Teaching Tips for Improving the Classroom Experience

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Contributed by Mark Gluck, author of Learning and Memory.

Featuring Dr. Andrew Peter Mallon, CEO and Director of Research, Calista Therapeutics, and contributed by innovative teachers.

Currently, my primary interest in connection with Learning and Memory is the discovery and development of new treatments that cure the diseases of learning and memory, either by protecting or regenerating damaged CNS cells, in diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, or by enhancing the capacity of the CNS to learn, in diseases like autism. Previously, I taught Learning and Memory for many years, whilst an Assistant Professor (Adj) at Brown University.

In my view, the best lessons that can be taught are those that fundamentally inform students about the nature of their own psychology and how it works for and against them without their awareness. My two favorite classroom exercises explore two critical aspects of learning: conditioning and learned helplessness.

In my classroom exercise on conditioning, I paired the ingestion of a very sweet, sugary substance (US) that elicits salivation (UR) with a distinctive sound (CS). I have used various sounds as the CS, including a dog-training clicker or saying ”test time” in my inimitable Scottish accent. The pairing can be performed during a normal lecture, and conditioning can quickly be established. Then, after the sugar is removed, the retention and extinction rate of the salivation response (CR) can be assessed in individuals. The association can be extinguished by pairing wasabi with the CS, but in the absence of intentional extinction, I have found that the CS–CR association can last weeks. For me, the real-life lesson from this observation is that it is equally possible to establish an association between a pleasant stimulus and a person: If you (CS) want to be liked by another person, you can pair your presence or your interaction with them with an agreeable US, such as a nice smile, eye contact, humor, friendliness, a compliment, or a bunch of flowers, chocolate, or other small gift. It is a reliable way to enhance one’s interactions with other people and can be remarkably effective.

I used the standard impossible anagram experiment to induce learned helplessness in half of my class as a rapid way of demonstrating the power of that pathological psychological effect; however, I follow it up with a discussion that helps students differentiate pathological learned helplessness from the necessary realization that in some cases failure is inevitable. Learned helplessness is widely considered to be an important element of depression, and it is critical for students to understand it and to learn techniques to halt the downward cycles into learned helplessness that can stymie the treatment of depression. It is also important to distinguish between pathological learned helplessness, in which the person submits to failure in an achievable endeavor, and the reasonable recognition that some goals truly are unachievable. In the example I cite to demonstrate learned helplessness, a male student asks a young lady to the prom, is refused, asks another and is again refused, and becomes despondent and never asks another. I contrast that with the example of jumping off tall buildings while flapping one’s arms in the hope of flying, an endeavor in which one should submit to failure. The key to truly understanding learned helplessness lies in distinguishing what is really possible from what is impossible.