Focusing on the Big Ideas: What Does an Educated Person Need to Know?

27 Aug 2018 7:00 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By David Myers, Ph.D., Hope College

My in-class teaching of introductory psychology changed over time. My initial compulsion to cover everything—with micro explanations of many things—evolved into focusing on fewer, bigger ideas. Textbooks, I realized, could more efficiently cover the gamut of psychology’s insights into our humanity. Books—which can be read at double a teacher’s speaking rate—are efficient vehicles for transmitting ideas and concepts from one head to another. Moreover, textbooks are broader, less idiosyncratic, and more carefully checked and edited (thanks to editors and reviewers) than any one instructor’s lecture could possibly be.

Recognizing the functions of the text freed me (especially after I started using my own text, which stole my best lecture material!) to keep this question at the front of my mind: What does an educated person need to know? For example . . .

1)    In today’s “post-truth” world, how can we enable students to think smarter about life-relevant matters? Educating students about psychology’s scientific methods enables them to supplement their intuition with critical thinking, encouraging them to ask, what do you mean and how do you know? As I have explained elsewhere, our intuition—our automatic, implicit, unreasoned thinking—is vast. But it is also perilous and can lead to implicit prejudice, poor risk assessment, and overconfident predictions.

So, when in conversation about, for example, the supposed criminality of immigrants, the effects of well-meaning educational and therapeutic interventions, the realities of sexual orientation, and much more, let’s guide our students to reach beyond anecdote, to embrace evidence, to be truth-discerning—in short, to be open to new wonders but not to be gullible. And let’s ensure students fully understand that psychology is a science that they can use.

2)    How can we not only expand students’ minds but enlarge their hearts? How can we restrain judgmentalism with compassion? How can we help students appreciate both our human kinship and our diversity?

In a world that divides “us” from “them,” educated people should, first, appreciate our essential unity as humans who share an evolutionary and biological heritage. We therefore sense and perceive, learn and remember, hunger and emote in similar ways. As kindred humans, we are all social animals. We flourish in groups, recognize social status, punish offenses, fear strangers, favor those like us, and grieve loved ones’ deaths.

Yet we also differ. We differ in our individual aptitudes, traits, and vulnerabilities; in our sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation; and in our culturally shaped attitudes and beliefs, social practices, and life priorities. In a world that struggles with national, cultural, and racial diversity, it’s increasingly important both to accept and value our diversity and to affirm our deeper human kinship.

3)    How can our teaching of psychology enable students to flourish—to become self-disciplined, happy, healthy people, and effective global citizens? In teaching introductory psychology we aim not just to teach a discipline for its own sake, but to support and enrich our students’ lives. Psychology has so much to offer, with its big lessons about the benefits of delay of gratification, aerobic exercise, sleep, supportive relationships, flow, and so much more—including how to effectively learn and remember (for which I offer a 5 minute animated tutorial at

Mindful that students forget many of the details of what we teach, it seems best to teach fewer things with greater emphasis— focusing each class session on a big take-home message. For example, when teaching Sensation and Perception, you might focus on a small set of topics that you can teach with passion, using captivating examples. For me, these topics have been hearing, as a person with hearing loss who appreciates the wonders of hearing, and ESP, for which I demonstrated a series of pseudo-psychic magic tricks. The “magic” enabled me to astonish students, while leaving them with a reminder that just because something looks like a paranormal psychic phenomenon—because there seems no other explanation—does not mean that it is.

For more specific teaching tips and demonstration ideas derived from my experience (and that of many other teachers) see here. And for a weekly blog essay that reflects on psychological science and its insights into teaching and everyday life, visit

David Myers, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Visit to explore his scholarship, science writing, and books.

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