EPIC Innovations: Activities That Actualize Abstract Learning

Instructor Name: Bonnie Goff

Course Title: Introduction to Developmental Psychology
Department: Psychology
Enrollment: 300
Level: Undergraduate

General Category of Innovation: Engaging Students During Large Lectures

Description: This innovation is used in select lectures that include concepts that students can experience “in the moment.” The innovation involves a brief period of deception, as the instructor creates a situation in which students experience the concept viscerally, and then a debrief of the experience that allows students to connect their in-class experience to the abstract concept.

Rationale for Innovation

I adopted this innovation in response to a problem with a specific lecture. During the lesson dedicated to Piaget’s theories of development, students struggled to remain engaged and their grasp of the concept of disequilibration was often shaky.

Intended Effect of Innovation

One goal I had for this innovation was that students would remain more engaged during lecture, with fewer “checked out” faces, less distraction and multitasking, etc. I wanted the Piaget lecture to “come to life.” I hoped students would be more enthusiastic about the material and leave with a more solid understanding of the abstract concepts.

One Tip for Faculty Considering this Innovation

Although I implemented my “Activities that Actualize Abstract Learning” innovation in my large Psychology course, it can be used in any lesson that includes theoretical content that students can actually experience.

Some other examples include…

Statistics. To concretize the logic of rejecting the null hypothesis, the professor can conduct a simple experiment with a deck of cards that, unbeknownst to students, is rigged.  As the experiment unfolds in an increasingly improbable way, students instinctively revise their original hypothesis that the deck was fair. After the activity, the instructor explicitly connects students’ experience (of doubting their original assumption based on the evidence) to the logic of hypothesis testing.

Communications. To help students understand the concept of an audience-centered approach in public speaking, the instructor can begin the lecture by violating fundamental principles of this approach, but not telling the students that’s what’s going on. For example, assuming students have background knowledge they don’t have, using unfamiliar vocabulary, asking questions but not allowing students to respond, etc. During the debrief of this activity, students can connect their experience of the “lecture” with the theory of audience-centered approaches.

Business / Management. Students engage in the “marshmallow activity,” a group challenge that involves building a structure in a limited time. In so doing, they experience firsthand a key principle of design innovation: the importance of prototyping and iterative design. The debrief of this activity includes reflecting on why kindergartners tend to perform better on the task than business school graduates.

Resources for Faculty Considering this Innovation

  • “Lecturing”
    This site offers seven tips for structuring effective lectures; the sixth discusses the value of walking students a certain distance down the “wrong,” which is often part of activities that actualize abstract learning.

Research that Supports this Innovation