Tag Archives: learning

what’s the point of intro psych?

Sanjay Srivastava comments on an article in Inside Higher Ed about the limitations of traditional introductory science courses, which (according to the IHE article) focus too much on rote memorization of facts and too little on the big questions central to scientific understanding. The IHE article is somewhat predictable in its suggestion that students should be engaged with key scientific concepts at an earlier stage:

One approach to breaking out of this pattern, [Shirley Tilghman] said, is to create seminars in which first-year students dive right into science — without spending years memorizing facts. She described a seminar — “The Role of Asymmetry in Development” — that she led for Princeton freshmen in her pre-presidential days.

Beyond the idea of seminars, Tilghman also outlined a more transformative approach to teaching introductory science material. David Botstein, a professor at the university, has developed the Integrated Science Curriculum, a two-year course that exposes students to the ideas they need to take advanced courses in several science disciplines. Botstein created the course with other faculty members and they found that they value many of the same scientific ideas, so an integrated approach could work.

Sanjay points out an interesting issue in translating this type of approach to psychology:

Would this work in psychology? I honestly don’t know. One of the big challenges in learning psychology — which generally isn’t an issue for biology or physics or chemistry — is the curse of prior knowledge. Students come to the class with an entire lifetime’s worth of naive theories about human behavior. Intro students wouldn’t invent hypotheses out of nowhere — they’d almost certainly recapitulate cultural wisdom, introspective projections, stereotypes, etc. Maybe that would be a problem. Or maybe it would be a tremendous benefit — what better way to start off learning psychology than to have some of your preconceptions shattered by data that you’ve collected yourself?

Prior knowledge certainly does seem to play a huge role in the study of psychology; there are some worldviews that are flatly incompatible with certain areas of psychological inquiry. So when some students encounter certain ideas in psychology classes–even introductory ones–they’re forced to either change their views about the way the world works, or (perhaps more commonly?) to discount those areas of psychology and/or the discipline as a whole.

One example of this is the aversion many people have to a reductionist, materialist worldview. If you really can’t abide by the idea that all of human experience ultimately derives from the machinations of dumb cells, with no ghost to be found anywhere in the machine, you’re probably not going to want to study the neural bases of romantic love. Similarly, if you can’t swallow the notion that our personalities appear to be shaped largely by our genes and random environmental influences–and show virtually no discernible influence of parental environment–you’re unlikely to want to be a behavioral geneticist when you grow up. More so than most other fields, psychology is full of ideas that turn our intuitions on our head. For many Intro Psych students who go on to study the mind professionally, that’s one of the things that makes the field so fascinating. But other students are probably turned off for the very same reason.

Taking a step back though, I think before you can evaluate how introductory classes ought to be taught, it’s important to ask what goal introductory courses are ultimately supposed to serve. Implicit in the views discussed in the IHE article is the idea that introductory science classes should basically serve as a jumping-off point for young scientists. The idea is that if you’re immersed in deep scientific ideas in your first year of university rather than your third or fourth, you’ll be that much better prepared for a career in science by the time you graduate. That’s certainly a valid view, but it’s far from the only one. Another perfectly legitimate view is that the primary purpose of an introductory science class isn’t really to serve the eventual practitioners of that science, who, after all, form a very small fraction of students in the class. Rather, it’s to provide a very large number of students with varying degrees of interest in science with a very cursory survey of the field. After all, the vast majority of students who sit through Intro Psych classes would never go onto careers in psychology no matter how the course was taught. You could mount a reasonable argument that exposing most students to “the ideas they need to take advanced courses in several science disciplines” would be a kind of academic malpractice,  because most students who take intro science classes (or at least, intro psychology) probably have no  real interest in taking advanced courses in the topic, and simply want to fill a distribution requirement or get a cursory overview of what the field is about.

The question of who intro classes should be designed for isn’t the only one that needs to be answered. Even if you feel quite certain that introductory science classes should always be taught with an eye to producing scientists, and you don’t care at all for the more populist idea of catering to the non-major masses, you still have to make other hard choices. For example, you need to decide whether you value breadth over depth, or information retention over enthusiasm for the course material. Say you’re determined to teach Intro Psych in such a way as to maximize the production of good psychologists. Do you pick just a few core topics that you think students will find most interesting, or most conducive to understanding key research concepts, and abandon those topics that turn people off? Such an approach might well encourage more students to take further psychology classes; but it does so at the risk of providing an unrepresentative view of the field, and failing to expose some students to ideas they might have benefited more from. Many Intro Psych students seem to really resent the lone week or two of the course when the lecturer covers neurons, action potentials and very basic neuroanatomy. For reasons that are quite inscrutable to me, many people just don’t like brainzzz. But I don’t think that common sentiment is sufficient grounds for cutting biology out of intro psychology entirely; you simply wouldn’t be getting an accurate picture of our current understanding of the mind without knowing at least something about the way the brain operates.

Of course, the trouble is that the way that people like me feel about the brain-related parts of intro psych is exactly the way other people feel about the social parts of intro psych, or the developmental parts, or the clown parts, and so on. Cut social psych out of intro psych so that you can focus on deep methodological issues in studying the brain, and you may well create students more likely to go on to a career in cognitive neuroscience. But you’re probably reducing the number of students who’ll end up going into social psychology. More generally, you’re turning Intro Psychology into Intro to Cognitive Neuroscience, which sort of defeats the point of it being an introductory course in the first place; after all, they’re called survey courses for a reason!

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to make these choices; we’d just make sure that all of our intro courses were always engaging and educational and promoted a deeper understanding of how to do science. But in the real world, it’s rarely possible to pull that off, and we’re typically forced to make trade-offs. You could probably promote student interest in psychology pretty easily by showing videos of agnosic patients all day long, but you’d be sacrificing breadth and depth of understanding. Conversely, you could maximize the amount of knowledge students retain from a class by hitting them over the head with information and testing them in every class, but then you shouldn’t be surprised if some students find the course unpleasant and lose interest in the subject matter. The balance between the depth, breadth, and entertainment value of introductory science classes is a delicate one, but it’s one that’s essential to consider before we can fairly evaluate different proposals as to how such classes ought to be structured.

i hate learning new things

Well, I don’t really hate learning new things. I actually quite like learning new things; what I don’t like is having to spend time learning new things. I find my tolerance for the unique kind of frustration associated with learning a new skill (you know, the kind that manifests itself in a series of “crap, now I have to Google that” moments) increases roughly in proportion to my age.

As an undergraduate, I didn’t find learning frustrating at all; quite the opposite, actually. I routinely ignored all the work that I was supposed to be doing (e.g., writing term papers, studying for exams, etc.), and would spend hours piddling around with things that were completely irrelevant to my actual progress through college. In hindsight, a lot of the skills I picked up have actually been quite useful, career-wise (e.g., I spent a lot of my spare time playing around with websites, which has paid off–I now collect large chunks of my data online). But I can’t pretend I had any special foresight at the time. I was just procrastinating by doing stuff that felt like work but really wasn’t.

In my first couple of years in graduate school, when I started accumulating obligations I couldn’t (or didn’t want to) put off, I developed a sort of compromise with myself, where I would spend about fifteen minutes of every hour doing what i was supposed to, and the rest of the hour messing around learning new things. Some of those things were work-related–for instance, learning to use a new software package for analyzing fMRI data, or writing a script that reinvented the wheel just to get a better understanding of the wheel. That arrangement seemed to work pretty well, but strangely, with every year of grad school, I found myself working less and less on so-called “personal development” projects and more and more on supposedly important things like writing journal articles and reviewing other people’s journal articles and just generally acting like someone who has some sort of overarching purpose.

Now that I’m a worldly post-doc in a new lab, I frankly find the thought of having to spend time learning to do new things quite distressing. For example, my new PI’s lab uses a different set of analysis packages than I used in graduate school. So I have to learn to use those packages before I can do much of anything. They’re really great tools, and I don’t have any doubt that I will in fact learn to use them (probably sooner rather than later); I just find it incredibly annoying to have to spend the time doing that. It feels like it’s taking time away from my real work, which is writing. Whereas five years ago, I would have gleefully thrown myself at any opportunity to learn to use a new tool, precisely because it would have allowed me to avoid nasty, icky activities like writing.

In the grand scheme of things, I suppose the transition is for the best. It’s hard to be productive as an academic when you spend all your time learning new things; at some point, you have to turn the things you learn into a product you can communicate to other people. I like the fact that I’ve become more conscientious with age (which, it turns out, is a robust phenomenon); I just wish I didn’t feel so guilty ‘wasting’ my time learning new things. And it’s not like I feel I know everything I need to know. More than ever, I can identify all sorts of tools and skills that would help me work more efficiently if I just took the time to learn them. But learning things often seems like a luxury in this new grown-up world where you do the things you’re supposed to do before the things you actually enjoy most. I fully expect this trend to continue, so that 5 years from now, when someone suggests a new tool or technique I should look into, I’ll just run for the door with my hands covering my ears…