Dietlinde Heilmayr (Moravian College)
Story-based podcasts provide students with the opportunity to peer into experiences, events, or lives that they may otherwise miss, ignore, or skim past. Storytelling is engrained across cultures and has been used for centuries to teach shared customs, values, and skills (Coulter, Michael, & Poynor, 2007; Zabel, 1991). Despite their being a natural and culturally engrained teaching tool, stories are not regularly incorporated into higher education courses. Story-based podcasts provide an excellent medium to reintegrate this type of teaching and learning into a college classroom. With the goal of using narrative to teach students psychological concepts, I developed an assignment that guides students through reflection, application, and critical thinking using a podcast as a framework.
This assignment was developed for a Social Psychology course using the segment “All the Caffeine in the World Doesn’t Make You Woke” from Episode 648 of the podcast series This American Life. This segment tells the story of two Black men who were unjustly arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks, and Starbucks’ response that entailed a company-wide closure for the purpose of providing employees with racial bias training. Though my class focused on issues of racism, implicit bias, and the science of implicit bias trainings, this assignment can be adapted to fit a variety of topics and courses by selecting a different episode or podcast; suggestions for effective podcasts are discussed at the end of this essay, with specific podcast recommendations provided in the suggested resources section.
The goals of this semester-long assignment were threefold: 1) To teach students to apply social psychological constructs to real-world events; 2) To engage students in critical thinking by having them first develop an opinion on a topic as a layperson, and then revisit and revise their opinion using a social scientific lens; and 3) To provide students the opportunity to reflect on what they learned over the course of a semester and to explicitly acknowledge shifts in thinking through writing and discussion.
To achieve these goals, I developed a three-part semester-long assignment. First, after listening to the podcast segment, students wrote a brief “gut reaction” reflection to the podcast. The goal of this component was for the students to put their thoughts and reactions into writing—what did they think of the arrest? Of Starbucks’ response? Of racial bias training? We then discussed these reflections in class. Discussing the initial reflection offers the opportunity for students to hear others’ points of views and to have a constructive conversation about varied and perhaps conflicting viewpoints, providing fodder for idea development throughout the rest of the semester. In our initial discussion, it was important for me to let students feel heard while being careful not to validate and thus entrench all of their opinions, making them resistant to further developing their thoughts. That is, the goal of the initial discussion component of the project should be to open students’ minds to the science of social psychology to which they will be exposed over the course of the semester.
The second part of the assignment asks students to keep notes on concepts learned through readings and lecture that are relevant to the incident documented in the podcast. For example, many students took notes—ideally in a separate notebook or digital document—about stereotyping, victim-blaming, the Implicit Association Test, and the contact hypothesis. More specifically, students identified and defined relevant concepts, and jotted down ideas about how the concepts relate to the events described in the podcast segment. Students were also asked to find, read, and take notes about media reports of the Starbucks incident, thus engaging with the topic from multiple perspectives using a variety of media outlets. For the second part of the assignment, it was critical to remind students they should be keeping a log of their notes, in particular on days that we discussed many relevant concepts. This ensures students are analyzing, applying, and organizing concepts as the semester unfolded instead of scrambling to apply concepts at the end of the semester when the notes are turned in. The former provides students with the time necessary to reflect and develop ideas, while the latter has the potential to lead to forced and superficial reflections.
The final assignment component was a research paper that students wrote after listening to the podcast segment a second time. In this paper, students were asked to again explore what they thought of the arrest and Starbucks’ racial bias training. This time, however, students were to ground their thoughts in psychological science, using theories and principles of social psychology to support their reflections. I also asked students to engage with the scientific literature relevant to the podcast segment with the aim of encouraging deeper thinking and analysis than in the first reflection. Students were asked to find and synthesize four scholarly sources in their final papers: they briefly summarized the articles and applied the knowledge they gained from the articles to their reflection. For example, some students found evidence that racial bias training has the potential to backfire (Duguid & Thomas-Hunt, 2015), and thus argued that Starbucks’ training might have done more harm than good. In their final paper, students also reflected on if and how their opinions of the incident and Starbucks’ response shifted since the first reflection assignment, why they shifted, and what a more effective response may have been.
The final paper assignment and semester notes were turned in prior to the final exam period, which was used as a discussion period to synthesize this semester-long assignment. In discussion, I asked students to synthesize the literature that they found, allowing them to learn from each other and continue to develop their thoughts. The goal of the discussion was to provide the space and time for students to come together and discuss what they learned, as well as acknowledge any mental shifts that took place. I wanted students to leave the class with the critical thinking skills and open-mindedness necessary to know that opinions can and should change in response to high-quality, empirical evidence.
In sum, there were three main assignments—the initial reflection, the catalog of notes taken throughout the semester, and the final research paper, with class discussions bookending the assignments. Students in the course reported enjoying the assignment and viewed it as a valuable learning experience. Moreover, many students in the course had never listened to a podcast before and appreciated being introduced to the medium. From my perspective, students seemed to not only develop a better understanding of why the events described in the podcast transpired (i.e., the arrest), but they also illustrated their ability to apply social psychological research to critically evaluate the training that Starbucks implemented. Many reported shifts in their thinking that I believe were due to the long-term and focused nature of the assignment.
Though I developed this assignment for a face-to-face course, it could be easily adapted for an online or hybrid course by shifting the discussions to an online learning platform. For example, students could be asked to post a few thoughts and questions, and also respond to the reactions of their peers. The instructor could then provide comments and probing questions on the nascent discussion, and then have students add additional responses. Over three-to-four rounds of back-and-fourth with other students and the instructor, the students would pushed to think deeply and critically about the issues at hand, emulating the experience of students in a face-to-face course.
This assignment could also be adapted for different courses or contexts by selecting a different podcast series or a different episode from This American Life. That is, the instructor can change the podcast or podcast segment without changing the assignment itself. That said, given the large amount of time and energy that students will devote to this assignment throughout the course, selecting an appropriate podcast is critical. What I believe made “All the Caffeine in the World Doesn’t Make You Woke” successful for this assignment is first due to the scope of the segment. The episode segment gave enough information about the events for students to become interested, but it did not go into too much detail about the science of implicit bias or implicit bias training. That is, students still had the space to reflect over the course of the semester, to find journal articles to discuss in their final papers, and to come to their own conclusions. Relatedly, this segment was a good length for students—approximately 20 minutes. Episodes or segments that are too long may lose students’ interest, may overwhelm students with information, or may make students feel as if there is nothing to add to the discussion. Finally, this segment resonated with my students because our College is about an hour north of Philadelphia, where the events transpired. Finding a story that is geographically nearby may not be possible for instructors at all institutions, but podcasts that are recent or relatable in some regard is important for keeping students engaged throughout the semester.
I chose to grade the first assignment leniently and with minimal feedback, as the main purpose of the first assignment was (1) to set a tone for the course that made students comfortable expressing ideas, and (2) to act as a check that students listened to and reflected upon the podcast. This assignment was worth 5% of students’ final grades and was graded for clarity and thoughtfulness. The semester notes and final paper were turned in and graded in tandem. Given that the final papers were meant to be an application of what was learned over the course of the semester, these were weighted more heavily in the final grade (10%) and received thorough, critical, and constructive feedback. The completion of thoughtful semester notes was bundled into the rubric for the final paper. For the final paper, students could earn up to three points each for semester notes; writing style and organization; content (weighted twice); critical thinking (weighted twice); and reflection on opinion change. Students received thorough feedback on final papers, which I asked them to read and engage with prior to our final course discussion.
In sum, this three-part semester-long assignment provides students the opportunity to engage deeply with a real-world topic through the lens of social psychology. The assignment is flexible, in that it can be adapted for different types of courses (e.g., hybrid or fully-online), and also for different topics (e.g., by using a different podcast). Students in my course reported enjoying the assignment, and I found the assignment to help them develop critical thinking and application skills that can be difficult to refine with more narrowly focused or shorter term assignments.
Coulter, C., Michael, C., & Poynor, L. (2007). Storytelling as pedagogy: An unexpected outcome
of narrative inquiry. Curriculum Inquiry, 37(2), 103-122.
Duguid, M. M., & Thomas-Hunt, M. C. (2015). Condoning stereotyping? How awareness of
stereotyping prevalence impacts expression of stereotypes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(2), 343-359.
Zabel, M. K. (1991). Storytelling, myths, and folk tales: Strategies for multicultural
inclusion. Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth, 36(1), 32-34.
This American Life Education Resources. Retrieved from https://www.thisamericanlife.org/education.
This StoryCorps Education Resources. Retrieved from https://storycorps.org/discover/education/.
Frantz, S. (2018, Sep 2). Recommended psychology-related podcasts [blog post]. Retrieved from