Facilitating Student Application of Social Psychology Concepts to a Real World Problem

06 Sep 2020 10:57 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Jennifer M. Knack (Clarkson University) and Melisa A. Barden (Walsh University) 

As many instructors can likely attest, there is a certain joy that comes from a student making a connection between course material and their everyday lives. Perhaps they let you know about a recent episode of their favorite show that utilized operant conditioning or how they stopped their younger sibling’s tantrum by breaking a cookie in two due to a lack of conservation. Since we knew that it is beneficial to the learning process to make these types of connections, we set out to create a project aimed at facilitating this process. In addition, we believe it is important for our students to understand that this field can have actual real world implications when it comes to making a difference in areas that matter such as social justice, parenting, education, workplace issues, sustainability, and conservation. For this semester-long group project, we focused on problems in the world that students would be motivated to reduce/solve. Due to our large class size our students worked in groups, but it could be adjusted to an individual project. Social psychology is an area that is well-positioned to apply psychological concepts to address real world problems/issues which is why we created the project in this specific course. However, it could be adapted to a different course such as Human Development or Principles of Learning.  


Purpose and goals of the project 
We designed this project to give students the opportunity to identify a real world problem or issue they are personally interested in and deeply consider what the problem is and why it continues to exist despite other people trying to address it. Then, students are tasked with proposing a solution that is grounded in evidence from social psychology. This project is designed to encourage students to think critically and creatively to identify root causes of the issue as well as factors that contribute to the issue persisting. Throughout the semester students complete smaller assignments that engage them in this type of thinking. At the end of the semester, students produce a final paper report and give a presentation in class. In addition, students will use the campus “maker space” (i.e., a space on campus where students can produce physical objects and receive assistance in the design and production of the physical objects as well as digital create products including making or editing videos, audio, or photography) to produce a tangible product appropriate to their proposed solution. As such, this project is designed to help students develop and improve written and oral communication as well as gain experience in the maker space. 

Major components of the project 

Phase 1: Identify and evaluate a problem. Students first write a problem statement that conveys the scope of the problem and the specific aspect they will address this semester (assignment 1); then students identify and evaluate specific barriers and factors that created and maintained the problem, consider who is involved in it, and what has already been done to address the problem (assignment 2). The main purpose of this phase is to help students more deeply understand the problem they selected and to guide them to understanding the inherent social issues or nature of the issue. In addition, this phase helps students consider how large issues (e.g., climate change) are comprised of smaller issues that may have different causes and therefore need to be addressed differently (e.g., reducing use of plastic bags, conserving water). In this phase of the project, students are also encouraged to consider why they selected this issue (i.e., why it is important to them personally and as a group) and why it is important at a societal/community level. By the end of this phase, students should be able to (1) identify the opposing perspectives and barriers that have created the problem/issue and impeded resolution, (2) consider who is impacted by the problem/issue (e.g., who is involved, who experiences the ramifications), and (3) determine what is currently being done to address the problem/issue. For example, by the end of phase 1, students might have decided to address reducing the use of plastic bags because they are particularly concerned about the resulting harm to marine animals. 


Phase 2: Gather evidence and consider solutions. Over the course of two assignments, students start brainstorming ways to address the issue (assignment 3) and gather evidence from the social psychological field to support and improve their proposed solutions (assignment 4). During this phase, students are encouraged to revisit their problem statement to ensure that their solutions and evidence are actually addressing the initial problem they identified. Sometimes students will inadvertently stray from their original path throughout the course of their research. By the end of this phase, students should have a clear plan for how to address the issue as well as evidence from the social psychological field indicating why the plan should be successful. For example, students may consider banning plastic bags in stores or consider how information about attitude change and behavior change can be used to get people to use reusable bags. 


Phase 3: Final proposal. The project culminates with three outcomes. First, each group prepares a written paper that summarizes their work throughout the semester. The paper is comprised of a description of the real world issue being addressed, a full explanation outlining the major aspects of the issue, a proposed plan to address the issue that is clearly supported and informed by social psychological information, and a brief summary of how to evaluate the success of the proposed plan. Second, each group presents their project to the class during the last week of the semester. Third, each group creates a tangible product in the university’s maker space. This product should be relevant to the group’s proposed plan to address the issue; groups are encouraged to be creative in what this product is. Groups can create something using the digital maker space (e.g., a podcast, commercial, public service announcement) or the physical maker space (e.g., 3D print a template, create bumper stickers, design flyers). For example, students might create a token to serve as a reminder that people can put on their car to prompt them to bring reusable bags into the grocery store (e.g., a sticker, some sort of device) or a public service announcement raising awareness about the need to use reusable bags. 


Group member evaluations. Despite this project being designed to be engaging and relevant to students, there is always a risk of social loafing. In an effort to reduce social loafing, at the end of each phase students complete self and peer evaluations to rate each person’s contributions and efforts to the group work. Students who do not contribute to the group’s work will have their scores reduced. 


Final thoughts 

In our experience, this project has been quite successful. It is worth noting that many students are often concerned about the project at the beginning of the semester since it differs from traditional academic papers that many college instructors require. Students are often worried about coming up with a solution and concerned about thinking creatively. In addition, students typically want to skip straight to developing a solution before they have carefully considered what the problem is and understand the complexity of it. Students often benefit from more coaching and intensive feedback during the first phase of the project. We provide extensive comments on the first two assignments and strongly encourage groups to meet with us to discuss their project development throughout the semester. Students also tend to appreciate the first two assignments being graded more leniently so they can explore and consider the selected problem without fear of  their grade being negatively affected. 


As students get into the project, they report (anecdotally and on student evaluations) that they found the project meaningful and valuable. Students appreciate working on a project that has personal relevance as well as real application. For example, we have numerous students who plan to pursue health careers; these students have been in groups that examined the misconception that vaccines are associated with autism as well as how to recruit and retain physicians in rural regions. Other students interested in careers in law enforcement have examined how to address the divide between police and the community; students interested in sustainability have examined how to increase water conservation.  


Overall, this project can satisfy a number of learning outcomes. Not only are the students gaining a better understanding of course material, but they are working on their communication (oral and writing) and interpersonal skills which are incredibly important. It also encourages critical and creative thinking. Finally, this project has the potential to elicit real change in our world if the students are motivated to move forward with their solutions. 

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