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Man giving presentation

Grab a bag of jelly beans. Close your eyes and plug your nose with one hand while you pop a bean in your mouth with the other. Start to chew and guess the flavor. Now, unplug your nose and observe the difference.

If you're like the students that psychology professor Ludy T. Benjamin, PhD, has taught over the years, you'll learn an unforgettable lesson: how important smell is to taste.

"It's like the symphony playing when you unplug your nose and the real flavor blasts in," Benjamin says.

This demonstration, which Benjamin borrowed from Linda Bartoshuk, PhD, is one of many activities he uses to teach psychological concepts at Texas A&M University. He uses it because it has all the elements of a perfect teaching activity: It's easy to prepare, it works every time and every student participates. Plus, there's a wow factor—students get excited and they remember the take-home message, he says.

Instructors also enjoy watching the light bulbs go on, says University of South Florida psychology professor Douglas Bernstein, PhD. He says that simply giving lectures and grading exams can get monotonous for professors, but jelly beans and other demonstrations can spice up your classroom.

It's never too early for graduate students to develop a repertoire of classroom activities, says Sandra Goss Lucas, PhD, director of introductory psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who encourages her graduate student instructors to experiment with demonstrations.

"A five-minute demonstration can be worth 20 minutes of lecturing," says Benjamin.

A date with Piaget

One of Lucas's graduate student instructors, Brian Gordon, uses at least one demonstration—even if it's just a video clip—in every lecture.

"It's definitely more prep, it's more risky and there's more of a chance to fail," he admits. "But the reward is so much higher for you and your students."

His favorite activity is a version of the "Dating Game" he created to explain Piaget's four stages of cognitive development. A male student is given a set of questions to ask four "bachelorettes" who each represents one of Piaget's stages. For example, when the bachelor asks, "How would you show your interest in me?" the bachelorette who represents the sensorimotor stage reads a script that says, "I would lovingly stare at your face," while one representing the concrete operational stage says, "I would rearrange the alphabet to put U and I together." The students use what they've learned about Piaget to figure out which woman represents which stage of development.

Such demonstrations can take up an entire class, while others—the jelly bean trick, for example—may only take five minutes, says Bernstein. No matter the length, well-thought-out and implemented demonstrations should never be considered a waste of time.

"The role of the classroom is to motivate students to read and learn on their own," Bernstein says. "And it's my experience over a long teaching career that students become more interested in the material when they leave class with some engaging experience."

What works

Engaging doesn't mean adding "fluff," though. Demonstrations need to be well-integrated into a unit of study, and instructors should always link them to the concept being taught, says Bernstein.

"Some instructors get so excited, they forget that they've got to build a framework on which to hang the demonstration," he says. "Something that's fun but not a learning experience is not worth the class time."

There are many ways to integrate meaningful demonstrations, he adds. Many teachers use them to spark students' curiosity about a new topic. For example, to start a unit on brain and behavior, Benjamin uses an inward spinning spiral to demonstrate the "spiral aftereffect." If students stare at the spinning spiral for a minute, when they look up at the instructor's head—or any stationary object—it appears to expand. That's because the brain's visual cortex has different cells for detecting inward and outward movement. The spinning spiral satiates the cells that sense inward movement and suppresses those for outward movement. When the spiral stops, the formerly suppressed cells fire at an elevated rate, making it appear as if a stationary object is expanding outward.

"I use this as an introduction to talk about the interaction of the brain and the senses and how it can affect behavior," says Benjamin.

Instructors can also use demonstrations to review material they've just taught, says Bernstein. At the end of a unit on short-term memory, for example, he'll read a long list of words, then ask students to write down as many as they can remember. To drive home a previously taught concept, he'll demonstrate that most students remembered the first word on the list, the last word on the list and one in the middle that was distinctive.

But perhaps most important, demonstrations can illustrate concepts that are difficult to explain otherwise, says Lucas. For example, she uses a skit developed by a former graduate student instructor, Joel Shenker, PhD, that has her class act out neurotransmission with students playing the parts of positive ions, negative ions, receptors and neurotransmitters.

"They understand the process a whole lot better than when I just explain it with a handout," says Lucas.

Build your repertoire

Before trying something new in class, practice in front of colleagues or friends, says Bernstein. "If you're not sure how things could go wrong you have no way to prepare for it," he warns.

One mishap occurred several years ago when psychologist Louis Penner, PhD—then at the University of South Florida—brought a police dog and its trainer into a lecture hall to demonstrate operant conditioning, says Bernstein. A student volunteer was on one side of the stage, wearing safety padding when the officer gave his dog the attack command. When the dog started after the student, the officer ordered him to stop and the dog sat down, but the stage was slippery and the dog slid right to the student. Since his prey was so close at hand, the dog attacked.

Few demonstrations are likely to backfire this dramatically, but the blow to an instructor's ego can have long-lasting effects. That's why it's important to start with small, easy demonstrations, says Gordon. One simple way to begin incorporating them is to show short film clips and have students analyze them, he notes. Gordon, for instance, uses a clip from the television show "The Office" in which one character uses Altoids to classically condition his office mate.

"I like to use something they've likely already seen but haven't thought about through the lens of psychology," says Gordon. "When I show ‘The Office' clip, students immediately get the concept of conditioning and we can talk about the details of how it works through the context of the show."

In the end, says Gordon, he uses demonstrations because he believes they are the best way to engage his students to learn the material he's teaching. "The goal isn't to just reiterate what's in the book," he says. "It's to teach something they'll remember once they leave the class. The goal is to impact their lives."

By Beth Azar

Beth Azar is a writer in Portland, Ore.


  • Benjamin Jr., L.T. (Ed). (2008). Favorite activities for the teaching of psychology. Washington, DC: APA.

  • Bernstein, D.A. (2006). Building a Repertoire of Effective Classroom Demonstrations. In Buskist, W., & Davis, S.F. (Eds.). Handbook of the teaching of psychology. (pp. 90–93). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

  • Boynton, D.M., & Smith, L.D. (2006). Bringing history to life: Simulating landmark experiments in psychology. History of Psychology, 9, 113–143.