10 Cultivating a Respect for Truth | Jennifer Ackil

Most of the students enrolled in my psychology classes will not become psychologists.Indeed, even for those who declare psychology majors, a career in psychology is the exception rather than the rule.Nonetheless, all of the students in my classes can and should learn to recognize, define and solve problems as psychologists do. Doing so promotes critical, rigorous, and creative thinking about questions and ideas that can be addressed with the scientific method of understanding. Knowing how science contributes to our understanding of the world helps to cultivate in students a respect for truth and prepares them to live responsible, productive, and meaningful lives in an ever-changing world. That I have the opportunity to foster these characteristics in students using a subject matter that is inherently interesting (it is the rare person who isn’t curious about one’s own behavior and mind) is both a tremendous responsibility and a privilege. As social psychologist David Myers put it, “What greater life mission could one hope for than to do one’s part to restrain intuition with critical thinking, judgmentalism with compassion, and illusion with understanding?”

To become good psychological thinkers, students need to master some basic facts and concepts from the discipline.For example, it would be impossible to evaluate psychological research without an understanding of the basic tenants of experimental design. Moreover, meaningful discussions of brain function would be stalled without an understanding of brain structure and basic neuronal processes. Thus, part of my responsibility as a teacher,especially in the introductory psychology course (PSY100), is to provide the opportunities necessary for students to acquire this information. Whereas this may be accomplished most easily by telling students what they need to know (and in some instances this may be unavoidable), my goal whenever possible is to engage students in the material in such a way that the information is a byproduct of their own thoughts. Most of the time I do this in a very simple way, namely by posing questions that require students to think about the material themselves, rather than simply writing down the facts I recite. For instance, in early discussions of brain physiology, I frequently begin my class by challenging students to consider a time when scientists knew nothing about the brain and encourage them to think about the methods researchers could employ to identify brain structures and their functions. Although the simple question, “what could you do to figure out what the hippocampus does?” is initially met with silence and avoidant looks, it only takes some encouragement (or the response of a more extroverted student) for them to begin to appreciate that the seemingly outrageous possibilities (e.g., remove it, stimulate it) are worth considering. And I am convinced both from my own experiences and from empirical evidence, that engaging students in this manner enhances their understanding as well as their memory for the material at hand. Moreover, it emphasizes that thinking is part of all learning rather than something that occurs only after one has acquired a set of concepts.

Once students have acquired foundational concepts, they can engage more deeply in the ideas of psychology. Given that psychology, like all science, is in a constant state of flux, it is important to portray psychological knowledge as dynamic rather than static. To this end, I typically begin each topic with an issue or question (e.g., what is the capacity of short term memory?), ask students to think about ways to address the question (e.g., how could we figure this out?) and then lead them through research that has been conducted to answer the question, sharing with them details about experimental design and data interpretation. I may ask students to evaluate research findings and present alternative explanations all in the service of telling a story about what we know at this point in time, and how we came to know it. Although I realize that many students would prefer simple, clear, and final answers (e.g.,“the capacity of short term memory is 7 items”), I attempt to help them understand the process of psychological science as a continuous flow of questions, data collection, analysis, and critical thinking that inevitably raises new questions while addressing the issue at hand. That is, I want them to understand how psychologists engage in research to inform our understanding of behavior and mental processes rather than simply knowing what we believe to be true at this point in time. This provides them with a set of skills and a manner of thinking that they can carry with them for a lifetime.

In service of this goal, I provide students with opportunities to engage in the process of psychology by providing opportunities for data collection and analyses. I am most satisfied with the manner in which I have been able to integrate these opportunities in my 200-and 300-level courses. For instance, in the cognitive class (PSY230),students are given regular opportunities throughout the semester to complete computer simulations of classic psychological experiments in which they are first engaged as research participants and then evaluate the compilation of class data as researchers. My sense is that participating in these simulations leaves students more comfortable engaging in discussion of the research topic at hand and better prepared to do so. Moreover, it provides an opportunity to practice thinking like a psychological scientist. In my seminar (PSY344), students go beyond simulations and conduct an original small-scale study of their own. Regardless of the different ways I’ve implemented this project (e.g., in small groups, as a class, in collaboration with another psychology seminar), the primary value comes from the issues that necessarily arise as students’ research comes to life. Discussions of such issues as the ethics of human subject use, the evaluation of experimental design, data analyses and interpretation of results are unavoidable in this context and become more relevant to students when they consider them in light of their own research. Whereas the relatively large class size in General Psychology (PSY100) presents unique challenges, it doesn’t prohibit them from being involved in the process of psychological science in very fundamental ways. To this end, I occasionally employ in-class demonstrations of phenomena, provide opportunities for very simple data collection, and have in the past required completion of various laboratory simulations (e.g., training a virtual rat to press a bar, examining short-and long-term memory). Whereas students report enjoying these experiences and are likely better equipped to engage in discussions of methodology as a result, I continue to explore opportunities to compile class data in the service of providing opportunities to analyze and interpret results. Indeed,my department colleagues and I have plans to explore this issue together this summer as we seek to create a set of standardized laboratory experiences for all General Psychology students.

Whereas engaging students in data collection and analysis is one way to encourage them to think like psychologists,it is certainly not the only way. With this in mind, I consistently require students in my upper-level courses(PSY230, PSY344) to read empirical journal articles that correspond to the course material. Indeed, my seminar relies solely on primary readings; there is no required textbook. Working through the research reported in these articles gives students a chance to evaluate real psychological science and encourages them to develop their own questions about behavior and cognitive processing. Moreover, evaluating the ideas presented in these articles encourages the rigorous habits of thought that benefit students regardless of their future endeavors. Although these articles are not written for a general audience and thus, are quite challenging for undergraduates, I find that most students (many of whom are not shy about indicating to me their initial frustrations) rise to meet the challenge and often find satisfaction in doing so – a valuable lesson in and of itself. I am committed to continuing to include these primary readings and am exploring ways to expand some assignments to include connections to real world applications. To this end, I piloted an assignment last fall that required students to examine instances where doctors may evidence biased thinking and decision making in a manner consistent with the findings we read about in Tversky and Kahneman’s now classic Science article on biases in human judgment. While it is important to continue to emphasize the value of basic research,highlighting applications when they exist may be another avenue for increasing interest and engagement in the course material.

It is important to note that my teaching is not limited to the classroom. As indicated by the student research presentations and honors theses included in my vitae, I have a strong record of involving students in research as a means of teaching outside the classroom. Under my supervision students have conducted a variety of experiments aimed at understanding various aspects of human cognitive processing. Whereas my own program of research has elicited student interest and collaboration at all levels (e.g., design, data collection,analyses, interpretation), students have also sought my supervision for projects that explore cognitive issues unrelated to my own research. Sharing with students my expertise as a psychological scientist as they experience firsthand the challenge and excitement of scientific discovery can be an especially rewarding aspect of my teaching.While these experiences are critical for students intending to pursue graduate work in psychology, they provide skills and habits that are also valuable for those who pursue other endeavors. As psychologist William James put it,“Laboratory work…engender[s] a habit of observation, a knowledge of the difference between accuracy and vagueness, and an insight into nature’s complexity…, which once wrought into the mind, remain there as lifelong possessions.”

Thinking about how to improve and expand upon these research experiences for our students is something I continue to explore. To this end, I participated in the 2007 Bush Foundation sponsored workshop, “The Student as Scholar:Enhancing Research and Creative Practices” and have implemented changes in the honors psychology major to enhance the students’ experience. Furthermore, initiating the Annual Gustavus Psychology Symposium, and working with my colleagues from other departments to initiate the Annual Celebration of Creative Inquiry were motivated in part to provide the opportunity for our students to see themselves as serious scholars and to inspire younger students to seek out unique research opportunities of their own. I am simply convinced that as James notes,engaging students in research provides them with “lifelong possessions” that are among the most valuable I can offer them.

In addition to employing research as a teaching opportunity outside the classroom, my role as an advisor (both formal and informal) affords an additional opportunity for important conversations with students. Over the past ten years I have served as an “official” advisor for 25 – 35 psychology majors each semester. At minimum, I meet with each of these students individually once each semester to discuss their course selection for the upcoming semester.Perhaps more important however, is the fact that these very pragmatic conversations inevitably lead to additional meetings and conversations about a variety of larger issues including vocation, responsibility, and the value of the liberal arts experience. That I serve as an unofficial advisor to scores of additional students is in part a consequence of teaching General Psychology (PSY100). Many of the students enrolled in this class seek my advice as they consider their future and weigh the value of pursuing psychology either as a major or as a way to augment another line of study. Moreover, I have served as the first advisor for many students as a relatively regular participant in summer registration and I find that a substantial number of advanced psychology majors stop by my office to request my supervision of internships, discuss summer opportunities, and talk over post graduation plans. Although I must admit that the sheer amount of time devoted to advising can sometimes feel overwhelming, it is clearly an important part of my responsibility as a teacher and I very much enjoy the opportunity to think with students about their role as Gustavus undergraduates and as citizens of the world.

While the facts and theories of Psychology will continue to evolve over time, an understanding of the scientific method and the processes involved in knowledge acquisition can help students build a foundation of thinking skills that will benefit them throughout their lives in whatever field they pursue. The strategies I employ in the classroom and my aim to involve students in research outside the classroom, provide students with the opportunities to acquire these skills.

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