Society for the Teaching of Psychology: Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

E-xcellence in Teaching
Editor: Manisha Sawhney
Associate Editor: Annie S. Ditta

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  • 18 Sep 2016 2:37 PM | Anonymous
    “Helping You Helps Me”–

    Targeting APA’s Diversity and Communication Goals through Undergraduate Teaching Assistantships


    Kristel M. Gallagher, Ph.D.

    Thiel College I

    Quick – give me the first three things that come to mind when you hear someone say "teaching assistant". By and large, the first response is almost always something related to "grad school", conjuring up images of sleepless nights and frightening thesis committees for some. The next two responses aren't as easy to predict. Depending on one’s personal experience, the next two responses seem to bounce between "scary"/"painful" and "eye-opening"/"life-changing". I suspect, and am hopeful, that many of us reading this essay fall closer to the latter than former (at least, that's how we like to remember the experience).

    As graduate teaching assistants (TA's), our primary duty was to help our department by either teaching entire sections of courses or providing clerical and in-class support to faculty teaching large sections of courses. In my case, I was the primary instructor of my courses during my time as a graduate TA. Either way, the end result was that we lessened the teaching load of full-time faculty members and allowed our departments to offer a breadth of courses to undergraduate students. The beneficiary of our services was sometimes us, as is the case with those of us who discovered our ‘callings’ to teach as graduate TA's, but mostly an outside entity.

    In considering whether undergraduate students can (or should) be given the opportunity to be TA's, we need to reevaluate (I think) who the primary beneficiary of the services they perform will be. Undergraduate TA’s will not lessen the teaching load of full-time faculty members, nor will they allow our departments to offer a greater breadth of courses. So, why allow undergraduate students to be TA’s? Can any good possibly come from allowing undergraduate students to work alongside faculty in the classroom? In my experience, the answer is without a doubt yes. When undergraduate students are given the opportunity to TA a course in which they have appropriate expertise and experience, they can benefit in unexpected ways.

    In fact, some preliminary research of mine suggests that the undergraduate TA position can be used to help students effectively master two important goals for the undergraduate psychology major recently redefined by the American Psychological Association (APA, 2013). Specifically, I examined whether a single semester experience as an undergraduate TA could have an effect on skills related to diversity awareness (APA goal 3) and communication (APA goal 4). As I will describe, the results of this preliminary research is both promising and exciting.   


    The Known Benefits

    Peer-to-peer instruction, or cooperative learning, is not a new phenomenon. There are obvious benefits to both the peer ‘providers’ and peer ‘receivers’ of this type of teaching. Indeed, across the United States most higher education institutions offer some sort of standardized peer tutoring program to their students. The benefits of these programs are well-documented in the educational literature (some recent evidence includes Colver & Fry, 2016 and Rees, Quinn, Davies, & Fotheringham, 2015), further characterizing the popularity and effectiveness of this approach. In contrast, programs and opportunities that allow undergraduate students to be TA’s are somewhat more rare and thus, less studied.

    Though the roles may overlap in some contexts, the major difference between a peer tutor and an undergraduate TA is the location of services and magnitude of responsibilities. While peer tutors typically work one-on-one or in small groups with students outside the classroom, undergraduate TA’s work alongside faculty in the classroom. The type of course, wants or needs of the particular faculty member, and regulations of the institution all dictate the specific roles and responsibilities assigned to undergraduate TA’s. While some may only provide basic clerical support to the faculty member and be available in the classroom to answer questions from students, others may have the opportunity to lead discussion groups, monitor lab activities, hold office hours, provide initial feedback on student assignments, tutor, and contribute to the development and presentation of course materials. 

    A handful of studies have explored how undergraduate TA’s benefit from their experiences with promising findings. Among others, undergraduate TA’s report gains in self-confidence (Weidert, Wendorf, Gurung, & Fliz, 2012), public speaking (Herman & Waterhouse, 2009), the development of leadership skills (Mendenhall & Burr, 1983), and an appreciation of faculty roles and responsibilities (Hogan, Norcross, Cannon, & Karpriak, 2007). Undergraduate TA’s also demonstrate a marked level of personal growth through the experience (Komarraju, 2008), including a personal understanding of learning strategies (Fingerson & Culley, 2001). Other research has suggested that the learning outcomes achieved by an undergraduate TA are analogous to those achieved by undergraduate research assistants (Schalk, McGinnis, Harring, Hendrickson, & Smith, 2009), providing them with the chance to experience authentic active learning of the course material (McKeegan, 1998).

    Changes in Diversity Awareness and Communication

    Many institutions are searching for ways to effectively address the APA goals for the undergraduate psychology major (APA, 2013). In working with undergraduate TA’s, my hunch was always that some of the gains I observed could easily translate to the goal paradigm outlined by the APA. With that in mind, I decided to focus my preliminary research on APA goal 3 (Ethical and Social Responsibility in a Diverse World) and APA goal 4 (Communication). I operationalized the goals of interest using the diversity (8-item) and communication (26-item) subscales of the Academic Skills Inventory – Revised (Perry, Foust, & Elicker, 2013). Students rated their level of agreement using a 7-point Likert scale on items such as “I understand that individuals’ experiences may lead them to perspectives different than my own” (diversity) and “I feel confident giving speeches/presentations” (communication).

    I collected data over the course of a full academic year, utilizing 4 data collection periods. Undergraduate TA’s in the Fall semester completed an assessment during the first and last weeks of the 15 week semester, while Spring semester TA’s did the same during the first and last weeks of the Spring semester. The data was collected from 13 female undergraduate psychology majors at a small, private liberal arts institution. Eight students were TA’s from a variety of psychology courses (mean GPA 3.5; range 3.0 – 3.8), while 5 non-TA/non-tutor students completed the assessments as a comparison group (mean GPA 3.3; range 3.0 – 3.7).

    I analyzed changes in the diversity and communication subscales from the beginning to the end of the semester both within groups (looking at the TA and comparison group individually), as well as between groups (pinning the TA group against the comparison group). When looking at changes from the beginning to the end of the semester, I found that diversity and communication skills significantly increased for the TA group (p’s < .01), but not the comparison group (p’s > .11). I then looked to see if the change from the beginning to end of the semester was significantly different between the TA and comparison group. In regards to diversity, the TA group did increase significantly more than the comparison group (p < .05). I was surprised to see that the diversity score for the comparison group actually decreased during this time period. When I did the same comparison for the communication subscale, I didn’t find an overall difference between the two groups. I did, however, find that when looking specifically at the items related to ‘oral communication’, the TA group students gained significantly more than the comparison group students (p < .05), who did not report any changes.  

     What’s Next?

     So, why allow undergraduate students to be TA’s? And can any good possibly come from allowing undergraduate students to work alongside faculty in the classroom as TA’s? My research presented here, albeit preliminary and small in scope, together with the handful of research already available, suggests that there are many benefits to be had by affording undergraduate students the opportunity to work as TA’s. I believe our next steps should be continuing to investigate how to most effectively utilize the TA at the undergraduate level to provide the most benefit to the TA’s, as Hogan and colleagues (2007), Komarraju (2008), and McKeegan (1998) have started to do for us. My goal here was not to argue whether undergraduates CAN perform TA duties, but rather provide support for the idea that undergraduate students may benefit in unexpected ways from the experience of being a TA.

    Targeting APA’s diversity and communication goals through undergraduate teaching assistantships may certainly be an unexpected benefit, but not an undesirable one. If taken seriously, the TA role at the undergraduate level has the potential to garner improvements in several key domains of the psychology major curriculum. Anecdotally, I see the undergraduate TA role acting as an invaluable preparation experience for students interested in graduate school.  The experience gives them a competitive edge in the graduate school application process, and perhaps even allows them to find their ‘calling’ long before many of us ever did. And this is exactly the point. The undergraduate TA’s, should be major beneficiary of their own services. We as faculty mentors need to understand this principle before taking on an undergraduate TA. Otherwise, we end up dangerously close to passing on the “scary” and “painful” reaction to the TA experience, rather than harnessing the benefits that we know exist.



    Author note: Special thanks to the members of the Psychology Department at Keystone College for their assistance in the collection of this data during the 2014-2015 academic year.



     American Psychological Association. (2013). APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major: Version 2.0. Retrieved from

    Colver, M. & Fry, T. (2016). Evidence to support peer tutoring programs at the undergraduate level. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 46(1), 16-41. 

    Fingerson L. & Culley, A.B. (2001). Collaborators in teaching and learning: Undergraduate teaching assistants in the classroom. Teaching Sociology, 29(3), 299-315.

    Herman, J., & Waterhouse, J. (2009). Benefits of using undergraduate teaching assistants  throughout a baccalaureate nursing curriculum. Journal of Nursing Education, 49, 72-77.

    Hogan, T., Norcross, J., Cannon, T., & Karpiak, C. (2007). Working with and training undergraduates as teaching assistants. Teaching of Psychology, 34, 187–190.

    Komarraju, M. 2008. A social-cognitive approach to training teaching assistants. Teaching of Psychology, 35, 327–334.

    McKeegan, P. (1998). Using undergraduate teaching assistants in a research methodology course. Teaching of Psychology, 25, 11–14.

    Mendenhall, M. & Burr, W.R. (1983). Enlarging the role of the undergraduate teaching assistant. Teaching of Psychology, 10(3), 184-185.

    Perry, J. L, Foust, M., & Elicker, J. D. (2013). Measuring the varied skills of psychology majors: A revision and update of the Academic Skills Inventory. Retrieved from Society for the Teaching of Psychology website:  

    Rees, E.L., Quinn, P.J., Davies, D., & Fotheringham, V. (2015). How does peer teaching compare to faculty teaching? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Medical Teacher. doi:10.3109/0142159X.2015.1112888.

    Schalk, K.A., McGinnis, R., Harring, J.R., Hendrickson, A., & Smith, A.C. (2009). The undergraduate teaching assistant experience offers opportunities similar to the undergraduate research experience. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 10, 32-42.

    Weidert, J., Wendorf, A., Gurung, R. A. R., & Filz, T. (2012). A survey of graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants. College Teaching, 60, 95–103.


  • 01 Sep 2016 11:03 AM | Anonymous
    Teaching Cultural Diversify Beyond the Classroom:
    Intercultural Immersion Project

    Fanli Jia Seton Hall University
    Qiong Wang State University of New York, Oneonta


    In recent years, the psychology community has emphasized the need for multiculturalism within psychology classrooms. This shift is reflected in the American Psychological Association’s Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major, in which the need for diversity was changed from a nonessential, elective educational goal to an underlying requisite theme to be found throughout all psychological curriculums (APA, 2013). Currently, patterns of diversity within classrooms seem to be following a particular trend. For decades now, the population of instructors has continued to grow more and more racially uniform, while the growing population of students has diversified (Cabrera, 2012). Multiculturalism is necessary to effectively communicate with students whose cultural backgrounds differ from those of their educators. As educators, we must update our pedagogical practices in a diversity-centered way to help prospective teachers gain a competitive edge in terms of employment and real world skills. This will contribute to the strides that the field of psychology has been making towards creating a more holistic discipline for the future, benefiting students and teachers alike. It will also improve the psychological community as a whole, by decreasing the pervasiveness of racial stereotypes and widening the level of ubiquity with which psychology professionals will be able to operate by providing them with a global range of cultural competency.

     Methods of Emphasizing Multiculturalism

    Currently, several factors contribute to the lack of culturally competent students and professors in the psychology educational community. Because preservice teachers hail from mostly white, middle class backgrounds with little to no experience dealing with individuals from different cultures (Cabrera, 2012), they lack understanding and knowledge about communicating effectively with individuals from different cultures. However, the discipline of multicultural psychology and counseling is predicated on the notion that multicultural awareness, knowledge, and skills can be taught and learned (Smith & Silva, 2011). To reduce ignorance surrounding other cultures, exposure to individuals from a diverse range of cultures and socio-economic statuses is required. Often this intermingling of groups is limited because of the lack of diversity in many institutions. To combat this limitation, we should design educational programs to take students out of their classrooms, and place them in direct contact with out-group members. Often times these interactions yield the best results when the instructors in these programs take the role of guiding mediators, instead of rigid disciplinarians (Dinh, Weinstein, Nemon, & Rondeau, 2008). This contact can reduce previously held notions of racism by students. This interaction is a core component of contact theory (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2011), which holds that association with groups toward whom students have negative attitudes, and with whom they are unfamiliar, will reduce stereotypes and prejudices towards that group. The theory stipulates that the participants in the interaction must have equal status, work cooperatively, and share common goals (Nordstrom, 2015).

    Educators who find themselves having classrooms with students from diverse cultures can emphasize a multicultural approach by employing more integrative didactic strategies and by making efforts to understand different social structures found within their students’ cultures. From the perspective of teaching, educators should make sure that their students understand that what they are learning is information created by victors throughout history, and some aspects of what they are learning do not necessarily reflect the interests of all ethnic groups. To this end, multiple culturally significant and relevant techniques should be used to ensure that all students are instructed in ways that are beneficial to them. Instructors should administer multiple types of assessments to ensure fairness, so that students who learn differently are able to show their comprehension of subject matter. Students should also be taught directly about different ethnic groups and the negative effects of racism to reduce stereotypes and prejudices. They should have several chances to interact under supervised, carefully considered conditions that facilitate understanding and acceptance. Interactions should occur during school hours as well as outside of school in extracurricular activities within the community. Discussions that occur during these interactions should promote a two-way cultural exchange in which students are aware of their own culture as well as cultures different from their own. Without awareness of one’s own role within culture, it becomes difficult to develop intercultural competencies (Nordstrom, 2015).

    Intercultural Immersion Project in New York City

    Service learning is a powerful pedagogical method that offers students immediate opportunities to apply classroom learning to real life situations, particularly through their engagement with, and service for local agencies or communities. However, cultural diversity in psychology has rarely been implemented in service learning. The Intercultural Immersion Project facilitated this process with a focus on culturally diverse groups using an intergroup contact approach to enhance cultural sensitivity in teaching psychology.

    From May 17th to May 25th, 2015, we led an 8-day Chinese Intercultural Immersion Project, structured as a 1-credit summer course in Manhattan and Flushing, NY. The Intercultural Immersion Project aims to cultivate and foster a passion in students for service, learning, and self-development in a multicultural environment. The goals of the project align with the vision of cultural diversity in several ways. First of all, this project allows students to explore socio-cultural and psychological components of human behaviors (e.g., interpersonal relationships, cultural evolution, stereotypes, ethnic identity) not only in a classroom setting, but also in a real world context via direct interactions with community members, groups, and organizations. Second, the project fosters a deeper understanding of another culture by comparing it with one’s own culture, examining its strengths and weaknesses, and reflecting upon the educational and practical implications of cultural diversity and globalization issues. Last, but not least, students have the opportunity to develop cross-cultural competence that helps them succeed in their future careers and social lives, which are likely to be conducted in a multicultural world. Therefore, this project provides students with a platform to learn about cultural diversity and global connectedness via active engagement in community partnerships.

    The students were exposed to significant and meaningful service learning opportunities, in which they were able to explore the multicultural world they live in by actively engaging with the Chinese community. Students were challenged to leave their comfort zones and work with people in a community with which they may not normally have contact in the college context. Before the trip, we gave several workshops to train students’ cultural conflict-solving and intercultural communication skills, in addition to safety training. During the Immersion Project, the students were able to gain an understanding and appreciation of the fact that every culture is different yet equal, and that we can learn from one another when we engage in effective intercultural communication. The students also demonstrated what they learned through the Immersion Project through group discussions during the trip as well as presentations of their observations and reflections at the end of the trip. 

    The Project offered students great opportunities to experience cultural diversity through various community activities and services. For example, our students:  

    • Were paired cultural partners with Chinese high school students volunteering at the Chinese Community Center;
    • Taught English to elderly Chinese;
    • Interviewed Chinese-American high school and college students about how they adapt to the American culture while maintaining their ethnic identities;
    • Played traditional Chinese sports, such as Tai-chi and table tennis;
    • Visited a Chinese language school and assisted teachers in language classes; and
    • Learned Chinese traditional painting, calligraphy, and Chinese chess.

    Narrative reflections were collected at the end of each day during the trip, as well as at the end of the project.

    At the beginning of the project, students experienced some levels of cultural shock:   

    • “I found it so hard to believe we were still in NY. It felt like another world; all of the ads were Chinese and even the people that were in them were all Asian. Until then I had never realized how advertising all around me was geared toward a white demographic.”
    • “The amount of restaurants and food was overwhelming. It took me a second to realize that how I was feeling at that exact moment must be how a person from another culture must feel when they go to a food court in the mall that I typically go to.”

    A few examples demonstrated students’ cultural competence through actively engaging in cultural practices such as religion, art, and sports.   

    • “The trip to Mahayana Temple was refreshing to walk into a place of worship that was different from the Catholic church I have at home. They story of Buddha made it easy to appreciate the culture even if you did not fully understand all that it had to offer.”
    • “I liked reading about the various steps that the Buddha had to take to become enlightened. It reminded me of my hometown church where the stages of the cross are shown. These include the steps Jesus took to become God such as carrying his cross, being crucified and rising from the dead. I really appreciated the walls where people's loved ones were remembered and the offerings were placed there for the people that they want to remember.”
    • “As a realistic painter, I found myself becoming frustrated trying to paint a lotus plant, when I had no reference to paint from. I had never seen a lotus plant, and in the absence of fact, my brain was making up fiction. I was timid to step out of my comfort zone with my artwork. But I soon realized that I am already out of my comfort zone in this whole experience, and I might as well introduce Chinese culture to the most intimate aspect of my life: my artwork.”
    • “Tai Chi class proved to be much harder than I had anticipated. Contrary to my belief, it was about strength, grace, balance and power all at once. I never saw myself as the type to enjoy tai chi but after taking this class.”
    • “I also enjoyed the painting and calligraphy sessions. It was interesting to see the different techniques used and it was certainly a lot harder than I expected. I often found the ink to be too dark or that I had put too much water on the brush, there seemed to be no perfect in between. While it was difficult, I really enjoyed the experience. It was fun to try a new way of painting, and to have some insight to the process of how these types of pieces are made.”

    Direct contact with community members appeared to have strong influences on the students during their cultural immersion experiences. Here are some other examples that illustrate how communication with individuals from a different culture improved the students’ cultural competence.

    • “Its much easier to talk to the generation of East Asians who live here that are close in age to me. Many of them speak English and attended school in America, making their behavior much more Western but those in generations older than myself have a more Eastern style behavior and are harder to interact with because of my status as a stranger.”
    • “Working with the little kids was much different than working with the older kids. The younger children were more open to talking to us, and they seemed more excited for us to be here. I talked with two little boys in particular, Oscar and Andrew. Andrew is an ABC (American born Chinese) and Oscar is a CBC (Chinese born Chinese), and it was interesting to see the differences in the two boys.”
    • “All seniors enrolled in the ESL class at the community center had all been living in the United States since the mid-1980s. They had all also been involved in the class for an average of 2 years. None of them could answer a basic question posed to them in English without considerable effort. I wondered why… The instructor explained how once the elders leave the class they go right back to speaking Chinese and forget about their class until the next week. He asked us what advice we can give to help them learn English better, and I said it would help to practice outside of the class as much as they can.”


    Our intercultural immersion project not only greatly enhanced students’ understanding of cultural diversity in general, and Chinese culture in particular. It also brought excitement, inspirations, and new opportunities of institutional collaboration to the local communities.

    As diversity in the classroom grows, emphasizing multicultural practices and studies has become less of a suggestion and more of a requirement. Students who are exposed to other cultures and backgrounds different from their own develop their intercultural communication skills. Educators who adjust their assessment strategies to accommodate students of all cultures ensure clarity and fairness for all students. In general, awareness of our own place within culture and how we can relate to other cultures will improve the quality of education and learning within psychology classrooms. The psychology community itself will diversify and thus improve in terms of real world skills and employability. As the pool of knowledge grows, a focus on diversity will only facilitate globalization for the future of the discipline.



    American Psychological Association. (2013). APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major: Version 2.0. Washington, DC: Author.

    Cabrera, N. L. (2012). Working through Whiteness: White, male college students challenging racism. Review of Higher Education, 35, 375–401. doi:10.1353/rhe.2012.0020.

    Dinh, K. T., Weinstein, T. L., Nemon, M., & Rondeau, S. (2008). The effects of contact with Asians and Asian Americans on White American college students: Attitudes, awareness of racial discrimination, and psychological adjustment. American Journal of Community Psychology, 42, 298–308.

    Nordstrom, A. H. (2015). The Voices project reducing White students’ racism in introduction to psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 42, 43-50.

    Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2011). When groups meet: The dynamics of intergroup contact. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

    Smith, T. B., & Silva, L. (2011). Ethnic identity and well-being of people of color: A meta-analysis. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 58, 42-60.


    Authors’ note:  Support for this project was provided by Domestic Intercultural Immersion grant awarded to both authors.


    Authors’ Biographical Sketch

    Fanli Jia is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Seton Hall University. He was a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at State University of New York, College at Oneonta. His research interests include the interface between cultural variations in moral identity, environmental identity, and acculturation in relation to reading in English as a second language learner.


    Qiong Wang is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at State University of New York, College at Oneonta. Her research interests include Asian Philosophy and Comparative Studies, Culture Studies, Social Philosophy, and Ethics.  

  • 17 Aug 2016 2:03 PM | Anonymous

    A Modular Approach to Teaching Professional Development


    Natalie J. Ciarocco
    Monmouth University

         As professors of psychology, we want our students to understand the science of human behavior, cognition, and emotion so they can use that knowledge to help others or simply to lead better lives. We hope they learn to communicate, think critically, and become productive citizens of the world. Yet on a more practical level, we know that life after graduation includes gainful employment. As the psychology major is not job training for a particular position, mentoring students about professional matters can be challenging. Whether we think career preparedness is our responsibility or not, the public expects college to prepare students for a career (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2003) and college students themselves believe college is the pathway for better jobs and career training (Hurtado & Pryor, 2006). Given the rising costs of college attendance and student debt, you cannot blame students, or their parents, for wanting such preparation.

         My department noticed this concern in our annual senior survey. Students were happy with most aspects of our department, but our lack of professional development opportunities was a recurring weakness. To be honest, we had placed most of the burden of professional development on our internship requirement. This was a one-and-done experience for our students. Occasionally the student group associated with the department would have a program on some aspect of professional development. We also assumed that students would come to us individually for advice as their academic advisors, but we did not specifically offer this advice and only a few came on their own. In my experience, students seem to succumb to the ostrich effect when preparing for life after graduation and then are often surprised when the future comes and they are not prepared. Professional development was certainly not scaffolded across the curriculum nor was it an intended focus of our program. Our students were learning a variety of skills in the major, but we had left it up to them to connect the dots as far as how those skills could apply to the workforce. The empirical evidence said it wasn’t working. Clearly our students had a need that we weren’t meeting. As a department, we decided we had an obligation to help students make the transition from student to young professional in a more formalized way.

         Even when professional development is a main emphasis of an undergraduate psychology program, it’s hard to know how to approach it. Undergraduate psychology programs have the dual task of preparing a minority of students for graduate school, while preparing the remaining majority for the job market (Kohout & Wicherski, 2010). Even more challenging is preparing our students for the variety of potential career paths they may follow (Landrum, Davis, & Landrum, 2010). One beneficial strategy is implementing a course on career development (Thomas & McDaniel, 2004). However, when last studied, only about 34% of psychology programs offered an introduction to the major or a career course (Landrum, Shoemaker, & Davis, 2003). The creation and sustainability of a full course on career development may be too taxing for many departments, limiting its offering. A course is also hard to synchronize with student needs, given that students are ready for different types of professional development at different points of their academic career. Another strategy is to organize programming about professional development topics that students can attend. Outreach is hard to monitor with this strategy and it doesn’t help students that don’t attend out of anxious denial about their futures.

         A different strategy is to implement professional development modules. These freestanding units can be embedded strategically within an established curriculum ensuring that you reach all majors. You can expose students to multiple modules across the curriculum, which allows you to scaffold the information. Additionally, you can customize each module to address professional development topics that are developmentally appropriate, meeting students at their professional levels. The module format is also highly flexible to accommodate various course schedules and teaching styles. This method allows departments to approach career-related issues without having to develop and staff a full course on the topic. Collectively, the modules may include information on being a psychology major, potential career options, graduate school preparation, and career preparation.

         To best use the module approach, I recommend implementing at least three distinct modules throughout the curriculum, ideally at the 200, 300, and 400 levels. Departments should include the modules in classes required for psychology majors. If you have a large number of transfer students, then you should attempt to place the modules in classes that are less likely to transfer into your major. If there are specific courses only majors can take, then these are particularly good courses for the modules, although non-majors might also find much of the professional development information useful.

         The modules themselves can be customized to the particulars of your program, as well as to professional development topics that your department finds important. Each module should cover between four and five professional development topics. For each, the module should provide detailed information on the topic, as well as an activity to help students engage in, and personalize the material. There are a variety of ways that faculty can use the modules within their classes. They can simply assign students to read the module on their own. They can spend a class period lecturing on the topics in the module and assign the module itself as supplementary reading, or they can decide to break up the module—discussing the different topics in the modules at various times throughout the semester. No matter the amount of class time devoted to the modules, I urge faculty to assign the module activities as a graded assignment. The students need the time to process and apply the information from the modules. As they are often a little anxious and avoidant about their future, they need some incentive to complete the activities associated with the module and really think about and apply this information.

         The 200 level module should focus on what it means to be a psychology major, and may need the most customization for your particular program. I encourage you to introduce the major and, in particular, the curriculum to students at this level. Help justify the curriculum for students, so they understand the skills and knowledge the major will help them to learn. For example, if you have a writing intensive course, this is a good place to stress to student the marketable skill of written communication. The first module should also touch on the major career paths that students with undergraduate degrees may pursue (e.g., human resources, social services, mental health, etc.). It is important to emphasize how to make curricular choices that will best prepare them for their future career goals. To do this, discuss elective options both inside and outside the major that might help students with particular careers. For example, for mental health counseling, you might recommend classes on personality, assessment, therapy, crisis intervention, drug use and abuse, and others. Misconceptions about psychology is another great topic for the first module. You might also want to address how to find and best use applied experiences throughout the major, and ways students can get involved in the department (e.g., research assistantships, student organizations, honor societies). It’s important to link these experiences back to how they will help build skills and give experiences that will benefit the students after graduation. I also think the first module should introduce students to the GRE (both the general and the psychology subject tests), as this may shape the courses they take throughout their undergraduate career.

         At the 300 level, the module should focus more on life after graduation. You can again discuss misconceptions in this module, but this time related to careers in psychology and graduate school in general. In this module, the career information can be more specific providing a comprehensive list of potential careers for undergraduates in psychology. At minimum, the module should provide the average income, education, and daily duties for each position. A helpful place to find this information is O*NET, a website hosted by the United States Department of Labor ( You can also ask students to explore their own career aspirations by having them discern between jobs, careers, and callings; and self-reflect on their preferred path. As students are getting closer to potential internships at this level, I also advise including information about creating resumes in this module. As students’ experience is limited at this point, encourage them to create a heavily skill-based resume. Students are poor at recognizing their own skills (Martini, Judges, & Belicki, 2015), so it’s important to facilitate this process. They need to think about specific class assignments and experiences both on and off campus that helped cultivate their skills. At the very least, have students identify specific times they have practiced communication (written, verbal, and interpersonal), collaboration, and critical thinking. This module is also a great one to introduce information about graduate school. This discussion should begin with why anyone should attend graduate school, and then move on to baseline acceptance criteria and specifics of graduate school applications. Students should learn more about the best people to ask for letters of recommendation, and how to go about asking for them appropriately. Personal statements should be included in this module as well as more about how to practice and register for the GRE.

         The general idea behind the 400-level module is to set students up for success in the professional world. The goal is for students to be able to reflect on and articulate their skills and experiences, as well as become a professional. At this level, most students have had an experiential learning experience. However, they are not always sure what that experience can bring to their professional careers. This module is a great place to remind them about the value of these experiences and help them reflect on the benefits of this experience and how it can apply to their professional futures. If your students complete a capstone or thesis experience, have them practice talking about that experience. I like to have my students prepare both a 5-minute and 3-minute version of the experience (i.e., an elevator pitch) that includes both a description of the experience and the skills it facilitated. An essential aspect to include in this module is information about interviewing. You can help students learn appropriate interview etiquette, as well as help them prepare for both graduate school and job interviews by providing a list of potential questions. Another important topic to discuss in this module is how students should determine and manage their online reputations. Have students list any social media sites for which they have ever registered, and then go through each profile systematically to determine their digital footprint in the world. They may find they still have an active Flickr account from 7th grade. I also have students Google image search themselves to see what pops up. They are often very surprised at what they find and learn quickly what a future advisor or employer might see.

         What I am encouraging can be a lot of work to put together for your department, initially. With all that effort you may be wondering if self-contained units of professional development weaved into your current curriculum can work. After all, I am not suggesting a major overhaul of your current curriculum or the development of an entire course. You may wonder if the impact of this minimal change might also be minimal. I wondered too. My colleagues and I studied the implementation of this approach empirically in our own department. Our study revealed that students’ exposure to the modules was beneficial (Ciarocco, Dinella, Hatchard, & Valosin, in press). They self-reported more knowledge about professional development topics and objectively did learn from the modules. The results suggest that a modular approach to professional development can be an effective alternative strategy for undergraduate psychology programs interested in helping student prepare for life after graduation.

         Earning a college degree is about developing a foundation for students’ personal and professional lives. As professors in undergraduate psychology, we provide students with knowledge in our discipline. We help them learn how better to communicate and think critically, however we also need to help them transition into the professional world. By implementing professional development modules strategically across your curriculum, you can help students without a major overhaul to your current program.



    Chronicle of Higher Education (2003, May 2). The Chronicle survey of public opinion on higher education. Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A11.

    Ciarocco, N. J., Dinella, L. M., Hatchard, C. Y., Valosin, J. (in press). Integrating professional development across the curriculum: An effectiveness study. Teaching of Psychology.

    Hurtado, S., & Pryor, J. H. (2006, January). The American freshman: National norms for Fall 2005. Presented at the Higher Education Research Institute, Los Angeles, CA.

    Kohout, J., & Wicherski, M. (2010). 2009-10: Applications, acceptances, enrollments, and degrees awarded to master's- and doctoral-level students in U.S. and Canadian graduate departments of psychology. Retrieved from http://

    Landrum, R. E., & Davis, S. F. & Landrum, T. (2010). The psychology major: Career strategies for success (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    Landrum, R., Shoemaker, C. S., & Davis, S. F. (2003). Important topics in an introduction to the psychology major course. Teaching of Psychology, 30, 48-51.

    Martini, T. S., Judges, R. & Belicki, K. (2015). Psychology majors’ understanding of skills-based learning outcomes. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1, 113-124. doi: 10.1037/stl0000019

    Thomas, J. H., & McDaniel, C. R. (2004). Effectiveness of a required course in career planning for psychology majors. Teaching of Psychology, 31, 22-27. doi:10.1207/s15328023top3101_6




    Natalie J. Ciarocco is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Monmouth University. She earned her B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from Case Western Reserve University. Her main research focus is on the limited capacity of self-control in interpersonal relationships. She is also a scholar of teaching and learning. Natalie recently co-authored a textbook, Discovering the Scientist Within: Research Methods in Psychology and is the recipient of grants from both the Association for Psychological Science (APS) and the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP) for pedagogical development. Her work is published in Teaching of Psychology and she has a book chapter on how to make psychology more self-relevant to students. Natalie is the co-creator and editor of an online collection of peer-reviewed resources for the teaching of research and statistics (, as well as the co-founder and organizer of the Atlantic Coast Teaching of Psychology conference.




  • 02 Aug 2016 10:41 AM | Anonymous
    The Implementation of Interdisciplinary Courses with Psychology


    Dorothy C. Doolittle, Shelia P. Greenlee, Harry Greenlee, & Lisa S. Webb

    Christopher Newport University


    Educators have often insisted that student learning is enhanced by integrating the curriculum. We see this in many educational trends like “Writing Across the Curriculum,” “Integrating Integers Across the Disciplines,” and “Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)” programs. The essence of these curricular approaches is to blend the learning environments so that our youth are exposed to a more cohesive learning paradigm based on everyday life. The National Council for Teachers of English contends that “…educational experiences are more authentic and of greater value to students when the curricula reflect real life. . .” (Consortium for Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning, 1995, para. 2). Being able to integrate various disciplines is extremely important and yet many disciplines still remain disconnected and fragmented. Psychology however, is one discipline that could very easily be incorporated or integrated into many others, particularly biology, government, communication, mathematics, and business.


    Our approach to developing two interdisciplinary courses began with urgings from our university to develop and implement interdisciplinary, team-taught courses. This seemed to be an easy accommodation for psychology given that many of our introductory courses begin by showing students the interdisciplinary nature of psychology, starting with the areas of specialization in psychology. Immediately, faculty teaching introductory psychology courses tell students that psychology derives from two disciplines, philosophy and physiology. They continue by connecting psychology to business (Industrial/Organizational psychology), mathematics (quantitative psychology), biology (behavioral neuroscience), government and law (forensic psychology), etc. As such, most psychology faculty members will concede that psychology has never been a self-contained or isolated discipline, and, as such may lend itself to an interdisciplinary approach more than many other disciplines.

     Planning and Preparation

    While urgings from our administration were important in helping us to think through the design and development of interdisciplinary courses, they were not enough to help us fully understand the essence of such courses. Nissani (1997) defines interdisciplinary as bringing together distinctive components of two or more disciplines. In academia, we can do this through research and teaching. Because psychology is a highly diverse field with connections to many disciplines, it is a rich partner that can easily be adapted to various disciplines. Still, before moving forward with designing courses, we felt compelled to examine the literature on interdisciplinary courses. This provided valuable information that made planning and preparation easier because it identified the benefits, as well as the pitfalls, issues, and concerns to address or at least think about before implementing interdisciplinary courses.

    Benefits of Interdisciplinary Courses

    Our review of the literature illustrated several benefits of interdisciplinary courses. In general, the research suggests that interdisciplinary courses help students develop a broader vision of the fields, while helping students develop skills of integration and synthesis (Fink, 2003; Newell & Green, 1982). Students engaging in interdisciplinary courses are encouraged to examine concepts from many different perspectives. This type of examination enables students’ ability to analyze complex issues by liberating their thinking, moving them from the limiting assumptions of their own professional group (or major), while at the same time stimulating fresh research ideas, visions, and methodologies (Nissani, 1997). Students in these courses will learn to assemble, develop, design and combine knowledge using techniques from different disciplines.

    Second, interdisciplinary courses help students understand and deal with ambiguity. They give students ways to look at problems, situations, or subject matter from various perspectives and world views. When there is uncertainty or several interpretations are plausible, students can pull from different disciplines. Alden, Laxton, Patzer, and Howard (1991) contend that students enrolled in interdisciplinary courses are also better able to tolerate ambiguity, which helps students to think more abstractly about various problems or issues encountered in our society.

    Third, students become more engaged in the learning process in these types of courses. According to Gardner (1983), interdisciplinary courses support a diverse background of interests, experiences and values that will help students become more engaged. As already noted, the design of such courses encourages students to examine things from more than one perspective. They will gain insight into the process of generating knowledge by working with professors from different backgrounds. Having a course that requires students to see things from different perspectives helps them become more vested in learning, understanding and mastering the materials.

    Not only do students from different disciplines benefit from interdisciplinary courses, Hailstorks (2009) contends that faculty also benefit from them. She believes that faculty learn new information that can be incorporated into their other courses and at the same time may learn new pedagogical strategies to use in teaching. Letterman and Dugan (2004) contend that interdisciplinary courses help decrease feelings of isolation that many faculty experience, while providing faculty opportunities for collaboration in other areas, particularly with regard to research.

    Disadvantages of Interdisciplinary Courses

    The cost of two faculty members for one course may seem prohibitive to administrators. For faculty buy-in, each must be fairly compensated. Time must be spent developing the course and grading student work. Whether both faculty members will be in class at the same times or take turns coming to the class is also an important consideration. Taking turns may seem efficient, but alternating instructors miss the information and discussions of the other’s classes, making the course seem somewhat disjointed.

    Stress, conflict resolution, issues about grading standards, what material to cover from each discipline, and co-leadership versus a single faculty member making decisions about the class are just a few of the areas that have to be addressed before the class even begins (Davis, 1995). Differences in personality and teaching styles will also affect the course and must be addressed during the course planning phase.

    Some faculty have indicated that co-teaching an interdisciplinary course interferes with their ability to put time into their research. The additional time involved in planning and implementation must come from somewhere. This is another reason why having the university’s support is important (Cohen & DeLois, 2001).

    The feeling of a loss of autonomy may deter some faculty. They may feel as though they cannot control matters, citing a loss of flexibility (Davis, 1995). Personal experience in co-teaching an English literature course bore this out. The psychology faculty member was told not to worry about the exams or coming to the lectures. She would be called when it was time to give a psychological interpretation of the novels’ characters. This was obviously not a satisfying arrangement for the psychology faculty member!

    Course Planning and Preparation

    We all need resources when we start a new endeavor. A great one is the group of colleagues who have undertaken this before. They will share what went well and some pitfalls to avoid. Read articles about teaching interdisciplinary courses so that you go into it prepared.

    Not all courses may lend themselves to being good candidates for interdisciplinary courses. Consider what areas may make great partners with psychology. As stated earlier, government, behavioral neuroscience, business, and math seem to be naturals.

    The faculty involved must determine how the course will be taught. For example, will both faculty members be present at all classes or just some of the classes? If you co-teach, faculty should visit each other’s classrooms during the planning phase to look at each other’s teaching styles, interactions with students, etc.

    It is inevitable that differences in styles, experience, age, gender, and perceptions can all bring conflict into the teaching relationship. The two faculty members involved need good communication before and during the course. They need to look at the course from as many angles as possible during the planning stages. Joint goals, plans for grading and class participation, and deciding how assignments will be handled should help keep conflict to a minimum. Planning helps alleviate some of the surprises when the semester begins.


    Psychology is a prime candidate for interdisciplinary courses. Student engagement and enhanced learning are major benefits. The design and implementation of an interdisciplinary course requires time and careful planning. At the end of the course, faculty should have an evaluation component that will allow them to find out, from the students’ perspectives, what went well and what could be improved. This might also be a source for research on teaching.

    Two example syllabi with government and behavioral genetics are available from the first author upon request (



    Alden, S. D., Laxton, R., Patzer, G., & Howard, L. (1991). Establishing cross-disciplinary marketing education. Journal of Marketing Education, 13(2), 25-30. doi:10.1177/027347539101300205.

    Cohen, M. B., & DeLois, K. (2001). Training in tandem: Co-facilitation and role modeling in a group work course. Social Work with Groups, 24(1), 21-36. doi:10.1300/J009v24n01_03.

    Consortium for Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning. (1995, August 14). Position statement on interdisciplinary learning, Pre-K to Grade 4 [Web page]. Retrieved from

    Davis, J. R. (1995). Interdisciplinary courses and team teaching: New arrangements for learning (American Council on Education). Phoenix: Oryx Press.

    Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrative approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. doi:

    Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

    Hailstorks, R. (2009). Teaching psychology from an interdisciplinary perspective. Psychology Teacher Network, Office of Precollege and Undergraduate Education (APA), 18(4), 24-25.

    Letterman, M. R., & Dugan, K. B. (2004). Team teaching a cross-disciplinary honors course: Preparation & Development. College Teaching, 52(2), 76-79. Retrieved from

    Newell, W. H., & Green, W. J. (1882). Defining and teaching interdisciplinary studies. Improving College and University Teaching, 30(1), 23-34.

    Nissani, M. (1997). Ten cheers for interdisciplinary: The case for interdisciplinary knowledge & research. Social Science Journal, 34(2) 201-216. doi: .

    About the Authors:

    Dorothy Doolittle is a Professor of Psychology at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, VA.  She earned her B.A. from the University of Georgia and her M.S. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Ph.D. in Applied Experimental Psychology from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.  Her primary teaching interests are history of psychology and tests and measures.  She, with Shelia Greenlee, conducts a research laboratory for undergraduate students, focusing on women, minority, and especially first-generation college students.  Her research interests include classroom distractions (e.g, texting) and other topics related to students and learning.

    Shelia Greenlee is currently a Professor of Psychology at Christopher Newport University (Newport News, VA).  She earned her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at The Ohio State University. She primarily teaches Introductory Psychology, Child Development, Adolescence, and Educational Psychology courses. She, in conjunction with Dorothy Doolittle, conducts a research-mentoring lab.  In this lab, she supervises and directs undergraduate student research on classroom distractions, non-academic stressors and coping strategies, and the impact of tokenism/solo status on college students’ feelings of distinctiveness and satisfaction.

    Harry Greenlee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government at Christopher Newport University.  He received his B.A. and M.A. from Hampton Institute (University) and his J.D. degree from The Ohio State University College of Law.  His research interests are in the fields of Employment and Criminal Law.

    Lisa S. Webb is an Associate Professor of Molecular Biology and Chemistry at Christopher Newport University.  She earned a B.A. in Chemistry from Maryville College, an M.Ed. in Science Education from the University of Georgia, and a Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences from the University of Tennessee.  Her research interests are in the molecular genetics of neurodegenerative diseases.  She teaches undergraduate courses in the biochemistry, molecular biology, and neuroscience curricula and graduate courses in the M.A.T. and M.S. programs.

  • 20 Jul 2016 6:14 PM | Anonymous
    Using Service Learning to Teach Classic Learning Theories

    Vicki Sheafer
    LeTourneau University

                Service learning is an educational experience that involves an organized service activity with structured reflection to guide students’ learning (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999). This embeds teaching and learning in a social context larger than a classroom (Conway, Amel, & Gerwien, 2009). Good service learning represents a partnership between the campus and the community, with the faculty member responsible for fitting the service learning experience to the course objectives, and community agency staff ensuring that the students’ service learning experience is commensurate with their goals (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999).

                This definition also highlights the importance of reflection as “. . . the intentional consideration of an experience in light of particular learning objectives” (Hatcher & Bringle, 1997, p. 153). Service learning works because it supports the construction of knowledge through students’ reflecting on experience, developing new conceptualizations, and experimenting with their new conceptualizations (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999; Conway et al., 2009). Reflection assignments direct the students’ attention to new ways of looking at events and provide a way through which service learning can be studied and understood (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999).

                John Dewey’s work provides a philosophical underpinning for reflection’s role in the learning process as a connection between experience and theory (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999; Hatcher & Bringle, 1997). Personal experiences, such as those gained during service learning, allow theory to take on deeper meaning when reflection activities support an examination of the learning opportunity. When faculty members present theory in the context of course material, or assign it as a set of text readings, students often see it as information that has no personal or contemporary relevance.  Through service learning, students make connections between abstract theory and personal experience, thereby deepening and strengthening their learning. Experience becomes educational when students’ practice critical reflection that generates new perspectives and leads to growth (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999).

                There have been many course specific examples of the application of service learning to the discipline of psychology (Conway et al., 2009). Kretchmar’s (2001) general psychology students mentored at-risk school children and tutored boys in a transitional living facility.  Lundy’s (2007) life-span developmental psychology students volunteered in an agency relevant to the course, such as a day care facility, preschool, retirement home, or assisted living facility. Wilson’s (1998) psychology of learning students volunteered with an agency relevant to the course, such as Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross, a children’s hospital, or a local elementary school. Examples also exist for applied animal behavior, cognition, research methods, psychology ethics, and pediatric psychology courses (Conway et al., 2009).         

                In their meta-analysis of service learning’s effects on academic, personal, social, and citizenship outcomes, Conway et al. (2009) found large changes in academic outcomes (cognitive and academic changes involving knowledge, the ability to apply knowledge, cognitive processes, and the motivation to learn), and reflection was generally associated with larger effects. Reflection included assignments such as journals, group discussion, debates, research and/or reflection papers, and oral presentations.

    The Service Learning Project

                I designed this assignment to apply empirically tested service learning principles to the mastering of classic learning theories in a Learning and Cognition course.  I have used this assignment twice thus far, with similar results each time.  I required my students to participate in a service learning project that had two components, a minimum of three hours of community service and a written paper.  The paper had three sections: (1) a description of the service site and the services provided at the site, (2) an application of learning principles (classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and/or social learning theory) from their textbook and classroom lectures at their community service site, and (3) a reflection on lessons learned during the service learning experience. The grading rubric (which is included in the syllabus) also has points dedicated to certain aspects of APA Style that I want them to practice (title page, reference page, in-text citations, etc.).  The majority of the students fulfilled their community service hours at the Boys and Girls Club, or at other sites that I approved in advance of their service.

    Student Response to the Service Learning Project

                Students filled out a 15 question survey to evaluate the service learning project after they completed their service hours and reflection paper.  Results showed that their perception of the project was positive.  All items were above the mid-point of the scale (1 “strongly disagree” through 7 “strongly agree”), and four of the items had means above six.  These items were (1) The Professor should continue to use this project in the future with other students, (2) This project was an interesting learning experience, (3) I gained a deeper appreciation of service learning as a result of completing this project, and (4) Writing the paper reinforced what I had learned in class about learning theories.    

                Part of the student written paper was a reflection on what was learned through the service learning project. I examined this section of each student’s paper for themes using qualitative research strategies (Elliott, Fischer, & Rennie, 1999). Two main themes emerged.  The first theme was the value of seeing learning theories in action. 


    The service learning activity at the Boys and Girls Club provided numerous opportunities for me to see learning at work. It’s one thing to read in a textbook about learning, but quite another experience to actually visually observe learning taking place. This activity was a wonderful experience in which I myself grew in greater understanding. (SJ)

    In addition, there are definitely academic motives for serving. What students learn in the classroom becomes more meaningful and easier to understand when they see it demonstrated in real life. Illustrations offered in class or through a textbook can offer this too, but it is not the same thing as being there yourself, seeing it firsthand, or even living it.  Really, having the ability to serve should be seen as a privilege. (CM)

    The second theme was the value of serving one’s community. Students’ eyes were opened to the needs of the community in which their university is located. They took on a new and bigger perspective. Students also realized that they can contribute to their community in ways that make a difference in the lives of children—teaching, loving, and encouraging them.  Many students also mentioned the impact of this experience on their faith. 


    The reality is that there are kids, less than five minutes driving distance of me, who need love, acceptance, and praise. They are precious to God, which makes them precious to me. I have been reminded of the bigger picture. (HB)

    Jesus is the source from which all knowledge, all wisdom, all love come from in the first place. Put this together with the fact that he has called his children to be his hands and feet to the rest of the world, and this only underscores the way in which one needs to approach even small things like a Learning and Cognition assignment. I am so grateful that I was given the opportunity to reach into the lives of these kids even while working on an assignment. (KF)


                The hands-on, practical application of academic knowledge really made an impact on students.  Students believe that service learning helped them gain a better understanding of classroom material, and helped them grow as citizens of their local community, and for many of them, in their faith.  Many student comments connected their service learning experience with the structured reflection assignment of the paper. It was through writing that they were able to integrate their observations and their classroom learning.

                The students’ evaluations provided the overall impression that the service learning project was fun, valuable, enlightening, and educational. Service learning may not work for every faculty member, every course, or every student, but these programs model the idea that giving something back to the community is an important educational outcome, and that working with community partners is good preparation for citizenship, work, and life (Kuh, 2008). Service learning can be a part of the essential learning outcomes (Kuh, 2008) for which college studies should prepare students as they face the challenges brought on by the twenty-first century and our ever shrinking world. Service learning can help promote knowledge of human cultures, intellectual and practical skills, personal and social responsibility, and integrative and applied learning. As Psychology faculty, we are in a great position to leverage the power of service learning for our students, ourselves, and our communities.  


    Author note

                Portions of this essay were presented at the National Institute for the Teaching of Psychology annual conference.  St. Pete Beach, FL, January 2016.


    Bringle, R.G., & Hatcher, J. (1999). Reflection in service learning: Making meaning of experience. Educational Horizons, 77, 179-185.

    Conway, J.M., Amel, E.L., & Gerwien, D.P. (2009). Teaching and learning in the social context: A meta-analysis of service learning’s effects on academic, personal, social, and citizenship outcomes. Teaching of Psychology, 36, 233-245. doi: 10.1080/00986280903172969

    Elliot, R., Fischer, C.T., & Rennie, D.L. (1999). Evolving guidelines for publication of qualitative research studies in psychology and related fields. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 38, 215-229. doi: 10.1348/014466599162782 

    Hatcher, J.A., & Bringle, R.G. (1997). Reflections: Bridging the gap between service and learning. Journal of College Teaching, 45, 153-158. doi:10.1080/87567559709596221

    Kretchmar, M.D. (2001). Service learning in a general psychology class: Description, preliminary evaluation, and recommendations. Teaching of Psychology, 28, 5-10. doi: 10.1207/S15328023TOP2801_02

    Kuh, G.D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges &Universities.

    Lundy, B.L. (2007). Service learning in life-span developmental psychology: Higher exam scores and increased empathy. Teaching of Psychology, 34, 23-27. doi: 10.1080/00986280709336644 

    Wilson, T.L. (1998). The psychology of service learning: More than Pavlov’s dog. Eye on Psi Chi, 2(3), 22-23.



    Vicki Sheafer received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.  She is currently Professor of Psychology and Chair of the Undergraduate Programs in Psychology & Counseling at LeTourneau University (Longview, TX).  She typically teaches undergraduate courses in social psychology, learning and cognition, personality theory, physiological psychology, psychology of gender, research methods, and statistics.  She serves students as the faculty advisor for Psi Chi, the International Honor Society for psychology.  Her research interests revolve around the scholarship of teaching and learning in psychology. She is also a secondary investigator on an NSF grant exploring creativity in engineering design.

  • 11 Jul 2016 6:26 PM | Anonymous

    Russell Crowe is a Better Teacher than You: Movies Outperform Paper Assignments or Teaching-as-Usual

    Russ Phillips
    University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg

    Abnormal psychology is an interesting class for so many reasons, one of which is the multitude of media examples that can bring mental disorders—and their causes and treatments—to life. Like many of you, I like to incorporate feature films into my pedagogy. There are a couple of aspects to this process that I have been invited to share with you.  For one, I like to show one or two full-length feature films IN class, every semester. Some faculty object, saying “but that takes so much time!”  I say the payoff is worth it for a number of reasons. First, it gives me an opportunity to discuss the film in real time with students (I often stop the film and ask what they’ve observed, and how it relates to what they’ve learned from my lectures and the book). Second, it breaks up the flow of class, keeping things fresh and the students (and me) engaged. Students like the alternation between breadth and depth in this course.

    But back to the main point–showing feature films depicting mental disorders, their causes, and treatment. I think most of us agree that films offer the opportunity to engage in higher levels of thinking, as outlined by Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson, Krathwohl, & Bloom, 2001), for example by applying course information to the movie and critiquing the movie’s depiction of the mental illness. Compared to written case studies describing a hypothetical client in therapy, films flesh out details and give more realistic examples of the “messiness” of understanding abnormal psychology “in the real world.”  (See Wedding, Boyd, & Niemic, 2010, for an excellent review of movies concerning abnormal psychology.)

    I used to work from the assumption that the key to learning was for the student to integrate his or her thoughts about the movie in a paper. Indeed, some teacher-researchers have studied the use and effectiveness of the movie-paper pairing (e.g., Hemenover, Caster, & Mizumoto, 1999; Kelley & Calkins, 2006). However, for the past decade, I have focused my paper assignment on application-based learning, asking students to write a simulated case report on the main character depicted in a feature film, as practitioners would write after seeing a client for an intake interview.


    The Paper Assignment

    I ask students to discuss the symptoms of the diagnosis, hypothesize potential causes of the disorder, and create a treatment plan. More specifically, I provide the following instructions: 

    1. Diagnose the mental disorder and psychosocial stressors. Note the EXACT mental disorder and use the PROPER TERMINOLOGY for psychosocial stressors from the notes. Consider the client when his/her symptoms were worst. Explain EACH diagnosis. Note the abstract symptom (e.g., obsession) and then state SPECIFIC, CONCRETE things the client thought, did, or said that relate to that symptom. Give AT LEAST one concrete example from the case study/movie for EACH symptom. (You need four or five sentences TOTAL here.) Give a 1-2 sentence explanation for each psychosocial stressor, using concrete examples from the movie/case study.
    2. Describe how you would CONCEPTUALIZE the “client’s” case (4-5 sentences). That is, describe one possible SCIENTIFIC cause (noted in the book or notes) of the client’s disorder. Note CONCRETE EXAMPLES of the cause FROM THE MOVIE. It is better to go into detail on one cause than briefly mention three or four. If there are few clues, make an educated guess as to why the main character has the disorder s/he does.
    3. Describe how you would TREAT the “client” in 4-5 sentences. Mention SCIENTIFIC treatments noted in the book or notes. It is better to go into detail on one treatment than briefly mention several. Don’t just say you will treat the client with drugs, tell me what drug you will give the client, and how you will motivate the client to take the drug as needed. Don’t just say you will use cognitive-behavioral therapy, but describe in detail how you would engage in such therapy. Give CONCRETE examples of things you would do or say with the client, using information from the movie.

    I also provide students with an example of a “good paper” (based on a different movie and disorder than the one the class saw). In addition, I provide a rubric, stressing professional writing skills (correct grammar, spelling, and organization); utilization of relevant disorders, theories, and treatments; and an ability to show that they know the abstract concepts learned in the chapter by using those terms and providing specific concrete depictions of those concepts as illustrated in the movie.

     The Research

    I’ve conducted multiple studies assessing the effectiveness of the movie paper assignment over the past decade. I also continuously honed my study design as I received feeback from colleagues. The latest study, presented at the 2016 National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology, sought to compare four different types of teaching, all of which included my “teaching-as-usual” approach (lecture, discussion, and small in-class activities - a paragraph case study where students determine the diagnosis; a two-page handout where students practice cognitive-behavioral treatments of the disorder). The conditions I tested were:

    1. CONTROL condition—no additional teaching methods.
    2. MOVIE condition—show and discuss in class a movie depicting a mental illness.
    3. PAPER condition—students read a 3-5 page case study depicting a mental illness with a corresponding paper assignment (as described above). We discuss the case study in class, since I discuss the movie condition in class.
    4. MOVIE and PAPER condition—show and discuss in class a movie depicting a mental illness, with a paper assignment (as described above) with the same instructions as the paper condition.

    The study involved “a snapshot” (weeks 6-12, including spring break) of two abnormal psychology classes (71 students at a small regional university in Pennsylvania) that I taught in the spring of 2015. I examined quiz scores for 4 of the 12 chapters: dissociative disorders, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and personality disorders, alternating the chapters across each class that received various conditions. For example, one section wrote a paper about a case study reading for schizophrenia, watched a movie concerning anxiety disorders (Coyote UglyBruckheimer & Oman, 2000depicting social phobia), had class as usual for personality disorders, and wrote a paper about the movie Fight Club (Bell, 1999; depicting dissociative identity disorder). The other section wrote a case study paper for dissociative identity disorder, watched A Beautiful Mind (Howard & Grazer, 2001) in the schizophrenia unit, had class as usual for anxiety disorders, and had a movie paper assignment for Fatal Attraction (Jaffe & Lansing, 1987; depicting borderline personality disorder).

    I assessed learning with multiple choice quizzes for each chapter. Quiz questions equally assessed diagnoses, causes, and treatments of mental disorders. I used 95% confidence intervals of the mean percent correct on quizzes. The MOVIE (85.06%, 88.88%) and the MOVIE and PAPER (83.58%, 87.78%) conditions outperformed the CONTROL (79.42%, 83.06%) condition. The PAPER condition (81.76%, 86.82%) was not significantly different from the other three conditions. Thus, the two movie conditions outperformed class-as-usual, but a paper alone did not.


    Overcoming Barriers and Limitations

    This assignment does have some potential limitations. First, you might be concerned about grading so many papers. I have 25-45 students in each section. I make sure the two paper assignments are dispersed throughout the semester, and that when I collect one of the papers, I have spring or fall break to grade it. Often I will grade one set of papers while showing a movie in class. Second, you might be concerned that you don’t have enough time to discuss the other mental illnesses by showing a full-length feature film in class. While showing two movies across the semester and discussing schizophrenia and the dissociative/personality/anxiety disorders, I also discuss paraphilia’s, sexual dysfunctions, gender dysphoria, and addiction, stress, compulsion, depression, bipolar, neurodevelopment, impulse control, somatoform, and eating disorders. My discussion of some disorders is brief (addiction) where I know other parts of our curriculum address the issue in depth (we have multiple classes addressing drug use). A third issue to consider is trigger warnings and moral qualms. I warn students before the movie if there is violence, cursing, sexuality, etc. I explain if they are going into the mental health field, they are likely to see and hear things that are at least “R-rated.”  (If there are students who wish to find an alternative assignment, for moral or mental health reasons, I accommodate them, although this has happened only a few times across the 15 sections that I have taught this course.)  A final issue to address is the inaccurate depiction of abnormal psychology in a movie. For example, I was loath to show Fight Club, but my students were loath to watch a 1950’s portrayal of the disorder (Three Faces of Eve–Johnson, 1957). I used Fight Club as an opportunity to critique the movie’s portrayal. Although I didn’t include this teaching element within the paper, it could easily be added, if so desired.

    In the future I hope to round out my study, with two more courses to alternate across the four-chapter conditions; leaving each chapter with each of the four conditions, to help me best assess which form of learning is most effective. In any case, given the information presented here, preliminary evidence suggests that the key to learning was the feature film. Feature films provide a thorough context that offers concrete examples of abstract concepts. This helps students learn, especially in an area as rich as abnormal psychology.



    Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., & Bloom, B. S. (2001).  A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives New York: Longman Publishing.

    Bell, R. G. (Producer) and Fincher, D. (Director). (1999). Fight club. [Motion picture]. United States: Twentieth Century Fox.

    Bruckheimer, J., & Oman, C. (Producers), and McNally, D. (Director). (2000). Coyote ugly. [Motion picture]. United States: Touchstone Pictures.

    Hemenover, S. H., Caster, J. B., & Mizumoto, A. (1999). Combining the use of progressive writing techniques and popular movies in introductory psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 26(3), 196-198. doi:10.1207/S15328023TOP260307

    Howard, R., & Grazer, B. (Producers). (2001). A beautiful mind. [Motion picture]. United States: Universal Pictures.

    Jaffe, S. R., & Lansing, S. (Producers), and Lynne, A. (Director). (1987). Fatal attraction. [Motion picture]. United States:  Paramount Pictures.

    Johnson, N. (Director). (1957). The three faces of Eve. [Motion picture]. United States: Twentieth Century Fox.

    Kelley, M. R., & Calkins, S. (2006). Evaluating popular portrayals of memory in film. Teaching of Psychology, 33(3), 191-194. doi:10.1207/s15328023top3303_7

    Wedding, D., Boyd, M. A., & Niemic, R. M. (2010). Movies and mental illness: Using films to understand psychopathology (3rd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe Publishing.



    Russ Phillips is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. He has taught a 24-credit-hour-per-year undergraduate teaching load for 10.5 years, in the areas of clinical/counseling, health, cultural, and personality psychology. His research interests lie in the psychology of religion, where he regularly supervises undergraduate research. Russ’ applied work involves stress management and mindfulness meditation interventions. Russ obtained his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Bowling Green State University. Born in western Pennsylvania, he moved to Ohio, then Maine, then Missouri, but his heart remained in Pittsburgh (Go Steelers!). He resettled in western Pennsylvania in 2012, acquiring the position he now holds (Hail Pitt!). He met his wife at a teaching of psychology conference ten years ago (NITOP), and married her 3.75 years ago. He is happy.

  • 11 Jul 2016 6:11 PM | Anonymous

    Greetings!  E-xcellence in Teaching is The Society for the Teaching of Psychology's monthly column of invited essays.  Historically, it's been published on STP's electronic listserv and gathered into annual collections available from the STP e-books page ( Our primary function is to provide brief, thought-provoking, and insightful essays on the teaching of psychology. These address effective teaching at the high school, college, and graduate school levels in an engaging style, concentrating on applications. Instead of presenting data or findings from a novel empirical study, these invited articles present best practices, innovative ideas, and advice to inform and enrich the teaching of psychology.

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