A Reluctant Revolutionary: This semester’s experiment with General Psychology

As the new semester here has started (we start late because we fit in a semester in January) I have been frantically getting everything settled with my three classes. For one of them, I am trying something new, so I thought I would share it with you and ask for any thoughts or feedback. It has been occupying my thoughts for most of the past three weeks, keeping me away from blogging. Given that I don’t share all that much of how I teach and what I teach, I thought this might be of interest to my new readers and subscribers (welcome!).

NEW EDIT: Thanks for the interest, in case you want more details, here is the syllabus

General Psychology can be a daunting class to teach. There is seemingly no limit to the amount of content one could teach, and unlike other sciences, there is not exactly a natural order, or a hierarchy of knowledge. One could start with the brain and neuroscience and work your way up to basic processes like perception, ending with the always crowd-pleasing studies in social psychology. Or one could grab them early on with clinical psychology and mental illness, and shape the course around that. Any way you cut it, there is always way more content to cover than any beginning undergraduate could possibly remember. In the past few times I have taught it, I try to organize the content and make it accessible, but I have still ended up feeling like Stanley from UHF: “You get to drink from the FIREHOSE!”

There are a few things that I did to try to ease students into one of their first college-level courses. I had regular quizzes, and allowed students to use a notecard to lower their test anxiety. I gave three short writing assignments that progressively led up in rigor and difficulty, from a TED talk, to a popular science article, to an accessible journal article. But I still felt that it wasn’t really meeting my goals, and that some students were limping through with as little as they could. So this time I decided to make some big changes in how the course is structured and evaluated. Now, it better reflects my fundamental values concerning learning and education. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it’ll work in this particular classroom.

What has changed and why does it reflect my values? I’ll start with the values and then with how I incorporated them into the course.
I want to encourage mastery goals, practice, offer choice, do less lecturing and more active learning/peer instruction.

First, I wanted to do more in my courses to encourage mastery goals, as opposed to performance goals. Here is a good description of the difference from Dr. Heinke Roebken:

When pursuing mastery goals, the student wants to develop competence by acquiring new skills and knowledge. They value and are willing to
undertake activities that allow them to improve their knowledge, and they perceive effort as a positive, effective way to achieve their goals. Mistakes are considered a normal step in the learning process (Bouffard and Couture, 2003, p. 21). In contrast, students pursuing performance goals are more concerned with demonstrating their abilities relative to other students. Here, efforts are perceived negatively. Students with a performance goal see intelligence as fixed, avoid challenging tasks in an effort to avoid negative evaluations, are less likely to be intrinsically motivated, and consider errors as indicative of a lack of ability (Gonzalez et al., 2001, p. 182). Besides mastery and performance orientation, some authors also distinguish a work-avoidance orientation (Meece et al., 1988; Meece and Holt, 1993). Students with a work-avoidance orientation try to avoid failure even without hard work, so achievement is represented as completing a task with as little effort as possible.

The second part of this is a line from one of Randy Pausch’s talks (not the Last Lecture on How to Achieve Your Childhood Dreams, the Time Management one, also great) which still rings in my head: “Don’t do things right, do the right things adequately.” I got to know Randy a little bit as an advisor/collaborator and some of his advice has taken a while to seep in. Most of life is pass/fail. What might seem an instance of evaluation of performance is often the end result of someone having done many many things adequately, thousands of times in a row.

How have I done this? I have made most of the assignments for the course pass/fail with clear criteria. There are many choices of writing assignments, presentations, or group projects, and each is worth a set amount of points. If a student completes it satisfactorily, they get the full points. If they do not, they get some feedback, and can hand it back in for full credit. This is a system specifically designed to reward effort, not performance. Granted, as in every pursuit, some will be able to come by their points with less effort than others, but I hope that this makes it clear that steady persistence from any student will be rewarded.

Second, practice practice practice. These pass/fail assignments? They are partly inspired by a story about a pottery class I remember reading:

A pottery teacher told half his class that their grade will depend on one single piece that they’ll produce at the end of the term.
He told the other half that their grade will be based on the volume of all the pieces they create.
Which half do you think produced better work by the end?

As the story goes, the group that was evaluated by sheer mass actually produced far better pottery by the end.
For me the moral is that just focusing on Art (with one miraculously inspired piece of pottery) distracts us from the real work, which is craft (honing a skill over many hours of practice). I want my students to become better writers, and rather than having them write one term paper, or even two or three over the course of the semester, I am now asking them to turn in many many adequate ones. Put in the time, crank out the words, hone your craft. I have set the points for each assignment to be relatively low, so that even though they are pass/fail, they will need to turn in many pages to get the grade they want. I have noticed that some students don’t know how to do APA style even in their senior year. I have guessed that this is because they just figure they will lose those few points on every assignment, no big deal, and they have never taken the trouble to give that level of polish to their papers. Now I am going to hand the papers back ungraded (digitally) and say, no, get these items checked off, or no points at all.

Within these pass/fail assignments, I have offered an unprecedented amount of choice. They can write summaries of Radiolab episodes, TED talks, scientific articles, or pre-selected popular psychology books. They can do a 5-10 minute individual presentation of one of the 50 Great Myths of popular psychology. They can do a group presentation of re-enacting a famous psychology experiment. And they can do this on their own time, there are no due dates besides a maximum number of points per week (to keep me from being deluged at the end). I am hoping the students use this choice to realize their own interests. Sometimes I find students entering college are so accustomed to regarding their own curiosity as irrelevant that they forget it exists. When I ask them what topics they are interested in, they shrug and act as if I have asked them what color chair they would like to sit in. Further, when given choice in this way, I hope that students are forced to own their choices (similar to the classic cognitive dissonance studies “I have this, so I must like it”).

Finally, less lecture and more peer instruction. I must admit to being bothered by most of the popular news accounts of Eric Mazur’s quest to end the college lecture as we know it. Far too often, the lecture is presented as being unavoidably, monolithically bad, and peer instruction as a miraculous shining technological beacon of the future. Too many reporters are amazed by these newfangled clickers, and ignore the fact that what really matters is not the technology used (I’ll always remember my friend Dave Donahue saying that his favorite educational technology was the 3×5 index card), but the particular questions asked, how much knowledge the students bring to their discussions and how wrong answers are treated. I have seen some terribly active learning sessions, where students feel active and engaged, but don’t learn a thing. That being said, I know that he has a point, and that my classes are not nearly as effective at provoking student thought as they could be. I still think lecturing has a role, but I think it should be minimized, especially in my classroom. So I am beginning every class with questions and peer discussion. I am also trying to integrate more activities and active learning into the rest of the class. I always do this with perception, but sometimes have had trouble with other topics.

Ok, so I began the semester with high hopes, but of course a small voice in the back of my head saying “You know, this could totally flop.” I am sticking with it because I know this approach has great potential, but I am starting to see how difficult it is to change students’ expectations. Students aren’t used to having this amount of choice and independence, and maybe this is too much too early. Students are used to being able to turn in crappy papers, get a C- and scrape by. Part of what this system is supposed to do is to challenge the students working for an A (“look, turn in three more papers and you can get an A+”) but also challenge the C/B- students by showing them that turning in a C- paper clearly written without being read over is simply not acceptable and will get them a zero. In the active learning sessions, it is often like pulling teeth, students are so scared of being wrong, but also sometimes scared to show that they haven’t done the reading. They take a few tentative steps and stop, look up as if to ask “you are going to tell me the answer now?” Further, getting them to demonstrate real curiosity and questions is a Sisyphean task that I have no doubt will continue for the rest of my career. While learning comes from questions asked not answers given, they have learned that grades come from the answers they provide and approach school that way. To some degree I think this is unavoidable (I am no Peter Gray or John Taylor Gatto), but I am doing my best to slowly reawaken the interest and curiosity that I know all my students had as kindergardeners.

Anyways, thanks for reading, I’d love to hear impressions of what other people do, and if you think this approach is worthwhile.


About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
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19 Responses to A Reluctant Revolutionary: This semester’s experiment with General Psychology

  1. Robert Cooper says:

    I don’t do it any more, but for years I taught at BA and MA level at Singapore University. My students were around 75% ethnic Chinese, very bright, and very used to working within a Mandarin-type learning system — digest your guru and repeat what he says. I always tried to make formal lectures as informal as possible, I took my dog along and played Pink Floyd’s ‘We don’t need no education’ on the loudspeaker system as the kids came in. But even spontaneous jokes would be noted down by the students, many of whom also recorded each lecture on portable machines set in front of them. The only way to see anything but the top of their heads was to stop talking until they looked up to see if I had disappeared.
    So after one lecture, I gave out several pages of notes and explained that this is next week’s lecture and they have to read it before next week. They still had to attend but instead of listening and writing down everything I said everybody had to raise one question about the lecture and submit it at the beginning of the lecture typed on one side of an A4 sheet with the answer. When lecture time came I got questions/answers-on-sheets from every single person, piled on a table. Looking away, I picked one of the sheets at random and read out the question only. Nobody except the person who had submitted it knew who had asked that particular question — I thought. I invited replies to the question and after prompting got one. Easy teaching! But wait, that looks just like the answer written on the sheet?! Looking through the stack I noticed that many of the questions were the same, so were the answers. Groups of students had obviously cooperated on finding a question to ask to which they knew the answer. So I read out the name on one question paper and asked that person to stand up and ask the question to the auditorium. She did and the answer came from another student who had cooperated with her.
    I asked if they wanted to continue like this next week but submit one question-answer for any group of 5-6 people, or revert to regular lectures. All wanted to continue, so I handed out next week’s lecture. As weeks went by my participation grew somewhat less, student participation increased. Within the context of Singapore, it was almost revolutionary — while remaining within the acceptable. It got my ‘lectures’ read by minds looking for questions, increased peer interaction while maintaining the curriculum, gave the kids easy ‘lecture’ revision tools to keep for the exams (I couldn’t change that part of the system, but I set questions geared to those students had raised), and we all enjoyed it more.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Thanks for sharing Robert, that’s a great example. I really like how you encouraged them to change, but also worked with them and where they were coming from. I don’t generally lecture with notes, but I sometimes wish I did so that I could do this sort of thing. But it still amazes me that students often still need a fair amount of guidance on how to ask questions guided by their genuine confusion and curiosity, not just try to find an acceptable question and answer. It sounds like you had an even more extreme starting point than most of us, and made it work. It is good to hear such examples.

  2. Rich Meagher says:

    I think this is great, Cedar. I also know how big a time commitment it is to try to modify the basic model, and how little incentive there is to make that commitment. (Last year I received the highest student evaluation rating I’ve ever gotten, for a course that was essentially straight history lectures.) I’ve experimented with peer-led instruction, in-class group and writing exercises, etc. Right now I’ve settled on a pre-class discussion question with a point system for the semester. I’m especially interested in how your no-deadline policy will work out. I have similar policies for my discussion question and summary assignments, and I’m always surprised how many students just decide to bag it.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Thanks Rich. I too got some crazy good ratings in my recent J-term class (which is always popular). It is full of demonstrations, but still a mostly lecture and demonstration model. The kids love it, partly because the lectures are polished and fun, and partly because the material blows their minds. I still think there is a role for that (I have a long post halfway drafted defending the lecture) but higher ed shouldn’t be purely lecture.

      As to my no deadline policy, so far it is evolving into a crazy game of chicken. Most students have not turned anything in (it is now 3 weeks in) yet, despite my repeated encouragement. I also have many discussion questions, and in class points available. I even have a few “free” points like ten points for taking a short syllabus quiz online, and ten points for uploading a profile picture to moodle. I am also amazed at the fact that many students don’t take these opportunities.

  3. Carol says:

    This sounds really interesting and the whole time I was reading this article/blog post, I was trying to figure out a way to do this in my history class of 7th graders. I have one particular class that has a lot of special need students (from learning disabilities to emotional disabilities) that have a hard time focusing on the work and I think may have given up doing work because they might not feel they are up to par nor will they ever. I’m wondering how the pass/fail assignments would work with them since they might not even want to do it a second time. How did you do the points for pass/fail and is there a limited amount of times they could redo the assignments to get the grade?

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Thanks for coming by Carol. I have left a link for the syllabus after the first paragraph above, if you want to check out more details and my point system.
      The way I have handled it so far for the pass/fail (there haven’t been that many submitted just yet) is trying to individually assess where each student starts from and try to push them a little bit, but not make it impossible. So far no one has passed on the first time, but for each I have noted the few things that they needed to do to get full credit. I think if it is clear what they need to do, and they can see the light at the end of the tunnel, they will take that next step. Then, when I give them full credit when they do their edits, I say good job, but for next time, to get full credit, you’ll need to do this. That way the bar keeps getting raised. Hopefully this will help each student improve (again, mastery goal) rather than see themselves as stuck in the whatever grade range they usually get.
      With your students, you could use the pass/fail to meet the students where they are, urge them to take whatever next step you see they need to do, but then reward them for their effort so far. But I acknowledge that this won’t work for everyone (it might not even work for me!) and you’ll probably have to come up with your own ways of dealing with low motivation or reluctant students.

  4. Howdy! Steve Jones posted about your blog on http://teachinghighschoolpsychology.blogspot.com/ and I’m grateful! I’m an assessment specialist (former high school psych teacher) and I spend a lot of time (too much?) thinking about the connections between assessment/grading systems and classroom context/goals/learning experiences. I got to teach a university class (adjunct) last year and I think I was trying to follow path similar to yours: the students and I built a pass/fail “rubric” together for the major assignments (we developed 4 levels, so it was a bit bigger than pass/fail, but same idea). I made an “overall” rubric for the class that explained in words what each grade A-F meants (e.g. an A was mastery level shown on all major assignments after revision, etc.) It was a struggle sometimes, but the students were able to write at the end of the class about what their grade MEANS in terms of what they learned. I’ll definitely do it again (I put this experience in the context of “standards based grading”, which is an interested literature). Thanks for the blog, and I’ll definitely keep reading!

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Thanks Rob, been enjoying following you on Twitter too. That sounds like a great idea. I am not quite brave enough yet to do the collaborative rubric with students, not because I think they would come up with unreasonable criteria, but I think I am afraid at the number that couldn’t be bothered to care. I totally agree that students have internalized this idea of grades being mostly arbitrary, and helping them tie them to something with real meaning is a hugely important step.

  5. Michel Fitos says:

    I really loved your “purple” post, and this one is equally amazing. You have some wonderfully deep, well-articulated thoughts about restructuring the way you teach – and I’m really glad you’re sharing them. Thank you for consistently making me think hard.

  6. Carolyn S. says:

    I’m an adjunct who teaches women’s studies and him constantly struggling with and experimenting with ways to get my students engaged on the individual and personal level. It’s hard, but you’re fighting the good fight!
    My experience says that flexible deadlines often give students enough rope to hang themselves with, but that I end up getting better results out of my students through requiring many small assignments than just a few big ones. I also count participation as a larger portion of their grade than many teachers do and that does make a difference.
    I can’t wait to hear how your semester progresses and I hope you’ll keep us updated.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Thanks Carolyn. Yeah, I think the flexible deadlines may be the thing to go next time I teach this. It is now almost four weeks in, and fewer than 1/4 of the students have submitted any of the longer written assignments. I think I may have a serious talk to the students about the numerical reality of getting 400 points in three weeks.

  7. What a wonderful example of someone who cares enough about teaching and student learning, to truly be bold enough to use a lot of what cognitive science suggests. I particularly appreciated the syllabus and loved the innovations throughout: It is a visually attractive piece (I love Calvin and Hobbes); it addresses major issues head on (the class may make some uncomfortable; texting only during the rest breaks; attendance is mandatory); it seems fair and flexible. You nicely use key tips from the motivation literature (provide choice), and give students control. This class seems like it could get to be a bit of an accounting nightmare with all those points and I am hoping the class size is manageable (How many?). This is also a nice counter-point to the ‘flipping classroom’ discussions. I am going to guess there may be some push back to the attendance issue although make-up points are allowed and I am curious to see what the point distribution will be at the end of the semester. It always amazes me to see some students decide not to do something for class even if it costs them points.

    All in all I salute the effort and the care. Cheers.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Wow. Thanks for reading and taking the time to look over the syllabus. It means a lot to me given that I have been a fan of your work in various teaching psychology outlets for a while now.
      The accounting nightmare piece has not yet hit, but I can see the difficulty. What I do is have everything go through moodle, all the assignments, all the take-home quizzes, even the in-class discussion questions one person in the group has to enter their answer in on moodle. On moodle I can comment on a paper (either within the body of the paper, or separately, then I can track if they have modified it. It is working out well so far, but only about 15-20 assignments have been submitted so far. The class is 29 people, so as more people start submitting, it will become a challenge to keep up. But I am hoping that I can use the pass/fail bar to quickly get through the grading and urge the student to the next step without worrying too much about whether a paper should be a B- or a C+ or whatever.
      Anyways, thanks for reading, and for the kind words, I’ll update as the semester goes on.

  8. Pingback: Up For Discussion « Piazza Blog

  9. Hi, I only just stumbled upon your blog. Very much enjoying reading your posts. And I wish I’d seen this one earlier. I think you’re doing every right. How about an update? How is it going now that you’re into April. Have the students started a rebellion or are they loving it?

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Hi David, thanks for coming by. Yes, I am planning an update post soon, but it may have to wait until the end. But I’ll give you a sneak peek. Some students have loved it, crunched away and turned in papers every week or so. And by some I mean about 3. The rest liked the idea, but we’re a little freaked out, and have procrastinated. But with regular reminders, and easy ways to track their progress, they have picked up steam. As regan mentioned above, I have had some difficulty with the logistics of tracking who and when things are turned in on moodle, but overall I am happy with it. I like that I don’t have to grade each paper with a letter, but I offer some simple direct feedback for improvements next time. But I will do a more thorough reflection and review soon. Thanks for your interest.

  10. Kristie Morris says:

    I looked at the syllabus you provided, and I’d like to implement the experiment re-enactment in my class. However, I’m not really sure how to grade something like that. Could you please explain your grading process? Please feel free to e-mail me if you’d rather communicate using that method.

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