicker quiz today. I did that last year too, but this year I was more deliberate in my choice of what to reveal on the first day versus the second. The subject is most important… how we get there is important too, but secondary.

My students have been fantastic this week! Research methods felt like a class reunion from last year’s intro — fantastic to see so many of my fabulous students returning for more psychology, and I can’t wait to meet everyone else! And intro… well… I’ve never had two completely-filled hours of student meetings on the first day of class! I have had such fun meeting so many students this week. Their energy is palpable: it’s a new year, a new beginning, and we’re going to have a great time!

Here’s (sort of) what I see when I look out from the front of my intro psych classroom: 270ish energized students! Click on the image to enlarge it. See you next week!


Psyc 100 Section 002: What textbooks do you need?

Hello to all my new, eager students! I’m receiving emails daily from people wondering about book options and/or classroom location. Normally these are the kinds of questions that would receive an answer along the lines of  “please check your syllabus” — however, considering I haven’t quite finished it yet, I can’t exactly expect you to consult it.

If you’re in my Psyc 100 class, section 002, that meets MWF 12-1, we’re meeting in Scarfe 100 Term 1, and switch to Buchanan A101 in Term 2.

You absolutely need three things:

  1. “Psychology: From inquiry to understanding” Canadian edition by Lilienfeld and other authors. It *must* be the Canadian edition that looks like this. You can find this at the UBC bookstore, or on amazon.ca, or, if you’re into electronic books, at Coursesmart.
  2. An i>clicker personal response system, available at the bookstore. If you’re wondering what it is, here’s a website that has a photo and some person’s review. It must be the i>clicker brand in order to work with our system at UBC. At the end of the year, if you’re never going to use it again, you can return it to the bookstore just like a used book.
  3. Access to PeerScholar. This is a website that we will use in both terms to facilitate peer feedback on your papers. If you buy the textbook bundle at the bookstore, access costs $5 (included in the price of the bundle. If you buy access online, access costs $12.95 (probably plus tax). If you prefer the online-buy option, go to the website link and follow the instructions there.

You don’t have to have access to MyPsychLab. It comes with the textbook bundle at the bookstore, or you can buy online access later. It’s a study guide that many students find helpful. It has quizzes and flashcards and videos and all kinds of things like that for each chapter. Note that representatives for the publishing company for your textbook have made this website, not me. I had nothing to do with it. Many students have found it helpful for studying, but it’s up to you if you want to use it.

There are a few more resources we’ll be using over the year, but I’ll explain those later. These are the resources I’ve been asked about. Note that if you are experiencing serious financial need, please come to me and I’ll work with you to find access to the resources you need. (And don’t feel embarrassed — I’ve been there myself.) For example, I have some i>clickers for loan.

I’ll post the syllabus when it’s ready, later this week. Looking forward to meeting you next week!

My students are awesome :)

Last week one of my wonderful students from Intro Psych sent me this photo that was taken on the last day of classes. I thought I’d share (with her permission).

What a fun bunch! I really enjoyed your group’s presence in our class. Thanks for good times!

I hope all of you — and all my students — are having a great summer. I’m looking forward to meeting our incoming class!