Making sure complex first-year psychology concepts stick

Jun 1 2017
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Course overhaul changes first-year psychology experience for more than 5,000 students each year

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It may be in a lecture hall, but this definitely isn’t your typical first-year psychology class. Students cluster in small groups wherever they can find a space, wielding measuring tapes and brightly coloured pencil crayons as they run a lightning-fast experiment on perception. The groups have about 30 minutes to conduct a series of peripheral vision tests, collect the resulting data, graph it and interpret their findings.

Ambitious for a first-year course? No doubt, says Dr. Lynne Honey, chair of MacEwan University’s Department of Psychology, who is co-teaching PSYC 104: Introduction to Psychology in the Spring semester with Dr. Rodney Schmaltz, associate professor of psychology. But the benefits of deviating from the age-old “prof talks, students take notes” model are worth the effort of completely revamping a course that more than 5,000 MacEwan University students from across every faculty take each year.

“A good lecturer can do a fine job of explaining things, but that doesn't necessarily mean that students are actively thinking about what they’re learning. They might simply be memorizing and regurgitating the information,” says Lynne. “That's not what the faculty members in our department want to foster. We want our students to get their hands dirty and struggle with the material because that's when they really learn.” 

“ We want our students to get their hands dirty and struggle with the material because that's when they really learn.” Dr. Lynne Honey 

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A small group of students from a variety of programs—Design Studies, Police Studies, Music and Bachelor of Arts—work on an in-class PSYC 104 project to learn about perception.

A new approach piloted in the three Spring semester PSYC 104 classes has students learning basic facts on their own through textbook readings and online through review quizzes and mini-lectures from their profs—all before they walk through the classroom doors. That means they can spend valuable in-class time working on activities that dig into the subject’s more complex ideas.

A week before the midterm, for example, those pencil crayons and measuring tapes were demonstrating how the organization of receptors in our eyes affects how we see the world, but the activity had an important benefit beyond teaching students about perception.

“Students may not fully appreciate it at the time, but they just walked through the process of being research psychologists,” says Lynne. “They had an idea to test, a plan for how to test it, the chance to do a controlled experiment, data to analyze and the opportunity to present it. Instead of just memorizing psychology, they were actually doing psychology.”

Other in-class activities have students doing everything from generating their own hypotheses to using paper bags and foam balls to learn about neurotransmission. Those kinds of experience are far more valuable than having profs simply reiterate and reinforce what’s in the textbook, says first-year Police Studies student Austin Cooper.

“It’s a lot more hands-on and I find I’m actually understanding the material,” he says. “It feels less like I’m being thrown into the deep end.”

“ It feels less like I’m being thrown into the deep end.” Austin Cooper 

That’s exactly what Lynne and her colleagues were hoping to hear. “Why inhibition is as important as excitation in neurotransmission isn’t an intuitive idea, and digging into the more complex ideas in a playful way can really help make those ideas stick,” she says.

The process of getting those ideas to stick, however, can sometimes leave students feeling a bit stuck.

“As we circulate around the room helping students during in-class activities, we often hear, ‘I don’t get this. I don’t understand.’ It might be frustrating, but I would much rather students realize they don’t understand something when there’s a room full of people to answer their questions.”

Those people waiting to help include not only the profs, but also the introductory psychology coordinator, Trudi Ohki, who supervises a team of teaching assistants (TAs). During the Spring 2017 term there were six TAs, all trained senior-level psychology students, and upwards of 30 will be on hand to help in the 17 sections of PSYC 104 offered in the Fall term.


More resources: Talk to your teaching assistant

Moving away from the “sage on the stage” model of education means that students now have access to a whole team of educators who can support them. Teaching assistants regularly monitor a joint email account to answer questions and offer advice, and share responsibility with profs for staffing a designated help centre in Room 6-313E that will be available 15 hours a week during the Fall semester.

“We’re in class every day helping the profs and demonstrating the activities,” says Riya Sidhu, a TA and third-year Psychology student. “Students see us all the time and get to know who we are, and I think that makes it easier for them to come talk to us or to send us an email. We’re happy to help them with what they’re learning, give them feedback or even just to listen.”

The resources and the approach to the class are things the six TAs in the Spring semester classes say they wish they had during their first year.

“When I took PSYC 104, it was purely lecture and multiple choice exams,” says Riya. “Now the class is so collaborative and that really seems to change a student’s experience. They can see the benefits of talking to and interacting with the other students in their class.”

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Lynne Honey (centre) walks students through an in-class activity with help from the course’s teaching assistants.


In addition to helping students, TAs are conducting focus groups to gather feedback that will shape future iterations of the course.

And while the outcomes of the focus groups show that adjusting to the delivery method may be challenging for some students, Lynne thinks the benefits will far outweigh the drawbacks.

“We have the potential to really get students excited about psychology in this course, and we also have the chance to focus on scientific-thinking skills that will serve them well whether they decide to pursue psychology as an area of study or not.”


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