Teaching Intro Psych is communicating science to the public

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The vast majority of students who take Intro Psych are not psychology majors. Our Intro Psych students will be working in medicine, engineering, hotels/restaurants/tourism, politics, business, etc. They are The Public.

The first six of “9 Tips for Communicating Science to People Who Are Not Scientists” written by Marshall Shepard, physical meteorologist, apply to teaching Intro Psych as well. (Shout out to Molly Metz for posting this article to the Society for the Teaching of Psychology Facebook group.)

  1. “Know your audience.” Who are your Intro Psych students? What are they majoring in or thinking about majoring in? How many have children? How many have full-time jobs? Is this their first year in college? The more you know where your students are coming from, the better you can meet them where they are.
  2. “Don’t use jargon.” Or, for the Intro Psych class, don’t use jargon to explain jargon. When talking about conditioning, for example, it’s easy for instructors to toss around terms like unconditioned response and discriminative stimulus, but we need to remember that these terms are likely brand new to most of our students. Defining as we go can help bring students into our world. “The unconditioned response – the unlearned response in this example is…”
  3. “Get to the point.” Students don’t need the entire history of personality research to understand today’s trait theories. Traditionally Intro Psych instructors talk about Pavlov’s dogs before launching into contemporary examples of classical conditioning. Do we have to talk about dog drool before talking about heroin overdoses? (See Siegel, 2005 for an overview of classical conditioning and drug use.) That’s not to say you may not have good reasons for talking about the history behind a particular concept, but be conscious of the reasons you are telling that history. Don’t just do it because that’s how you’ve always done it or because that’s how you saw it done.
  4. “Use analogies and metaphors.” We know that people learn better when they can connect new concepts to what they already know or what they can visualize. Even better, in small groups, ask your students to create analogies or metaphors for a concept you just covered in class.
  5. “Three points.” My problem is that psychology is just so dang fascinating I want to tell students everything I know. Unfortunately, there is such a thing as too much information. My solution? A couple times a week I post announcements to my students through our course management system with the subject line “Nifty things about…” whatever we recently covered. Those who wanted more information on that topic can get it; those who don’t can move on to something else.
  6. “You are the expert.” I was in my mid-20s when I first walked into a community college classroom as the instructor. I looked around the room at students twice my age and new that the instructor-as-all-knowing-authority model wasn’t going to work. Instead, I acknowledged what I knew and acknowledged what my students brought to the table: “I know the theory, and you have the life experiences. Let’s merge them together and see what we get.” I still come from that perspective today, even though my students are no longer twice my age. Although, I confess, there was stuff then that I thought I understood that I clearly didn’t – oh, to have those students back again!


Shepherd, M. (2017, February 22). 9 Tips for Communicating Science to People Who Are Not Scientists. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/marshallshepherd/2016/11/22/9-tips-for-communicating-science-to-people-...

Siegel, S. (2005). Drug tolerance, drug addiction, and drug anticipationCurrent Directions in Psychological Science, 14(6), 296-300. doi:10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00384.x

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.