20 Jun 2017

Psychology Offers Many Options When It’s Time to Take a Different Direction

Psychology Offers Many Options When It’s Time to Take a Different Direction
Patricia Arredondo, EdD, had been working as an assistant professor for three years at Boston University when she realized she had to re-route her career plans. Even though she had a strong track record of publications and was leading a three-year federally funded grant, a professor told her she was not going to get tenure.

The news rattled her confidence, but also fueled her motivation to seek out alternatives. So, she attended career planning workshops and evaluated her interests and skills. At a guided meditation at one of the workshops, Arredondo imagined what she wanted to be doing in 10 years, and envisioned a job that would allow more creativity and interaction with the public.

That reflection led her to launch Empowerment Workshops Inc., a consulting business focused on helping companies create and implement a diversity strategy in the workplace, often working to increase the presence of women and ethnic minorities. "Each time it was like working with a new client in therapy because every organization had a different narrative to tell, and the variety gave me an opportunity to be creative and adaptable," she says.

Arredondo later returned to academia when she was ready for another transition, and eventually moved into administrative roles at several universities. Her latest position was president of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Chicago campus.

Arredondo's story is just one example of a psychologist who for one reason or another decided to make a career change.

"We all experience some type of work transition whether we choose it or not," says Patrick Rottinghaus, PhD, an associate professor of counseling psychology at the University of Missouri in Columbia. "The occupational landscape is different now than in the past. Most people shift careers multiple times."

Some are forced to make changes involuntarily when there are layoffs, an organization closes or senior workers are asked to retire, says Nadya Fouad, PhD, chair of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Some make subtle changes by, for example, moving from one practice specialty area to another. Others retire and take on psychology-related volunteer work. Others voluntarily opt to revamp their careers when they start feeling restless or want to gain new expertise.

"Most people who choose to make a change voluntarily have been thinking about it for a long time," says Sue Motulsky, EdD, associate professor of counseling and psychology at Lesley University in Massachusetts. "They may start noticing signs of burnout, such as loss of interest in what they're doing, mistakes and lack of judgment or increased impatience."

Whatever the reasons may be for contemplating a new direction, the prospect of making a career shift can be daunting. Here's some advice from experts in vocational psychology and psychologists who have successfully navigated a transition.

See a career counselor

The process of career transition is not easy, and it is especially difficult to do in isolation, says Motulsky, who maintains a private practice in career counseling in addition to her work as a professor. "This is almost impossible to do by yourself, and a counselor will help you start the journey of exploring your options."

A counselor can provide self-assessment inventories that will tease out vocational interests, skills, values and life roles, which all come into play when making a career change, explains Rottinghaus. Motulsky also encourages psychologists to consider seeing a career counselor who has a doctorate because he or she will understand what is involved in earning this degree and how that investment of time and money can influence career decisions.

Listening to your frustration can be good

Sherry Benton, PhDSherry Benton, PhD, felt overwhelmed by the demands of directing a university counseling center, but her frustration took her in a different direction.

"I really liked doing therapy and working with students, but I found it intolerable that we didn't have the capacity to treat everyone who needed help," says Benton, who directed the Counseling & Wellness Center at the University of Florida. "If we made students wait a month for an appointment, that could have a significant impact on their well-being."

She searched for models to increase access and capacity, and discovered a tool in Australia that used brief phone contact with a therapist and online educational modules to teach cognitive behavioral strategies. She created her own version of the program, which included interactive online education and a dashboard that enabled therapists to track a patient's progress. For example, therapists could see details of patient entries in the interactive exercises and how patients were rating their behavioral health at different points in time. She tried the new model at the wellness center, and it was so successful that she started a business to market the product.

Benton hired four employees, and TAO (Therapist Assisted Online) officially launched in July 2015. TAO offers online tools for client education, interaction, accountability and progress assessment. For example, the modules include animation and real actors portraying situations that clients can relate to as well as interactive exercises.

"It's really scary and completely worth it," Benton says. "It's satisfying to pursue your dream and make it happen, but it's not easy. I would describe it as a mix of elation and terror."

Be honest with yourself

Robert Youmans, PhD and familyRobert Youmans, PhD, started his career as an assistant professor specializing in applied cognition, but he slowly discovered that the world of academia what not what he had envisioned. Although he enjoyed teaching—first at California State University, Northridge, then at George Mason University in Virginia—it was difficult to find funding in his area of interest, design thinking and processes.

Living on a faculty salary was also trying, and he started consulting on the side to supplement his income. He founded Human Factors Design Consulting and worked with companies that needed his expertise in user experience research. The work was lucrative, and he enjoyed building new products. "It was an odd experience," he says. "On one hand, I had more work offers coming in from companies than I had time to accept, but at the same time I had trouble getting funding to study those areas within academia."

He made numerous contacts through his business, and they would often suggest that he apply for full-time positions at their companies, but he wasn't ready to leave academia. Finally, in 2013 he was open to a career change. He and his wife were expecting their first child, which elevated his sense of financial responsibility. In 2014, he accepted a position as a user-experience researcher in a product area called Streams, Photos and Sharing at Google.

"When I was younger I had these romantic notions of what it meant to be a professor, but the day-to-day of being a professor wasn't always what I had hoped it would be," Youmans says. He knew he would miss teaching, and was nervous about leaving his colleagues and job security, but he hasn't looked back. "Now I'm doing interesting and rigorous science research—and I earn many times what I earned in academia," he says.

Be open to change

Andrew Adler, EdD, had worked as a school psychologist in Nashville, Tennessee, for 28 years when he started considering retirement. He was surprised when a recruiter called to see if he was interested in a job as a mental health clinical director contracted to the Tennessee Department of Correction. He had experience working with students whose parents were incarcerated, and had previously consulted as a psychologist in the Tennessee prison system. So, recognizing he had the right background, he accepted the job in 2012.

"School psychology set me up well for working in a prison," Adler says. "Prisons, like schools, serve all of society and have people with a range of social problems and diagnoses. Inmates are ripe for remedial and rehabilitative support."

Like Adler, Joyce Jadwin, PsyD, started working in the prison system a few years ago. Unlike him, it was her first full-time job as a psychologist. She managed a program for female sex offenders in Ohio, but after a year in the role she realized the work was not a match with her interests.

"I wanted to use skills beyond being an individual provider," says Jadwin, who had worked as a college administrator before she earned her doctorate in psychology. "I was used to making independent decisions and influencing policy and procedure."

Jadwin applied for a role as assistant director of faculty development in the medical school at Ohio University, and got the job. "My psychology training allows me to bring a clinical perspective to my role, which gives me credibility with physicians because I understand what they are going through in the medical world."

Start now

Although it's natural to implement many of these strategies when a job transition is imminent, Rottinghaus urges psychologists to take time to nurture career development each year. He often uses Jane Goodman's "Dental Model," which advises people to conduct a career check-up annually, like a regular visit to the dentist. Taking time regularly to evaluate job satisfaction and reiterate long-term goals can reduce the chances of frustration later, he says.

"Strategically engage with mentors over time, even when times are good," Rottinghaus says. "Once you get out into the workforce, nurture those mentoring relationships so you can articulate your professional objectives. Mentors are there to provide support, and they may have connections if you need to transition into another role or setting."

Without such strategies and an overall plan to guide them, people are at risk of letting others define their career trajectories and reacting to events rather than defining their own future, he says. In fact, most people who make a career transition wish they had done it sooner, says Motulsky.

"If you let yourself explore different options that you are drawn to, you may discover something that will make life more satisfying and meaningful," she says. "I've seen many people go through the career process and find a job that makes them far happier, which is important because most people spend a lot of time at work."

Ready for a change?

  1. Talk to a career counselor to guide you through self-assessment.
  2. Listen to your frustrations since they can lead you to new paths.
  3. Do a gut check. Is this really what you want in your life?
  4. Don't wait. Most people who make a switch wish they had done it sooner.

By Heather Stringer


This article was originally published in the September 2016 Monitor on Psychology

Did you find this article useful?

0 0
23 May 2017

A Collection of Educational Psychology Articles Booklet

A Collection of Educational Psychology Articles Booklet

Psychologists working in the field of education study how people learn and retain knowledge. Their research unlocks clues about the way people process information that can help every student learn.

This booklet, A Collection of Educational Psychology Articles from APA Journals, zeroes in on a range of educational issues from student challenges in learning mathematics to improving teacher-student relationships.

If you enjoy these articles, don’t stop here. APA’s Journals Program maintains a database of hundreds of papers on educational psychology. And as an APA member, you enjoy highly discounted access that enables you to explore these and other research topics online at www.apa.org/pubs/journals.

 

Did you find this booklet interesting or useful?

5 1
23 May 2017

Crossing Cultural Borders with Kenneth Wang

Crossing Cultural Borders with Kenneth Wang
Ken Wang
APA Fellow Kenneth Wang's interests include perfectionism, cross-national psychological adjustment, cross-cultural and multicultural psychology, and Asian and Asian American mental health.

Kenneth Wang, PhD, now based in Pasadena, Calif., struggled to navigate two cultures growing up. Born and raised in Taiwan, he spent five years in Tuscaloosa, Ala., as a young boy. Even today, Wang says, "I'm not 100 percent comfortable" in either China or the United States.

From his experience, Wang is convinced that leaving one culture behind to live in another, even temporarily, can shake a person's identity. His sense of the potential impact of that common transition has shaped his work. An associate professor in the School of Psychology at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., Wang specializes in educational counseling, and he does much of his research with students. He also has a private practice.

"I've conceptualized crossing cultural borders as experiencing loss — the loss of relevant knowledge and a sense of belonging," he says. "This is not an original idea, but I draw on my own experience and observations of that."

Wang and his colleagues have specifically addressed the adjustment trajectories of hundreds of international students in the United States, as well as factors that might affect their transitions, like perfectionistic tendencies. He's also studied the constellation of traits that can help students find their feet, which has been dubbed cultural intelligence, or CQ. His research shows that some students fret most before they ever leave home; others are blindsided by culture shock, then adjust. ​​Yet another group suffers psychological distress that's more about them as individuals than their transition to another culture.

"International students are not all alike in the way they adjust" to new situations, Wang says. He'd like to be part of an effort to identify and encourage supports to help students and other visitors, refugees and immigrants achieve "belongingness" quickly in their new societies.

Wang is also known for his work assessing perfectionism among individuals in different groups. These are not necessarily people from other countries; for example, he has looked at perfectionism and identity issues in African-American and religious students as well.​ Still, these people can experience a tremendous amount of stress when mainstream values conflict with those of the subculture they grew up in.

The child of professor parents, Wang lived in Tuscaloosa between the ages of 5 and 10 while his father pursued a PhD at the University of Alabama. Wang was the first Asian student ever to attend his Tuscaloosa elementary school. When soccer teams formed along racial lines, the white kids versus the black kids, it was up to him to decide which team to join. He felt he didn't fit in, and he experienced some bullying, he says. His struggles continued even after his return to Taiwan. While he looked like everyone else, "I felt different. I didn't know the songs or games, and I struggled to learn to read and write Chinese, to fit in, to function in that cultural context. I thought there was something wrong with me," he says.

A number of basic values were different as well, Wang says. "Self-promotion is critical in the United States," for example, but humility is important in Taiwan. And always, Wang was held to tough standards, no matter where he was.

For Asians and Asian-Americans, perfectionism is "not just individual but collectivistic," he says. Instructors in Asian schools tend to "focus on where people have gone wrong, where they can improve," in contrast with mainstream American society, which may try to reinforce "feeling good about yourself," even if a student's performance is below par. Asian students have a "more realistic view" of how they're doing and "where they fit in," Wang says, but the Asian approach can take a toll. Even if the culture views the student's distress as constructive, the individual may not get much satisfaction from his or her own success, which can lead to anxiety and depression.

As an adult, Wang worked for years in business, first in marketing and then in planning, until he noticed he was more interested in a colleague's marital problems than in his work. The most frustrating part of that for Wang was that he wasn't able to offer any helpful advice.

His future wife was taking a counseling class as part of her education curriculum, and introduced him to the idea of empathy, "of being in another person's shoes, and reflecting," he recalls. That changed his life. Wang decided to go into a helping profession and came back to the United States, to Wheaton College, a small Christian school in Wheaton, Ill. Deciding against the ministry, he got a master's degree in counseling. When he finished, he returned to Taiwan and went to work in the Disability Resources Center at National Dong Hwa University in Hualien.

But counseling in Taiwan was not what it might have been in the United States. Wang had few clients and his time was taken up with administrative work. "I might as well have stayed in business," he says. Restless again, looking at various PhD programs, he noticed that at Pennsylvania State University in State College, some professors were studying perfectionism, including Robert Slaney, PhD, who had created the influential Almost Perfect Scale–Revised.

"That resonated with me," Wang recalls. The high standards he had grown up with, the "constant striving and pressure to perform well" made him want "to learn more about how that impacts a person." Wang's first publication, in 2006, was a paper he wrote with Slaney on perfectionism among Taiwanese students.

For Wang, his present job at the seminary affords him the opportunity to continue to explore cross-cultural differences, but with the added benefit of being able to travel to China several times a year. Fuller has strong ties to China and Taiwan through its China Initiative ministry, and that connection offers research and other collaborative opportunities.

Wang says, "Psychology encourages us to be who we are, and accepting of who we are. I've come to accept that I'm a cross-cultural person."

Did you find this article interesting?

44 0
28 Apr 2017

Untenured and Untethered: Replacing Tenure-track Faculty with Adjuncts

Untenured and Untethered: Replacing Tenure-track Faculty with Adjuncts
Susie Sympson, PhD, began her career as a grocery store clerk. When an injury forced her to quit and she returned to school, she began dreaming of getting a PhD and becoming a professor. She achieved her goal, earning a University of Kansas doctorate in clinical psychology and becoming an academic.

Her dream didn't turn out as expected, however.

Sympson has been an adjunct psychology professor at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas, for the last 11 years. With an annual salary of just $21,000 for three classes a semester plus one in the summer, she hasn't put a dent in the principal of her $500-a-month student loan debt. And with such low pay, saving anything for retirement has been impossible.

"There's a lack of respect for our training and for us as colleagues," says Sympson. "The administration acts like adjuncts are a dime a dozen."

Sympson's case is far from unusual. Non-tenure-track professors now represent more than 70 percent of the academic workforce, according to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). As tenure-track jobs give way to what some call higher education's "adjunctification," it isn't just adjuncts who are suffering. The trend also has ramifications for student learning, research and even academic freedom.

Set up to fail

While many assume that economic factors are forcing schools to use adjuncts, the contingent workforce has grown fastest during boom times, says AAUP. Instead of investing in a tenured workforce, AAUP says, schools have invested in technology and facilities. Noting the low pay, long hours, long commutes, instability and lack of benefits, professional support and opportunities for advancement, a 2014 report by the U.S. House of Representatives describes adjuncts as "the working poor."

What happens when students are taught by professors struggling to make a living? A 2014 review of the evidence by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation cites lower graduation and retention rates and decreased transfers from two-year to four-year institutions. Those outcomes aren't the fault of adjuncts but of the last-minute hiring decisions, lack of office space and other supports and other working conditions adjuncts typically face.

That inability to perform to their highest potential can weigh heavily on adjuncts, says Gretchen M. Reevy, PhD, a lecturer in psychology at California State University, East Bay, who credits her union for making adjuncts like her some of the country's luckiest.

In a study of non-tenure-track faculty, Reevy and co-author Grace Deason, PhD, a University of Wisconsin La Crosse assistant psychology professor, found that adjuncts most committed to their school were more likely to suffer stress, anxiety and depression (Frontiers in Psychology, 2014). Other risk factors included low income, inability to find permanent positions and coping mechanisms rooted in denial or giving up.

And being adjuncts renders faculty less able to influence their institutions' administrations, adds Reevy. Adjuncts are typically excluded from governance bodies, so the growing preponderance of adjuncts means faculty have less sway.

"A lot of people aren't involved in curriculum decisions and so forth," she says. "The power is shifting from faculty to the administration."

Research suffers, too, according to an AAUP report. Doing research requires stability and continuity—luxuries many adjuncts lack given their year-to-year or even semester-to-semester appointments, the report emphasizes. In addition, adjuncts often cobble together jobs at multiple institutions or take on extra classes to make ends meet, so they have little time for research. Plus, institutions may not grant adjuncts access to laboratories or even libraries and often exclude them from professional development opportunities.

"Most people with PhDs want to do scholarly work," says Reevy, who has been teaching 10 to 13 classes a year for more than two decades. "It's a waste of their talent."

Realistic expectations

It's hard to know how many psychology professors are adjuncts, says Eddy Ameen, PhD, who heads APA's Office on Early Career Psychologists. For many, especially practitioners, being an adjunct is "a helpful but minor secondary source of income," he says. Ameen himself is an adjunct professor, a side gig that allows him to keep a hand in academia.

The American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS) is trying to determine how many recent grads are struggling as adjuncts, says Joanna Streck, a University of Vermont clinical psychology graduate student who serves on APAGS's Science Committee. She invites adjuncts to email her about their experiences at apags@apa.org.

Although advocates are working to change the system via living wage campaigns, unionizing efforts and calls to create teaching-oriented tenure-track positions, being realistic about your prospects is key, says Nabil El-Ghoroury, PhD, associate executive director of APAGS. "Students are being trained for positions that just don't exist anymore," he says.

Instead, he urges academically minded students to consider what used to be called "alternative" careers that will allow them to use their research skills in nonacademic settings. "When half of doctorates may not end up in academic settings anymore, they're no longer 'alternative' careers," he says.

Sympson agrees. "There's no way this represents any kind of a future," she says.

By Rebecca A. Clay


Did you find this article useful?

2 0
26 Apr 2017

Gregory Ball and the Adaptiveness of Behavior

Gregory Ball and the Adaptiveness of Behavior
Gregory Ball
APA Fellow Gregory Ball has spent most of his academic career studying animals and birds, and using the findings to develop understanding about the human brain and behavior.

Growing up, Gregory Ball, PhD, learned a lot about birds from his father, who did his undergraduate and graduate studies in zoology. “He wanted to be an ornithologist,” he recalls, speaking to the American Psychological Association from his office at the University of Maryland, where he is a professor and dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Science and APA Fellow.

That experience helped shape Ball’s own future interest and research on the interrelation of hormones, the brain, and reproductive behavior. By studying nonhuman animals, in Ball’s case birds, “you can study relationships between the brain and physiology in a way that you can’t in primates and humans,” he said.

In his lab at the University of Maryland, his team is studying how the perception of song induces gene expression in the brain of birds and how early experience with different kinds of song might affect that gene expression. They also recently published a study looking at how hormones interact with the dopamine system to affect sexual motivation. “Hormones do their work by modulating neurotransmitters and we’re trying to understand the circuit that they interact with to do that,” he said. According to the study, the projection from the preoptic area of the brain to the ventral tegmental area, where the dopamine of one of four major dopamine systems originates, to the accumbens, which plays a significant role in the cognitive processing of aversion, motivation, reward, and reinforcement learning, is very important in that process.

One of the Ball’s favorite recent findings to come out of his lab is related to steroids. “People think that a steroid has a very general effect on behavior – that it just makes you more motivated, or stimulated to do something,” Ball said enthusiastically.

“And we’ve done experiments where we’ve put tiny amounts of hormones or hormone blockers on the brain and we’ve shown that hormones actually act in multiple parts of the brain in specific ways to modulate behavior. For instance, the desire to sing is controlled in one part of the brain, but the control of how well you produce song in a temporal fashion is modulated in another part of the brain.”

Ball first got swept up in the studies of brain function and behavior in animals while studying at Columbia University. He took his introduction to psychology course with Dr. Herbert S. Terrace, who, among other things, led the famous study of animal language acquisition in the chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky. Ball began working with Terrace, who had studied under B.F. Skinner, the year after he began working with Chimpsky. He was intrigued by the studies of brain function and behavior in animals at Columbia (along with the then-contentious, now-settled debate between behavioral and cognitive psychologists) and began his longtime specialization in experimenting on pigeons.

Under Terrace, they employed the Skinnerian approach, which doesn’t take into the account private events – like thinking, perceptions, and unobservable emotions – as causes of an organism’s behavior. Ball said he sensed something was missing in studying the pigeons this way.

“They didn’t know if they were males or females, they didn’t know anything about pigeons. They were just animals that you put in the box and you saw how the stimuli affected them. And this is that Skinnerian notion that the organism didn’t really matter – that the contingencies of reinforcement were so powerful that the same thing that happens in a pigeon could be programmed to happen in [other animals].”

Despite disagreeing with the Skinnerian approach, he learned in his early work in Terrace’s lab that he could parse and further understand many topics related to the brain and behavior by looking at nonhuman animals. He began to understand the potential for studying animals other than humans and use the findings to develop understanding about the human brain and behavior.

Around that time, he met Dr. Rae Silver, who had just come to Columbia University and was studying the parental behavior of doves in their natural habitat. He became her first research assistant at the university, which he said was a key event in his career as a psychologist.

“It was another milestone in my career because I realized ‘Oh, this is it!’ You study the animal on its own terms, you study the natural behavior of the animal, and try to glean what you can about the general principles of physiology and the brain related to behavior,” Ball said. “And that’s when I sort of saw that by studying these relationships in animals, you can understand the evolution, the adaptiveness of behavior and put it in the broader natural context.”

After his formative years at Columbia, he earned a PhD in psychobiology at Rutgers University, and completed his postdoctoral work in comparative neuroendocrinology and ethology at Rockefeller University. Prior to getting hired by the University of Maryland in 2014, he taught at Rutgers, Boston College, and Johns Hopkins University.
Today, as dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Science, much of his time is filled with administrative tasks, but he still finds time to pop over to the lab and check on his staff’s research while sharing encouraging stories to inspire the next generation of academics to follow their dreams.

One story he always enjoys retelling is about growing up right down the street from the University of Maryland and how on one summer break from his studies at Columbia, he took a job cutting the institution’s grass.

 “[I tell them] I used to mow the lawn of the building that I’m now dean of,” he says with a chuckle.

Did you find this article interesting?

0 2
24 Oct 2016

Teaching Confirmation Bias Using The Beatles

Teaching Confirmation Bias Using The Beatles

Help your students understand and avoid cognitive errors.

By John A. Minahan, PhD

Confirmation bias is the original sin of cognition. In seeking proof for only what we’ve already decided is true, we open ourselves to unlimited errors of thought. Maybe I’m amazed at my horoscope's accuracy. That seems innocuous enough. But maybe I’m also disgusted, yet not surprised, by the behavior of a particular ethnic or religious group, or convinced that mounting casualty rates prove the imminence of victory in a war my nation is waging. Confirmation bias is a serious subject. That doesn't mean, however, that you can’t have fun teaching about it. In fact, a bit of fun may be just what your students need to loosen its hold.

A (good-natured) dirty trick. Confirmation bias usually gets a big assist from "not me" thinking. Begin this lesson, then, without appearing to. Casually mention how you went to the store the other day and got stuck in the slow line. Grumble about the other line always moving faster, then stand back and watch. Most if not all students will have a story about the same thing happening to them. Nod sympathetically and move on; you’ll come back to this later.

“Paul is dead.” Today's students love The Beatles, whose music now has all the fuzzy warmth of things associated with (gulp) grandparents. Vinyl records will make this lesson even more retro and cool. Play "Strawberry Fields Forever," in which John Lennon remembers the park where he played as a child. At the very end, we hear a distorted and barely audible voice. Play this brief segment several times and ask the class what the voice is saying. Answers will likely range from "I'm very bored" to "cranberry sauce" to a declaration that it’s just gibberish. Wrong. The voice is saying, "I buried Paul."

Some students will hear it; some won't. The key thing is that millions of people did, and for good reason: Paul McCartney, who had given the world such brilliant and beloved songs as "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby," died in a car crash in 1966. The surviving Beatles tried to keep it a secret, and even put an imposter in his place. But by 1969 the truth began to leak out, largely because The Beatles themselves, out of guilt-driven loyalty to their fans, had been planting clues.

If a few class members already know this legend, they can help you reassure the rest not only that Paul is still very much with us but also that The Beatles never dropped any hints about his death. What then gave this rumor such widespread acceptance? Once this question is on the table, so is an examination of confirmation bias.

The "proof." There’s a wealth of sources you can draw on (a representative list follows this article). Begin with the cover of the Abbey Road album. In this iconic image, we see the four of The Beatles crossing a London Street. Invite the class to view it as a funeral procession. In the front is John, whose white suit marks him as God. Ringo follows, wearing a preacher’s old-fashioned frock coat. After him comes Paul — or the Paul lookalike, wearing the kind of conservative suit you'd see on a corpse dressed for burial. He's out of step with the others (aha) and shoeless (the dead don't need shoes) and holding a cigarette (often called a “coffin nail”) in his right hand (Paul was left-handed). George is last, appropriately, because his work shirt and jeans indicate he’s the gravedigger.

Nearby, a Volkswagen has a license plate that reads LMW 28IF, which means "Linda McCartney Weeps" (Linda was Paul’s wife) and that Paul would be 28 if he were still alive. The police car on the other side of the road symbolizes the law enforcement officials at the scene of the fatal accident. How do we know Paul died in a car crash? Look at the car parked ahead of the Volkswagen and imagine a line connecting its two right tires; when extended, that line goes through Paul’s head.

By now, you should be hearing comments ranging from "Aren’t you just finding what you want to find?" (which is good) to "Yeah, I sort of see it" (which is better). Offer more proof: On the album’s back cover, some tiles on a concrete wall spell out "Beatles." A cluster of smudges appears to the left. Connect these “dots” and you get the number 3: Only three Beatles are still living. The tile containing the "s" in Beatles has a crack in it, meaning the band is no longer united — and hasn’t been for years. Remember the "I buried Paul" line? Now that we know what to look for, we can find clues aplenty, as many fans did when they pored over album covers, parsed song lyrics and played Beatles songs faster or slower or even (and most notoriously) backwards.

Fact and reason. Hopefully, your students will point out that it's possible to hear just about anything when the words are distorted enough, just as it’s possible to find proof if you've already decided what's true. Try passing out the words to any Beatles song. For example, "Love Me Do" expresses a wish for "somebody new" and "someone like you" — clearly a reference to the band’s need for a lookalike replacement. Except for this problematic fact: The song was composed years before Paul’s “death.”

More facts: the rumor began as a prank article in a college newspaper. The Abbey Road cover came about because The Beatles, having increasing trouble working together, decided on a simple shot of them crossing the street near their recording studio. Paul was barefoot because it was a hot day. The LMW 28IF license would encode no message about Linda McCartney weeping because Paul and Linda hadn't even met in 1966, the year he supposedly died. Plus he was 27 in 1969, and the "I" in "28IF" is a one.

How about some reasonable criteria for an imposter? Looking like Paul would be the easy part. He would also have to sing like Paul, and walk and talk and smile in that adorable way like Paul and compose instantly hummable tunes like Paul. Oh, and play bass. Left-handed. Which returns us to the key question: Why did so many people put so much faith in something so unfounded?

Follow-Up Activities

  1. Research The Beatles and their times. Maybe it was easier for their millions of long-time fans to believe in tragedy and conspiracy than in the truth: As Paul himself told Life magazine, he was "not dead, but the Beatle thing is over." And the band did in fact plant "secret" messages in their album art and music, albeit at random and in a whimsical mood just to see if anyone would notice; hence the distorted phrase at the end of "Strawberry Fields Forever" (which actually is “cranberry sauce”). Also, given that this rumor of death and cover-up was most virulent in America, and given that Vietnam was happening and Watergate was looming, perhaps the credulity becomes less incredible.
  2. Invent a rumor about a celebrity and then find the "proof." To counter the morbid tone of the Paul-is-dead legend, and to make this rumor feel all the more attractive, focus on something we might wish for instead of something we dread.
  3. Connect these discussions to more pressing or far-reaching scenarios. For example, a student believes that the C+ she just got on her algebra quiz proves she can’t do math. Having already decided she's a failure, would she not draw the same conclusion from an A-? Imagine then the healing effect of freeing herself from confirmation bias. This discussion may also lead to some complex and controversial issues involving race, religion, politics, ideology and morals. If handled with intelligence and sensitivity, such a discussion will help students not only generate testable hypotheses but also experience the compassion and empathy that critical thinking can elicit.
  4. Watch the live feed from the "Abbey Road Crossing Cam," which makes for strangely compelling viewing. The camera faces a different direction, but it's the same crosswalk. Generally, no more than a few minutes will elapse before someone stops in the middle of the street to be photographed recreating the famous scene, often to the clear annoyance of London drivers.
  5. Ensure no one leaves this lesson feeling judgmental ("Not me") by reminding students of their "other line always moves faster" discussion at the start of class. Why do we think that? Could it be we look for proof only during those few times when our line is moving slower and don’t look for proof during the many more times our line is not moving slower? The nonnormative is perceived as normative because the normative is not perceived at all. That is, the very rarity of the event makes it feel as if it happens continually — yet one more way in which confirmation bias creates its own reality. What if we could change that? We all engage in confirmation bias, which means we can all do something about it. "You say you want a revolution?” The Beatles asked. "You better free your mind."

Interested in Education? Read our collection of articles on Education curated specially for APA members and affiliates.

Did you find this post useful?

0 0
24 Oct 2016

Think Like a Scientist: Harnessing Current Events to Teach Psychological Science

Think Like a Scientist: Harnessing Current Events to Teach Psychological Science

Try these critical thinking activities to foster scientific literacy.

Every day the news media trumpet psychology-related findings with the potential to affect our lives directly and indirectly. And we do mean every day.

  • "Testing Neurons With Ultrasound" (Gorman, 2015).
  • "Study Does Not Link Breast-Feeding With Child’s IQ" (Bakalar, 2015).
  • "Effectiveness of Talk Therapy is Overstated, a Study Says" (Carey, 2015).

These headlines are just a sample from the website of one newspaper, The New York Times, on one day. In fact, the talk therapy article listed here even elicited a letter from the American Psychological Association pointing out that this article “was minimizing the clear benefits of psychotherapy that have been found over many years of research” (Anton, 2015), leading to an online dialog about psychology research. The media and other Internet sources, with their abundance of psychology-related material, provide a perfect proving ground for teaching scientific literacy.

A major goal of our courses — especially introductory psychology — is to teach students to be strong critical thinkers about psychology-related claims. This approach fits with current emphasis on teaching skills, and not just content, in the psychology classroom (see APA, 2013). In our opinion, the most important of these skills is scientific literacy.

To do this, we look to the growing body of research on how to teach scientific literacy. Most importantly, active learning, broadly defined, has been demonstrated to lead to better outcomes than straight lecture (Freeman, Eddy, McDonough, Smith, Okoroafor, Jordt, & Wenderoth, 2014). More specifically, Lovett and Greenhouse applied cognitive psychology research to the teaching of statistical and research methods concepts and developed several principles of effective teaching (2000). They found that students do not readily generalize new learning to other contexts. They also found that students tend to learn best when they can integrate new information into what they already know.

To help students build on what they know, we repeatedly dissect media examples so students apply psychological science to a variety of contexts. We start each class meeting by asking students to find psychology-related stories online — in major newspapers, on sports blogs, in political statements or even fashion e-zines. (For students without a connected device, we allow sharing. Alternatively, students can find an article before class.) There are only two rules: The article must be from the last 24 hours to demonstrate that psychology-related stories emerge every day, and it can’t be from a psychology-specific source like Psychology Today; it’s too easy when every story is related to psychology.

Without exception, students readily locate multiple examples — even in news sources that might seem far afield. Some are based on actual scientific research, like those in the headlines we opened with, whereas others are somewhat suspect, like the supposed relation of lipstick color to personality (Schultz, 2015) or tennis star Serena Williams’s superstitious belief in not washing her socks while on a winning streak (Brodie, 2014).

As instructors, we save the best of both scientific and not-so-scientific examples in our e-folders for the relevant introductory psychology chapter. Once a week, we engage in a longer-form exercise in which we introduce one example that offers opportunities for active learning. Over a 20- or 30-minute period, we use a four-part framework in which students:

  1. Identify the claim the researchers or journalists are making.
  2. Evaluate the evidence that is cited to support the claim.
  3. Consider alternative explanations for the finding.
  4. Consider the source of the research or claim.

Here’s a recent “ripped from the headlines” example. (For each step, we’ll include instructor preparation information.) A The New York Times blog post published on the same day as the articles listed above asked “Does Mindfulness Make for a Better Athlete?” (Reynolds, 2015). The reporter concluded that the study's findings “could mean that closely attending to our bodies might help us to be better, calmer athletic performers.”

Identify the Claim

In class, students read the article and identify the claim — in this case, that mindfulness improves athletic performance. At this step, we include a related interactive component. In fact, we choose articles that lend themselves to an activity. In this case, we might have students discuss in pairs their own anxieties about performance, whether in an athletic, artistic or academic endeavor. We would introduce some mindfulness techniques and have students practice them in the context of their own example. We might follow with a larger class discussion about how mindfulness might help performance.

As part of identifying the claim, we also ask students to talk about how the researchers have operationally defined the concepts they are studying. We encourage the students to think about different ways that the same concepts could be defined and measured, and how those differences might affect research findings.

Instructor preparation: Choose the article; develop a related activity that encourages active learning.

Evaluate the Evidence

Now we dig into the actual evidence, first by examining the source, in this case the blog post. The blog post tells us this research was published in a journal and conducted by scientists at a university, all good signs. It also tells us that the study was conducted on just seven elite BMX riders, all from the USA Cycle Team, who had their brains scanned while learning to identify signals of potential problems, underwent seven weeks of mindfulness training and then had their brains scanned again. Following the training, their response to the indicator of trouble ahead was improved, and they showed less “physiological panic.”

We then guide a discussion of the pros and cons of the study as presented in the news source. The pros include that university scientists were involved, and the study was peer reviewed. The cons include that there were just seven participants, with no random assignment and no control group. This is a within-groups design, and counterbalancing is not possible.

We then turn to the peer-reviewed journal article (Haase et al., 2015). In this example, we would inform the students that the researchers described this study as a pilot, acknowledging the small sample size. The published report also includes helpful graphs and brain scan images, some of which we would project so students could see the specifics of the data. We would reiterate the pros and cons that we gleaned from the article.

Instructor preparation: Locate and read the original source; identify specific information that will help students understand and evaluate the evidence.

Consider Alternative Explanations

For this step, we guide students to identify alternative explanations for the findings. We might do this as a larger group discussion or have students discuss in small groups first. For this example, we would discuss the lack of a control group and the possibility of confounds. But we would also discuss the alterative explanation that perhaps mindfulness led to different brain patterns — improved response with less “physiological panic” — without leading to improved athletic performance. After all, the researchers did not actually measure athletic performance.

We would ask students to identify where the blogger was careful to point this out. Specifically, she noted that “the experiment did not look at actual, subsequent athletic performance” (Reynolds, 2015). We would then point out that this is even more carefully discussed in the journal. The researchers explicitly point out that mindfulness training could have led to the results they reported “without actually affecting performance itself” (Haase et al., 2015, p. 10).

Instructor preparation: Develop a list of alternative explanations; locate and read any additional articles that relate to these alternative explanations.

Consider the Source

Finally, we compare and contrast the source we started with — the blog post in this case — with the peer-reviewed journal article. We talk about what to look for in a news story or other source that indicates that it’s based on research, including names and institutions of researchers and a mention of a published study. In cases in which there is no peer-reviewed journal article, like some websites that make wild claims to sell you something, we discuss the flaws of sources that don’t point to science.

Instructor preparation: Develop a brief overview (we use PowerPoint) of why peer-reviewed journal articles are almost always a better source than a newspaper, blog or website, and of what students should look for when evaluating these. This can be reused when this activity is repeated with a new source. We also recommend evaluating sources using the CRAP test (currency, reliability, authority and purpose/point of view) that can be found at many university websites.

This format for a recurring activity was developed based on research on the scholarship of teaching and learning and allows for active learning and repetition across contexts. In our experience, early in the semester, students have difficulty finding examples of psychological science in the news, unless a headline makes it explicitly clear that a given finding is from the field of psychology. By the end of the semester, they start to see psychological science everywhere — from sports stories to breaking international news.

Similarly, early in the semester, students have difficulty working through the four-part framework. But, just as many of them become skilled at noticing when psychological science is at play, many of them also become skilled at thinking critically about research. They learn to ask the right questions and to seek out appropriate answers for these questions — the mark of a budding psychological scientist.

By Susan A. Nolan, PhD, and Sandra E. Hockenbury, MA


Interested in Education? Read our collection of articles on Education curated specially for APA members and affiliates.

Did you find this post useful?

1 0