Monday, March 9, 2015

Guest Post: Eric Castro and Writing in Psychology

Hello THSP Readers,

I (Chuck) am very happy to share with you a piece of writing from one of our West Coast colleagues, Eric Castro of St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco.  I was reading the archives of #psychat (on when I ran across the files he linked to and the ideas he had for writing in the psychology classroom. He was kind enough to put together this information and links below.

So thank you very much Eric!  We are very pleased and happy to have you on THSP as a guest poster.  For the rest of you who have great ideas to share, please reach out to one of us.  We want to include more voices in our psychological conversation.

I feel a little disingenuous writing about “writing in Psychology” because I don’t think I do a particularly good job at it. That is not to say my students are not good writers; in fact, I think they’re excellent[1] — I just can’t claim any of the credit! Our English department and the others in the Social Science department teach my students how to write well. I don’t know how, I’m just grateful that they do.

If you’re still reading this, Chuck asked me to share one particular writing assignment that we do in the Development Unit; we call it The Toy Project. Based on those two pieces of information – Development unit and “Toy project” – you already guessed that it’s based on Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development. As you suspect, students go to a toy store near them, choose a toy that corresponds to a stage of cognitive development, and they write about it[2].

If you’re still reading this, there are a few additional details that we work into the project[3]. Here is how the project is currently assigned. Note:
  • Students work in groups of their own choosing, from across any section/ any instructor
  • Students can ‘Google Doc’ their paper (thereby collaboratively writing it), but do not have to
  • Students have to take pictures of themselves in the toy store for full credit[4]
  • The finished product is uploaded to Canvas, in our case, where I grade it — and Canvas automatically forwards the paper to for “checking”…
  • There are three distinct parts to the paper. Part 1 connects one toy with each of Piaget’s Stages; part 2 harkens back to the Research Methods unit; and Part 3 connects to our discussion of gender schema theory vis-a-vis elements in the design of toys and toy stores.
One of the things that I like so much about this paper is that it can be done with any amount of technology. I had students take physical photos back in the aughts; they paperclipped Polaroids or 3x5 photos to their printed paper. That evolved into inserting digital images into their word processed paper before printing it. For a few years, every student had their own blog for Psychology (using Blogger), and they posted their assignment and embedded their images there. For a few years, I had them share a Google Doc with me, like this one. And now they use whatever they want to word process the paper, export it to a PDF, and upload it to our LMS.

As an aside, we do two other “projects” like this. One is the Scary Movie Project, which coincides with Sensation & Perception, and the other is a Social Norms Project. When I share any of these three, I’m invariably asked, “What’s your rubric for assessment?” This may stray from what Chuck was looking for… but I don’t have a rubric for these. First, the assignments are constructed in such a way that they guide students through each step or part of the assignment. Second, as I read the resulting paper, I am correcting for conceptual understanding, correct usage of Psychology vocabulary, and correct application of the concepts. I am not grading for grammar, syntax, spelling, or anything else like that. Again, this goes back to the I-don’t-teach-students–how-to-write… I’m lucky that they come prepared for this work. Third, I grade these papers on a very simple scale: A, B, C, D, or F. For these three papers, it is – frankly – rare for students to not receive full credit. Now, part of that is because these are sort of enrichment activities. They’re kinda just for fun. I certainly don’t tell them that! But it’s part of my hidden curriculum; I want them to have enjoyable experiences while studying Psychology.
On a final note, for each chapter besides the three mentioned above students complete a traditional free-response question, modeled on the FRQs from the AP Psychology exam, and those are graded according to strict College Board-esque rubrics.
I hope that gives some insight into one way of doing “writing in Psychology.” If you have any questions at all, give me a tweet!

  1. At the bottom of page 1 and page 3 of my 2014 AP Psychology Instructional Planning Report, you can see how my students did on the Free Response Question portion of the exam. I hadn’t been scanning the Instructional Planning Report, but you can see how my students did for 2011–2012 and 2012–2013.
  2. I’ve been assigning this project/paper for 15-years… and I can’t remember where I got the initial idea. Toys + Piaget’s Stages seems like such an obvious assignment idea, I’m pretty darned sure I didn’t come up with it first. If I got it from you 15-years ago… THANKS!!
  3. I say “we” because there are two Psychology instructors at St Ignatius College Prep, Yosup Joo and me. At our school, Psych is an elective for juniors or seniors.
  4. The pictures must be inserted into the document (whether a Google Doc or otherwise word processed) as evidence that they know how to do this before going to college.

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