Bonnie Laster (Wingate University)
What immediately comes to mind when one considers psychology? Dull? Dry and boring theory? Students commonly regard general psychology as a tedious Gen Ed obligation; another box to tick on the graduation checklist. Though instructors may occasionally glean satisfaction from the indiscriminate spark lit in a previously unmotivated student, I would venture to guess most of us are challenged to effectively disseminate largely fundamental and theoretical content to an assembly comprised of underclassman, the majority of whom are non-psychology majors. But, here’s thing: this content, particularly its practical application, is important. Psychological inquiry is essential in examining the why and how of human behavior and cognition, regardless of a students’ intended field. Students may remember foundations of other fields examined during their undergraduate years, but they can actually use psychology in any occupation across any discipline at any time. General psychology can teach students how to understand human behavior, including their own; perceptibly, an invaluable skill. Moreover, psychology is actually pretty interesting, as well as multifaceted. So, why then, do students often view it as a wearisome necessity? Perhaps, it’s because of us.
It is extraordinarily easy for faculty to fall into the trap of “textbook teaching”. Meaning, we instruct in a traditional lecture-dense format in a standard “start with chapter 1” approach. Although a traditional approach has its merits, it may essentially undermine the wealth of knowledge residing undeveloped and untapped within the audience itself. Students come to college with an enormous amount of personal experience in human behavior and cognition. Perhaps you have witnessed the “Aha!” or “So, that’s why I do that!” moment as students connect their experience of human behavior with psychological theory. Psychology holds the unique benefit of relating to everyone and everything. Though not necessarily intuitively, psychology examines behavior and cognition we have all experienced and will continue to experience in our distinct journeys. As instructors, we may benefit greatly from exploring this implicit knowledge and expanding upon it.
Research has long suggested students learn best by not only acquiring knowledge, but by organizing it meaningfully (Chi, Glaser, & Farr, 1988). As such, from day one in my classes, I try to integrate students’ own intimate experience with psychological concepts. Doing so supports personally meaningful interactions for students and offers them a familiar anchor as we expand the concept beyond their tangible experience. Overwhelmingly, the best resource I have found to teach foundational content is the actual student. Students come pre-equipped with a certain level of fundamental understanding of psychology. Tapping into this understanding via what I have termed, an inverted constructivist curriculum (IvC), can be an effective way to facilitate students’ awareness of their prevailing knowledge, by allowing them to explore what they know, but don’t explicitly know that they know.
Think about personal examples students may have offered in your classes. Most students can relate to much of what we’re instructing. For example, what student hasn’t experienced operant conditioning or social loafing? Who hasn’t experienced Fight or Flight or had the occasional struggle with memory retrieval during an exam? We should capitalize on this experience. In the IvC approach, two main concepts are inverted: topics and execution. That is, while historical concepts and classic theory may seem a logical starting place for many (as evidenced by the majority of general psychology textbooks), I begin with students’ understanding of themselves through examination of personality and social psychology. I also invert execution, allowing students to discuss their experiential familiarity of concepts before connecting them to definitions.
Although Chapter 1 may be an intuitive place to start in an introductory course, to capture the essence of one’s understanding of self (and to simultaneously capture student interest), I have found personality can serve as an effective starting point. Personality is typically viewed with interest by most students, and starting here holds the additional benefit of student self-analysis. By participating in common personality measurements such as the Big 5 Factor Inventory or Gray’s Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory, students may understand their own perspectives and nuances more clearly, while also providing insight into classroom behavior (e.g. from Gray’s theory (1970) we can predict students high in BAS (behavioral activation system) will be more likely to participate in class discussions than students higher in BIS (behavioral inhibition system). Social psychology also tends to be popular with students. Online media provides real-world scenarios illustrating such concepts as group think or group polarization. Confirmation bias can help explain why students’ parents (or students themselves) are drawn to a particular media outlet, to the exclusion of all others. Learning is another area students can relate well to, particularly when discussing welcomed ideas (yes, you should sleep more in college to help consolidation to LTM!). I have found that rather than starting with historical underpinnings, classic theory or early pioneers in the field, capturing the students’ interest from day one with more relatable concepts can help sustain attention when the “drier” ones are considered. I do cover history and systems, methodology, etc., but introduce them after we explore the more relatable areas of psychology.
Beyond topic, I also invert execution, asking students to first consider their existing experience within relevant parameters. I offer definitions and explanations after the concept has been explored within students’ experiential understanding. For example, a typical introduction of topic may start off with something as nonchalant as, “how did you learn to ride a bike?” to segue into scaffolding or, “have you ever studied diligently, then blanked while taking a test?” to acquaint students with memory. Although some topics within psychology don’t necessarily lend themselves to the IvC approach (let’s hope not many students can relate to phrenology), the majority of concepts can. After posing the guiding question(s), my role is to then observe while students talk amongst themselves, sharing their various experiences. With smaller classes, I encourage small groups of students, while students in larger lectures can pair and share with immediate neighbors. After an appropriate amount of time (less than 5 minutes, typically around 2-3) I reassemble the students to share with the larger group and examine the concept more didactically through traditional Powerpoint or outline lecture. This technique allows students to first explore their own knowledge and experience, while simultaneously constructing meaning with peers (a nod to both Piagetian and Vygostskian theories). I have found that with personal and shared experience in mind, students can then assimilate empirical definitions and explanations more readily and with greater meaning. I have also found that, surprisingly, this technique really doesn’t take any extra time throughout the semester; we still cover all of the topics necessary to cover throughout the semester. In fact, we sometimes run ahead of schedule, since students are able to internalize the concepts more quickly. The strongest advantage of the IvC is its covert nature. By the time the more refined aspects of the topic at hand are explored, students have already created a deeper meaning with it, through consideration of their existing experience, as well as the experience of their peers. And, truthfully, students also enjoy the opportunity to talk about themselves.
Though I view the IvC as a logical and pragmatic approach, to be clear, I am by no means intending to imply that psychology is solely “common sense” and by considering their own experience students may gain a thorough and sophisticated understanding of psychological theory. Just because students can relate personal experience to concepts does not negate the scientific nature of the discipline. It is also not a “blow off” approach, which over-simplifies concepts or lacks proper assessment. I include rigorous student evaluation via examinations, research papers and group projects. Although it can be a fun and personal way to explore psychology, with the IvC, traditional accountability it still maintained. What about the reluctant student; the one who doesn’t wish to share their experience or participate in group activity? I always allow students to work independently if desired, by jotting down their own experiences without pairing up, considering theories and concepts independently, or to brainstorm real-world examples from media or fiction. What do students think about the IvC? When incorporating it, I tend to see greater class attendance and engagement, as well as higher academic achievement. Student feedback, via end of semester surveys and assessments, reflects positive experience for most students. Students generally like the curriculum, citing personal and peer real-world examples as its particular strength. Previous students occasionally even get back in touch with me to share how this approach has helped them retain psychological concepts in their various pursuits.
Worth considering, however, are limitations within the IvC. It is not necessarily a one size fits all; not every class may benefit from its unique structure. Large lecture classes which have the propensity for unruliness may not be suitable for the approach, as students may take advantage of too much freedom and talk time. Some departments require a standardized instruction with specific topics examined at explicit points during the semester, leaving little wiggle room to potentially incorporate student participation. Ultimately, successful IvC incorporation depends upon the students themselves. Students must be willing to share with one another to make the approach work. Although I try to incorporate the approach in most of my classes, I’ve found some groups simply aren’t as cohesive as others, or may be unenthusiastic to share. I typically try to start off with the curriculum, tweaking for more or less reflection, and more or less lecture as necessitated by the group.
To summarize, the IvC incorporates the following points: By tapping into their inherent and experiential familiarity of concepts, students themselves are utilized at the creators of fundamental knowledge. Students learn to associate their experience with psychological foundations. As a result, students are able to organize concepts in a personally meaningful way, which in turn promotes interest and retention. Although the IvC incorporates didactic instruction, its active learning is paramount to the curriculum as students personally and socially construct meaning. I’ve found great success with this approach. I hope you will too.
Chi, M.T.H., Glaser, R., & Farr, M. (1988). The nature of expertise. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Gray, J. (1970). The psychophysiological basis of introversion-extraversion. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 8, 249-266.