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Walking the walk: Motivational planning for the killer methods course

Posted in Higher Education

Have you ever gone over your meticulously crafted syllabus and thought…this makes my class sound like a semester-long ordeal?

Perhaps it is my overactive imagination, but I could have sworn my last one was taking on overtones of this classic movie.

All deadlines in this class will be rigorously observed. Any student who turns in work late will spend a night in the box. You must be on time to lab meetings. Any student who is late by more than two minutes to lab will… you get the picture.

It’s been on my mind because this semester, I’m teaching a section of the methods course that’s required for our psych majors. It’s part of the transition I’m making back into my home department, Psychological Sciences, while I hand off responsibility for the First Year Learning Initiative to new leadership. I haven’t done Research Methods for eight years, and while it is the course I’ve taught the longest – going back to 1995 on my first teaching assignment ever – it is an extraordinarily challenging one, packaging some of the least popular topics (think APA style, reliability and validity, scale construction) with a tough, semester-long group research project.

For the syllabus, I had some templates to work from – my old ones and a standard department outline – and although this was hugely helpful, I could not miss the fact that the resulting mélange of requirements sounded like one long list of rules and punishments.

The realization stung, especially in light of what I’ve been advocating for a lot recently: explicitly planning for student motivation at the same time as we design in the content and learning objectives. Many times I’ve said – you can’t rely on the fact that a course is required and grades are given to sustain students as they put forth the effort they need to succeed. Nor should we fall back on the idea that some topics are inherently interesting, and thus motivating to study, and some are just inherently boring.

So I backed up and did what I could to think through what I wanted my student motivators to be. I identified a couple of themes that, although not shared with students directly, I’d try to carry across as I described the course. I settled on professionalism, active engagement with authentic research tasks, and a piece I’d call scientific curiosity – the sense of uncovering things for the first time ever, in a field that you love.

I rewrote what I could of that ponderous syllabus with those ideas in the back of my mind. Then, I added this:

Read This First: A Word from Your Instructor

Before we get into the rules, schedules and policies for this course, I want to talk to you about why you’re here. Because – as far as I can tell – no one takes Research Methods by choice. It’s okay – my feelings aren’t hurt to know this! But even if you didn’t come in to this class wanting to be here, I think you’ll leave with the feeling that it was one of the most valuable things you’ve ever accomplished.

If you’re in this class, you’ve already taken quite a few courses in psychology. But Research Methods is different, and here’s why. In it, we aren’t going to just be learning a content area. We will also be working hands-on, together, to launch you into the beginning of your professional career. This means practicing real, marketable skills that are expected of people with degrees in behavioral science: technical writing, using professional-grade research databases, quantitative analysis and interpretation, collaborating in a research team, and much more.

This class should also transform you from being someone who just reads about psychology, to someone who does it. This is what professors call shifting from being a consumer of research to a producer of research, and it’s a critical rite of passage for you as a psychology student. When you make this shift, you gain the power to explore your own questions about behavior and the mind, and to share your findings with other researchers in a way that has lasting impact. Even at this stage of your education, you are developing important insights that are uniquely your own, and it’s my job to teach you how to develop those insights into research that can make the world a better place.

This class will push you and challenge you in ways you haven’t experienced before. You’ll attempt new things, you’ll practice new skills; and you will not always succeed on the first try. It’s okay, because I am here to help you until you do succeed. No one will do well in this class without putting in serious effort, but with effort, anyone can do well. I truly believe this, and I hope you’ll accept the challenge.

Will this opening statement transform student attitudes towards this killer course, and will that transformation be sustained throughout what is certain to be a long, hard semester? Perhaps not, but it is one step in that direction. And perhaps as importantly, writing it made me take a look at my own attitude going in.

Most departments have a class like Research Methods, and making this kind of required course into a good experience is some of the most important work we do. We can also take them as an opportunity to practice motivating students without over-relying on intrinsic interest or constantly holding grades over students’ heads. Stay tuned as I wrestle with this project myself.