Society for the Teaching of Psychology: Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

Six Tips for Teaching Writing in Psychology

01 Jul 2019 9:42 AM | Anonymous

Maria Wong (Stevenson University)

Since 2014, I have been teaching PSY 201: Writing for Psychology, which is a required writing intensive course for our Psychology majors. Initially, being in charge of this course was anxiety-provoking as I did not have any prior experience of teaching something similar. From my students’ perspective, taking another writing course after their two 100-level English courses was also not too exciting. Overtime, however, I have developed a strong passion for teaching this course. Not only do I enjoy teaching writing, I have also developed a few ideas based on evidence-based teaching principles to enhance the quality of my teaching. The purpose of this essay is to share these tips with fellow psychology instructors in the hope that they may find them helpful.

1. Create a positive and growth-oriented atmosphere

There is plenty of research highlighting the importance of passion and enthusiasm in teaching (Buskist, 2004). Being energetic and enthusiastic is particularly important for this course as students are likely to bring in their own misconceptions and biases about writing. Throughout the semester, I instill a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006) in my students to help them understand that writing ability is malleable rather than fixed, and everyone can be a better writer through deliberate practice. I explain that perfection is never our goal, but we should strive for incremental improvement. I share openly my own struggle with writing, particularly as an English learner, and my journey of becoming a better writer. Although students typically vary in their writing skills and preparedness, having a growth mindset helps them focus on the process of acquiring new writing skills. From my observations, students who have a growth mindset tend to ask more clarifying questions, work more collaboratively with others, and become more open to constructive feedback.

2. Be ready to revise assignments to better support learning objectives

Good teaching involves delineating clear learning objectives and developing relevant assignments (Hattie, 2011). When I first started teaching this course, we spent the first half of the semester working on the “outlier project” based on Gladwell’s (2008) book. This project included several components. First, outside of class, students read the book and wrote a 300-word summary based on each chapter. They then brought the written summary back for a class discussion on identifying the thesis and supporting evidence. The rest of class time was used for peer review, in which the students worked in small groups to read and provide constructive feedback for each other’s work. After finishing the summaries and peer reviews for the first five chapters of the book, students selected an outlier of their choice. They then thoroughly researched the background of this person and wrote a 10- to 12-page APA-style paper discussing the journey of how this person became an outlier based on Gladwell’s (2008) principles and ideas.

In a way, the outlier project offers several advantages. For one, Gladwell’s (2008) book is interesting and relatively easy to read. Second, the summaries provide great opportunities for students to practice writing thesis statements, topic sentences, transitions, and supporting evidence. Third, receiving feedback from myself and peers frequently within a short period of time helped to improve the quality of their work. Finally, the outlier paper helped students practice their organization and APA style. However, when we got to the literature review project, I found that students had not developed the necessary skills to read and understand empirical articles. Considering that one key learning objective of this course is to help students develop greater confidence in their comprehension of articles, I needed to develop a different project that used empirical articles as the main readings.

Beginning last semester, I replaced the outlier project with the “marshmallow project.” Commonly known as the delay-of-gratification test, the marshmallow test involves giving a preschool-age child the option of having a marshmallow immediately, or receiving a larger reward (i.e., two marshmallows) later if the child decides to wait and not consume the marshmallow immediately. The largest advantage of this project is that students are exposed to empirical articles early on, rather than waiting until they get to the literature review project. Specifically, students read three articles: one on the original marshmallow studies (Shoda, Mischel, & Peake, 1990), a study examining how the marshmallow test was related to body mass index decades later (Schlam, Wilson, Shoda, Mischel, & Ayduk, 2013), as well as a recent replication of the marshmallow study (Watts, Duncan, & Quan, 2018). For each of these articles, students were asked to write a 2-3 page (double-spaced) summary and critique. Using the feedback they received from myself and their peer reviewers, students wrote a short literature review (10-13 pages) based on the marshmallow test and its implications. The marshmallow project prepared them sufficiently for the literature review project, which I will explain later.  I highly encourage instructors to evaluate the effectiveness of their assignments in light of the learning objectives.

3. Be mindful of scaffolding

In a nutshell, scaffolding (see Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976) requires the instructor to closely monitor the progress of the students and adjust the amount of guidance and support he/she provides as the students become more confident and competent. My teaching on reading comprehension of empirical articles is guided by the scaffolding principle. When students are first exposed to empirical articles, it is important to work with them at a slower pace and provide extra support. For example, I always give out hard copies of the articles so students can see what they are going to read. Together, we locate the different sections of an article, paying special attention to tables and figures as most students do not understand their significance. Following the suggestion from the University of Minnesota Libraries (2014), students read the articles according to this order: Abstract, Discussion, Introduction, Results, and Method. This method ensures that students get a good grasp of the main research question and findings without getting bogged down by complicated methodologies and statistics. During the next class period, students bring back their detailed notes and are ready for a class discussion. In addition to the content of the article, I validate my students’ feelings (including their insecurities) and encourage them to keep practicing their new reading techniques and not give up easily. By the end of the class discussion, students generally report that they have gained a much better understanding of the article and are ready to start writing their summary. Although it takes a lot of time to initially go over a single article, students are undoubtedly building their confidence.

In addition to reading comprehension, my design of the assignments is also guided by the scaffolding principle. For the marshmallow project, which takes place during the first half of the semester, I provide all the readings for my students and we take our time in discussing each article and the summaries and critiques that they write. In contrast, during the second half of this course, students completed a new literature review project in which they were in charge of conducting a literature search. The literature search was based on one of the three topics provided, reading and understanding empirical articles, writing and critiquing them, and organizing their ideas coherently into a 13- to 15-page APA-style paper. As such, the literature review project not only increased in the level of difficulty and complexity, it also required students to work more independently. For most students, the marshmallow project helped them developed the skills that they need to succeed in the literature review project.

4. Activate students’ knowledge

One of the biggest challenges for students is to make meaningful connections among various concepts. To this end, helping students generate accurate, relevant prior knowledge is likely to facilitate their learning of the new material (Garfield, Del Mas, & Chance, 2007). In my experience, I find it important to incorporate activities with the purpose of activating knowledge in students. In one activity, I provide a list of common keywords (e.g., confounds, replication, generalization of findings, correlation, causation, etc.) related to research methods and statistics that students have typically learned in their Introductory Psychology course. I then have students work in groups to discuss these terms, and as a class, we create concept maps to illustrate how these terms are relevant, which helps them develop their critiques. Not only do I demonstrate how important it is to have a clear and thoughtful argument prior to actual writing, I also show my students that prior knowledge plays an important role in writing process.

5. Use class time to refine writing skills

For the majority of my classes, I have used a flipped classroom approach (e.g., Wilson, 2013) and dedicated class time to refining student work through in-person feedback. With this approach, students are expected to be well-prepared and have their readings and assignments completed before coming to class. In my class, we have five peer-review sessions in which students work in their small groups to read and provide feedback for each other’s work. In addition, my teaching assistant and I also try to touch base with each student and provide some feedback for their writing in person. To this end, I find that students respond very well to clear and specific comments (e.g., “I like the level of detail that you have included in this paragraph. However, the sentences are pretty choppy in these places. What transitions can you use to smooth your writing out?”) than general comments (e.g., good job or unclear). I also find the use of a detailed grading rubric helpful in communicating my expectations clearly. The time students spend in revising their work also reinforces the growth mindset that I try to instill in them: through a lot of hard work and effort, all of us can become better writers.

6. Teach APA style throughout the semester

Based on the principle of spaced learning (e.g., Krug, Davis, & Glover, 1990), teaching APA style in one sitting is probably a bad idea. As such, I tend to incorporate the discussion of APA style throughout the semester. To start off, I discuss what plagiarism is and provide examples of real plagiarism cases (a scare tactic!). I then introduce APA style as a solution to avoid plagiarism. This approach helps students understand the usefulness of APA style as a tool. Throughout the semester, I provide different activities to help students practice paraphrasing using correct in text citations. In terms of teaching students the proper format of an APA style paper, I rely on the APA template available with Microsoft Word, as it spares us from creating a document from scratch. From time to time, students will need an extra boost to reinforce their learning of various APA rules. I find Kahoot! (available on for free) extremely useful in creating fun, engaging quizzes for the entire class. Moreover, the Teaching of Psychology Idea Exchange (ToPIX) found on the STP website also offers other engaging activities that can be incorporated to teach APA style more effectively throughout the semester.


In sum, I have offered six tips that instructors may find useful for teaching their writing course, which includes: (1) creating a positive and growth-oriented atmosphere, (2) revising assignments to better support learning objectives, (3) being mindful about scaffolding, (4) activating students’ knowledge, (5) using class time to refine writing skills, and (6) teaching APA style throughout the semester. Importantly, each of these ideas are based on evidence-based teaching principles. Future SoTL should consider testing some of these strategies that are specific to the context of teaching writing to determine their effectiveness.


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Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset. New York: NY: Random House.

Garfield, J. B., Del Mas, R., & Chance, B. (2007). Using students’ informal notions of variability to develop an understanding of formal measures of variability. In M. C. Lovett, & P. Shah (Eds.), Thinking about Data (pp. 117-148). New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. New York: Little, Brown and Co.

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Shoda, Y., Mischel, W., & Peake, P. K. (1990). Predicting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification: Identifying diagnostic conditions. Developmental Psychology, 26, 978-986.

Watts, T. W., Duncan, G. J., & Quan, H. (2018). Revisiting the Marshmallow Test: A Conceptual Replication Investigating Links Between Early Delay of Gratification and Later Outcomes. Psychological Science. doi: 10.1177/0956797618761661

Wilson, S. G. (2013). The flipped class: A method to address the challenges of an undergraduate statistics course. Teaching of Psychology, 40, 193-199.

Wood, D., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17, 89-100.

University of Minnesota Libraries. (2014). How to read and comprehend scientific research articles: How to read, take effective notes, and find the main points in scientific research articles. Retrieved from

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