Lessons Learned

Faculty Development Committee

Lessons Learned

March 2001

Challenging Students to Apply Their Knowledge
By Cynthia L. Dulaney, Associate Professor,                   Department of Psychology

     Do your students ever ask, "Why do we need to learn these abstract theories?" or "How does this relate to the real world?" In my upper level cognitive psychology course (Psyc 427), I use a technique that helps students find their own answers to these questions, and I believe it could be adapted for use in other disciplines.  The technique is to give a comprehensive, thought-provoking, demanding exam, and the students love it.  Yes, it sounds incredible but read on.

     Students in my cognitive psychology course study topics that include attention, memory, problem solving, decision making, and creativity. During the semester they are presented with the major theories in each of these domains.  After presenting each theory, students are presented with the empirical evidence supporting and/or challenging the theory.  To assess students' knowledge of this type of information, traditional exams are given during the semester.  These exams include fact-based multiple-choice questions, definition-based short answer questions, and more integrative essay questions (e.g., compare and contrast two theories).  The last "traditional" exam occurs near the end of the semester, after we have covered all of the course topics.

     Although students have been presented with some applied examples throughout the semester, most of the lecture and discussion focus on theory and the related empirical evidence.  During the last week of class, students read a chapter discussing in more detail a few applications of cognitive psychology.  This discussion sets the stage for their take-home final exam, which is worth 20% of their course grade.  

          For the final exam, students are given a factual description of an incident (e.g., Union Carbide explosion in Bhopal, India in 1984; a trading computer error on Wall Street in 1992 that led to a $500 million loss; several deaths in 1986 due to a poorly designed radiotherapy machine).  These descriptions are from Steven Casey's (1998) book Set Phasers on Stun, and Other True Tales of Design, Technology, and Human Error.  The descriptions are based on Casey's compilations of news reports from publications such as Time, Newsweek, and local and national newspapers.

     After reading the description of the incident, students are asked to provide a written discussion (5-7 typed pages) of the incident.  They are asked to provide possible explanations for what happened and also possible remedies to prevent such an incident in the future.   Importantly, they must support their explanations and possible remedies with theories and empirical evidence we have discussed during the semester.

     Specifically, they are told to briefly describe a particular event or situation to which they are referring and then explain what happened in the context of cognitive theories we have discussed over the course of the semester.  Students are also told that there will likely be more than one causal situation that can be discussed.  Students can either pick two or three aspects of the accident to discuss, or they can pick one aspect to discuss and explain it from several different perspectives.  They are also encouraged to offer possible suggestions about designing the situation or environment to minimize or eliminate the errors that contributed to the accident.  Students are allowed to discuss their ideas with classmates.  As in the "real world", solutions to problems are typically the result of discussions and consultations among colleagues.  However, the students' final paper is to be written independently. 

     Students are told that there are no right or wrong answers to their discussion.   However, they are told that there can be well-written and conceptually articulate discussions and poorly written and non-conceptual discussions.  The former will earn them an A on the final, the latter will not.

     Students' initial reactions are typically mixed.  They range from "This is going to be really hard" to "This is going to be fun."  Based on student reports the first "hard" part is getting past the seemingly overwhelming task of considering the entire semester's worth of course content. I suggest that students review the major concepts in the course to determine those that are relevant to the situation they have to discuss.  This aspect of the assignment requires a "comprehensive" review of the course.  However, once a few relevant topics from the semester are chosen, I remind them that they need to focus on only those areas for an in depth analysis.

     One advantage of this assignment is that the students complete a comprehensive review of the semester without the negative sounding "comprehensive final exam."   The second advantage is that the students have to take a step or two beyond what we have covered in class.  They must ask themselves "How do I take the laboratory findings discussed in class and apply them to a real world scenario?"

     I have been very pleased with the end result. First, I enjoy grading this assignment more than any other.  Every student's conceptualization of the problem and possible solutions is different, which makes the reading interesting for me.  The content of the students' papers is varied and creative, yet still tied to basic empirical research.

     Second, students have consistently expressed their enjoyment in working on this applied exam.  Once over the initial shock of getting started, they report enjoying the task of taking theories and applying them to important real world problems.  Students report that the assignment "really made me think" about the topics covered during the semester.  They also report satisfaction at their sense that they now have the ability to "make a difference in the real world" based on something they learned in a theory-based course.  I have learned that students are not afraid of a challenge, especially when it is thought provoking and has some real-world application.

    Casey, S. (1998) Set Phasers on Stun, and Other True Tales of Design, Technology, and Human Error. Santa Barbara, CA: Aegean Publishing Company.


Cynthia L. Dulaney is an associate professor in the psychology department.

Contributors to the Lesson Learned series have been selected by their deans to share their experiences in the classroom, describing a teaching technique or exercise that they have found to be effective.

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