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.
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
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
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.
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
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
the students' final paper is to be written independently.
are told that there are no right or wrong answers to their
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
S. (1998) Set Phasers on Stun, and Other True Tales of Design,
Technology, and Human Error. Santa Barbara, CA: Aegean
L. Dulaney is an associate professor in the psychology department.
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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