Sunday, February 26, 2012

Rethinking the intro psych class

One of my favorite psychology professors these days is Cedar Riener of Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. I learned about him a few years ago when I contacted Daniel Willingham to write an article for the Psychology Teachers Network newsletter. Dr. Willingham had recently written the excellent book Why Don't Students Like School and was swamped with requests for his time, so he referred me to Dr. Riener. The article Dr. Riener wrote, "Learning Styles: Separating Fact and Fiction," was published in the winter 2010/2011 PTN and is a highly recommended read. (To access previous issues of the PTN, you must be a member of TOPSS or the APA; follow this link to the PDF of the newsletter, then enter your TOPSS/APA login information.)

I began reading Dr. Riener's blog soon after and am always impressed by the topics he chooses and his analysis. So it was no surprise this morning to see that there was a new fascinating post - but the more I read, I realized that this was something I should share with all of you as well. [FYI to those of you on Twitter: follow Dr. Riener at

What Cedar Riener is doing is becoming a "reluctant revolutionary" by actively tinkering with the standard lecture-driven intro psych class by incorporating several different strategies, including:
  • increased student choices for learning (podcasts, TED Talks, scientific articles, popular science books)
  • pass/fail grading used with many small writing assignments (so the focus is on practice, not perfection)
  • an increase in questions and peer discussion, and a decrease in lecture time
  • integrating more activities and active learning
I know that many of these topics are ideas that I have been debating in my own head for several years, and implementing them when I can. Alas, because of the fixed (and immense!) AP Psych curriculum I feel less able to do this, particularly teaching the class in a one-semester course, and I imagine that IB Psych teachers feel the same constraint. What I have found interesting, though, is that when I have tried similar steps in my regular psychology or other social studies classes, I've had some significant push-back from students who aren't every comfortable with the changes. As Dr. Riener notes,
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?”
What I probably like most about this post is this final section, where he admits the difficulties and minor setbacks that have occurred. Changing students - and more importantly, ourselves - is a huge risk beyond their comfort zones and ours, and forces us to reconsider what education really is, and what is and is not effective. It may cause us to rethink some of the sacred tenets of what we have always believed and look at what the research says - Daniel Willingham's book above, for example, is an great place to go for combining what psych research says with classroom implementation.

I hope that you all will go to Dr. Riener's blog and read his entire post, then comment either there or here with your perspective.

--posted by Steve


Bill James said...

I too read the article this morning and found myself saying "yes! This is what I need to do!" I'm in a bit of a different situation than any other high school teacher (at least I've been told), I teach large groups (class sizes are 58, 58, 46, all for AP, plus a small 36 for my JV kids). I too find that while a majority of kids "get it" with lecturing each day, it doesn't catch all of them, and really want to find a way to reel in those that are averaging D's on a test (however, maybe that's all they're capable of...many this is their first AP class ever). I'm not sure if this format could work everyday (a traditional model; 54 mins per class, 5 days a week, for a full year). I do like the idea immensely, but think it would be difficult to implement on a full time basis. I am going to give it a whirl some days (days that we intro a chapter, or have a "40 studies" reading assignment, after their quiz over it). In all, this method would work, if we met two or three days a week only.

Rob Mc said...

Thanks for linking to this, Steve! I just left this comment on Dr. Riener's blog:
"Howdy! Steve Jones posted about your blog on 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 said...

Hi Steve, thanks so much for the kind words. I agree that this is hard to adapt to different circumstances, and I haven't even gone as far as many do, with straight questions and answer and peer learning scenarios. Also, I think there would be less need to break up a 50 minute class than there is for my two hour one.
For anyone interested, I have put a link to the syllabus on the post, if people want to download and check out more specific details.