Welcome to the GSTA blog! 

In an effort to keep the Graduate Student Teaching Association (GSTA) blog current, we regularly welcome submissions from graduate students as well as full-time faculty. Recently we have made the decision to expand and diversify the blog content to include submissions ranging from new research in the area of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), public interest topics related to teaching and psychology, occasional book reviews, as well as continuing our traditional aim by including posts about teaching tips. The blog posts are typically short, ranging from about 500-1000 words, not including references. As it is an online medium, in-text hyperlinks, graphics, and even links to videos are strongly encouraged!

If you are interested in submitting a post, please email us at We are especially seeking submissions in one of the five topic areas:

  • Highlights of your current SoTL research
  • Issues related to teaching and psychology in the public interest
  • Reviews of recent books related to teaching and psychology
  • Teaching tips and best practices for today's classroom
  • Advice for successfully navigating research and teaching demands of graduate school

We would especially like activities that align with APA 2.0 Guidelines!

This blog is intended to be a forum for graduate students and educators to share ideas and express their opinions about tried-and-true modern teaching practices and other currently relevant topics regarding graduate students’ teaching.

If you would like for any questions to be addressed, you can send them to and we will post them as a comment on your behalf.

Thanks for checking us out,

The GSTA Blog Editorial Team:

Hallie Jordan, Sarah Frantz, Maya Rose, Raoul RobertsTashiya Hunter, Laura Mason and Megan Nadzan

Follow us on twitter @gradsteachpsych or join our Facebook Group.

  • 08 Oct 2019 10:00 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    By Mike Martynowicz, Ph.D., University of Saint Francis - Fort Wayne

    I have always believed that one of my most important duties as an educator is to help students learn to think critically. While my undergraduate teacher preparation experience provided me the knowledge and training to be an effective and engaging high school psychology teacher (which I did for seven years, and loved), it was not until I went to graduate school and then made the transition to teaching at the postsecondary level that I fully embraced psychological science in my pedagogical decision-making. I have always employed various teaching and assessment strategies in my classes, but I now choose to emphasize research consumption and academic writing via a scaffolded method. This method helps develop metacognitive and critical thinking skills in my students as both academics and citizens who need to be skeptical consumers of information.

    The main problem with this approach, of course, is that both the literature and anecdotal evidence indicate that many students enter college with insufficient experience in research-based academic writing. Also, in my nine years as a college professor, I have (unfortunately) learned that growth mindset is not commonplace amongst higher education faculty. So, I feel it is imperative to clearly state that students most certainly CAN (and should) acquire these skills after high school. The method used in my courses is a product of years of conversations with students as well as investigation of the literature, and it is shared by my departmental colleague, Dr. Monica Heller, in her courses. We have used this method, rooted in metacognitive research, to structure research-based academic writing in our undergraduate curriculum.

    The Method

    I do not believe in “surprising” students with unexpected assignments or changes in course structure during a semester. Therefore, roughly one week prior to the beginning of a course, students receive a syllabus that includes all assignments, due dates, directions, and rubrics/scoring criteria. While each course has different formative and summative assessments, they all contain assignments and activities (see below) to develop the research project and these vary depending on the course (e.g., sophomore versus senior-level). The final product is typically a research essay, although approved undergraduate students can take an independent study course in which they write a research proposal (literature review plus a methods section) and potentially even carry out their own study.

    Assignments/activities to support the research project:

    • Topic Proposal
    • Research Training (in a lab)
    • Article Summary or Article Critique
    • Literature Matrix
    • Outline
    • Draft

    Each assignment is uploaded to Canvas, our course management system. This allows for a running record of each assignment, and my feedback (both annotated on the document and in the comments box) is saved for posterity. This proves invaluable to the process, as it facilitates efficient, ongoing communication via Canvas, e-mail, and/or individual meetings in my office. Per the syllabus, students are required to submit each assignment, even if it is late (with a point reduction), or I will not read/grade their final product.

    Approximately three weeks into the semester, students submit a Topic Proposal. This requires students to formulate an initial research question. I tell them that they need to be able to say something like, “The impact of X (topic) on Y (outcome/s) in Z (population) is...” They are also required to provide a few sentences explaining why this research question is important and/or interesting to them. It is stressed that this proposal commits them to nothing; it merely “points them in a direction” as it pertains to their upcoming investigation of the literature.

    A couple of weeks later, students spend a class with me (and sometimes library staff) going through Research Training related to: the utilization of our university’s database and Google Scholar, as well as the most efficient methods for locating, processing, and storing research articles. They also complete an exercise on approaches to processing an article. The anticipated outcome of the training is that students will find at least one original study article (not simply a literature review) related to their topic and then use it to prepare the next assignment related to the research project, an Article Summary (sophomores) or Article Critique (juniors and seniors).

    Just after the midterm, students submit a Literature Matrix. This is essentially an annotated bibliography in chart form, and it is (in my opinion as well as my students’) much more effective in that it forces students to actually read the article carefully (students say that it is easy to skim an article to develop an annotation). This is because students have to place brief summary information (e.g., full APA citation, lit review and main research questions, methods, key findings, limitations, and areas for future research) into columns for each peer-reviewed article. This also forces students to locate and use studies versus literature reviews, and this seems to help them more clearly conceptualize the difference. Frankly, it also acts as a helpful tool as they craft their next assignment.

    With approximately a month to go in the semester, students submit an Outline of their essay, including citations and focusing on an integrated writing approach. I show them an example of an adequate outline, and I offer individual meeting time to students that want to process the assignment in person. Many of my students have typically viewed academic research and writing as a major stressor (at least the first time I have them in class), so I tell them that the anxiety/stress they are used to feeling (as they attempt to throw a research essay together at the last minute) is a thing of the past. This often results in many “aha!” moments throughout the semester, and it is amazing to watch them realize that they CAN do this type of work and then fully embrace the process.

    Last, but not least, they submit a Draft of the essay. Note that my feedback on this assignment is not that of a grammar, spelling, and writing style editor (it needs to be their essay, not mine), but rather suggestive as it pertains to how their argument is being constructed.

    Final Thoughts

    I want the audience to understand that my students receive feedback, on each of these assignments, within a week at the most (my goal is actually 48 hours). The literature and anecdotal evidence suggest that quick, detailed feedback is critical to the process. To ensure that this happens, I schedule feedback time on my calendar, and I am sure to leave time open on my calendar during the weeks in which the most taxing assignments (e.g., literature matrix, outline) are due because I know that students typically need it. So, of course, this entire process can be time-consuming and that would be considered a limitation by some. I do not see it that way, and, most importantly, neither do my students.

    I should note that a version of this method is also used in my graduate courses, the main difference being that Master’s-level students write a full Research Proposal (ideally leading to a thesis project) and Doctoral-level students will, of course, be working towards a dissertation. I say “will” because we are offering a brand new School Psychology program with our first Masters-level and specialist (M.S. and PsyS) cohorts starting this fall and our first doctoral (PsyD) cohort beginning in 2021. Applications for the PsyD program will be accepted starting next fall. Shameless plug!

    Finally, thank you to the GSTA editorial team for extending an invitation to write this piece. I appreciate the opportunity. Please feel free to contact me at with any questions or comments, and I would love to see you at my symposium entitled Building Student Research-Based Writing Competency through a Cognitive Self-Regulation Approach at the Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s 18th Annual Conference on Teaching in Denver, CO on October 18, 2019.

    Mike Martynowicz, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN) and an educational psychologist with an emphasis in human learning and development. He teaches multiple undergraduate (e.g., General Psychology, Educational Psychology, Research Methods and Statistics, Learning and Behavior, and Social Psychology) and graduate courses (e.g., Research Methods and Statistics, Advanced Human Growth and Development, Social Psychology, and Cognition and Learning). Additionally, Dr. Martynowicz is engaged in ongoing research projects related to college students’ achievement motivation, metacognitive self-regulation, selection and use of learning strategies, and the relationship between mental health issues and academic performance, behaviors, and relationships.

  • 07 Oct 2019 4:07 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    By Lisa Dierker, Ph.D., Wesleyan University

    I teach introductory statistics. Yes, I know what many are thinking. I know because when I attend parties and mention this in the course of conversation, people tend to force a smile and move away from me as quickly as possible. The rare party guest who doesn’t walk away regales me with the harrowing, dispiriting and/or mind-numbingly boring experience they had in their first (and usually last) statistics course. Those who actively avoided taking statistics tend to make self-disparaging comments about their math ability and suggest that I am doing something out of their reach. I say things like “no, it’s not like that” and “you would love this course”, but it’s a hard sell.

    Except that, the course is not like that and you would definitely love it. Passion-Driven Statistics is a project-based introductory curriculum that has been implemented as a statistics course, a research methods course, a data science course, a capstone experience, and a summer research boot camp with students from a wide variety of academic settings. Liberal arts colleges, large state universities, regional colleges/universities, medical schools, community colleges, and high schools have all successfully implemented the model. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the curriculum engages students in authentic projects with large, real-world data sets (e.g. National Household Survey on Drug use and Health, The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, and National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health) from the very first day! (Dierker et al, 2012). There are no canned exercises, and at the same time, no M&M’s or other entertaining maneuvers. Instead, the focus is on welcoming and empowering students to ask and answer questions they care about. Is exposure to a drug use prevention curriculum associated with lower rates of experimentation with diverse substances? Are religious adolescents less likely to be depressed? What factors predict ‘safe sex’ practices? As students engage in productive struggle in the context of their own original research, the instructor and peer mentors support each student individually through ample one-on-one mentoring. Together, we take students completely out of their comfort zone, and at the same time “love them through it” by creating an inviting classroom culture and an experience that gives them a safe and supportive space to “get it wrong before they get it right”, no matter their educational background or experience.

    Research evaluating the model has been exciting to see unfold. The curriculum attracts higher rates of under-represented minority (URM) students compared to a traditional statistics course and students enrolled in Passion-Driven Statistics are more likely to report increased confidence in working with data and increased interest in pursuing advanced statistics coursework (Dierker et al., 2018). In new research currently under review, the project-based curriculum promoted further training in statistics. Using causal inference techniques to achieve matched comparisons across three different statistics courses, students originally enrolled in Passion-Driven Statistics were significantly more likely to take at least one additional undergraduate course focused on statistical concepts, applied data analysis, and/or use of statistical software compared to students taking either a psychology statistics course or math statistics course. Further, Passion-Driven Statistics students took a larger number of one of these additional courses compared to students originally enrolled in either of the comparison courses.

    Many student reactions have supported the positive impact of the course. In anonymous post-course evaluations, one student wrote, “I have never felt so excited and motivated to be part of an academic environment as I have in this class. I am so proud of my work.” Another wrote, “Allowing students to pick from a study and data set to answer their own research question was effective because we became attached to our own projects, understood exactly why we were learning what we were learning, and wanted to know more.” Finally, “Though the structure of the class is unorthodox, the resulting education is priceless. Aside from teaching me the valuable process and application of statistical inquiry, this course taught me how to take initiative and start a scientific project that I can call my own.”

    Resources are available at Some that you might find most helpful include 1) a free e-book, with links to videos that allow you to “flip” the classroom and 2) translation code aimed at supporting the use of statistical software across all of the major platforms (i.e. SAS, R, python, Stata and SPSS).

    We are currently in the second year of a 5-year NSF grant aimed at nationwide dissemination of the model. If you are interested in learning more or attending one of several faculty workshops, I would encourage you to get in touch; email me at Because of the diversity of psychology majors nationwide, statistics instructors have great potential to break down long-standing disparities and contribute to opening the analytics economy to everyone. Along the way, we might even end up being less lonely at parties. J

    Dr. Lisa Dierker is the Walter Crowell University Professor of Social Sciences and Professor of Psychology at Wesleyan University. She received her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from the University of Connecticut and completed postdoctoral training in Epidemiology at the Yale School of Medicine. A researcher in addictive behaviors, her more recent work based on the NSF funded Passion-Driven Statistics Project centers on the dissemination of innovative pedagogical practices.

    Dierker, L., Kaparakis, E., Rose, J. & Selya, A. (2012). Strength in numbers: A multidisciplinary, project-based course in introductory statistics. Journal of Effective Teaching, 12(2): 4-14.

    Dierker, L., Woods, K., Singer-Freeman, K., Germano, K.,Cooper, J.L. & Rose, J. (2018). Evaluating Impact:  A  comparison  of  learning  experiences and outcomes  of  students  completing  a  traditional versus multidisciplinary, project-based introductory statistics course, International Journal of Education, Training and Learning, 2(1), 16-28.

  • 29 Sep 2019 10:08 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    By Crissa Levin, Ph.D., Utah State University

    Unmotivated, unhappy, and downright angry students can be difficult to help. One way to consider student management is to integrate what clinical psychologists know about helping individuals who suffer in clinical contexts, and map that onto classroom interactions. And these skills are entirely doable for individuals with any background – clinical or otherwise.

    Values are chosen ideals that can never be reached; desired qualities to bring to actions. It can be helpful to bring values into the classroom to help with motivation and engagement, and to help a student manage what they are unhappy about. To help someone evaluate their values, you would want to help them figure out what it is about the class that is meaningful to the individual student. Is it that the course is a steppingstone to the degree they want, a degree that is meaningful for helping them gain independence, or be with family, or move towards mastery in educational attainment? Is it that they value knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and this course may contribute to that knowledge? Once you know the student’s course values, you can help them tie this value to the problem or barrier. If we can figure out what the student really cares about, then when we are listening to their grievances, it’s much easier to understand what they find upsetting or difficult, what it is that matters about the course and what might be going wrong, and how we might get back on track, or even to help them realize that it’s okay to let things go. For example, if both of you can agree that the grade isn’t tied directly to the value, because it’s the knowledge that was always important or because ultimately it’s the degree for which this course is just one small steppingstone, then the student can become satisfied, maybe even happy, with what they’ve received and where to go next or how to get there.

    Goals are similar to values, but they can be checked off, they can be attained. So looking now at goals for the course, including grades and coursework, we tend to have this automatic assumption that students should want to do well in our courses. And yet, clinicians know better than to choose goals for  clients. Students are adults, with full lives, including falling in love or being heartbroken, making new friends, dealing with family emergencies – let’s face it, many of the things we remember most about college. Many students will want a high grade, but some students simply may not. It’s not wrong to choose to spend more time with family and friends, or catch up on sleep and health behaviors, or even simply to have fun or grieve a broken heart. In fact, you might have noticed – these things that students might be doing instead are things that we tend to value as a field. What we can learn from a clinical context is that there has to be readiness to engage. If a student does not want to engage in your material to the degree of, say, getting an A+, then maybe moving the goalpost to what they are ready to engage in, and how hard they are ready or able to work, given their own life contexts, is a better match to keep them learning, engaged, and in school. And if we meet them where they are at, and listen to what they need, then we can hear how to help with the students’ own goals instead of forcing our own. 

    Lastly, it is important to listen for emotion and validate it. The thing about a student who is unhappy is that they are right. They may not be right about what happened, but they are right that they are unhappy. And there is nothing that fuels that fire more than to literally dismiss that. If the student is angry, or if the student is scared, listen for that – because whatever the emotion is, the emotion is true. If the student feels something has been unfair – like that they are turning in similar work as others and it is being graded more harshly, or that the book is saying one thing and you are saying something else – the student’s perception is true, even if the actual reality of the matter doesn’t line up. And from the student’s eyes, that really isn’t fair, and it makes sense to be angry or frustrated. Students are also often scared that if they don’t do well enough in the class, something bad might happen – maybe they will lose a scholarship or financial aid; maybe they won’t be able to graduate in time and start a job that they have accepted. They might not mention the emotion, but listen for it, because that emotion is true. And when we express understanding of how difficult that spot must be, we can help that student to feel less angry or less scared just by hearing them, even if hearing is all we do.

    But when we listen, we also have to be willing to be wrong. We are human. Sometimes, we might grade unfairly by accident, or we might have misread the book or misremembered. So, we don’t want to start with the assumption that we are right and further fuel anger or fear. The student’s emotion is not what will make the difference as to whether we have already made a mistake, and it’s not what should make the difference as to whether we fix our mistakes, so we can listen regardless of the student’s emotion. We can have great empathy without budging the course rules. Because for education to have value, it also has to have standards. We don’t want grades to reflect assertiveness or sympathy instead of understanding and application of course material. So, we can have great empathy, and can even grieve the outcome with a student, without changing a grade or rule.

    In short, we can learn to respect students and treat them as autonomous individuals with autonomous values, goals, and experiences. We can hold all of these things to be valid and true, and can help guide our students towards what they want in education, even when it’s not what we want for them. This will likely help the way it does for clinical clients – to provide less suffering through helping those we are working with to stay on track and meet their goals – not ours.

    Dr. Crissa Levin is a lecturer at Utah State University, where for the past several years she has been teaching exclusively online, focusing her efforts on adapting technologies, experiences and communities into online environments. Dr. Levin is passionate about ensuring that distance students receive excellent education in the virtual classroom and educational opportunities outside of classes. Dr. Levin co-runs an undergraduate research lab primarily for distance students, which focuses on student learning and engagement above any particular topic within psychology. Dr. Levin is also interested and engaged in research on teaching and learning, especially as it applies to engagement or to best practices in online courses, or to using elements of therapy (such as values and mindfulness) to help students succeed.

  • 20 Sep 2019 8:16 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    By Jennifer Grewe, Ph.D., Utah State University

    It can be difficult for a graduate student instructor to walk into a classroom filled with undergraduate students for many reasons. It may have only been a summer or less since you were an undergraduate student yourself. Suddenly finding yourself teaching a group of people that you would have recently considered your peers can be a strange experience. It also might be intimidating doing something, like teaching, that you have never done before or have limited experience with. In this piece, I want to give you some of my best advice that, hopefully, you can use as you move into the role of instructor to perhaps make the transition easier and smoother.

    Practice, practice, practice.

    Even if you are the expert on a topic, it can be challenging teaching others about that same topic (particularly when you are new to teaching). I found that when I started teaching it was very helpful to have detailed notes on what I wanted to cover and a cliff-notes version that I could glance at as I went through the class. This way, I could make sure I was covering all the details and staying on track with my planned activities and material. I would practice talking about the topic by myself and made sure that I had examples ready to go for every concept that I planned on introducing. It is also a good idea to use presentation slides or some other method to keep yourself focused and to avoid getting sidetracked. It is really easy to get on a tangent that you didn’t intend if you don’t have something to keep you on track.

    Establish good, healthy professional relationships and boundaries, but be approachable.

    It is true that you were most likely in their position not too long ago (unless you are returning to school after taking a break). It is still good to maintain a professional relationship with your students. This can help them model good professional behavior in all of their future interactions, which their future instructors/professors will thank you for! They will look to you to see what to do, such as how to approach an instructor or how to write an email to an instructor. They will end up modeling your behavior so it is important for you to set a good example. At the same time, it is good to be approachable so that your students are comfortable asking questions and getting help from you. Being more approachable can include holding extra office hours, being available at times that students need, or having time before or after class for quick interactions with students.

    Clear expectations.

    Work on establishing clear expectations in every aspect of your class, from syllabus development to grading procedures. For example, provide students with grading rubrics before you grade their assignments, be clear on your policies within the syllabus, and remain consistent with students. Sometimes lack of clear expectations and transparency may just be because of a lack of teaching experience, and not lack of desire to be clear. There are many wonderful examples of syllabi ( and teaching resources ( available for free on the Society of Teaching Psychology (STP) website that can help improve not only the quality of a course, but help you to maintain clear expectations. Most of the teaching resources are evidence-based, which means you can be more confident that they will be successful in your classroom.  Use these resources—they were developed by the best in the field! It can take some time to develop a class that is truly transparent, but the more transparent you are with your processes and expectations, the more you will eliminate a lot of students’ frustrations.

    Students want answers on the spot. Wait and give it some thought.

    One rule of thumb that has always worked well for me is not immediately saying “okay” to requests from students. I ask them to send me an email or I ask them to “let me consider that and I will get back to you very soon.” This allows me the amount of time I need to give them a thoughtful answer. You also won’t end up saying “yes” to requests that you may later regret.

    Know your audience.

    Graduate students are not all the same and neither are your undergraduate students. It is good to know the population that you are working with. It may even help you to anticipate challenges and address issues that many of your students are facing. For example, many of my online students are non-traditional students. It is good for me to know that information, as there are many challenges to non-traditional students staying engaged with their academic studies (they might be taking care of a family and/or have a full-time job). By knowing that sort of information, I can adjust certain aspects of the course or how I respond to situations. For example, my due dates in my online courses always fall after a weekend because I know that many of my non-traditional students will have a hard time finishing work by the end of a week and may need the weekend to work on their academic work.

    Remember to be kind to yourself—not every lecture is going to go as planned or be totally amazing. You have to have patience and be persistent with improving your teaching skills. Keep with it and you will get better. I wish you the best of luck within your classrooms and with your teaching! 

    Dr. Jennifer Grewe is currently a Professional Practice Assistant Professor with the Department of Psychology at Utah State University. Dr. Grewe received her PhD from Utah State University in 2011. Since then, Dr. Grewe has taught thousands of undergraduate students via the many psychology courses for the undergraduate psychology program including Introduction to Psychology, Undergraduate Apprenticeship, Health Psychology, and Scientific Thinking and Methods in Psychology. Dr. Grewe teaches both on campus and online courses. Dr. Grewe is the advisor for the local chapter of Psi Chi (International Psychology Honors Society). She is an active member of the Society of Teaching Psychology (APA, Div.2) and is the Co-Program Director for the Rocky Mountain Psychological Association. Dr. Grewe enjoys working with undergraduate students in all levels of their career and loves being a USU Aggie!


  • 16 Sep 2019 5:00 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    By Danae L. Hudson, Ph.D., Missouri State University

    As a graduate student, could you articulate the processes you use to learn? I’m definitely not talking about the “won’t-ever-die-myth of learning styles.” Instead, think about how you study. Why do you do what you do and where did you learn those approaches? I would guess that many of you would respond with, “I just figured it out along the way by what worked and what didn’t.” If we were to take a closer look, you probably utilize several evidence-based study strategies from learning/cognitive science. You are most likely engaging in some form of deep processing of the information, while connecting that information to previously learned material. You may have the best of intentions of spacing out your practice (whether that actually happens is another story, but you know that you should.) And, you have probably attempted to get your hands on any old/practice tests because you’ve learned that answering test questions helps prepare you for the exam. Prior to starting graduate school, did anyone ever specifically teach you how to study? Probably not. Now let’s remember, you’re in graduate school because you’ve demonstrated yourself to be bright and hardworking. You are not the average student……Being “the average” student isn’t bad, but as instructors, we often have to remind ourselves that our own experience is not representative of the average student’s experience. In most cases, students aren’t taught explicit study strategies or anything about how learning and memory works. Further, they often don’t have the experience of figuring it out on their own.

    Should I Teach Learning Science in Every Course?

    Yes. Part of our role as instructors involves teaching and modeling for students, important life skills. Most people would agree that teaching students how to think critically and evaluate information is at least as important as learning the content of your course. Discussing how memory works and how learning occurs is an important precursor to teaching good, evidence-based study skills. You might think, “Well, I teach an upper division course so surely these students know these principles already.” I can guarantee you that is mostly likely not the case. Even the strongest students will likely pick up something new when you present the information (just like you do when you go to a conference on a topic in your area of expertise).

    How Should I Approach Teaching About Learning Science?

    There are many approaches to teaching about learning science. It is best if you use a variety of methods spaced throughout the semester. In our Introductory Psychology program at Missouri State University, we use a combination of informal instruction (e.g., using learning science principles to illustrate other psychological concepts, one-on-one discussions with students) and traditional classroom activities and assignments to infuse learning science throughout the semester. Our students are exposed to the topic of learning science on the first day of class because improving students’ study skills is one of our course objectives! We explain that Introductory Psychology is a logical choice to tackle this important life skill because of the content of the course (e.g., including the topics of learning and memory) and because students typically take this course early in college.

    Classroom Examples and Demonstrations

    Whenever possible, we use examples from cognitive science to demonstrate difficult concepts. For example, I recently adapted Stephen Chew’s multitasking demo (the link to this demo is provided at the end of this blog) to explain some concepts associated with research design. While students learned about between-subjects and within-subjects designs, they also learned (by experiencing) that multitasking is nothing more than shifting attention and overall, quite inefficient.

    A Study Skills Class

    One week after the first exam in Introductory Psychology, we hold a “Study Skills Class” for students. The class is optional, but we really talk it up to students and give extra credit for attending. We typically have about 75% of our 330 students attend this class. The timing of this study skills class is important. You can’t offer it too early because students will think they don’t need it (due to poor metacognition). We have found after the first exam is a time when we have their attention and they still have plenty of time left in the semester to make changes. In this class we focus on the most important principles from learning science (e.g., strategies to enhance deep processing, retrieval practice, distributed practice) and give specific examples of how students could incorporate these strategies and apply it to their current class.

    Additional Readings and Assignments

    The textbook we use has a prologue chapter called “Learning How to Learn.” It is a brief chapter that addresses important concepts from learning science and provides students with practical advice to enhance their study skills. We assign this chapter and the accompanying quiz questions as extra credit that is due after the second exam.

    A Midterm Wrapper

    An exam wrapper is a post-exam assignment where students reflect on their performance with the goal of improving metacognition and subsequent grades. While the empirical literature is a little mixed regarding the efficacy of exam wrappers (e.g., LaCaille, LaCaille, & Maslowski, 2019; Pate, Lafitte, Ramachandran, & Caldwell, 2019; Soicher & Gurung, 2017), we have found a variant of this assignment to be a useful component to our class. Our midterm wrapper consists of students completing a worksheet detailing every grade they have in the class so far. They are asked to calculate their current grade and figure out how many points they would need to earn in the rest of the class to obtain their desired grade. We also ask about their current study skills and if they are unhappy with their performance so far, ask them to commit to trying something new before the next exam. This is a required assignment but worth a very small percentage (i.e., 0.5%) of the students’ overall course grade.

    Individual Student Meetings

    We have all experienced the student in our office who says, “I studied for hours and thought I did really well on the exam, but I got a D.” I always use these opportunities to discuss the concept of metacognition with students. I explain that what they experienced was a “metacognitive failure” (it sounds dramatic and gets their attention). I use this time with the student to discuss evidence-based study strategies that can help improve metacognition. I ask students to commit to trying some of these strategies in preparing for the next exam and to let me know how it worked for them. I warn them that these strategies take practice, so it will take time to develop their skills. Students often do seek me out later to let me know that what they did “worked!” For me, these are the moments that remind me of the value we, as educators, bring to students’ lives.

    Regardless of your background in psychology, I hope this blog has convinced you of the importance of bringing the principles from learning/cognitive science into each and every course you teach. If you are interested in the multitasking demo I described and other lesson plans for improving student study skills, please see this document prepared by Stephen Chew and Guy Boysen. This document is part of the many resources available as part of the Fall Pilot from APA’s Introductory Psychology Initiative (IPI). The goal of the IPI is to have instructors from a variety of institutions involved in implementing the new Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) and their assessments in their Introductory Psychology classes. Initially, we will be collecting data from these instructors and their students about their experience with the student learning outcomes. If you’d like more information, or would like to be involved in an upcoming pilot of the program, please visit


    LaCaille, R. A., LaCaille, L., & Maslowski, A. (2019). The effect of exam and quiz wrappers on metacognition, learning perceived competence, and course performance in online undergraduate psychology courses. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology.

    Pate, A., Lafitte, E. M., Ramachandran, S., & Caldwell, D. J. (2019). The use of exam wrappers to promote metacognition. Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning11, 492-498.

    Soicher, R. N., & Gurung, R. A. (2017). Do exam wrappers increase metacognition and performance? A single course intervention. Psychology Learning & Teaching16, 64-73.

    Danae Hudson is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Missouri State University. She teaches large sections of Introductory Psychology in addition to other clinical psychology undergraduate and graduate courses. Dr. Hudson is the Graduate Program Director for Clinical Psychology at MSU, serves as the Director of Teaching Resources for the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP), and is a member of APA’s Introductory Psychology Initiative committee. She is the co-author of Revel Psychology 1e published by Pearson Education.

  • 09 Sep 2019 6:00 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    By Garth Neufeld, Psychology Faculty, Cascadia College

    First Thing’s First

    After 15 years in the classroom, I have some thoughts about ice-breaker activities:

    I do not like them.

    Students do not like them.

    Why? Because they are usually superficial while simultaneously forcing us all out of our comfort zones and perhaps even asking questions that we either don’t want to answer publicly or don’t know the answers to. And so, it turns out that the social risk is high and the social reward is low. Additionally, too often the person leading the activity has not thought through the point of the activity and how it fits into the course. “Welcome to class, now pair up with a stranger and share about your life,” is not a great setup for a meaningful activity.

    Here’s an icebreaker rule I subscribe to: if I’m bored, then my student are twice as bored. And going around the room talking about what you are studying or what you ate for dinner last night is boring. No one cares. In some ways, I think a bad icebreaker leaves the impression that the course will be unengaging and unimportant.

    Still, the ice-breaker is widely used because it is important. Spending all of our time on the first day of class merely reading through the syllabus, or worse, dismissing students early with no meaningful learning experience or connection to the course, is a missed opportunity. So, it is my opinion that we should be looking for high quality ice-breakers that check many of the boxes that we hope to accomplish on the first day of class.

    The Speed Dating Ice-Breaker

    This activity seems to work for me and my students are surprised by how much fun they have at it. As we do this activity on the first day of class, I invite them to “trust me” even they don’t know me. A couple of things that this activity has going for it is that it is fast-paced and it touches on things that students are genuinely interested in and can easily share. It also reminds students that they are interesting and have something valuable to contribute!

    To set this up, I have my 30-ish students get into pairs and stand across from one another in two lines of 15. Then, I give each student a piece of paper with a question on it. I choose one line of students to ask their question first – they will also be the students who will be moving between questions. This line of students asks their partner their question. For example, “if you could live anywhere in the world, where would you live and why?” The partner then answers until 30 seconds is up and you, the teacher, says, “switch.” Now the other partner asks her question. Thirty seconds later, you call out “rotate,” and the one student line takes a step down to the next person, while the person at the very end of the line rotates to the beginning. This goes on again, and again, until all 15 students have engaged with 15 other students.

    After the activity is over, we have a class-wide conversation (sometimes small groups first) about what kinds of things we learned through the activity. You can ask any questions here, like, “did anyone get a really interesting answer to a question they asked?” I will also lead a conversation about what kinds of skills students displayed in the activity. Then, I talk about the relevance of those skills to this particular course and to learning in general. I also encourage students to follow up with others who they found to be interesting! Finally, in a “lightning round,” I allow students to ask me any of the questions that they were asking each other. This proves to be a great way for them to get to know me.

    Here are some sample questions. Some I stole and some I wrote, though I can’t remember which are which. Feel free to write your own questions and to be creative. But, keep in mind the diversity of your student body and avoid any questions that can obviously make students feel uncomfortable. Remember, our questions can quickly become biased to our particular worldview or assumptions. (Someday, I might have students create and submit their own questions to use for speed dating.)

    Some Questions

    What is your favorite thing to do around town?

    Are you more of a morning person or a night person?

    If you could visit any place in this world, where would you go and why?

    What is something you're passionate about?

    What is something you’re most knowledgeable about?

    What is something good that happened to you today?

    What show or shows do you watch religiously?

    What is something you wish you could change in today's world?

    Can you tell me some things about your family?

    What are some little things that bring happiness into your everyday life?

    What do you do for a typical night out with your friends?

    Where did you grow up? What was it like?

    Which animated character should portray you in a documentary about your life?

    What was an embarrassing moment of your life?

    What is your most random, silly childhood memory?

    Do you break any traffic rules if there is no cop around? Which ones?

    We’re at a restaurant and you find a hair in your food, how do you react?

    What is one thing that you absolutely cannot stand?

    If you were any superhero, who would you be?

    Garth Neufeld teaches at Cascadia College in Washington State. He is the founder of Teaching Introductory Psychology Northwest, the co-founder of the PsychSessions podcast, and the co-founder of the non-profit organization Shared Space For All, for which he received an APA Citizen Psychologist Presidential Citation. Garth is the co-chair of APA’s Introductory Psychology Initiative and the recipient of the 2019 STP Wayne Weiten Teaching Excellence Award.

  • 26 Aug 2019 5:05 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    By Tim Lawson, Ph.D., Mount St. Joseph University

    Many years ago I discovered that even my brightest seniors believed in psychic powers and other paranormal and pseudoscientific phenomena. It was then that I realized the importance of teaching students about the differences between science and pseudoscience, and teaching them to think critically about such phenomena. 

    I am always looking for ways to make my psychology courses more fun, engaging, and effective for enhancing student learning, and pseudoscience and paranormal phenomena are topics that help accomplish all of those goals. These topics are interesting and grab students’ attention while helping us teach students critical thinking principles (e.g., considering alternative explanations, examining assumptions, and recognizing weaknesses in anecdotal evidence) as well as scientific principles (e.g., placebo effects, the necessity of control groups, and the importance of double-blind procedures).  

    I thought I would share with you some of my favorite demonstrations and activities related to pseudoscience and paranormal phenomena, which I have researched and found to be quite effective. My hope is that you might find them useful for courses you teach.

    1. In my Introduction to Psychology course, I do a very believable, but fake, psychic reading after we cover the topics of perception and extrasensory perception. Prior to the class, I gather information about one particular student (using public sources, such as the internet and students' Facebook sites that are open to the public). In class, I tell them that I’ve been practicing my psychic reading skills, and then I “randomly” chose a student (whom I actually selected before class – but the students don’t know this) and bring that person to the front of the room. I ask the student to give some personal item (e.g., car keys) that I can hold to get “psychic vibes.” I start my reading with “cold reading” techniques, in which I say several general statements that seem specific but actually apply to most people (e.g., “ I see that you have a very flexible personality, sometimes you are fairly outgoing and other times you are more reserved”). Then I begin getting much more specific, acting as if I’m seeing details about them that I actually gathered in advance from my research (e.g., “I’m seeing you on the gym floor of a school that looks like it might be your high school. I see a mean-looking cat, like a wildcat, on the wall, and I see you standing there in a basketball jersey that is red and black. I see a number on the jersey, it’s a 1 and another 1; did you wear number 11?”). After the reading, I ask students whether the accuracy of a reading constitutes solid evidence of psychic abilities and whether there are alternative explanations for accurate statements. I admit that I have no psychic abilities, and we discuss “cold reading” techniques and “hot reading” techniques (and I explain how I obtained my information). 

    2. Another fun demonstration I use after talking about sensation in Introduction to Psychology involves water dowsing. I explain to them that dowsing involves finding hidden objects (e.g., underground water or metal) using metal or wooden rods. I tell students that I’m going to demonstrate dowsing for water, and I pull out two L-shaped metal rods I made from coat hangers. I place two blue plastic cups on a table in front of me and show them that one contains water and the other contains sugar. I then demonstrate that my dowsing rods cross each other when they are over the cup with water, but the rods stay parallel to one another when they are over sugar. I invite three students, one at time, to come up and try the dowsing rods; they typically experience the rods crossing over the water but not over the sugar. I set the cups aside on a computer kiosk, and then I ask students whether this is convincing evidence that dowsing rods detect water, and invite them to generate alternative explanations. After we discuss their answers, I explain that dowsing is supposed to find hidden objects, so I cover the cups and put them back on the table. I mention that I’m putting them back in the same position, but I actually switch the position of the cups. Then I demonstrate, once again, that the rods cross over the cup containing “water” (it’s actually sugar) and not the cup containing “sugar” (it’s actually water). I invite the same three students back to the front of the room and they also experience the dowsing rods crossing over the “water” and not the “sugar.” I reveal that the cups had been switched, and we talk about the ideomotor effect (i.e. how our ideas or expectations cause involuntary and unconscious motor activity). I also discuss how the ideomotor effect is related to Ouija boards and Facilitated Communication. 

    3. In my Research II course, I tell students about the Power Balance Wristband (PBW), which has holographic disks that supposedly improve people’s balance, strength, and flexibility. I bring a PBW to class and demonstrate on a volunteer student how the student’s balance, strength, and flexibility actually improves when the wristband is on his or her wrist compared to when there is no wristband on the student. I invite students to consider whether the PBW actually works or whether there are alternative explanations, and I have them write down their ideas for designing a quick experiment (using the same tests of balance, strength, and flexibility that I conducted) to determine whether the PBW actually works. Then I review a number of important research-design concepts that they learned earlier in our research courses (e.g., control groups, control variables, chance effects, experimenter expectations, double-blind procedures). I ask them to get into small groups to decide on an experimental design to test the effect of the PBW. I have them report out their designs, I select one of them, and the students conduct it in class. Afterward, we discuss whether their design utilized all of the important research design concepts we covered and how we might improve upon their design. I also explain that the PBW does not actually work, and I demonstrate how I made it seem effective by subtly influencing the student’s balance and strength, without the student’s awareness, during my initial demonstration. 

    I hope I have given you some useful ideas for how you might teach students critical thinking while exploring differences between science and pseudoscience in a fun, engaging, and educational manner. If you would like to read more about these demonstrations and activities, as well as the research I have conducted on their effectiveness, please consult the following references:


    Lawson, T. J., Blackhart, G. C., & Gialopsos, B. M.  (2016). Using the Power Balance wristband to improve students’ research-design skills. Teaching of Psychology, 43, 318-322. doi:10.1177/0098628316662763

    Lawson, T. J., & Crane, L. L.  (2014). Dowsing rods designed to sharpen critical thinking and understanding of ideomotor action.  Teaching of Psychology, 41, 52-56. doi: 10.1177/0098628313514178

    Lawson, T. J. (2003). A psychic-reading demonstration designed to encourage critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 30, 251-253.

    Tim Lawson is Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, OH.  He is an award-winning teacher and scholar, and was recently awarded the Robert S. Daniel Teaching Excellence Award from APA’s Division 2.  Dr. Lawson is the author of two books, Scientific Perspectives on Pseudoscience and the Paranormal and Statistical Reasoning in Everyday Life.  He has published dozens of research studies in professional journals, such as Teaching of Psychology, and has been an invited speaker at many conferences on a range of topics, including social perception, statistical reasoning, and the teaching of psychology.

  • 12 Aug 2019 1:10 PM | Anonymous

    Jason Todd, Ph.D., Xavier University of Louisiana

    One of my favorite professors in college was a guy named Harry Cargas. I attended a small liberal arts school in St. Louis called Webster University. Harry was a bit of a superstar, both on campus and around the world. He'd written numerous books about the Holocaust. He was good friends with Elie Wiesel, Kurt Vonnegut, and Václav Havel. He was an incredibly nice guy, accessible and easy to talk to, even for a shy first-year student. I took way too many Harry Cargas classes -- Holocaust Literature; Utopias and Dystopias; The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Eventually, my advisor told me I couldn't minor in Harry Cargas.

    But he was also a bit of a stereotype. Although he bore a striking resemblance to Paolo Freire, he embodied the very thing Paolo Freire criticized in Pedagogy of the Oppressed when he spoke of the Banking Concept of Education. At Webster, most of the English classes met in a building called Pearson House, which was actually a house donated by some people named Pearson that was used for classrooms and offices. All of Harry's classes were in the evenings, once a week, 4:00-8:00, taught in the Pearson's former living room. Harry sat at a desk on the dais in front of the fireplace. Every week, we would read a different novel and then listen to Harry up there on his dais talk about his thoughts on the novel. He was, quite literally, the Sage on the Stage, sharing his knowledge with his students.

    What's all this have to do with writing assignments, you might be asking? Harry used writing the way a lot of faculty use writing: as a means of summative assessment, as a way to see if the students have learned what they were supposed to learn. I did some digging through my files recently, and found one of his old assignment sheets.

    This is an extreme example, I know, but one worth considering when we assign writing to our students. We need to ask ourselves what it is we are hoping to accomplish with the assignment. Is this it? Are we just assigning a paper to see if they've learned enough from our class? If so, why a writing assignment? Why not just a multiple-choice test? Or, are we hoping to do more? Are we challenging them to more deeply explore a topic that was brought up in class? Are we hoping to see them flex their critical thinking muscles by making connections between what was read, what was discussed, and what they've found through their own research? Are we evaluating their ability to do that research? Are we assessing how well they can express complex ideas through the dialect of academic writing? Are we, possibly, trying to get our students to establish a connection between their real lives and this strange world of academia in which they find themselves?

    All these things, I'd argue, are possible through writing assignments (although perhaps not all at once), but not if we simply tell the students to write something, which is what Harry used to tell us to do.

    A few years ago, three faculty members from three very different institutions decided to see if they could figure out what made writing assignments "meaningful" to their students. By thinking in terms of meaningfulness, these researchers were looking for assignments that weren't simply "useful" or "enjoyable," but that had some kind of lasting impact on the students (Eodice, Geller, & Lerner, 2017b). Ultimately, the researchers identified several key findings as to what made a writing assignment meaningful to students:

    ●        They are unique/different from other writing assignments.

    ●        They enable the students to integrate their personal interests.

    ●        They allow students to explore course content more thoroughly.

    ●        They give students some freedom to approach the assignment in their 

               own unique way (Eodice, Geller, & Lerner, 2017a).

    At the same time, researchers at the University of Nevada - Las Vegas were investigating how any academic assignment could be made more accessible and understandable to students. This research, led by Mary-Ann Winkelmes, identified the need for greater "transparency" in the way we make our assignments. According to Winkelmes, by specifically explaining the purpose for an assignment, by clearly explaining the steps we expect the student to take in order to complete the assignment, and by thoroughly describing how we will evaluate the final product, we make it much more likely that students, especially first-generation and under-prepared students, will succeed with those assignments (Winkelmes, 2014).

    By blending these two novel concepts -- meaningfulness and transparency -- we can design writing assignments that will not only more accurately demonstrate what our students have learned, but will also challenge our students to do their best, most engaged work. As an example, let's think about what Harry's assignment might have looked like had he had access to this recent research. For brevity's sake, I'll just think about the purpose statement here.

    Purpose: The purpose of this assignment is to challenge you to apply your understanding of the conventions of Holocaust literature by analyzing a specific work within that genre. While we have discussed each of the assigned texts in class, we have only skimmed the surface of each. This assignment will enable you to dive deeply into one of them, while also demonstrating your ability to do literary research and to integrate that research into your writing. Finally, this assignment will also give you the opportunity to flex your writing muscles by engaging as an equal with some of the best Holocaust writers and scholars.

    The purpose statement is a critical component of transparent assignments. Instead of simply saying, "Do this because I'm telling you to do this," you're saying, "Here's why I want you to do this." But it's also a great opportunity for you to justify the meaningfulness of the assignment. I'm asking students to make a personal connection with one of the novels (and giving them the opportunity to choose that novel). Notice some of the language here: the students are being challenged and enabled, as well as being given a great opportunity. But I'm also explaining the real purpose of the assignment: analysis, research, and writing. By writing this statement out, I'm giving my students a sense of what exactly I'm looking for with this assignment, but I'm also spelling out for myself (and them) how I will be evaluating the assignment. Once students know what's expected of them, they can start thinking about how to make their final product unique to them.

    I loved Harry as a professor, and after my second or third class with him, I knew how to write a paper for him that would get me an A, but I don't remember what any of those papers were about. And while I can't ensure that every one of my students will feel this way, I want to do my best to make sure my teaching and my assignments have a lasting impact on them. By applying the findings from the researchers behind The Meaningful Writing Project and Transparency in Learning and Teaching, I think I'm closer to achieving that goal.


    Eodice, M., Geller, A. E., & Lerner, N. (2017a). Findings. Retrieved August 6, 2019, from

    Eodice, M., Geller, A. E., & Lerner, N. (2017b). The Meaningful Writing Project Learning, Teaching and Writing in Higher Education. Norman, UT: Utah State University Press.

    Winkelmes, M. (2014). TILT Higher Ed Examples and Resources. Retrieved August 6, 2019, from

    Jason Todd studied writing with Frederick and Steven Barthelme and Mary Robison at the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. His fiction has appeared in journals such as Southern California Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Fiction Weekly, and 971 Magazine. Since 2007, he has been a member of Department of English at Xavier, where he teaches American Literature, Freshman Composition, Modern English Grammars, and The Graphic Novel and Social Justice. From 2007 to 2010, he served as Xavier's Writing Center Director. From 2010 until 2015, he served as QEP Director, managing Xavier's Read Today, Lead Tomorrow initiative. In 2015, he became the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development's first Associate Director for Programming. As Associate Director for Programming, Dr. Todd assists in providing high-quality, relevant, evidence-based programming in support of CAT+FD's mission to serve faculty across all career stages and areas of professional responsibility.

  • 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.

  • 03 Jun 2019 8:30 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    By Janet Peters, Ph.D.

    The first time I taught statistics, I was intimidated by the course. I knew the reputation statistics courses have with psych majors and I didn’t want to teach a class that students thought was boring, impossible, and intimidating (the irony that I was experiencing the exact same feelings was completely lost on me). So, I was prepared for the worst – student anxiety, reluctance, or possible mutiny. The first day of school was approaching and I braced myself for impact. After a few weeks of getting the hang of the course, I realized that teaching statistics is actually WONDERFUL. No one had told me that it could be enjoyable! Or maybe they did tell me, and I just didn’t listen (and now that I think about it, that’s way more likely). Thus, this blog post is about throwing out misperceptions and infusing fun into your stats class.

    I’ve broken this post into three parts for you: (1) the basics (easiest and least investment); (2) next level applications (creating course content that uses real applications); and (3) advanced applications (wonderfully fun course projects that require more planning and commitment). You can think of it as an a la carte menu – take what you like and leave the rest.

    Just remember that there is no panacea for creating the perfect course or getting students to understand content; we can only take small, measurable steps in the right direction. I hope you can find one idea that helps refresh your teaching or inspires you to add a little zest to your class because we all love a little fun!

    Making it fun: The basics

    When I think about the easiest way to infuse fun into my own statistics courses, I think of three basic approaches: pop culture, quirky examples, and food.

    Infusing pop-culture can be a lot of fun as you get to engage students with the content using readily available examples from the world around them. For example, I made a Disney themed worksheet to help students practice the scales of measurement. Practice questions might include “A magic mirror that rates the fairest of them all on a 1-7 Likert scale” or “The length of Rapunzel’s hair.” Both questions include elements from Disney cartoons, but answering the questions is not dependent upon that knowledge. The key here is that your items should be inclusive; anyone should be able to answer the questions, even if they’ve never seen a Disney movie. Yet if they are familiar with the examples, it makes the practice more fun and less mundane.

    If you find it difficult to include pop culture, you can always find other fun, quirky examples that might interest your students. For example, when I teach students about z-scores, we do an example using Bigfoot sightings in Washington State (where we are located). This is because one of my institution’s more unique historical claims-to-fame is that we were home to the world’s foremost bigfootologist, Dr. Grover Krantz. In honor of this legacy and to learn about z-scores, we analyze data compiled by the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (seriously, this is real data from a real organization). We use the total number of Bigfoot sightings by county to calculate z-scores, including how many Bigfoot sightings are in the county we live in (below average, by the way!). The students love this activity because it’s unique and the research comes from our home institution.

    If you don’t have the luxury of having a notable bigfootologist, I’m sure there are other examples you can draw upon that are unique – any interesting research your university has produced? Any famous people or alumni from your university or area? Any campus-specific issues you could play with (for example, at a previous institution, students were heavily invested in athletic team rivalries, so I often used examples that played off the good-natured rivalry). The key here is to find examples that are special to your context: your school, your city/state, etc.

    Coming up with pop culture and quirky examples can be tough, so you can always rely on the time-tested approach of using food and candy. For example, I’ve used M&Ms to demonstrate sampling with replacement and Skittle flavors to demonstrate ANOVAs. Once, I used pizza to demonstrate the difference between samples (a single slice) compared to the actual population (the whole pizza). Granted, I tend to have small class sizes, but you could get creative (more on this later).

    Making it fun: Next level applications

    The abstract nature of statistics can lead students to perceive the course as difficult and detached from their everyday lives and professional future. They can generally understand how statistics relates to research, but students rarely feel an immediate and personal connection to the course content. As a result, students often underappreciate the personal and professional benefits that statistics offer. Thus, to help students understand the importance and relevance of stats, I try to create content that helps them see that statistics are all around us – from the way politicians use polling data, to influencing the death penalty in Florida.

    One way to incorporate applications into your course is to think about creating content that is relevant and personally meaningful. In class, I use examples from wedding, housing, and job websites to show them how different markets exploit statistics to alter consumer perceptions and behavior.

    For example, we use national data to examine student loan debt using a variety of tools (depending on where we are in the semester, we might use z-scores, t-tests, correlations, etc.). You can also use less serious examples. For homework assignments, I’ve been able to find user data on companies such as Netflix, Facebook, and Tinder. The degree to which students use or are familiar with these companies varies, but they provide real data that comes from the type of news articles the average consumer is likely to encounter.

    I also have students make their own connections between their lives and course content. One way I do this is to assign pre-lecture activities (PLAs) based on the readings/content that I want students to complete before class. The students can do WHATEVER they want to show me they have read or watched the lecture as long as their submission applies the concepts they learned (the submission cannot just regurgitate definitions).

    The PLAs provide the structure for students to dig a little deeper and look at their world through the lens of statistics. It takes a little getting used to for the students, but I’ve had some amazing student work come out of this. For example, students have submitted a script for a Parks & Recreation (TV show) episode where the characters explained t-tests, an essay on how Eminem's newest album demonstrated different scales of measurement, an animated YouTube video with 3-D animation, cookies baked in the shape of different distributions, and a PowerPoint presentation that used the history of beauty pageants to explain descriptive statistics. I am absolutely stunned at the talent of my students and I find myself looking forward to grading these assignments.

    It’s important to note that not all students produce creative submissions, but ALL submissions are applied examples of the concepts. In general, students seem to really enjoy the PLAs. Some students like them because it gives them the chance to be creative and some students like them because it helps them prepare for class and/or the exams. Either way, I love PLAs because they inject an element of fun (they are my very favorite thing to grade), while also meeting my desire to have students apply the material and come to class prepared.

    Making it fun: Advanced applications

    After teaching statistics for several semesters and solidifying the foundation of my course, I found myself looking for more. I wanted students to be able to work on a project they enjoyed, that increased their understanding of course content, helped them understand how to apply statistics to realistic problems, and helped them develop professional skills that would be marketable post-graduation. From this, my service-learning project was born. To date, I’ve paired with local, non-profit health clinics, homeless shelters, and youth mentoring programs.

    Each semester, someone from the organization visits our class to introduce themselves and the mission of the organization, we take a tour of the facility, and we spend one day volunteering for the organization. In class, we spend lab time each week analyzing data from the organization and writing up results. At the end of the semester, students present their findings to the organization and work together to write a white paper.

    This project is classified under the advanced applications because although these semester-long projects are some of the most fun, rewarding, and valuable work that I have done as a professor, it is also a lot of labor. Coordinating communication, meetings, data, and volunteering can be time consuming. The data provided are often messy and the findings inconclusive (though a great exercise for students!). If you’re interested in incorporating fun in this way, I encourage you to take it slowly, make sure you have a strong connection with your community partner, and only commit to a few small assignments. If you and your students enjoy the project and as you gain experience, you can always add more elements each semester.


    There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for teaching. You might have different interests, a different student population, different institutional support, different class sizes, or any other of a variety of factors that influence the way we teach. The key here is to adapt as necessary. I’ve presented you with some ways in which I have made my own class more fun, but you should do what makes sense for you and your students. A few things to keep in mind…

    • The work matters most. You can have the most fun class in the world, but none of that matters if you aren’t achieving your learning outcomes. So, before you go wild in trying to find fun examples and activities, set up your foundation first. Identify your learning outcomes and ensure that the content you cover reflects those outcomes. Once you’ve built that framework, you can then look up all sorts of fun stuff.
    • Finding the fun stuff. I spend a lot of time on the internet (too much?), so I’ve built myself a cache of great resources. If you’re having trouble coming up with your own examples, don’t fret. There are lots of great websites, blogs, and YouTube channels out there that already do an awesome job of coming up with fun and helpful activities. To help you get started, I’ve listed a few:

    As you explore these resources, pick examples that you find exciting and engaging. You won’t be able to convey the fun and intrigue to students if you don’t understand the meme or humor yourself.

    The reality is that statistics can be a challenging course to teach (I’m assuming that’s why you’re reading this article and have made it this far). The good news is that it’s also incredibly fun – statistics unites all areas of psychology and is present in everyday life. It’s our job to help foster those connections through well-designed examples, activities, and homework. Using fun, personally meaningful, and professionally relevant coursework is one way we can help students see those connections. 

    Dr. Janet Peters is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychology at Washington State University Tri-Cities. She received her Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from Colorado State University. Her current research interests center on effective pedagogical practices, particularly as they relate to the teaching of Introductory Psychology, Statistics, and Research Methods.

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