10 Active Learning Activities to Get Psychology Students Out of Their Seats

Introductory Psychology courses are filled with interesting concepts that can be demonstrated to students using methods other than lecture and reading. Here are a few activities I’ve put together over the last few years. They work great for high school and college classes.

(By guest blogger Joe Swope).

#1. Understanding Depth Perception using Echo Location

Have a student stand about 8 feet away from a brick wall or other wall with a hard flat surface (no posters, pictures, windows).  Then have the student hum or hold a note out loud as he or she walks toward the wall with EYES CLOSED.  Instruct the student to listen to the tone as he approaches the wall.  Without peeking, he will be able to get within an inch of the wall by sound alone.

#2. Where Rods and Cones Are and Aren’t

Have a student sit in a chair facing the class.  Have another student stand behind him with a handful of different colored pens or markers.  It doesn’t matter what the ink is, the outside of the pens need to have different colors.  Have the student who is standing behind the seated student slowly bring one of the colored pens around to the seated student’s peripheral vision.  Try to keep the colored pen about two feet away from the seated student’s head.  The seated student will be able to see movement but will not be able to determine the color of the pen.

#3. Classical conditioning

This one requires a teacher who paces during lectures and is not afraid of annoying the students.  For a few weeks before the unit on classical conditioning, the teacher should push the top of the pen of a student in the front row.  The instructor should do this for every student in the front row.  It is terribly annoying, but the instructor should do this a few times ever class before the unit on conditioning.  After only a few trials, the students will associate the instructors presence near their desks with pens being jostled.  As a result, after only a few classes of this the instructor can simply walk by each of the student’s desk and watch them automatically pick up their pen until the instructor has passed by.

Once the instructor reveals that students have been trained, a discussion should ensue as to whether it was classical conditioning or operant conditioning.  Note: Even though the students cognitively understand why their pens were annoyingly jostled, the effect is long lasting and students will pull their pen from the paper for weeks afterward.

#4. Conformity

Either wait for or construct a situation where a student leaves the room for a few minutes.  While he is outside of the classroom, instruct the other students to stand up when the student returns and sits in his seat.  As soon as the returning student sits down in his seat, he will see his classmates immediately rise.  For added effect, have the classmates rise with their notebooks and continue with the lecture.  Chances are the student will stand.

A less dramatic but a more sure effect is to have the students already standing when the student returns.  If class continues and the lecture proceeds with the rest of the class ignoring him, the returning student will blend in and remain standing.  Note: If the class is aware that the lesson is on conformity, the student might be wise to the gag.

#5. Serial Position Curve

Have the student put away pens and paper.  Ask them to remember as many words from the following list: giraffe, lion, tiger, rat, alligator, buffalo, eagle, ox, bear, beaver, mouse, cat, deer, fox, raccoon, opossum, rabbit, squirrel , elephant, cheetah. Take a moment to distract the student by reminding them of upcoming homework or by telling them a knock-knock joke.

Then, ask students to write down as many words as possible.  Give them a few minutes to wrack their brains.  Ask, by show of hands how many students remembered which words.  Tally student responses on the board.  Have students notice that the animals in the middle of the list were not remembered as much as the animals at the beginning and at the end of the list.

#6. Remembering by Schema

Have the student put away pens and paper.  Ask them to remember as many words from the following list: refrigerator, oven, cutting board, dishwasher, knife, pot holder, blender, spatula, toaster fork microwave, spoon, toaster, fork, stove, frying pan, dish towel, freezer.

Take a moment to distract the student by reminding them of upcoming homework or by telling them a knock-knock joke.  Then, ask students to write down as many words as possible.  Give them a few minutes to wrack their brains.  Ask, by show of hands how many students remembered refrigerator, how many remembered oven.  Hands will raise as students eagerly display their brilliance.  Then ask how many remembered sink.  A few students will raise their hands despite the fact that sink was never mentioned.

#7. Priming and “Reading Students’ Minds”

This one takes a little planning and works well for a lecture on consciousness.  On the day before the demonstration takes place, create baseline data by having student write down the first animal that pops in their head.  Collect the papers.  Then on the day in question and throughout the lecture, the instructor will lace his words with the theme of jungle cats.  It is a common school mascot and the teacher can remark ask about how the “Lions” did.  Or the instructor can ask about the Cincinnati football team and what the heck is a Bengal anyway.  Throughout the lecture the teacher might refer to Simba or Mufasa.  The teacher might remark about how he played golf on the “linx”.

After weaving such instances into his remarks, lectures and conversation, the instructor should then ask students to write down the first animal that springs to mind.  Collect the responses and explain how instances of big cats have been ‘subtly’ presented to the students.  Record the baseline data on the board from the previous day.  Record the current collection of student response on the board as well.  Check to see if there is a noticeable difference in responses that include big cats.

#8. Operant Conditioning Using Token Economy

The instructor should ask for two student volunteers.  One will be the trainee the other will be the trainer.  The trainee will need to step outside of the room for a few minute.  During that time, the class will determine what behavior the trainee will perform (standing on a desk, walking near a window, erasing the chalkboard, etc.).

When the trainee returns to class the only feedback he or she is given is the words hotter or colder.   Using these as makeshift punishments and rewards in a token economy the trainee will attempt behaviors in order to receive a “warmer” reward and avoid the punishment of “colder.”  This works remarkable well and it is surprising how easy it is to get an average student to do an abnormal behavior with the right system of rewards and punishments.

 #9. Speed of Neural Impulse

Generally, the neural unit comes after the unit on research methods, so this activity is a nice one to tie the two units together.   You will need a stop watch and a calculator. Have students stand up in a circle around the room.  Have each student use their right hand to grab the left wrist of a classmate.

Assign one person the job of starting the impulse.  Start the stopwatch at the same time you say “go.” He will then squeeze the wrist of the person to his right. As soon as that person feels the squeeze, he will then squeeze the left wrist of the other class mate and so on.  Have the last person in the circle say ‘stop’ when they feel the squeeze.  Stop the stop watch as soon has he says “stop”  record time on the board. Do this a few times and record the time for each trial.

For tie-ins to the neural unit, estimate or measure the arm length + shoulders + neck of each student.  Add that combined distance and divide by the time it took the signal to get around the circle.  That is an approximate speed for the neural transmission.

For the research tie-in, have your students predict what would happen if student grabbed the other wrist and reversed the direction. Test it. Have you students predict what would happen with eyes closed. Test it.  What are some confounding variables?  Are their biases?  The activity is flexible enough to be the start of quite a few subsequent activities, discussions and assignments.

#10. Taste Transduction and Spatial Coding

This one is the only tip that requires special material, a bag of Hersey Kisses.  Distribute a Kiss to each student.  Have them “dry” their tongue as much as possible.  One method, however awkward they might be, is to have students blot their tongues with a paper towel or napkin.

Once the tongue is free of saliva, have the students place the Kiss on the back of the tongue.  It is helpful to have students look up while doing this so saliva has a more difficult time reaching the tip of the tongue.  Most students will report that they feel the texture and weight of the candy, but they do not taste sweetness.  Some will report that they can smell the aroma of cocoa but cannot taste chocolate.  Eventually the saliva will carry chocolate molecules to the front of the tongue and the students will taste sweetness.

Today’s guest post is contributed by SAGrader user Joe Swope, a psychology teacher in the Washington D.C. metro area who is always exploring ways to teach beyond the lecture and textbook. Joe has a strong track record developing creative ways to engage students with psychology, including a novel that meshes fantasy and social psychology, and a curated collection of psychology-related videos.

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