Sleepy medical students at the University of Florida are in for a start if they nod off during the lecture Lisa Merlo, PhD, gives on Little Albert. Using a soothing voice, the postdoctoral student tells the story of the young boy who played with a soft, white rat in the lab of psychologist John B. Watson as part of an experiment on classical conditioning. But when she gets to the part where Watson bangs a hammer against a steel bar right behind the boy's head to induce a rat phobia, Merlo, jumps forward and slams her hands on one of her student's desks.
As the students' heart rates skyrocket, "I tell them....'That is the exact same physical reaction Little Albert had,'" she says.
The theatrics deepen the medical students' understanding of classical conditioning by putting them in Little Albert's shoes, says Merlo, who majored in drama, psychology and Spanish as an undergraduate at Transylvania University, in Kentucky. Such ploys also harness student's senses to fix concepts in their memories, notes Lane Neubauer, PhD, a psychology professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia.
Rather than just providing a handout about stress, Neubauer will act out the role of a stressed-out freshman--who claims to be happy--when she teaches her school's residence life staff about helping overwhelmed students cope with college life.
"As I am illustrating points, I will take on the role of the person I am talking about," says Neubauer. "I will act it myself so they get a visual and an auditory picture of what I am saying rather than reading about it in a two-dimensional way."
Neubauer, who acted in a children's theater troupe before going to graduate school, notes that graduate students and faculty do not need to have formal training to make use of theater principles in their classrooms. Many good teachers tell compelling stories, intuitively using their voice and body as well as their words, she says. Teachers can go even further, using props, role playing and other theater tools in their classrooms, Neubauer notes.
"If you think about going to the theater, their whole job is to engage you," she says. "If they were just up there saying lines, you'd be bored out of your mind."
TELL A STORY
Every psychology concept can be illustrated by a good story, says University of Mary Washington psychology professor Christopher Kilmartin, PhD. If you can tell that story effectively, students will understand the idea in a deeper way than if you just give them a definition.
For instance, when teaching operant conditioning to his introductory psychology class, Kilmartin tells a story of a friend who was having a bad day on the golf course--a day made worse when a crow snatched his crackers from the golf cart. Kilmartin's students then discuss how the crow learned the likely location of the crackers through experience. Many teachers give examples of concepts, but by including apparently irrelevant details, such as the emotional state of the golfer and the foul language he directed at the crow, Kilmartin embeds the story deep in students' brains.
"If you are teaching something that has emotional dimensions like most of psychology, you don't want to ignore that," he says. "Showing is better than telling."
Dramatic monologues are Kilmartin's specialty. Five years ago, Kilmartin wrote a one-man play called "Crimes Against Nature," which he's performed more than 200 times in local productions and at college campuses. The play explores a boy's growing awareness of his emotions through a series of interlinked anecdotes. Though Kilmartin recently retired the play, he performs snippets in his "Men and Masculinity" psychology class. Standing in front of his students, Kilmartin takes on the role of a boy who fails to make the baseball team. The boy's father fails to acknowledge his son's disappointment, an event that the class uses as a jumping-off point for a discussion into ways that boys and men learn to discount their feelings. The exercise also helps his students tap their own experiences and think about the long-term effect such an incident could have, Kilmartin says.
VOICE AND MOVEMENT
Teachers can make psychology concepts come to life without going as far as penning and acting out original plays. Just staying engaged with your lecture can make a big difference, notes Joe Hosie, PhD, a Brooklyn College psychology professor and former stage actor.
"One thing I don't do is go in there reading notes," he says. "You have to know your lines."
Teachers who are familiar with their lecture materials have the brainpower to devote to using vocal and body cues, he notes. However, Kilmartin suggests that beginning teachers videotape classes to see how their movements might distract or add to their lectures.
"One of the things I have learned from theater is when you are going somewhere on a stage, there should be a reason why you are going there," he notes.
For example, walking to a chalkboard to draw a diagram or jumping forward to provoke surprise is a good use of movement, Kilmartin says. But many teachers pace aimlessly as they talk, which can sidetrack students, he notes.
Vocal pitch and volume--when used judiciously--can also help teachers illustrate points, says Merlo. A lecturer who switches to a monotone can help students appreciate the flat affect often experienced by people with schizophrenia, for instance.
Additionally, teachers can use props to liven up lectures, Merlo says. When Merlo teaches a class about obsessive-compulsive disorder, she notes that anxieties can start out seeming innocuous--just like the harmless-looking plush toy she brings to class as a prop for the lecture. It's normal to think, "My hands are dirty, I should go wash them." But such thoughts can surprise people by getting suddenly out of control, which she illustrates by throwing the spring-mounted toy, which makes a loud "boing" sound before bouncing back.
It's a silly sight, and maybe a bit of a stretch, but the ploy helps her sleep-deprived medical students stay engaged, Merlo says.
"Props...help the concepts stick in student's minds," she says.
STUDENTS TAKE THE STAGE
In his "Men and Masculinity" class, Kilmartin sometimes gets students in on the acting. In small groups, they illustrate concepts from class, such as the disconnect between popular portrayals of masculinity and real men's experiences. Using theater, they can explore how men become systematically alienated from their own feelings in a way that a poster presentation on alexithymia might not.
"If you have a small enough group and enough time, it can get to the heart of complex and emotionally laden topics," he notes.
Neubauer, too, asks students to take the stage during her classes on communication and group dynamics. After introducing the idea that vocal inflection and body language can sometimes undermine people's stated meaning, she asks for volunteers to deliver a line with various underlying motivations. For instance, a student might say, "I am really enjoying this class," but really mean that she hates all her other classes. The other students try to guess the volunteer actor's real meaning and then discuss what nonverbal cues conveyed it.
Neubauer left theater and got her psychology doctorate, in part, because she was having trouble making ends meet on an actor's budget. But her two vocations have more in common than many think, she notes.
"I satisfy my acting bug by teaching," she says. "I love to be in front of a group of people performing."