fill in the blank

How can you make your teaching relevant to hundreds of students? Each person in the room brings an individual set of experiences that may vary wildly from the student sitting right next to them. On the other hand, there’s always some common ground (i.e., pop culture) that’s most likely recognizable for the majority of the group. Though it’s tempting to rely solely on sitcom-style references, assuming the entire classroom has a shared background often excludes some students from the learning experience. The question remains: How can you engage a diverse crowd?

Fortunately, I’m interested in psychology (the study of mind, brain, and behavior) and that’s pretty much relevant to everyone. It’s safe to assume your students all have brains, and have interacted to some degree with other humans. Still, the ability to personalize material for students is important. While you’re delivering a passionate lecture on your niche area of interest, your students might be thinking about the football game on Saturday. One way to engage students is with class participation and fill-in-the-blank style activities.

For example, below is an activity I made for an introductory psychology course at UW-Madison. The class answered questions together aloud via volunteers, but each student was encouraged to think of examples that were meaningful to their personal experiences. By answering these questions aloud, students learn that rote memorization isn’t always the best strategy. Moreover, they discover what they have in common with their classmates (e.g., Oh, you have that same chemistry TA!) and appreciate unique experiences (e.g., the smell of car tires was a strong conditioned stimulus for one student, because their mom worked at a Farm and Fleet).

Classical Conditioning:

Unconditioned Stimulus   ->    Unconditioned Response

e.g. coffee (caffeine)                           e.g. feel awake (arousal)

Conditioned Stimulus        ->    Conditioned Response

e.g. sound of coffee maker               e.g. feel awake (arousal)

Draw the strength of a conditioned response across a period of time. What does extinction look like? What does spontaneous recovery look like?


Operant Conditioning:

(1) Behavior – e.g. When I’m on the bus, I wear headphones, and read a book.

(2) Effect on Environment – e.g. Nobody is able to engage me in conversation.

(3) Effect on You – e.g. I feel less anxious, because I’m in my own world.

 (+) (-) Reinforcement and Punishment (-) (+)

Reinforcement aims to increase the behavior. Punishment aims to decrease the behavior.

Positive Reinforcement – give something good

e.g. When I finish a long study session, I treat myself to a hot cocoa.

Negative Reinforcement – remove something bad

e.g. My TA gives quizzes every week unless everyone gets a C or better on the exam.

Positive Punishment – give something bad

e.g. When I’m studying, I add a minute of study time when I get a vocabulary term wrong.

Negative Punishment – remove something good

e.g. If I don’t finish my reading for the night, I don’t get to go on Facebook.


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