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The Challenges of Teaching Introductory Psychology Courses

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Joanna Ng, Intern

Dana S. Dunn and  Bernard C. Beins are Professors of Psychology and experts in pedagogy at Moravian College and Ithaca College, respectively. Maureen A. McCarthy and G. William Hill, IV are 9780195378214Professors of Psychology at Kennesaw State University. In their new book, Best Practices for Teaching Beginnings & Endings in the Psychology Major: Research, Cases, and Recommendations, they have compiled a collection of articles intended to help professors improve introductory and capstone psychology courses. The following excerpt, from an article entitled “Addressing the Multiple Demands of Teaching Introductory Psychology” by Michael L. Stoloff, addresses some of the challenges involved in teaching freshmen in introductory psychology courses.

The Challenge of Teaching Freshmen

Introductory psychology will be among the first college courses taken by many students, many of whom are unprepared for college. Some students possess poor reading or quantitative reasoning skills. They may not have previously experienced the level of academic challenge required in college and they are likely to be overwhelmed by large classes and instructors who do not monitor their daily behavior. In the past, students may have often felt that they are in charge, and they might be shocked by limitations imposed on them by college teachers. Students may have received exclusively positive feedback throughout their lives and may believe that you are wrong if you suggest that their work needs improvement. They have long fantasized about going to college and they completed a competitive process to be admitted; many will now be anxious about whether they will succeed. Students may also have competing motivations and poor time-management skills exacerbated by a lack of daily parental control. They may miss many classes, fail to prepare for class in advance, be inattentive during class, and fail to take useful notes; they may not read the textbook at all or they may wait until the last possible moment. They might surprise you by unexpectedly responding with anger, hostility, or discouragement in response to class activities, or they might be sensitive when selected topics are discussed. Some may have psychological disorders that are not under stable control.

Little work  outside of the classroom is necessary for high school students to be successful. The typical high school student spends 6 hours a weekday on school work… including about 1 hour a day on homework… and the student does not recognize the importance of homework for academic success…. College freshmen do not realize that to achieve the same level of success they had in high school, in addition to going to class, they need to spend much more time completing homework. The average college student spends only 3.2 hours a day on all educational activities…. Many students feel that textbooks are not necessary; those who purchase them use them infrequently, perceiving that studying class notes and attending lectures is more important than reading the text to get a good grade…. On average, introductory psychology students read 27% of the assigned readings before class and 66% before an exam…. Typically they spend less than 3 hours a week reading their textbook, and most reading begins only 3 days prior to the exam….

Instructors need to make their expectations clear. Don’t let your students set the difficulty level of your class. Expect students to face the challenge of meeting your high standards. But also make your expectations clear. College students need to understand that learning requires more activity from the learner than the teacher. Spending time discussing study skills is not a waste of valuable class time. An effective class will help students understand what they need to do to be successful not only in introductory psychology but also in all the college classes that will follow.

How Do You Motivate Students to Put in a Good Effort?

Students attend college for many reasons and only one of these reasons is to  learn from course experiences. How do you get students to come to class, complete assignments, and study? How do you motivate them to put in their best effort when there are so many other exciting and immediately rewarding alternate activities competing for their attention? Here are my suggestions….

  1. Recognize students’ need for self-determination and autonomy. Give students some control over which assignments they will complete and/or the time periods in which they must work most intensely.
  2. Foster intrinsic motivation by arousing curiosity and providing challenge. Take time to describe your own intrinsic motivation for the subject matter. Model motivation for students by being well prepared for every class.
  3. Make the value of your course explicit. Take time to help students understand why what they are learning matters.
  4. Students will work for points, so design your evaluation scheme to give students points for what you most want them to accomplish. Let them know how they can earn more points in advance, so that this can be an incentive to put in the effort….
  5. Create conditions that enable all students to expect to succeed. Adopt a criterion-referenced approach to grading rather than a normative one. Foster mastery by encouraging students to revise their writing. Test frequently to give students the opportunity to become accustomed to your format and learn from their mistakes. Consider dropping questions missed by most students, and reteach that material.
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4 Responses to “The Challenges of Teaching Introductory Psychology Courses”
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  3. Abby says:

    These are good suggestions! I remember how so many intelligent students in my intro to psychology course — who thought the class would be an easy A — were surprised to get C’s and D’s on their exams.

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