Introductory Psychology is a challenging course not only for students to complete but also for instructors to teach. From an instructional viewpoint, the challenges that this course generates result from a combination of factors. Introductory Psychology involves a broad assortment of psychological areas, each with its own vocabulary and unique level of complexity, each to be transformed into a package of knowledge that can be opened and used by a variety of students. The course is generally taught in large classrooms, filled with a sizable number of students with a diverse array of skills, interests and knowledge levels. In these classrooms, the prevalent teaching method is the lecture format and the common testing method consists of multiple-choice and/or short answer questions.
Not surprisingly, one likely outcome of lecture-format, core courses such as Introductory Psychology is that after such courses are completed, students appear to remember very little of the curriculum. Among the many reasons that can account for this forgetfulness is that introductory psychology students are not offered sufficient opportunities during the semester to apply their newly acquired knowledge. Namely, listening to lectures and reading textbook chapters, in which, with few exceptions, each topic appears largely isolated from others, lead students to acquire and retain knowledge only for the specific purpose of passing an upcoming test. Once such a purpose becomes part of a student’s past, knowledge related to it becomes progressively less accessible, leading to the well-documented phenomenon of students forgetting most of the course content if they take no further advanced psychology courses.
Favorite Activities for the Teaching of Psychology, published by APA in 2008, offers a reasonable and potentially effective antidote to the aforementioned student forgetfulness. The book edited by Ludy T. Benjamin, Jr. presents an array of practical activities for each psychological area generally covered by introductory psychology textbooks. The editor proposes several activities for each area and describes every activity sufficiently well to make its execution largely unproblematic. Instructions describing any given activity precede concept(s) tested by the activity and materials required by it. Discussion sections follow instructions and material descriptions. In them, the editor links likely outcomes for each activity to those concepts presented earlier and proposes follow-up tasks to enrich students’ learning experiences. Of course, citations appear at the end of each discussion section for additional reference.
One may ask whether Favorite Activities for the Teaching of Psychology suggests applications of psychological knowledge that replicate those commonly found in study guides and instructor manuals. The answer to this question is, generally, no. The text goes well beyond applications found in most study guides and instructor manuals for its content and breath of presentation. Favorite Activities for the Teaching of Psychology contains 67 activities selected from a pool of 350, published earlier in a four volume series. They represent tasks that the text editor, Ludy T. Benjamin, Jr., justly describes as requiring minimal preparation and as reliably producing the expected outcomes. Readers learn that these tasks, repeatedly tested by psychology instructors and revised whenever necessary by the editor according to feedback received from users, make the proposed activities virtually ‘foolproof’. I have tried a few and must agree with the editor.
Undoubtedly, the activities proposed by Favorite Activities for the Teaching of Psychology are exceptionally diverse, their quality stellar, and their application feasible. Nevertheless, the overall learning outcomes of the practical applications contained in this text are not entirely clear. Namely, one may ask whether the proposed applications will improve student retention of newly acquired information not only by inducing rehearsal of such information but also by helping students develop memorable links between newly acquired information and information already contained in their long-term memory. Of course, developing such links may also enhance comprehension of newly acquired knowledge, a goal that certainly precedes mere retention.
The behavioral evidence I collected is limited in its breath but tentatively encouraging. The few practical applications that I tested not only produced the predicted behavioral data (as indicated by the editor) but also engaged students in lively discussions of specific subject matters. Such applications were followed by enhanced performance on later tests and more accurate self-assessment of test performance. These benefits could be due to specific activities practiced by students or merely to the opportunity for rehearsal of key concepts that these activities offered. Other critical issues that require careful examination are (1) whether benefits extend beyond in-class assessments, or are short-lived, and (2) whether benefits generalize to most or all of the activities proposed by Favorite Activities for the Teaching of Psychology or are specific to activities with certain methodological properties.
If the proposed activities can improve student comprehension and retention, Favorite Activities for the Teaching of Psychology can be considered an ideal teaching tool for instructors and teaching assistants of Introductory Psychology courses. Undoubtedly, this text would be a good fit for the variety of materials taught in Introductory Psychology and for the diversity of student populations who are active recipients of such materials. The editor includes in his target audience instructors and teaching assistants of more advanced psychology courses. I agree with this suggestion. Yet students themselves could also be the direct and independent consumers of the proposed activities. Namely, Favorite Activities for the Teaching of Psychology could serve as one of the required texts for Introductory Psychology. Students, organized as separate agents or in groups, could then use it as a workbook, and perform many activities independently as out-of-class assignments or projects.
In sum, Favorite Activities for the Teaching of Psychology is a text with many possible uses. This text deserves attention from psychology instructors, teaching assistants and, more broadly, individuals whose understanding of psychological knowledge can benefit from smart, practical applications of such knowledge.
© 2009 Maura Pilotti
Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Hunter College, New York