Over the next two weeks, The Novice Professor is teaming up with several wonderful guest posters who are sharing their takes on teaching the general survey course in psychology. Even if you don't teach this course, there are lots of great ideas you can modify for your classroom. Join us as we get into the nitty gritty from textbook selection to favorite assignments to assessment strategies!
For our first post, Kameko Halfmann (@KamekoMae) discusses her take on Intro to Psych at UW-Platteville.
My name is Kameko Halfmann, and I am an assistant professor of psychology at UW-Platteville. My background is primarily in cognitive neuroscience. UW-Platteville is a small-medium (~8,000 students) sized public university in southwest Wisconsin. Most of our students come from the Tri-State area (WI, IA, and IL) and from rural/farm regions; however, we also attract students from Milwaukee and Chicago. A large proportion of our students are first generation college students and/or lower-income students.
At UW-Platteville, General Psychology is a general education course, fulfilling a social science requirement where we emphasize/assess critical thinking. The vast majority of my students are non-majors. UW-Platteville is an engineering school, so I often have a large subset of engineering students in my class, followed by students majoring in agricultural/animal science, criminal justice, and education. I typically only have 1-4 psychology majors in a class of approximately 36 students (although usually I pick up a few by the end of the semester). I have a large amount of autonomy in how I teach Gen Psych - although we have a number of concepts we all attempt to cover, there is a lot of flexibility in how and to what extent I cover any given concept. I typically teach Gen Psych on a MWF, 50-minute schedule (it’s a 3 credit course).
I teach Gen Psych face-to-face. We use Canvas as our LMS, which I use to post materials and give exams.
Textbook and Chapters:
We have a textbook rental system as UW-Platteville and so we select our textbook as a department. We use Psychology in Modules by Myers. I appreciate the modules as a way to break up the text more.
I have switched up what chapters/modules I cover each time I teach general psychology, and I’m still deciding what to include next semester. Here is a copy of my syllabus with my course schedule, including the modules I will tentatively assign in the fall. I plan to skip history, (most of) intelligence, language (although I have covered this in the past and love teaching it), and humanistic/psychodynamic sections on personality. Within each subsection of the textbook, I usually only assign a few of the modules.
I change it up a little bit every year, but my goal is to teach topics that my students will find interesting/engaging and useful in their lives. I also tend to sporadically assign psychopathology throughout the semester and infuse it into other topics, rather than as a stand alone topic (although I do spend time talking about how we define what is “abnormal”).
I try to include both breadth and depth in general psychology. So, I cover a wide range of topics, but within each topic I will go in depth on one or two things I find most important rather than trying to throw all the information out there. I try to ask myself, “will knowing this benefit my students’ lives - either personally, academically, or otherwise?”
In the past, I have organized my course into four units: (1) Thinking like a psychological scientists, (2) Humans as biological organisms, (3) Humans as thinking organisms, and (4) Humans in a sociocultural context. I like this general structure, but I’m not sure if I will keep it in the future.
This upcoming semester, my goal is to trim and tailor the course even more so that each topic addresses a meaningful question that will be useful to student’s lives. I want students to actually remember some of what we cover and so I am opting to teach less so that the students can hopefully remember more! I find the APA Intro Psych Report a very useful resource as I work on course design: https://www.apa.org/ed/governance/bea/intro-psych-report.pdf
My decisions are based in part on my own interests, what has gone well in the past, what I think is most important for the students in their lives, and the strengths of our department. Regarding the last point, we offer a lot of abnormal/clinical/counseling (5!) courses offered at my institution. Therefore, I trim anything nonessential from these sections and focus more on health and stress. Also, we do not have any courses on sensation/perception and so I include that in my gen psych course, even though it’s arguably less applicable than some other topics.
Favorite or Most Important Topic to Teach:
This is a tough question, but I think learning is probably the most important. I cover learning both in the context of how to learn/study (retrieval practice, spaced practice, memory) and conditioning (classical conditioning and operant conditioning). The former is one of the most important, in my opinion, because many of my students are first generation college students in their first year and first or second semester of college. I almost always receive comments on student evals about how important and helpful this information is.
The latter (conditioning) is important because it is a challenging topic that has a large number of applications, including preferences, advertising, addiction, anxiety disorders, and parenting. I also enjoy teaching conditioning because there are so many short examples that can be “diagrammed” (i.e., what is the US, UR, CS, CR etc…) and so it makes for an easy active-learning topic.
Other competitors for favorite/most important include stress/health and sleep. These topics resonate with college students, regardless of their major or career goals.
Least Favorite Topic to Teach:
Intelligence and personality are two of my least favorite topics so I have cut a lot for these two. I don’t really like teaching abnormal psych by itself, because I want students to see how mental health fits within the context of human behavior and individual variation. I could be convinced otherwise, though...
Typical Class Period:
My goal typical class (but it doesn’t always work like this!):
The anticipatory set is a concept I learned in graduate school. I was fortunate enough to attend a grad school that had a Certificate in College Teaching and in one of my courses we discussed anticipatory sets. Doing a short, engaging activity (or video or something that gets students’ attention) at the start of class sets the tone, like the first day of class sets the tone for the rest of the semester. It tells students, oh hey, I’m going to learn something today. It can be difficult to come up with good anticipatory sets, but I find that when I take the extra time to start the class off strong helps students stay engaged throughout the rest of the class.
Since general psychology is an introductory level course, I usually have at least a little bit of lecture each class period to make sure concepts are clear. In my ideal class period, this is brief and primarily to make sure we are all on the same page. Sometimes if I get lazy, I end up lecturing more than I want to in gen psych.
I find that the best classes involve some sort of activity or application; therefore, I try to include an activity each day. Whether we conduct a mini-experiment in class, fill out a questionnaire, or do some other type of activity, this helps the students engage with the material.
After activities, I find it helps to debrief, discuss, and reflect to make sure that students are taking away the main points. I usually ask students to first discuss with a partner or small group, but then always discuss as a class, too.
Most class periods, I incorporate some sort of retrieval practice and/or formative assessment, usually through a brief (1-5 question) socrative quiz. I also use this as a way to take attendance. I try to bring 2-3 paper copies or pull up a pdf of the quiz in case someone doesn’t have a device that day. Sometimes I have students do these alone, sometimes in groups. This can work as an anticipatory set, or it can be embedded at any point throughout the class period. This is something I started to do more intentionally after reading Small Teaching by James Lang.
The reason I attempt to structure my class periods this way is because two of my central goals in general psych are (1) for students to apply basic psychological concepts or research to their everyday lives and (2) for students to demonstrate knowledge of and begin to evaluate scientific methods in psychology. By including activities that involve data collection or review of current psychological research, I think we begin to realize these goals.
I use multiple methods of assessing student learning, including in-class, low stakes quizzes (usually using socrative), mini-papers (1-2), an infographic, and exams. I am leaning toward having four unit exams, with the fourth and final exam including a cumulative portion.
In general psychology, all of my exams are online (in Canvas) and consist of mostly multiple choice. Students usually have a 48 hour time period to take the exam. They have to take the exam in one sitting and have ~1 hour to complete the exam (this can be adjusted for students who need accommodations). Since it is online and out of class, I allow students to use their book and notes (but not another person). However, I warn them that they will not be able to look up the answers to each question because there won’t be enough time. Also, each student takes a slightly different exam, because I create pools of questions that are drawn from.
When I first started teaching, I was afraid to use cumulative exams, because I lacked confidence in my teaching and thought I would get push back from students. But, eventually I gained more confidence in my teaching. Cumulative exams benefit learning, and I think they are especially important in lower-level courses, like general psychology. I have found that if I explain to students WHY I am asking them to do something difficult/challenging, they generally don’t push back. It also helps to explain what we have been doing in class that will help them be successful on a cumulative assessment (regular retrieval practice, review, integrative concepts).
The last time I taught general psych, I let students drop their lowest exam of 5 (4 unit exams, 1 cumulative) to reduce test anxiety. This backfired. I apparently have higher expectations for my students than they do of themselves. A lot of students didn’t take the cumulative final exam. I still want to do something the ease student test anxiety and so I am debating between a few options - lowest score only worth 5% instead of 15%? one re-take during the semester? one extension for the exam, no questions asked? I haven’t decided yet.
When deciding what methods to use for assessment, I consider what leads to the greatest learning (here is a great resource: http://www.learningscientists.org/). Then I think, what is realistic for me in the long run. Although I don’t have a huge class (around 36 students), I usually teach two sections of Gen Psych at once, and I am teaching four courses total each semester. I also do not have TAs or grading assistants for any courses. In other words, I will not be assigning large papers and my exams will primarily be multiple choice. This helps preserve my sanity. I try to find other ways to incorporate writing that are less time-consuming for me to grade.
This is a tough one! I have some plug-and-play psychophysiology equipment that I like to incorporate into at least one class period. Specifically, I bring electrodermal activity (AKA, SCR or GSR) equipment to class and we “bust the lie detection myth.” I usually do a demo and then the students get into groups and measure skin conductance in a few of the students in their group while exposing them to various stimuli. Since I have a large number of criminal justice majors, they usually enjoy this activity and are engaged. Then we explore data showing the false positives/false negatives with polygraphs and what polygraphs are actually measuring (i.e., arousal).
I enjoy this activity because it relates to my students’ interests in criminal justice and also exposes them to more sophisticated data collection and new challenges (there is always troubleshooting!). Plus they have fun with it! Here is a link to the current version of this in class activity.
I also enjoy the starburst taste/smell activity. When I teach sleep, I have students take a t/f quiz that is about 10-15 questions and I can spend the entire 50 minute period just talking about that t/f quiz and answering their questions (students LOVE learning about sleep and they have a lot of misconceptions about sleep).
My favorite assignment is a myth-busting infographic assignment. Students sign up for a myth from Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio, & Beyerstein’s 50 Great Myths in Psychology book. They read about it and do some research, create an infographic designed to dispel the myth, and present it in a conference style meeting at the end of the semester. I enjoy this assignment because it gives students some freedom to choose a topic that interests them, it helps them develop critical thinking skills (e.g., they learn that not all psychology is “common sense”), and they get to practice presenting in a low-stakes environment. As an added bonus, it is much more fun to grade infographics at the end of the semester than papers - I am always really impressed with students’ ability to put together a high quality product. Here is a link to the assignment (I tweak and update this every semester, though, so it’s a work in progress!). I always get positive feedback about this assignment. Students complain a little bit about using an infographic builder, but I tell them it is important to be able to adapt to new technology.
Still Working On:
I am working on making my course more applicable and bringing in more examples, contemporary research, and current events/media. I think when I started teaching Gen Psych I followed the examples I had seen as an undergrad and grad student (I did a teaching practicum with a faculty member teaching general psychology). But the field is always changing and the more I can bring in real world topics to my course, the more students see the value of what we are learning. For example, last fall we talked a little bit about eyewitness memory and Christine Blasey Ford. It was intimidating for me to talk about something so contemporary and political, but I think bringing these issues into the classroom is important. I hope in the future I can bring in real world examples more often and improve how I incorporate these contemporary, and sometimes controversial, topics.
I have had the opportunity to teach at a few different colleges and universities in the midwest. The culture of the campus plays a big role in how students respond to different types of instruction, students' attendance, and students’ likelihood of opening the textbook, among other things. What works well for me at UW-Platteville may not have worked as well at St. Norbert or Cornell College. And, the culture shifts over time, too. I think one of the most important things I have learned in my first few years of teaching is that we will always have to learn and adapt according to what works well for us, our campus culture, and the current trends in higher education. My course is different than what it was 3 years ago when I first taught General Psychology, and I’m sure it will be different 3 years from now!
Written by Kameko Halfmann
You can contact Kameko via twitter @kamekomae