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Several years ago, back when I was still giving in-class exams, I was convinced by Roddy Roediger to give a comprehensive final exam. By asking students to review the course material one more time by studying for the final, this increased the chances students would remember more of the course content some time later. You’ll recognize the use of the spacing effect.

 

When I completely revamped my courses, going all-in with my variation on interteaching (see this blog post), I eliminated my in-class exams. With no comprehensive final, what could I do insteaad that would encourage students to go back through the course content one more time? Since what I really want to know is what my students got out of the course, I decided to just ask them.

 

Final Course Review:

 

Looking back over the course, identify the 10 most important things you learned in this course. Rank order them so the most important is number 1, the second most important is number 2, and so on.

 

For each of those important things, explain what the concept is, and explain why it is important to you. 

An "important thing" could be a concept -- think bold-faced term -- or a research finding. Please do not list entire chapters. 

 

Those are all of the instructions. I purposefully leave it wide open to what “things” students couldn’t identify. And I leave “important” undefined. Most often students interpret it as things that are important to them personally, but some interpret this as things important for anyone to know, or even things that are important functions of being human.

 

When I assign this in a face-to-face class, we meet during our scheduled final time. Each student submits their list to the course management system before class, and they also bring them to class–or access them on a device. I ask a volunteer to share their number 1 item and why they chose it. I write the concept on the board, then briefly summarize the concept, maybe even referring back to something I covered in lecture or was covered in the textbook to help students with retrieval. Next, I ask if anyone else had that item on their top ten list. If so, I ask each to share why it made their lists. From that group of students, I ask one to share their number one item. We repeat until everyone has had an opportunity to share their number one most important item.

 

Because I want students to not only review the course content when they are creating their lists, but to also review the course content in class when we go through the lists, my scoring of this assignment is a little creative. The assignment is worth 30 points. Each of the 10 items is worth 3 points: identify something from the course, correctly explain what it is, and discuss why it is important. If a student is in class for this final review, students earn 5 points extra credit. If they are absent, they lose 15 points.

 

For my online courses, the instructions for the Final Course Review are the same, but I assign it as a discussion. I want students to not only have reviewed the course content to create their own lists, I want students to read the lists of other students. I ask students to respond to read the lists of two of their discussion groupmates, and reply with at least two of these types of comments:

 

A compliment, e.g., "I like how... because...," I like that... because..."

A comment, e.g., "I agree that... because...," "I disagree that... because..."

A connection, e.g., "I have also read that...," "I have also thought that...," "That reminds me of..."

A question, e.g., "I wonder why...," "I wonder how..." 

 

Reading what students submit for the Final Course Review is an important reminder to me that there is much value in the content covered by Intro Psych. I love ending the course with this assignment not only because it gives students an opportunity to review the course content one more time, but it also allows me to see what students are taking with them as they leave my classroom (or my virtual classroom) for the last time. It’s what they’ve written that I take with me into the next term as I consider the course content I want to keep, I want to eliminate, and I want to add.

“Do something!” shouted a lone voice at Ohio’s governor during a post-massacre candlelight vigil in downtown Dayton. Others soon chimed into what became a crowd chant, which has now challenged Congress to, indeed, do something in response to the repeated mass shootings.

 

In response, politicians and pundits offered varied diagnoses and remedies. Some blamed mental illness or violent video gaming or White nationalist hate speech. Others noted that such do not set the United States apart from countries that also have mental illness, video game enthusiasts, and hate speech—yet have vastly fewer homicides and virtually no mass shootings. What distinguishes the United States is, simply, guns.

 

Despite broad and growing public support for strengthened background checks and assault weapon bans, America’s nearly 400 million guns are not disappearing soon. So what, realistically, is something effective we can do?

 

Might “red flag” gun laws, which aim to take guns away from dangerous people, be a remedy? If someone expresses suicidal or destructive fantasies, or is mentally ill, could we save lives by confiscating their weapons?

 

The idea of identifying at-risk individuals is not new. Former Speaker of the U.S. House Paul Ryan had the idea in 2015: “People with mental illness are getting guns and committing these mass shootings.” In the wake of the 2018 slaughter of 17 people at a Parkland, Florida high school, Florida’s Governor (now-Senator) Rick Scott went a step further, urging stronger rules to red-flag high-risk people: “I want to make it virtually impossible for anyone who has mental issues to use a gun. I want to make it virtually impossible for anyone who is a danger to themselves or others to use a gun.” President Donald Trump suggested opening more mental hospitals that could house would-be mass murders: “When you have some person like this, you can bring them into a mental institution.” After the El Paso and Dayton massacres, he declared that mass killers are “mentally ill monsters.” At an August 15th New Hampshire rally he added that "These people are mentally ill. I think we have to start building institutions again."

 

The general public has supported red-flagging. In a 2012 Gallup survey, 84 percent of Americans agreed that “increased government spending on mental health screening and treatment” would be a “somewhat” or “very” effective “approach to preventing mass shootings at schools.”

 

While we psychologists welcome the expressed high regard for our supposed powers of discernment, the hard reality is otherwise. Extremely rare events such as mass shootings are inherently difficult to predict, even by the best psychological science. One analysis reviewed 73 studies that attempted to predict violent or antisocial behavior. Its conclusion: Using psychology’s risk assessment tools “as sole determinants of detention, sentencing, and release is not supported by the current evidence.”

 

Moreover, among the millions of troubled people who could potentially murder or commit suicide, it is impossible to identify in advance the infinitesimal fraction who will do so. And it would surely be unfair to stigmatize all “mentally ill” people. Most mentally ill people do not commit violent acts, and most violent criminals are not mentally ill. Violent acts are better predicted by anger, alcohol use, previous violence, gun availability, and young-male demography. (The El Paso and Dayton shooters were 21 and 24-year-old males.) As the late psychologist David Lykken once observed, “We could avoid two-thirds of all crime simply by putting all able-bodied young men in cryogenic sleep from the age of 12 through 28.”

 

Suicide is likewise hard to predict. One research team summarized 50 years of research on suicide’s unpredictability: “The vast majority of people who possess a specific risk factor [for suicide] will never engage in suicidal behavior.” Moreover, our ability to predict suicide “has not improved across 50 years.”

 

Even given our inability to offer accurate predictions of who will commit murder or suicide, we do know some risk factors. As every psychology student knows, one of the best predictors of future behavior is past behavior:  Prior violent acts increase the risk of future violent acts--and prior suicide attempts raise the risk of a future suicide. This was seemingly illustrated by the death of convicted pedophile financier Jeffrey Epstein, after he was removed from suicide watch, which the New York Times reports would normally be decided by the chief psychologist at a federal prison facility after “a face-to-face psychological evaluation.” Shortly after apparently being deemed not at risk, despite his prior attempt, Epstein reportedly died by hanging in his prison cell.

 

But even without knowing who will commit suicide, we can modify the environment to reduce its probability. For example, fences that negate jumping from bridges and buildings have reduced the likelihood of impulsive suicides. Reducing the number of in-home guns has also been effective. States with high gun ownership rates are states with high suicide rates, even after controlling for other factors such as poverty. After Missouri repealed its tough handgun law, its suicide rate went up 15 percent; when Connecticut enacted such a law, its suicide rate dropped 16 percent.

 

And we can reduce, even if we cannot predict, mass shootings. As my psychologist colleague Linda Woolf wrote after a 2018 massacre, and again after El Paso and Dayton, it is time “to focus on the evidence—mass shootings occur, and guns make these atrocities all too easy and frequent.” Our politicians, she adds, should initiate gun safety reforms including “a ban on assault weapons, ban on large-capacity magazines, universal background checks, stiffer licensing laws, red flag laws, and lifting of all Federal restrictions on gun violence research.” Although we cannot predict the next tragedy, we can act to reduce its likelihood.

 

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com. An earlier essay also reported some of the evidence on the unpredictability of mass shootings.)

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On 48 occasions during his recent testimony regarding Russian election interference, former special counsel Robert Mueller—seeming “confused,” “uncertain,” and “forgetful”—asked to have questions repeated. Was Mueller, who turns 75 this week, exhibiting, as so many pundits surmised,cognitive agingor perhaps even early signs of dementia?

 

Win McNamee/Getty Images 

 

The chatter among those of us with hearing loss suggested a much simpler explanation: Robert Mueller is likely one of us. Might his struggle to hear suggest normal age-related hearing loss, exacerbated by his Vietnam combat? Among Americans 75 and older, half “have difficulty hearing,” reports the National Institute on Deafness and Other Hearing Disorders. For war veterans of Mueller’s age, some hearing loss is to be expected.

 

In response, we empathized. Struggling to hear, especially in important social situations, is stressful and tiring. It drains cognitive energy—energy that is then unavailable for quick processing and responding. Moreover, the challenge is compounded in a cavernous room with distant ceiling speakers that produce a verbal fog as sounds bounce off hard walls. Add to that fast-talking (time-constrained) questioners, some of whom were looking down at their script while speaking, impeding natural lip reading. Those of us with hearing loss dread, and avoid, such situations.

 

There is, admittedly, accumulating evidence (here and here) that hearing loss is associated with accelerated cognitive decline in later life. Compared with people with good hearing, those with hearing loss show declines in memory, attention, and learning about three years earlier—though less if they get hearing aids. But Robert Mueller’s slowness in understanding and processing questions seems explainable not only by his four dozen requests for having questions re-voiced, but likely also by his not completely hearing or perhaps mishearing other questions.

 

And it was all so easily avoidable in one of three ways—each of which I have experienced as a god-send:

  1. A table speaker 20 inches from his ears could have given him vastly clearer sound than what reached his ears after reverberating around the spacious room.
  2. Real-time captioning on a table screen, like the TV captioning we use at home, could have made the spoken words instantly clear.
  3. A room hearing loop could have magnetically transmitted the voice from each microphone directly to the inexpensive telecoil sensor that comes with most modern hearing aids. Other Capitol buildings—including the U.S. House and Senate main chambers and the U.S. Supreme Court chamber—now have hearing loops. Voila! With the mere push of a button (with no need to obtain extra equipment), we can hear deliciously clear sound. (See here, here, and here for more hearing loop information. Full disclosure: The first site is my own informational website, and the last describes our collective advocacy to bring this technology to all of the United States.)

 

Here ye! Hear ye! Let Robert Mueller’s struggling to hear remind our culture that hearing loss—the great invisible disability—is commonplace and, thanks to population aging and a life history of toxic noise, growing. And let us resolve to create a more hearing-friendly environment, from quieter restaurants to hearing-looped auditoriums, worship places, and airports.

 

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)

The American Psychological Association’s Board of Educational Affairs, at the behest of the Committee on Associate and Baccalaureate Education, convened a working group under the title Introductory Psychology Initiative (IPI). The working group was tasked with sorting out four major areas related to the Intro Psych course. First, can we, as a discipline, please agree on a set of student learning outcomes? And while we’re at it, can we have some sample assessments for measuring those outcomes? Second, what are some different ways the course can be structured? Third, what sort of training should there be for Intro Psych instructors, and how can we deliver that training? And fourth, how can what students learn in Intro Psych help them succeed in their courses, in their careers, and in their lives?

 

The IPI working group will be rolling out recommendations over the coming months. First up are the student learning outcomes.

 

By the end of the introductory psychology course, students should be able to:

 

- Identify basic concepts and research findings, and give examples of psychology's integrative themes.

 

Psychological science relies on empirical evidence adapting as new data develop.

 

Psychology explains general principles that govern behavior, while recognizing individual differences.

 

Psychological, biological, social, and cultural factors influence mental processes and behavior.

 

Our perceptions filter experience of the world through an imperfect personal lens.

 

Applying psychological principles can change our lives in positive ways.

 

- Apply psychological principles to everyday life.

 

- Draw appropriate, logical, and objective conclusions about behavior and mental processes from empirical evidence.

 

- Evaluate misconceptions or erroneous behavioral claims based on evidence from psychological science.

 

- Design, conduct, or evaluate basic psychological research. 

 

- Describe ethical principles that guide psychologists in research and therapy.

 

For a seasoned Intro Psych instructor, there is probably nothing in here that is too shocking. As you read through the themes, the content you currently cover in your course likely already fits these themes. What we’re asking is that the themes be made explicit to students. While students may not remember years later much specific content, such as Piaget’s third stage of development, we would love students to remember these larger themes.

 

In the psychological research student learning outcome, we recognize that different instructors working with different class sizes and student populations, such as honors courses, will decide to do different things. Perhaps you want students to design a basic study, correctly applying independent variables and dependent variables. Or perhaps you want your students to conduct a basic study, inside or outside the class. Or perhaps you would like your students to read a summary of a less-than-well-designed study and identify some of the flaws. In all cases, students will gain an appreciation for what is involved in doing psychological science.

 

Where I expect most Intro Psych instructors to say, “Oooo, I haven’t been teaching that,” is the ethical principles that guide therapists. A lot of Intro Psych textbooks cover the ethics of research, but not the ethics of therapy. Intro Psych students will likely encounter a therapist sometime in their lives—whether it be for themselves, a family member, a friend, or a co-worker/employee. Intro Psych students should know what ethical guidelines therapists are expected to follow and to know when those ethical guidelines have been breached. For myself, I will take it one step beyond the listed student learning outcome and ask my students to identify some next steps they can take if they believe a therapist has acted unethically—once I figure out what those are myself.

 

This is the first time the discipline of psychology has a set of student learning outcomes for Intro Psych. Try them out. Let us know what you think.