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.

Teaching connects the world

Over the last year, I have been co-leading a MOOC (massive open online course) with my colleague Marina Harvey. Contemporary Approaches to University Teaching is a free higher education teaching induction open to all. You may be interested if you are:

  • new to university teaching
  • would like to review topics to advance your teaching, e.g. scholarly teaching
  • interested in scoping modules for your institution’s professional development program (MOOC content is available to universities to share and adapt under a CC Attribution Share Alike license)
  • a sessional, contracted or continuing academic or higher degree student.

You can enrol for the current semester here.

The course was developed as part of an Australian National Learning and Teaching Fellowship led by Kym Fraser. Kym was inspired to create the course after her research found approximately a quarter of Australian universities provided a day or less teaching induction for new academics. It is a collaborative effort with over fifty contributors as authors and reviewers. Kym retired in 2021 and handed over leadership of the MOOC to Marina and me.

Since its launch in 2018, the course has had over 7000 participants from 106 countries. Here is a map of the coverage — please share with colleagues in countries we have not reached!

This international coverage is one of my favourite things about it — I have learnt about new countries (hello to the cohort from Suriname, the smallest independent country in South America!) and I have seen commonalities in how new teachers approach the challenges of higher education classrooms, especially the transition to teaching online during the pandemic. The title of this post, Teaching connects the world, was inspired by one of the participants this semester.

I have been impressed by participants’ engagement with scholarly teaching and student-centred practice. I particularly enjoy reading reflections on teaching in response to prompts such as Ellen Liang’s The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad first day and sharing of favourite ice breaker activities. Here are some ideas:

  • I found a blog on ‘13 fail-safe icebreakers to use in class today‘ and enjoyed reading the ‘Blobs and lines’ activity.
  • I’m always mindful of students who are a little shy or introverted. I like the ‘Three things in common’ activity. I think done one-to-one, it might be good.
  • I had a slide of 9 different positions of a rubber duck from upright to drowning and asked them which represented how they were feeling.
  • I have found the ‘Found the Pair’ icebreaker, which I think will be really fun to try next: https://tophat.com/blog/classroom-icebreakers/
  • I prefer an icebreaker related to the course content, or at least the discipline. Maybe one thing they are excited about, one thing they are nervous about for the subject or why they want to study the discipline.
  • If there’s no space for an icebreaker that will get people moving around the room and talking to each other, the simple “introduce yourself with your name and a thing about yourself” is a classic for a reason. I think it’s more fun to ask for a boring fact about yourself than an interesting one.
  • I don’t really like icebreakers myself, so I avoid them in teaching. However, I liked [the idea] … of using groupwork as an initial activity to get to know each other and reduce information overload in the first classes.

Thank you to the participants for sharing these ideas!

Join us here.

What’s in your reflection toolkit?

This is the 5th post in a regular feature Over a cuppa: prompts to reflect on learning and teaching to prompt you to reflect on your learning and teaching during the time it takes to make and drink a cuppa. Cross-posted from Teche. Original artwork by Fidel Fernando.

There’s one tool that Stephen Brookfield still uses regularly 25 years after the first edition of Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher: the Critical Incident Questionnaire. The CIQ invites anonymous feedback from students in response to five questions:

  • At what moment in class did you feel most engaged with what was happening?
  • At what moment in class were you most distanced from what was happening?
  • What action that anyone (teacher or student) took did you find most affirming or helpful?
  • What action that anyone took did you find most puzzling or confusing?
  • What about the class surprised you the most? (This could be about your own reactions to what went on, something that someone did, or anything else that occurs).

The CIQ is included in a comprehensive scholarly practice guide written by Marina Harvey, Kate Lloyd, Kath McLachlan, Anne-Louise Semple and Greg Walkerden for AdvanceHE. The short evidence-based activities are designed to support reflective practice for student learning. I highly recommend this as the go-to resource on reflection for learning.

The brief of Over a Cuppa is to focus on your practice as a teacher, rather than your students’ reflections for learning. With this in mind, we will revisit many of Harvey and colleagues’ ideas in future posts (storytelling, feeling, listening, exploring, dreaming). Of course, many practices apply to students and teachers, such as:

Give your brain a break: Instead of checking email between classes, spend some time watching out the window or mindfully walking with senses open to notice sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.

Here are two other tools I regularly recommend and have revisited many times (free but login required):

  • Teaching Perspectives Inventory – a 45-item instrument that explores your orientation to teaching.
  • ImaginePhD – designed for humanities and social sciences, three assessment tools – Interests, Skills and Values – offer an excellent tool for reflection.

Wishing you many happy reflections.