What psychology can tell us about teaching in higher education

Welcome to the first post in a new series in which we look at higher education learning and teaching through a disciplinary lens. What can the knowledges, theories, methods and practices of particular disciplines tell us about learning and teaching at a university level? In each post, I will be speaking to disciplinary experts from my university and seeking their insights to inform the teaching practices of colleagues in other disciplines. Cross-posted at Teche.

Today’s post comes from Psychology, and I spoke with award winning teachers and discipline experts Penny van Bergen and Alissa Beath. You can listen to audio excerpts of our conversation throughout this post, and listen to the full (29 minute) conversation or download a transcript from the link at the end of the post.

Alissa is a Senior Lecturer and Psychology Undergraduate Course Director in the School of Psychological Sciences. Her research lies in Health Psychology and Educational Psychology, looking at the role of psychological processes such as self-efficacy, emotion regulation, and resilience, in health, stress, and wellbeing. Teaching research methods and statistics to undergraduate students of all year levels, Alissa is keenly aware of the need to teach in the right way, and for students to learn in the right way. In her Course Director role, Alissa draws upon science of learning and educational psychology, especially in the intersection of the way teachers teach, the way students learn, and how institutions can be set up to best support both those things.

Penny left Macquarie this year (but remains connected as an honorary associate and supervisor) to take up the role of Professor of Educational Psychology and Head of School of Education at the University of Wollongong. With a background in developmental psychology, she applies her understanding of memory, emotion, and learning to the field of education, focusing on emotional development, cognitive development, and student-teacher relationships. She is passionate about ensuring that students of all ages have opportunities for belonging, engagement, and transformational learning.

Educational and developmental psychology offer insights into the fundamental question of what it means to learn and how learning happens. When we talk about learning from a psychological perspective, we are fundamentally interested in changes in understanding, knowledge or skills.

My conversation with Alissa and Penny highlights concepts such as memory, motivation and self-efficacy, and raises obvious — but challenging — questions.

What is learning?

In this 42-second audio excerpt, Penny describes the brain’s limited capacity for information, the magic number seven for working memory and designing teaching activities so learners are not overwhelmed:

What is memory?

Psychology understands our memory as our capacity for encountering, managing, processing and storing new knowledge and skills, including conceptual knowledge. As Penny puts it: “Everything we know, everything we know how to do, everything we know about the world, everything we know about ourselves is held within memory.” Understanding how it works is really important for teachers and students. Below is a simplified model of how the brain learns that Penny shows undergraduate students:

Learning means putting knowledge into long-term memory so that it can be consciously retrieved as needed.

We use working memory to think about information we receive from our senses, and to retrieve what we already know from long term memory. Anything you are thinking about right now is your working memory. That means any cognitive activity — including problem solving and decision-making — happens in working memory, making it critical for university study.

In this 90-second excerpt, Penny and Alissa describe information processing and encoding in long term memory and the role of teachers in engaging learning:

Why is exam cramming ineffective?

Talking about how memory functions busts a common learning myth. A classic strategy students employ for exam preparation — rereading class notes — is ineffective for learning, especially for complex problem solving. (Listen to the full conversation to hear Penny and Alissa debunk the myth of learning styles).

In this 40-second audio excerpt, Penny describes elaborativeness and distinctiveness to talk about making connections and difficult decisions:

In this 64-second excerpt, Alissa and Penny describe active learning and why it works:

What can teachers do?

Strategies that teachers can use to promote learning include:

  • Designing learning with an understanding that working memory has a limited capacity (the magic number 7). For example, review your resources with this in mind, consider timing of complex information, and share key take-aways for students.
  • Enabling connections with existing prior knowledge. For example, explicitly link new material with what has been covered in prior classes, or ask students to think how a topic might apply to their lives.
  • Designing activities that require deep thought. For example, provide students with contradictory statements and ask them to consider them. Or present a real-life problem/issue and ask students to reflect on it.
  • Encouraging students to come up with their own examples, explanations, and questions to test their ability to apply the material to novel scenarios or new contexts.

Having talked about the learning process, how does Psychology understand learners themselves?

This is where motivation and self-efficacy come in.

Colloquially speaking, motivation is the push or pull away from a task. In a study context, we are interested in the reasons a student will try to succeed. Note that students’ motivations vary considerably, as Penny explains in this 36-second audio excerpt:

Motivation is complex and being motivated to complete a degree does not necessarily mean a student is motivated to complete an assessment task or attend a lecture.

Teachers can help students increase their motivation for study — and manage the competing motivations of paid work and social demands — by reminding students that achieving the smaller things leads to the desired outcome of a qualification or a career.

It’s not enough for students to want to do well, they have to believe they can succeed. Self-efficacy refers to students’ own beliefs about their capacities and their competence in a specific area. As Alissa explains in this 28-second excerpt, higher self-efficacy intersects with motivation to promote effective learning behaviours:

Teachers can enable mastery opportunities, and balance independent learning skills and learning support, by scaffolding learning and breaking down tasks into smaller chunks, defining the parameters for learning with opportunities for cognitive growth, and encouraging students by sharing strategies for success.

Towards the end of our conversation, Penny and Alissa discussed students’ mental health and the impacts it can have on motivation and self-efficacy. They emphasise the importance of referring students to Wellbeing services for high level expertise, providing evidence-based reasonable adjustments, and promoting safe and supportive environments for students across the institution.

Listen to the full 29-minute conversation and/or download a transcript:

Further reading 

Butler, A.C., Marsh, E.J., Slavinsky, J.P. & Baranuik, R. G. (2014). Integrating Cognitive Science and Technology Improves Learning in a STEM Classroom. Educational Psychology Review, 26, 331–340. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-014-9256-4

Glass, A. L. & Kang, M. (2019) Dividing attention in the classroom reduces exam performance. Educational Psychology, 39(3), 395-408. DOI: 10.1080/01443410.2018.1489046

Honicke, T. & Broadbent, J. (2016). The influence of academic self-efficacy on academic performance: A systematic review. Educational Research Review, 17, 63-84. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2015.11.002

Mayer, R. E. (2001) What Good is Educational Psychology? The Case of Cognition and Instruction. Educational Psychologist, 36(2), 83-88. DOI: 10.1207/S15326985EP3602_3

Munro, J. (2020, March 10). You can do it! A ‘growth mindset’ helps us learn. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/you-can-do-it-a-growth-mindset-helps-us-learn-127710

Thank you to Alissa and Penny for the conversation, slides and recommended reading. Thank you to Alison Hayward and Kylie Coaldrake for technical support with the audio recording.

Dark academia

I enjoy reading dark academia — and have previously shared some of 2am reads in that category: Never Saw Me Coming (psychopaths on campus), Plain Bad Heroines (queer gothic on campus), The Love Hypothesis (scientific romance on campus) or Legendborn (magical fantasy on campus). Dark academia is often described (like steampunk) in terms of its aesthetic qualities, but it is also a literary genre. Well-known examples include A. S. Byatt’s Possession and Donna Tartt’sThe Secret History.

There is crossover here with boarding school books and campus novels. Whispering Gums has a great post on Australian campus fiction, sharing a quote from author Diana Reid (Love and Virtue) on the dramatic interest inherent in “a cast of characters who are all young and vulnerable, trying on new ideas and identities … in a confined space.”

I recently read some great (confined space) distractions: A Deadly Education (no teachers, lots of murderous monsters), They Never Learn (murderous teachers), The Society for Soulless Girls (murderous teachers), For Your Own Good (murderous teachers) and Truly Devious (you guessed it). I have many more in this vein waiting to be read (several with ‘violent’ in the title). I call these 2am books because their page turnability makes middle-aged hormonal night waking much more enjoyable.

At other times, I read literary (but still occasionally murderous) matter: My Dark Vanessa, Vladimir, Transcendent Kingdom and Love and Virtue. These are more challenging reads, and prompt discussions of the complexities of belief, grief, abuse, affluence, power and privilege. They make great companion reads to enrich my 2am books. I recommend this brief but thoughtful article on ‘sexy’ privilege in dark academia.

Here’s a wonderful collection of dark academia playlists by a Haitian-American student, ideal for reading, writing, studying and being moody in gloomy weather on campus.

For me, the appeal of dark academia lies in taking the familiar (campuses, classes, assignments, graduations, committees, students and academics) and rendering it strange, magical or dangerous. Like gothic literature, dark academia is concerned with the soul of individuals and institutions. At the risk of sounding too much like the genre, the soul is more poetic than pragmatic, intimate and unknowable, a boundary or a borderline in constant contestation (sacred/ profane, divine/ damned). Dark academia celebrates and pokes fun at the elitism, rituals and rules of academia: esoteric readings, secret societies, and hierarchy and competitiveness. The genre is also, conversely, layered with nostalgia for campus buildings, libraries and lecture theatres, and archaic and complex theory, philosophy and poetry.

There is more to think through here: ideas about academics, students and campuses; our nostalgia, more pressing since pandemic lockdowns, for an immersive vision of the university; ideas of knowledge and learning that infect us; and challenging (or reinforcing) power and privilege through fiction. A good place to start is the scholarly work of Emily F. Henderson and Pauline J. Reynolds on fictitious representations of academic conferences: hierarchical, decadent and conflict prone and reinforcing gender inequalities.

Theorising slow academia

Here’s a (slow) wrap up post on the final and sixth session of the Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society (PaTHES) season on slow academia. You can access the slides below.

The slides recap the previous sessions: theorising self, place, relationships, time and institutions (the links are to summary posts). But it was predominantly a discussion session, with participants contributing their insights from the series. I asked:

  • What have you continued to think about?
  • What ideas jumped out at you, resonated, or jarred? What ideas surprised, delighted, repulsed you?
  • What reading would you like to do?
  • What will you take with you?

I am delighted to share an image created by Maria Jakubik that encapsulates our discussions. It is wonderful to see how she has perceived and organised our thinking. (I have a number of Maria’s articles on my to-be-read list, and look forward to sharing her ideas in future posts).

We spoke about slow discussions about theory as a way of explaining or making sense/meanings/patterns/narratives out of things we experience and observe. Thinking about the university in this way had us speculating about fantasies of the university; combining fast and slow work; writing creatively and collaboratively, retreating from work in order to write; the desire to recreate monastic spaces in secular cultures; university values (espoused, enacted and experienced); normative talk about goodness; conversational leadership; and relationality as a core value.

In the conversation, I shared a lesson that has stayed with me about recognising others’ bids for connection. That is, responding when someone is seeking affirmation, recognition or attention from you. With my children, this has often meant conversations about Pokémon cards or other topics I know or care little about — but the pleasure lies in the ongoing work of relating.

During the session, a question was asked about the work of theorising and how it differs from working with theory. This is something I have been mulling over, and I will write about it in a future post. Here is some reading to get you started:

  • Ashwin, P. (2012). How often are theories developed through empirical research into higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 37(2), 941-955.
  • Eagleton, T. (1989). The significance of theory. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Hage, G. (2016). Towards an ethics of the theoretical encounter. Anthropological Theory, 16(2-3), 221–226.
  • Swedberg, R. (2016). Before theory comes theorizing or how to make social science more interesting. The British Journal of Sociology, 67(1), 5-22.

There was a lot recommended reading from the sessions — rich with possibility for future blog posts.

Thank you to those who joined the sessions and helped to stretch our thinking.

Finally, a big thank you to Barbara Grant for chairing the discussions at a time that was not friendly for Aotearoa New Zealand. We are collaborating on a webinar series for PaTHES that extends the discussions on slow academia with presentations from some of our favourite scholars. Stay tuned for more details!