Spotlight, September 2011
Benjamin Motz (Brain and Psychological Sciences) received an Active Learning Grant from the Center of Innovative Teaching & Learning to add a project-based assignment to his 2010 undergraduate course, P335 “Cognitive Psychology."
The purpose of the project was to increase students’ active exploration of a major theme in cognitive psychology. During the semester students collaboratively produced videos that required understanding and application of the various strategies people employ when making a decision.
P335 is a survey of the field of cognitive psychology, which is the scientific study of mental processes, from sensory perception to problem solving. Students taking the course become equipped to answer “How” questions of the human mind, such as How do we recognize objects? How do we remember?, and for this project, How do we make decisions?
Students were asked to produce a 60-second public service announcement aimed at helping people avoid making bad decisions. Students had free reign to explore decision-making strategies in the context of their choosing. Class time was devoted to group-based exploration of cognitive strategies for decision-making, collaborative brainstorming sessions, and a short practical tutorial on video production.
At the end of the project students completed an anonymous survey to self-report on how much the project helped them learn. The survey results, project grades and quiz scores were examined to determine the effectiveness of the PSA Active Learning Project.
Students reported that they enjoyed the PSA project, and both Motz and his colleagues found their work to be insightful and creative. According to Motz “the videos themselves were high quality, and demonstrated the students were thinking about decision making in applied and advanced ways.”
However, the postulation that PSA projects would improve the transfer of these concepts to new situations was not supported. On the contrary, Motz found that the PSA projects were not predictive of students’ success on a quiz about general decision-making processes.
Motz is also keen to point out that one unexpected benefit of the project was how it made him, ”really think about the most important things students should be able to do in the course.” The dichotomy between performance on an in-depth active learning project and performance on a traditional multiple-choice quiz encouraged him to re-evaluate his learning goals. The multiple choice exams might be appropriate for measuring how much students have memorized content but it seemed that this is independent from a deeper learning students achieved through the PSA project.