On the first day of class, Ludy Benjamin, PhD, astounds introductory psychology students with a demonstration of his psychic powers. Benjamin draws a student's name out of a hat and announces her favorite band. He draws another student's name and recalls the kind of car she drives, and then the name of her cat.
"At the end of the class period, some students are pretty convinced that I am telling the truth and that I am, indeed, a psychic," says Benjamin, a psychology professor at Texas A&M University who won the 1986 Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award.
On the second day of class, Benjamin asks his students for alternative explanations for his powers, and they discuss how those hypotheses might be tested. Eventually, the class discovers the correct answer: Before class, Benjamin interviewed a few students' parents, and he rigged the drawing so that only those students' names would come up--a ruse he borrowed from psychologist Douglas Bernstein, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois.
The exercise says Benjamin, introduces students to the scientific method, by demonstrating how they can generate many possible explanations for puzzling phenomena, and then test them--a theme he threads through his entire course.
Benjamin is one of a burgeoning group of professors who teach general science principles through introductory psychology classes. With more than a million undergraduate enrollees each year, introductory psychology is a prime opportunity to nail down science fundamentals, such as experimental design and making sense of results through statistics, says Nora Newcombe, PhD, a cognitive development researcher and psychology professor at Temple University. Such lessons can also inspire science-phobic students to take on classes in other sciences or to major in psychology, notes Newcombe, who won the APA Board of Scientific Affairs 2006 Award for Distinguished Service to Psychological Science.
"The scientific method is pretty much the same across disciplines...but in psychology it's with reference to material that many students find more motivating than they find chemistry and physics," Newcombe says.
Be your own science project
The inner workings of an earthworm may be a hard sell to many teenagers, but questions such as "Does listening to music help me study?" immediately grab their attention, says Charles Brewer, PhD, a Furman University psychology professor who has been teaching introductory psychology for more than 50 years. By posing such questions to his class, Brewer introduces the topic of experimental design.
Together, Brewer and his class think of ways to test the hypothesis--perhaps by assigning students to study with music playing or in silence. They figure out strategies to ensure that all the high-achieving students don't accidentally end up in the same group. For homework, students generate a list of other variables they would control for--what type of music, when and where participants' study, and for how long.
The next class period, the students come up with a plan for gathering their results--perhaps through a pre- and post-test of course material.
Once they have designed a solid experiment, Brewer quenches the class's curiosity by sharing findings from the literature. (The results are mixed--background music seems to help some students and hinder others.) This gives students a sense of the psychology's breadth while also teaching them an important maxim for conducting research: "You have to research the previous literature, otherwise you might spend all your time doing something that has already been done," he says.
Such lessons came in handy for Michael Vagnini, a Furman senior and chemistry major. Vagnini first learned about experimental statistics as a freshman in Brewer's class. As a result, he was well-equipped to make sense of a stats-heavy chemistry class he took his junior year, he says.
Soon Vagnini will head to graduate school and begin a research program aimed at developing alternative fuel sources. Though inorganic chemistry is far afield from human behavior, he expects that Brewer's system for laying out alternative hypotheses will help him design future studies.
"Psychology laid the foundation for me of understanding the importance of a controlled experiment," he says.
Critical thinking for life
The principles of scientific inquiry are important to all students--not just science majors, notes David Myers, PhD, a psychology professor at Hope College.
"They can think more like scientific detectives as they engage questions in their own life and work," he notes.
Benjamin, like many other introductory psychology instructors, trains his students to apply their newfound skepticism with surveys and studies cited in newspaper and magazine articles. One such article claimed that about 78 percent of women were unhappy with their marriages, Benjamin recalls. But upon further examination he and his students found that it was based on a mailed survey with only a 5 percent response rate.
"Who would be most likely to send that survey back? Women who are unhappy in their marriages and have something to say about it," he notes.
Undergraduates who come out of their introductory psychology course understanding how to accept or reject claims on the basis of data are well equipped to make a myriad of future decisions, adds Newcombe. For instance, they'll be able to figure out whether it's worth downing vitamin C when they get the sniffles, what kind of education they want for their child and what medical treatment to pursue, she says.
The central goal of introductory psychology classes is, of course, to share the most important findings in the discipline, says Benjamin. But in the long run, teaching students to evaluate data may be just as important, he notes.
"They are not going to remember the difference between negative reinforcement and punishment six weeks after the exam," he says. "But if they can remember the lessons about critical-thinking skills...that is what I'd really like to see as the legacy of the course."