Center for Instructional
Innovation and Assessment


Mark Bussell
Dawn Dietrich
Joyce Hammond
Mike Mana
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Mike Mana
Psychology Department



Faculty-Student Brainstorm

Life in an Interactive Classroom: Keeping Both Eyes Open

Greetings and salutations! I am a Physiological Psychologist and an Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at Western Washington University. I have been teaching for a while now, having evolved from an absolutely terrified graduate student TA into a somewhat less terrified (OK, I enjoy teaching now) faculty member here at Western. In that time, I have come to believe that the most important thing that I can offer my students, in any classroom, is a give-and-take dialogue that begins before class starts (for example, when students take the time to scrutinize lecture notes and assigned readings that I have provided before class), blossoms during the time of our class discussions (for example, when our discussions allow us to talk deeply about the topic under consideration…or even better, about a topic that none of us had thought about before class); and sometimes has not ended even when students have long since passed out of my classroom, graduated from Western, but suddenly find themselves writing an an e-mail to ask me a question about something they might have first heard about in a class we shared years earlier.

Student Interaction
"My teaching philosophy emphasizes the notion that students learn best when their participation in the classroom is encouraged and expected."

I have high expectations for my students, expectations that are accompanied by the notion that effort is generally accompanied by reward…not just in terms of "good grades", but more importantly in terms of a better understanding of "how things work". I love the atmosphere of an interactive college classroom and the "buzz" that comes from sharing (as opposed to simply talking about) my interest in brain and behavior. My teaching philosophy emphasizes the notion that students learn best when their participation in the classroom is encouraged and expected—in the direction that a class discussion takes; in the selection of topics included in the course syllabus; in electronic chat rooms devoted to topics pertinent to the class; and in the students' application of their growing knowledge to issues of personal and/or public importance and interest. Learning is a life-long endeavor…so too, I have come to understand, is teaching!

Keeping Students "in the Game"

So—how to keep things interactive? My strategies vary, depending upon the course that I am teaching. These range from Introductory Psychology, with about 450 students, to lab courses in Neuroanatomy with 10 students. In larger classes, I use all sorts of cheap gimmicks to keep my students "in the game". For example, I have found it easier to engage my students if I make an effort to walk around the lecture auditorium, across the front of the stage and then up the side aisles, instead of simply standing and talking at the front of the lecture auditorium. Using a laser pointer, I can highlight items on an overhead even from the back of the class, which means I often walk all the way to the back of a 450-person lecture hall while talking about the material on an overhead, answering questions, and asking them too!

At first, students are a little unnerved by having to follow me around the class, and the students at the back of the class sometimes panic when they find themselves at the center of attention. Momentary pain for long-term gain, I believe. I have found that this simple strategy inevitably increases the interactivity of a large lecture class, simply because it makes the experience more personal for both the student and myself. I am not the talking head bobbing around in the lights at the front of the class—the students are not disembodied voices raining questions from (or dozing off in) the dusty heights of Arntzen Hall. We can talk to one another…terrific!

In smaller classes, I try to encourage an atmosphere in which students will feel comfortable interacting with me, and with their fellow students. Sometimes this encouragement is absolutely explicit and not very clever. For example: "Twenty percent of your grade on this assignment will depend on your participation in our class discussions." However, I also make an effort in every class (but especially my senior seminars, which have 15-20 students in them) to get to know my students—to figure out where their comfort level is in terms of the material we are discussing, in terms of their familiarity with their classmates, and in terms of what they know about or are passionate about. Using this knowledge, I am able to "birdseed" students who might normally be happy to simply "sit in" during class discussions into speaking their mind—in the middle of a class, to me and to their peers. Fancy that!

There is nothing I like better than starting a lecture with a discussion about a topic that one of the students has brought to class. For (a true) example, a recent class began with a student asking about the ethical dilemmas posed by a recent attempt to surgically remove a second head (and brain) from a newborn child…especially given the theoretical relationship between mind, brain, and an individual being that we had already spoken about in class. Sometimes, this kind of interactive dialogue will emerge in the middle of a lecture…one reason I provide students with an outline of my lecture notes is to give us the freedom to diverge from them, if an interesting tangent arises during the course of our conversations. The lecture notes let them know about the topics that I thought we might focus on, and the corresponding high points, from my perspective, in the assigned reading. However, I am usually more than willing to head off in a new direction if my students are more interested in a different (though relevant) topic.

The Blocked Syllabus

This type of interaction helps me to assess how students are doing, to learn what they are interested in, and to plan future class topics around this feedback. "Say what?", you might ask. "How can the students alter a syllabus that was handed out weeks earlier at the start of quarter?". The answer is something that I call The Blocked Syllabus—a syllabus that is handed out in 2-3 week blocks over the course of a quarter. I began using a blocked syllabus several years ago, when I realized that I often felt restricted by the quarter-long syllabi that I was using. I would inevitably get a lecture behind, or a lecture ahead, or would find that the students in a particular class would rather learn about how antipsychotic drugs work than about how certain brain lesions could lead them to ignore an entire side of their body (while another class might have the opposite interests).

In response to this observation, I began handing out my syllabus accompanied by a course outline for the first 2-3 weeks of lectures. During the first day of class, I go over the minutiae of the syllabus with the students, review the lecture topics for the first 2-3 weeks, and then invite them to look at the text, or think about their own interests, and then based upon these observations to help me design the rest of the course by suggesting lecture topics or block themes that we both might find interesting. This provides students with a personal investment in the content of the course, and all of the motivational vigor that kind of investment elicits…and it helps to keep my class fresh because I rarely use the same series of lectures in two consecutive courses.

Focusing Assessment Strategies, Large and Small

In all of my courses, I strive to incorporate some kind of real-world practical value in the assignments I develop to assess student's knowledge of the material. In monstrously large lecture classes (Psychology 101 has about 440 students in it), this may be restricted to attempts to link key concepts from the text to their day-to-day lives. For example, we may talk about conditioned taste aversions from the perspective of why a person might be unable to look at a bowl of ice cream after having eaten—and then thrown up—a serving of ice cream the last time that they had a stomach flu.

Mana and Nelson
"During the summer of 2003 I had the opportunity to work with Kyle Nelson, a Western undergraduate, to fine-tune the assessment tools that I use in Psychology 320, Topics in Physiological Psychology."

In my smaller classes, the "real-world" applicability of what I would like my students to learn often emerges from assessment strategies that students can value as much for the method as for the material that we cover. For example, during the summer of 2003 I had the opportunity to work with Kyle Nelson, a Western undergraduate, to fine-tune the assessment tools that I use in Psychology 320, Topics in Physiological Psychology. This class is designed for students with more than a casual interest in the area of brain and behavior; it is the second course in a sequence that begins with Psychology 220 (Introduction to Physiological Psychology) and ends with a number of 400-level seminar courses on specific areas of physiological psychology. Psychology 320 provides a focused and detailed understanding of some of the brain/behavior issues that were introduced in Psychology 220. Its main goals are:

  1. to challenge students to both broaden and deepen their understanding of the biological bases of behavior;
  2. to introduce students to the different kinds of research questions that physiological psychologists might ask;
  3. to introduce students to the different techniques and approaches that brain scientists might use to answer such questions;
  4. to foster the expression of their "skeptic" genes and the development of critical thinking skills; and
  5. to help them develop the skills required to effectively evaluate, and communicate about, research in this area.

To meet these objectives, Kyle and I incorporated a wide variety of assessment techniques into the Psychology 320 syllabus. In part, this recognized the fact that different students have different learning styles and assessment strengths that they can draw on to convey their understanding of the course material. In addition, Kyle and I also wanted to include assessment tools that would allow students to "test their mettle" early in the quarter, before we have covered enough material for a full-blown exam or term paper to be appropriate.

The "quiver" of assessment tools that Kyle and I included in the syllabus for Psychology 320 included 2 multiple-format exams (that included multiple-multiple choice questions; modified true-false; fill-in-the-blank; figure identification; and short answer/essay type questions; for an example, see this Psychology 320 exam). These were administered about ½ way through the quarter, and at the end of the second-to-last week of the quarter. At more frequent intervals (roughly every 2-3 weeks), the syllabus included a "literature shred" in which students learned to critically read primary research literature. In each "shred", students were expected to read and critically evaluate a primary research article that had been handed out a week earlier. In the course of their reading, they were instructed to consider the general phenomenon under study, the specific hypotheses of the work, the appropriateness of the experimental design, statistical analyses, and experimental techniques that were employed, the conclusions that were reached, the kinds of experiments that would logically follow, and what might have been done to improve the paper under consideration. Each student was asked to summarize their musings and to be prepared to verbally present their analyses to their peers. The first shred of the quarter was awkward—with a common sentiment seeming to be "Who are we to be criticizing this published scientific manuscript?". Over the course of the quarter, most students began to accept the notion that it was their job—as budding brain scientists—to be critical consumers of research literature, and that scientists were prone to biases, compromises, blind-spots, and other intellectual faux pas that had to be considered when their research communications were under consideration. "The Truth is Out There!"—It just takes an heroic effort to begin to find it!

Focus: Psychology 320 Poster Session

In the past, Psychology 320 also included an end-of-term poster session in which students prepared a poster based on an original research paper and then presented their poster to the other members of the class. The purpose of this assignment was to teach students how to extract the key elements from a research article, and then present this distillation to their peers in the form of a poster (a mainstay of public presentation for many scientific meetings or public forums). In the middle of the term, each student was asked to select a research article that would serve as the basis for their poster assignment and 1-2 classes were devoted to the nuts and bolts of designing and putting together a scientific poster, using the Poster Guidelines of the Society for Neuroscience. During the last week of quarter, students presented their work to their peers in a 10-minute long poster presentation and Q&A session.

Student feedback on these poster sessions led me to believe the planning, preparation and presentation skills required for this poster assignment were practical ones for students who plan to go on to a graduate program in the behavioral and brain sciences, as well as for students who leave Western with a B.A. in psychology and join the workforce in some area completely unrelated to psychology. However, in their feedback students also suggested that they often did not feel properly prepared for their poster presentation. As they were quick to point out, the work that they were presenting was not their research, and consequently many students felt they lacked the background necessary to confidently speak in the "Think-on-your-feet, Q-&-A" atmosphere of a poster session. This shortcoming of the poster assignment resonated with the observation that many students also missed the opportunity to develop the critical thinking and writing skills that comes with the term papers required in many upper-level courses.

Poster Session
"We hoped that integrating a midterm paper with the end-of-term poster would provide a vehicle that facilitates each student's ability to gain both breadth and depth of knowledge in a favored area of physiological psychology, while developing technical writing and presentation skills that will be useful to future academic and nonacademic endeavors."

After careful consideration, Kyle and I decided that the completion of both an end-of-term paper (to provide greater depth of understanding and an opportunity to integrate ideas from various sources) and an end-of-term poster presentation was cruel and unusual punishment. Instead, we changed the Psychology 320 syllabus to include a mid-term paper and end-of-term poster, on a single topic. We hoped, and student feedback this quarter confirmed, that integrating a midterm paper with the end-of-term poster provides a vehicle that facilitates each student's ability to gain both breadth and depth of knowledge in a favored area of physiological psychology, while developing technical writing and presentation skills that will be useful to future academic and nonacademic endeavors. The student poster presentations were, for the most part, superb. This past quarter, I added comments to a poster, or got involved in the Q&A sessions that follow each presentation, because I wanted to rather than because I felt I had to.

My Teaching Objectives

  1. Engage students in active learning experiences
  2. Become aware of values, beliefs, preconceptions; unlearn if necessary
  3. Recognize and stretch student styles and developmental levels
  4. Seek and present real-world applications
  5. Understand and value criteria and methods for student assessment
  6. Create opportunities for student-faculty interactions
  7. Create opportunities for student-student interactions
  8. Promote student involvement through engaged time and quality effort

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