Attracting and maintaining students’ attention when teaching them basic psychological theories is not easy. Students tend to be more interested in practical, real-world relevant topics and show little pass ion for the underlying theoretical concepts. Additionally, many students have difficulties in understanding scientific theories and theoretical questions.
The Too Much and Too Heavy Syndrome
The problems become apparent in two areas: perception and interpretation. Problems of the first kind include students’ difficulties in identifying and stating the essence of a theory, resulting from an inability to distinguish between major and minor points. Even when the key points are identified, problems of the second kind can arise in the form of a lack of competence with a scientific point of view. That is to say, many students who are enthusiastic about the content of a special theory are not able to control their enthusiasm and evaluate the content according to scientific criteria.
What Can Be Done?
To alleviate these problems, instructors should: (1) stress the usefulness of psychological theories, (2) emphasize the relevance of psychological theories to everyday life, (3) give support in understanding and in evaluating psychological theories, including their strengths and weaknesses, and (4) show the benefits of proper application of theories.
In this column, some suggestions are offered that might help achieve these teaching goals. The following guidelines were developed and tested in introductory courses in theories of social psychology. However, they are easily applied to other types of psychological theories, for instance to theories of learning or personality.
1. Demonstrate the Need for Good Theories
Quoting Kurt Lewin’s famous maxim “There is nothing so practical as a good theory” is not a bad start, but letting students experience the need for good theories, which are an essential part of science may be better. Why not start a new course with an “opening quiz” asking students for their predictions of the outcomes of some situations? For example: Are people who receive more than they deserve pleased or displeased? Do people who fear something want to be alone or with others? Perhaps our students can answer such questions accurately, but they will not be able to explain why their answers were correct. Students will discover that their common sense knowledge is helpful for predictions of behavior, but without understanding they will be unable to change or control behavior. Once convinced of the usefulness of psychological theories, students need help in understanding them.
2. Place Theories in a Common Framework
After discussing a theory in detail, including its failures and modifications, students sometimes become confused and unable to see the key points any more. To clarify these points it is very helpful to present each theory within a common framework or system . One such framework consists of a system that identifies the input variables (In ), the mediating process (Med). and the output variables (Out) described in the theory.
• The input variables represent the conditions that are producing the effects the theory under discussion describes.
• The mediating process represents the type of basic process (i.e., cognitive and/or motivational) that is supposed to be the underlying mechanism. In the context of learning theories, it is common to speak of the intervening process or variables.
• The output variables represent the resulting effects predicted by the theory when the input variables are present.
For instance, the theory of psychological reactance is a broad theoretical approach to the question of what happens when a person’s freedom is threatened or eliminated. It describes the influence of social pressure on human behavior and cognition. The theory states that when people feel their freedom of choice is threatened, they experience unpleasant arousal (i.e .• reactance), which motivates them to restore their freedom. This theory can be presented in terms of the In-Med-Out approach as follows:
• Input variables:
• Expectancy of freedom (necessary condition)
• Importance of freedom
• Threats to or eliminations of freedoms (necessary condition)
• Number and proportion of freedoms threatened or eliminated
• Implication for future freedoms
• Mediating process: Psychological reactance (i.e., motivational state)
• Output variables:
• Direct restoration of freedom: direct exercise of the threatened freedom
• Indirect restoration of freedom: restoration by implication
• Increase of the attractiveness of the threatened or eliminated freedom
• Denial of threat
• Preservation of other freedoms
As the example shows, input variables include not only necessary conditions but also variables that influence the extent or intensity of the effect. In this example, the importance of the freedom is not a basic requirement for the arousal of psychological reactance, as it is in the case with expectancy of freedom, but high importance makes the development of psychological reactance more likely. Additionally, it can be seen that just as reactance can be aroused by implication (see one of the input variables), so can it be reduced (see one of the output variables). Without this structural help it may be difficult for students to understand and remember a theory.
Placing all theories into an identical system makes it easier to compare the different concepts; similarities and differences may become more apparent. The difference between Festinger (cognitive dissonance theory) and Bern (self perception theory), for instance, can be shown within this framework by pointing out that the same outcomes are expected (i.e., output variables are identical), but different underlying processes are assumed (i.e., the mediating processes are different). In a similar way, the differences between S-R behaviorism and S-O-R neobehaviorism can be demonstrated easily. In courses in personality theory, it may be interesting to discuss within this framework the famous Rogers-Skinner debate on the control of human behavior.
3. Use the Theory of the Week Approach
Naturally, when introducing a new psychological theory, the instructor gives examples of its practical applications in various areas of psychology. For instance, students often do not know that concepts of social psychology were adopted by clinical psychologists (e.g., attribution therapy) or that effective therapeutic methods (e.g., paradoxical injunctions) can be explained by theories of social psychology (i.e., theory of psychological reactance).
Additionally, the instructor should find and present examples that deal directly with everyday life. In this context, the following idea, which can be called the “theory of the week approach,” has been useful. The students are instructed to see their world within the framework of the theory to which they were just introduced. For one week, the students are asked to try to interpret their current experiences (usual and unusual events) on the basis of this theory. Additionally, they are asked to search for past experiences that might be explainable by the theory under discussion. In a course in personality theories, for example, students can be asked to prepare a brief description of a currently famous person or a well known historical figure in terms of the personality theory under discussion. Depending on the course schedule, this idea is certainly modifiable to a theory of the day or month.
In the following class meeting, the students’ examples should be discussed. Students are always astonished at the number of everyday life situations that fit into an actual theory. Reported examples may cover a wide range of situations: advertising, literature, songs, jobs, close relationships, or private thoughts.
There are always some reported examples that do not match exactly with the theory. However, these mistakes are useful for recapitulating the basic concepts of the theory. When discussing, for instance, the theory of psychological reactance, there are occasional reports best explained by the concept of frustration and do not appear to exemplify threatened freedom . Often, these erroneous examples are useful in demonstrating the different input variables of the theories.
4. Try the Best Theory Approach
Many theories of psychology are very convincing at first sight. Nevertheless, there are differences in their scientific relevance. Students need help to differentiate between good and poor theories. In this context, the following suggestion, which can be called the “best theory approach,” has turned out to be useful.
During the first class meeting of a course, scientific criteria for evaluating a theory are gathered and discussed. Although instructors are free to choose their own criteria, there are some characteristics of a good theory that everyone considers to be important. For instance, whether a theory is testable, comprehensive, and empirically valid are always mentioned. Psychology courses differ with respect to whether value for future research or personal significance, for instance, are criteria for a good theory. The chosen criteria form the theory test stand, on which each theory is evaluated.
Criterion by criterion, the theory under discussion is evaluated by means of a rating scale to determine to what degree each criterion is satisfied. Depending on the course, this rating scale may be a 5- to 10-point scale. The criteria ratings are then summed. Near the end of the course, the theories are ranked according to their summation scores. The theory that is placed first is nominated as the best fitting theory. The criteria chosen for the theory test stand and the resulting ranking are then discussed. The merits and shortcomings of each theory are carefully considered, and, if necessary, a modification to the ranking is made. An important lesson learned by students is the realization that one best theory does not exist and that there are several good theories addressing different aspects of the same topic. Taking this into account, the class determines its favorite theory; and by the way, students learn quite a lot about scientific criteria.
5. The Feeling the Progress Approach
By involving your students in the activities described above, it is likely that you will increase their interest in and understanding of psychological theories. As a last step, ensure that your students become aware of the progress they have made. For that reason, you should repeat the opening qui z. Now, the students will: (a) be correct (again) in their answers, (b) feel more confident that they gave the correct answer and (c) be able to explain the correct prediction by referring to the corresponding theory or theories. They may also notice that their knowledge about theories enables them to deal with a huge amount of data by being more able to organize and evaluate the information.
These five teaching tips may be helpful in teaching psychological theories. I have found that increasing student interest can lead to a better understanding of theory and vice versa. Additionally, the improved interaction between students and instructors may increase our enthusiasm for teaching psychological theories.