Getting More Mileage out of Class Activities: "Sneaky Teaching"

01 Jun 2020 1:01 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Joshua D. Fetterman (Chestnut Hill College) & Meredith E. Kneavel (La Salle University)

The first thing that everyone learns about teaching is that class time is a valuable, and scarce, resource. Every teacher has run out of time during a lecture, and consequently let valuable points slip through the cracks. As a field, psychology is full of fascinating information, and there just isn’t class time for all of it. In our classes we have dealt with this issue by trying to find ways to use class time more efficiently and economically. In this essay, we will propose one way of doing this, what we term “sneaky teaching.”

In a way, sneaky teaching is exactly what it sounds like, sneaking more information and opportunities for learning into a lecture. Some people have used similar terms to describe either methods of increasing students’ use of efficient, empirically backed study habits (McMurtrie & Barrett, 2018) or ways of connecting psychological concepts with common student experiences (Laster, 2018). We define sneaky teaching as concurrently working multiple learning objectives into singular acts of pedagogy in order to teach not just one concept, but integrate and reinforce multiple concepts throughout the curriculum. In other words, sneaky teaching is connecting peripheral concepts that might otherwise be lost to central curriculum features.

This is a powerful concept that can be used in many different ways. It can be used to scaffold student understanding of central themes, provide rich psychological examples, and to help students see connections. In particular, it’s a great way of working information that has somehow fallen out of your curriculum back in. As a case in point, there has been a 10% decrease in baccalaureate programs that offer “history and systems in psychology” courses from 2005 to 2014, and among those that offer it, only about half require it (Norcross et al., 2016). This is unfortunate given the rich history of psychology. One way to prevent information from history and systems courses from completely falling out of a curriculum is to incorporate that information into other courses where it connects with the materials in those courses. For example, most personality textbooks mention factor analysis in order to explain the origin of the Big Five theory of personality (e.g., Carver & Scheier, 2017). This is a perfect opportunity to mention Raymond Cattell, who used factor analysis voraciously and is partly responsible for the popularity of this technique, and his controversial theories and ideas that ultimately prevented him from receiving the Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement from the American Psychological Foundation (Hergenhahn & Olson, 2007). The information about factor analysis is more prominent and more closely related to course objectives, but “sneaking in” the facts about Cattell contextualizes the information and makes it more interesting to students. The information can also be reinforced again in a statistics course when discussing factor analysis. In this way, Raymond Cattell and his contributions to psychology can be verified by multiple professors in the department, especially if a history and systems course has been dropped from the curriculum.

Sneaking in auxiliary information such as stories and anecdotes not only has the effect of packing a greater amount of content into classes, but also can help students better attend to, and later recall, information. Although there is uncertainty about the length of the typical undergraduate attention span (Wilson & Korn, 2007), research indicates that the longer students sit in lecture the more likely their minds are to wander which negatively predicts performance on later evaluations (Risko, Anderson, Sarwal, Engelhardt, & Kingstone, 2012). One solution to this problem is a “task switch,” a brief change in the orientation of the lecture that allows students to later return their attention to the primary task (Risko et al., 2012). Sneaking ancillary information into lectures that briefly changes the subject and reorients students’ attention may serve such a purpose while at the same time providing them with additional information and context.

It is important to note that our position on this subject is that we probably do quite a bit of sneaky teaching without realizing it. Indeed, when preparing this essay, we realized that we integrate and connect seemingly divergent information in our courses commonly. However, our hope is that by being more cognizant and mindful of the way we incorporate sneaky teaching into our classes we can utilize it even more frequently in the future. In what follows, we will describe a few ways that we have mindfully ‘snuck’ extra information into our classes.


Within-subjects ANOVA and binocular vision

Although students often find information about design dry, most research methods and statistics courses cover within subjects ANOVAs. One way to spice up the discussion of this topic is with an activity where students count how many times they can accurately pass a ball back and forth. They do it once with their left eye shut, then with their right eye shut, and then with both eyes open. Before analyzing the results with a within subjects ANOVA, have a brief discussion of binocular vision, and then have students make predictions about what condition should have the most accurate passes. This incorporates the concepts of sensation and perception and the visual system into a statistics course and forces students to think critically about the predictions they will make about the effects of different treatment conditions on the dependent variable. 


Correlation and the Yerkes-Dodson Law

One of the assumptions of correlation is that the relationship between the variables must be linear (Privitera, 2012). In order to illustrate a linear relationship it is helpful to contrast it with a non-linear relationship. One famous example of a non-linear relationship is the Yerkes-Dodson Law (and it’s many formulations, see Teigen, 1994). Because many of the variables that are related to performance follow the Yerkes-Dodson law, it is helpful to relate these to common student experiences. For instance, one can discuss exam anxiety and performance: that some anxiety will improve performance, as it is helpful for concentration and dedicated studying; however, too much anxiety is impairing and leads to a drop off in performance. This phenomenon also occurs with athletic performance. Some anxiety, or what athletes call ‘being in the zone,’ leads to peak performance, but too much can significantly impair performance, while not enough will lead to poor performance. What is definitely clear is that there is a relationship between anxiety and performance and this relationship is non-linear. This would be missed with linear correlational methods. We find it particularly helpful to draw example scatterplots with performance on the y-axis and anxiety or stress on the x-axis.


Theory and Hypothesis Generation and B. F. Skinner

When explaining ways to generate theories and hypotheses, an anecdote about B. F. Skinner and the partial reinforcement effect can illustrate the fact that sometimes you just get lucky. Skinner reportedly discovered the partial reinforcement effect because on one particularly nice spring day he didn’t want to spend hours making food pellets for his experiments for the upcoming week, and realized that if he were to reinforce his subjects after ever other correct response, he would need half as many pellets. Ultimately he found that this made his subjects much more resistant to extinction (Pelham & Blanton, 2007).

Factorial ANOVA and Gender and Stress Interactions

In describing factorial ANOVAs, one example is that males and females react differently to chronic stress. Males under chronic stress tend to perform poorly on spatial memory tasks while females show little to no effect of stress in both spatial memory tasks as well as physiological correlates (Luine, 2002). It is helpful to draw a line graph illustrating the interaction effect and describing that interactions are usually seen as non-parallel lines and that when reporting factorial ANOVAs significant interactions are of primary importance followed by main effects. This allows for discussion of gender differences and physiology of behavior.  

Memory and Effects of Chronic/Traumatic Stress

When teaching about memory systems, health psychology or biopsychology can also be incorporated. The work of Sapolsky (2001) and others more recently (e.g., Piccolo & Noble, 2018) has found that hippocampal volume is decreased in those with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and in those reporting high levels of perceived stress. 

Failure of Groups to Share Unique Information and Group Polarization

Counterintuitively, group members often do not share information that only they know with other group members. This is a complex phenomenon, but it can be illustrated in an engaging way by replicating Stasser and Titus’s (1985) classic study on groups’ failure to share unique information (see Fetterman (2017) for ideas about how to do this). During this activity, where students are divided into groups and must pick a candidate for student body president, ask individual students for their opinions on the candidates both before and after group discussion. Individual opinions should become more polarized after group discussion.

Operational Definitions Activity

One of our favorite opportunities for sneaky teaching involves an activity where students watch a cartoon, count the number of aggressive acts that they see, decide upon an operational definition for aggression, and then counts the aggressive acts again. Typically, students’ ratings will be much more similar after they have developed a shared understanding of what constitutes an aggressive act (i.e., created an operational definition). For a more detailed explanation of this activity, see Kneavel, Fetterman, and Sharp (2019). This activity offers a multitude of opportunities to work in outside concepts and can be used in multiple course as described in Kneavel et al. (2019). Males and females tend to engage in different kinds of aggression; males are more physically aggressive and females are more relationally aggressive (Card, Stucky, Sawalani, & Little, 2008). Consequently, males may count a higher number of aggressive acts when watching the cartoon. Assuming that students’ counts do converge on the second observation, the standard deviation from the first count should be larger than the standard deviation on the second count. This provides an opportunity to discuss measures of dispersion and the characteristic of sets of numbers that they reflect. Because students are making observations, and learning how to make those observations consistently, it is a great opportunity to discuss the difficulties associated with observational research and with developing interrater reliability. Finally, Loftus and Palmer (1974) demonstrated that the wording of questions individuals are asked about their memories can influence the content of those memories. After watching the cartoon, ask half of the students to make ratings of how aggressively the characters in the cartoon “interacted,” and the other half how aggressively the characters “fought.” These leading questions may replicate Loftus and Palmer’s classic finding.

As can be seen, opportunities for sneaky teaching are bound only by our imaginations. These connections not only help us to use class time more efficiently, but also break up lecture and help students to remember more information. It can also be a way to weave in dropped material. Finding ways to sneak more content into our classes has become a fundamental consideration for our curriculum development and reinforcement of core concepts, and we hope it will become one for you, as well.



Card, N. A., Stucky, B. D., Sawalani, G. M., & Little, T. D. (2008). Direct and indirect aggression during childhood and adolescence: A meta-analytic review of gender differences, intercorrelations, and relations to maladjustment.  Child Development, 79, 1185-1229.

Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (2017).  Perspectives on personality, 8th edition. New York, NY: Pearson.

Fetterman, J. D. (2017). Information sharing in small groups: A classroom activity. In S. Baker (Ed.),  Teaching tips: A compendium of conference presentations on teaching, 2017-2018 (pp. 197-199) . The Society for the Teaching of Psychology.

Hergenhahn, B. R., & Olson, M. H. (2007).  An introduction to theories of personality, seventh edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Kneavel, M. E., Fetterman, J. D., & Sharp, I. R. (2019). Making operational definitions come alive with aggression.  Essays from E-xcellence in Teaching.

Laster, B. (2018). Sneaky pedagogy: How to utilize students’ implicit knowledge and make psychology real. In W. Altman, L. Stein, & J. E. Westfall (E ds.),  Essays from e-xcellence in teaching (Vol. 18, pp. 54-57).  site:

Loftus, E. F., & Palmer, J. C. (1974). Reconstruction of automobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory.  Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13, 585-589.

Luine, V. (2002). Sex differences in chronic stress effects on memory in rats.  Stress (Amsterdam, Netherlands), 5(3), 205.

McMurtrie, B., & Berrett, D. (2018, December 6). How one university uses ‘Sneaky Learning’ to help students develop good study habits.  The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Norcross, J. C., Hailstorks, R., Aiken, L. S., Pfund, R. A., Stamm, K. E., & Christidis, P. (2016). Undergraduate study in psychology: Curriculum and assessment.  American Psychologist, 71, 89-101.

Pelham, B. W., & Blanton, H. (2007).  Conducting research in psychology: Measuring the weight of smoke, 3rd edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.  

Piccolo, L. R., & Noble, K. G. (2018). Perceived stress is associated with smaller hippocampal volume in adolescence: Perceived stress effects in adolescent brain.  Psychophysiology, 55(5), e13025-e13025. doi:10.1111/psyp.13025

Privitera, G. J. (2012).  Statistics for the behavioral sciences. Washington, DC: Sage.

Risko, E. F., Anderson, N., Sarwal, A., Engelhardt, M., & Kingstone, A. (2012). Everyday attention: Variation in mind wandering and memory in a lecture.  Applied Cognitive Psychology, 26, 234-242. DOI: 10.1002/acp.1814 

Sapolsky, R. M. (2001). Atrophy of the hippocampus in posttraumatic stress disorder: How and when?  Hippocampus, 11(2), 90-91. doi:10.1002/hipo.1026

Stasser, G, & Titus, W. (1985). Pooling of unshared information in group decision making: Biased information sampling during discussion.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48, 1467 – 1478. 

Teigen, K. H. (1994). Yerkes-Dodson: A law for all seasons.  Theory & Psychology, 4, 525-547. Retrieved from:

Wilson, K., & Korn, J. H. (2007). Attention during lectures: Beyond ten minutes.  Teaching of Psychology, 34, 85-89. Retrieved from:

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