Keeping their attention: Using “Intermissions” in Intro to Psychology

16 Jul 2019 1:12 PM | Anonymous

Wind Goodfriend, Ph.D., Buena Vista University

Every year, around 1.5 million students take Introductory Psychology (Intro) classes (Gurung et al., 2016). Given that about 5% of all college students are psychology majors, the vast majority of students in those Intro classes are not actually particularly interested in psychology. Instead, they are taking it as a general requirement toward graduation.

Those of us who teach Intro are lucky enough to know that we benefit from inherently interesting material. Personality, mental health issues, how memory works, close relationships, group decision making—almost every chapter in an Intro class should be fascinating and relatable to college students. That said, those of us who teach Intro also know that the ideal situation of every student sitting on the edge of their seat with excitement is, sometimes, not quite reality.

I’ve been teaching Intro for twenty years now, and I’ve stumbled upon a few secrets that seem to help my students stay engaged. Today I want to share one of my favorite “tricks” – one that is often mentioned as a huge positive in my student evaluations at the end of the semester. I call it intermission.

Because I know that most of the students in my class aren’t psych majors, and because I ban all electronic devices (minus 5 points each time I catch you!), I feel a responsibility to be as engaging, entertaining, and exciting as possible for my students. I want them to really love my class, despite the fact that it’s challenging at times. Most importantly, I know that I need to keep their attention throughout. In a world where attention spans seem to shrink a little each year, I’ve created a simple technique that seems to really help them get engaged, right when attention seems to slip.

Approximately half-way through the class, I suddenly call “intermission.” My students know it’s coming around then, so they start to perk up about 20 minutes in, waiting with anticipation for when it’s going to arrive (which means, again, they start paying attention again). Intermission is structured to be about 60 seconds of something completely irrelevant and, frankly, a little silly. I assure the students that the intermission material is not going to be on the test; it’s honestly a time to just take a quick mental break and bond with the class.

If you want to try this, I suggest choosing intermission topics that really speak to your own interests and personality, so they seem relatively authentic. I also suggest that you steer away from political issues or anything that might be controversial. Intermission is supposed to be light-hearted fun, during which I often use self-deprecating humor. Here are some examples from my own class:

  • Ask the class who would win in a fight: Gandalf or Dumbledore.
  • Show pictures of cute baby animals, with a funny song in the background.
  • Summarize a Shakespearean play in 60 seconds or less.
  • Ask them to turn to a neighbor and describe what country they’d most like to visit, and why.
  • A brief history of the “Smurfs” cartoon and why they are racist.
  • Sing a song together, like “Soft Kitty” (from the Big Bang Theory; you can put the lyrics up on the projector).
  • Ask them to turn to a neighbor and explain whether they’d rather be a vampire or a werewolf.
  • Show pictures of animals dressed up in cute Halloween costumes.
  • Debate with them about what the best superpower would be, and why.
  • Show them embarrassing pictures of you as a child.
  • Show them photos of 1800s-era Presidents and have them choose which is the “hottest.”

Again – these are all very silly. But that’s kind of the point. You have to be willing to play along with this activity, showing some vulnerability in your own silliness. But it’s a way to show the students your sense of humor, your approachability, and your acknowledgment that Intro can be a lot of material. By breaking up a long lecture into two parts, you get their attention back after the intermission; you don’t lose them for the 10-15 minutes right in the middle of your class. And honestly, my students seem to really love the relaxed nature of the class and the fun, nerdy surprise they get each day. If you want to spice up their attention in a fun way, it’s worth a try! Even if you don’t do it every single day, peppering in intermissions every few days, at random, will give the students something to look forward to, and something that gets their brains back in the game.


Gurung, R. A. R., Hackathorn, J., Enns, C., Frantz, S., Cacioppo, J. T., Loop, T., & Freeman, J. E. (2016). Strengthening introductory psychology: A new model for teaching the introductory course. American Psychologist, 71(2), 112-124.

Wind Goodfriend is a full professor of psychology and division chair of social sciences at Buena Vista University in Iowa. She has won the “Faculty of the Year” award there three times so far, and was the recipient of the 2001 Wythe Teacher of the Year award. Her new co-authored textbook Social Psychology won the 2019 Most Promising New Textbook award.

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