How to Elicit Curiosity and Deeper Learning through Poetry in Psychology Courses

06 Apr 2020 4:27 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Justina M. Oliveira (Southern New Hampshire University )

Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Justina M. Oliveira, PhD, SNHU 2500 North River Rd, Manchester, NH 03016; 


As a field, psychology is ripe for opportunities to bridge its content to the dynamic and artistic world around us. As a means of building a more engaging and challenging class experience, I have incorporated the arts into my Social Psychology course in multiple ways: through photography, poetry, and music (which is essentially lyrical poetry). The focus of this essay is to provide a window of discovery in which educators can peer in to glimpse one example of how I’ve used poetry in psychology classrooms. I also discuss a bit about  why poetry is an effective tool in the classroom to evoke deeper learning. I am however, no expert in poetry. I enjoy poetry, write a little of it, but have little experience formally studying poetry and even less training in writing it. However, my students have voiced extreme interest in the enveloping of psychology content into poetry and have often surprised me with their passion and talent and at times, even writing their own poems for an assignment in the course. This is a testament that a classroom environment energized with curiosity to learn together through perceived nontraditional assignments and activities such as those connecting with the arts, can be a surprising vehicle in which to capture psychology content. Poetry specifically “is a special, highly evocative form of speech that at once triggers new concepts, emotional responses, behaviors, and values” (Van Buskirk, London, & Plump, 2015, pp. 59). Van Buskirk and London (2012) explain how students can learn more deeply and in a holistic manner through poetry given its power in this way to evoke curiosity, energy, and engagement. 

STEAM strategies 

The use of poetry in psychology courses is well-aligned to the growing trend of adding arts into STEM courses (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), resulting in the updated acronym STEAM. More specifically, the scientific field of psychology could utilize poetry to build students’ understanding of human motivation, attitudes, and behaviors in a meaningful way. STEAM is a teaching movement that originated from the Rhode Island School of Design through their NSF funded workshop in 2011 and is now growing in use by numerous educational institutions with instructors at various education levels (, 2017). The basis of STEAM strategies is that the uncertainty of the economic future combined with the creativity and innovation required in the current workplace, results in the need for arts tbe added to traditional education (Maeda, 2013). I argue psychology should play a role in such integrated strategies.  

We educators with backgrounds in psychology and related fields could benefit from the concepts involved in this STEAM movement. Innovative uses of STEAM strategies have been published in recent years which provide insights to its usefulness (e.g., Gregorio et al., 2015; Guyotte et al., 2014; Keane & Keane, 2016; Patton Knochel, 2017). The goal of STEAM is to encourage the integration of disciplines which have traditionally been taught in a compartmentalized manner. 

Poetry in Psychology 

The  field of psychology is invested in integrating the arts into psychology-related research and practice (think art therapy but also research on what aspects of art influence our perceptions of it). The existence of APA’s Division 10: The Society for the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts is evidence of this. This division publishes the journal of  Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts which incorporates research in all artistic domains including poetry. For example, in this journal, Lüdtke et al. (2014) published interesting work regarding poetry’s ability to evoke emotional responses such as empathy. The results of their study “indicate that general surface and affective features of a piece of literature alone are not enough to understand and explain emotional involvement and aesthetic appreciation” and that “only the interaction between reader and text brings a poem to life” (pp. 373). Their research findings explaining the more holistic understanding of the power of poetry is quite useful. I think as a field however, we can do a better job at integrating the arts, including poetry, into our teaching. 

Psychology educators have the goal of actively engaging students in the process  of learning as seekers  of knowledge compared to as passive receivers of course content. Student learning can be enhanced through unexpected assignments (such as poetry in psychology courses), which may help them pay attention to how psychology is relevant to the broader world around them. Such assignments can provide our students with opportunities to combine their creativity of expression through poetry (both traditional forms and the poetic nature of music lyrics) with psychology content learning.  

Recent innovative uses of STEAM strategies, which provide insights to its usefulness, range from creative problem solving in a music technology program with students from traditional STEM backgrounds (Gregorio et al., 2015) to the use of poetry to understand metaphors, values, and emotions within the leadership and ethics training with West Point cadets (Van Buskirk et al., 2015). Van Buskirk et al. (2015) state that metaphors often found in poetry allow students to “transfer not only conceptual understanding but emotional tone as well from one domain to another. These emotions may be both tacit and explicit, coherent or in conflict, conscious or unconscious, but they are almost always present in some way” (pp. 58). Van Buskirk and London (2012) have found that the use of poetry in management courses can shift the classroom climate to one that is more personal, higher in energy, and evokes greater levels of critical thinking. Psychology, too can benefit from this approach. 

The Assignment 

I created, used, and shaped the assignment (see Appendix A for full assignment directionsover the period of four years with undergraduate students in my Social Psychology course who were both psychology and non-psychology majors. I have used this or a very similar version of the assignment across 11 sections during this timeframe with about 325 students total. After using the assignment the first few times, I elicited anonymous feedback from students right after they completed it. Overwhelmingly, students enjoyed the experience of integrating poetry with the constructs we’d covered in social psychology. They found it interesting, stated I should continue using the assignment in future courses, and that it aided in their learning of the content. They also felt the in-class activity utilizing the poetry they found was helpful to getting to know their fellow classmates better. See Appendix B for samples of the poems students found for the assignment. One of these poems is written by the student herself and the others are existing poems students found relevant to the assignment. Please email me to see examples of students’ full write-ups. 

The Assignment as the Basis for a Classroom Activity 

On the day students bring in this assignment to share in small groups, during the first 20 minutes of class, I share a few poems including (Rupi Kaur’s poem First be Full on Your Own) with the class and we discuss them as aligned to the assignment prompts. Then, they do Kuhn and McPartland’s (1954) Twenty Statements Test on self-concept. This involves students writing 20 statements about themselves with the only prompt that each statement must start with the phrase “I am…”. I then go over a bit more about the topics of self-concept with students, especially in regards to social psychology and we have a discussion on how these “I am” statements uncover information about their self-concept. This discussion naturally leads to a conversation around culture and dual attitudes, two other topic choices within this assignment. At this point, the full class is on the same page in regards to understanding all the assignment topic choices (we had discussed violence and prosocial behavior, the last topic choices as related to social psychology a few weeks prior)In the next phase of the class period, students share their poems in small groups. They tend to listen attentively and follow along with the extra copies when each group member reads the poem they chose out loud. They make guesses as to the topic that student likely chose given their poem and they have a conversation around what it meant to them and why. I typically end the class period with debriefing the common topics students seemed to choose that class and some students share their poem with the class as a whole for additional reflection. I end the class period by showing a video of Maya Angelou reciting her poem ‘Still I Rise’ to allow students to see the visual power of poetry when seeing someone share their own written work out loud to a bigger audience. We finish by taking the time to connect this poem to Social Psychology topics of discrimination, culture, and ingroups/outgroups. This class period never fails to be a time of deep reflection, high levels of engagement, and an opportunity to build a brave and safe classroom environment that helps us to dig into the topics throughout the rest of the semester. 


Gregorio, J., Rosen, D.S., Morton, B.G., Halula, A.M., Caro, M., Scott, J., Kim, Y., & Lindstrom, K.M. (2015). Introduction to STEAM through music technology (evaluation).  Proceedings of the ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition. 

Guyotte, K.W., Sochacka, N.W., Costantino, T.E., Walther, J., & Kellam, N.N. (2014). Steam as social practice: Cultivating creativity in transdisciplinary spaces.  Art Education, 67(6), 12-19. 

Keane, L., & Keane, M. (2016). STEAM by design.  Design and Technology Education, 21, 61-82. 

Kuhn, M.H., & McPartland, T.S. (1954). An empirical investigation of self-attitudes. American Sociological Review, 19(1), 68-76. 

Maeda, J. (2013).  Artists and scientists: More alike than differentScientific American .  

Patton, R.M., & Knochel, A.D. (2017) Meaningful makers: Stuff, sharing, and connection in STEAM curriculum.  Art Education, 70, 36-43. 

Rhode Island School of Design. What is STEAM? (2017).

Van Buskirk, W., London, M., & Plump, C. (2015). Poetry and poetic metaphor in teaching leadership and ethics . Journal of Leadership Studies, 9(1), 56–62.   

Appendix A & B can be accessed at:

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