Do you cover drug abuse in Intro Psych? If not, it might be time to

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I never used to cover sleep, but once it became clear that so many students weren’t getting enough sleep, I started talking about it – at length. I had the same experience with stress. The stress and coping chapter was one I typically skipped in Intro, until I opened my eyes to the stress my students were feeling combined with the lack of good coping skills.

And now I’m back in that very same boat but this time it’s the number of drug overdoses.

Invite your students to visit The New York Times article “You Draw It: Just How Bad Is the Drug Overdose Epidemic [in the United States]?”[Shout out to Ruth Frickle for sending me this article!] and complete each of the graphs to illustrate their best guesses on how, in the US, the number of deaths due to car accidents, deaths from guns, deaths from HIV, and deaths from drug overdoses has changed since 1990. After students draw on each graph, ask them to click the “Show me how I did” button. Next, ask students to calculate how far off they were.

For each graph, write down your guess. If you underestimated, subtract your guess from the actual number, write down how much you were off, and note that you underestimated. If you overestimated, subtract the actual number of deaths from your guess, write down how much you were off, and note that you overestimated.

After pressing each “Show me how I did” button, text appears explaining the hypothesized causes for the change in the number of deaths. Ask students to read the text following the drug abuse graph, and identify the possible reasons for the steep climb in overdose deaths and identify the ways that have been suggested to reduce the number of deaths.

In class, by a show of hands (or using a clicker system), ask students if they were the farthest off on death by car accident? Death from guns? Death by HIV? Or death by drug overdose? (If you’ve covered the availability heuristic, now is a nice time to revisit that concept? “What type of deaths do you hear the most about? Did those deaths receive your highest guesses?” Or if you’re not ready to tackle drug abuse as a topic, use this as an availability heuristic example to help students be more aware of the issue.)

If time allows, invite students to discuss in pairs or small groups how researchers could investigate the effectiveness of each drug overdose prevention proposal. If you’d like to use this as a research methods booster, give each group one of the five prevention proposals given near the end of the article. Ask each group to write the proposal as an hypothesis, e.g., If there were “tighter regulation of prescription opioids,” then the number of drug overdose deaths would decrease (or the rate of increase in drug overdose deaths would be slowed). Each group should then identify the independent variable (including experimental and control conditions) and the dependent variable, including operational definitions, and identify any ethical concerns in doing this research.

In whatever context you choose to discuss this topic be aware that some of your students may have experience with drug overdoses. They, themselves, may have had an overdose, or they may have a friend or family who overdosed and who may have died as a result.

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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.