Social issues in the classroom: Ideas for activities

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As a psychology instructor it is clear to you the myriad ways in which psychology can be used to both understand social issues and speak to solutions. In fact, the APA Guidelines for the Major (2013; see below) encourages us to help our students see the same.

Debra Mashek (2016) suggests a few assignments that provide our students opportunities to connect psychology with today’s social issues.

Integrative essay

The instructor chooses three articles (interesting, nifty methodology, and not too difficult for students to understand – but on the surface may not have anything obviously to do with each other), and assigns one of those articles to each student, i.e. 1/3 of the class gets article A, 1/3 gets article B, and 1/3 gets article C. Each student writes a one-page summary of their assigned article and brings that with them to class. The class breaks up into groups of three, where the groups are composed of students who have all read different articles. In a jigsaw classroom format, the students tell the others in their three-person group about their article. Students then “articulate an applied question that invites application of ideas from all the articles.” Each 3-person group then co-authors a short paper (two to three pages) that identifies their applied question and how each of the three articles speak to that question.

Persuasion research activity

Right after Hurricane Katrina, Mashek decided she wanted her Intro Psych students to experience psychological research firsthand while also contributing to the relief effort.

Mashek gave a brief lecture on foot-in-the-door, door-in-the-face, and reciprocity. She randomly assigned ¼ of students to foot-in-the-door, ¼ to door-in-the-face, ¼ reciprocity (she gave these students lollipops to hand to people before asking for a donation), and ¼ to a command condition (“give money”). During that same class period students were sent out in pairs to different areas of campus to return an hour later. Thirty-five students collected $600. Students reported a greater connection to the victims of Katrina after they returned than they reported before they left. Mashek used this experience as a leaping off point for discussing research methodology in the next class session.

Current headline classroom discussion

Pick a current headline. Break students into small groups, perhaps as an end of class activity, and give them one or two discussion questions based on the current chapter you are covering that are relevant to the headline.

For example, if you are covering the social psychology chapter in Intro Psych, give students this headline from the January 9, 2016 New York Times: “Gov. Paul LePage of Maine Says Racial Comment Was a ‘Slip-Up’.” This is a short article, so you could ask students to read the article itself. Sample discussion questions: (1) What evidence is there of ingroup bias? (2) Do Gov. LePage’s comments illustrate stereotyping, prejudice, and/or discrimination? Explain.

If time allows, student groups can report out in class. Alternatively, this could be a group writing assignment or a scribe for the group could post a summary of the group’s responses to a class discussion board.

Students will gain an appreciation of the scope of psychology and how it is relevant to today’s social issues. This activity throughout the course should help students, after the course, to continue to see psychology at play.

The APA Guidelines for the Major (2013) include these indicators related to social issues:

  1. 1.3A Articulate how psychological principles can be used to explain social issues, address pressing societal needs, and inform public policy
  2. 3.3c Explain how psychology can promote civic, social, and global outcomes that benefit others
  3. 3.3C Pursue personal opportunities to promote civic, social, and global outcomes that benefit the community.
  4. 3.3d Describe psychology-related issues of global concern (e.g., poverty, health, migration, human rights, rights of children, international conflict, sustainability)
  5. 3.3D Consider the potential effects of psychology-based interventions on issues of global concern

American Psychological Association. (2013). APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major: Version 2.0. Retrieved from

Mashek, D. (2016, January 4). Bringing the psychology of social issues to life. Lecture presented at National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology in Tradewinds Island Grand Resort, St. Petersburg Beach.

Seelye, K. Q. (2016, January 9). Gov. Paul LePage of Maine Says Racial Comment Was a 'Slip-up'. The New York Times. Retrieved January 9, 2016, from

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.