Laura Freberg is a distinguished author and Professor of Psychology at California Polytechnic State University. She’s also lead author on the interactive textbook Research Methods in Psychological Science, coming to classrooms in Fall 2017. She started using Top Hat in her introductory psychology classes a few months ago.

Dr. Freberg will be participating in Fireside Chat at the APS 2017 conference in Boston on Saturday, May 27th, where she will discuss how psychology educators can engage their digital-native students more effectively in the classroom. She’ll also preview a chapter of her new book.

We spoke with Dr. Freberg ahead of the conference about the three biggest challenges facing psychology professors in the classroom—and how she overcomes them.

“Pop” psychology is competing with real psychological science.

I don’t think there is such a thing as “pop math” or “pop engineering,” but popular press images of psychology are everywhere, from advice columns, to Dr. Phil, to the movie Lucy. This compromises the credibility of true psychological science in the eyes of students, so I try to do myth-busting whenever possible.

As a neuroscientist, I encounter many myths, such as right-left brain tests on the Internet, to the myth that we only use 10 percent of the brain (I wish! I’d like to have 90 percent more to access!) I generally try to get the students to do their own myth-busting.

Just the other day, we were talking about circadian rhythms and daylight saving time, and I challenged my students to find empirical studies that supported the idea that daylight saving actually does save energy (because we also know there is cost in heart attack rate and traffic accident rate). It turned out that all the government reports said that daylight saving does save energy, but independent reports by university faculty said that it actually wasted energy. This can be a great exercise for promoting critical thinking.

Students don’t see the need for psychology—they think it’s just “common sense”

To counter this, I try a number of different activities, usually on the first day of class. I use Top Hat to ask students to respond to contradictory statements, like “Opposites attract,” and “Birds of a feather flock together.” Most students agree with both statements, which then allows us to open a discussion of where these common sense ideas probably originate and the actual scientific research that addresses this question. We also talk about the implications of these findings for relationships and diversity, which emphasizes the idea that psychology has important things to say about the problems we all face today.

“I’m not a major—why is this class important?”

Most of the students in my Introductory Psychology class are not majoring in the subject. They’re not sure why they need to be there at all. My engineering students have been told by their professors that the class is “easy,” and they often express frustration about having to study! We go over John Cacioppo’s remarkable essay on Psychology as a Hub Science, emphasizing our role as a core discipline supporting research in many other fields.

I try to point out the many applications of psychology to the world around us. We have all been in buildings that some architect thought was beautiful that simply don’t work for people expected to thrive in the spaces. We talk about good practices in behavior management and the fact that getting warnings/fouls in sports is part of the entertainment and really isn’t designed to reduce unwanted behaviors.

I am also incorporating a version of the “big problems” activity recommended by the APA in its 2014 report on the “common core” of introductory psychology [pdf]. Students choose a major problem of interest (pollution, terrorism, climate change, poverty, etc.), explore the causes and solutions of the problem from the vantage point of three psychological perspectives (social, clinical, biological, etc.), and discuss roles for diversity and ethics in the causes and solutions. This activity helps establish the ability of psychological science to contribute to some of the most important challenges we face today, along with its reach across many disciplines.

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