A Civic Scientific Literacy Perspective in the Psychology Classroom

One of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching psychology courses is that we get to share some highly relevant, personally applicable, and fascinating science with our students. Among the sciences, psychology has perhaps the most far reaching applications to personal and societal matters. Of course, instructors who teach science courses of all types want their students to understand the deeper, societal relevance of the material and research they cover. Thus, regardless of the particular scientific field, we find that one goal of developing scientific literacy is teaching our students to actually apply and use scientific knowledge. In my own teaching, I have found that a scientific literacy perspective have aided my approach to designing lectures, discussion sessions, and assignments, as well as measuring student learning outcomes. The term “scientific literacy” may not be one that many psychologists use, as it has a tradition of being restricted to discussion and assessment within the natural and physical sciences, and so it requires some elaboration.

The Concept of Scientific Literacy

Scientific literacy has been defined in many different ways. Some of the more basic definitions focus on the ability to define common science terms and understand basic scientific facts and processes. Using this type of definition, several organizations across the world have developed measures of scientific literacy. In the United States, the National Science Foundation (2010) and several affiliates have used large surveys including true/false items measuring basic understanding of factual information about the natural and physical sciences. For example, true/false questions may include: “all radioactivity is man-made,” “the oxygen we breathe comes from plants,” and, “the center of the earth is very hot.” Certainly, being able to answer these types of questions is important. However, consider the need for a general public that knows whether the following are true or false: “autism is caused by childhood vaccines,” “chronic stress can be harmful to the nervous system,” and, “individuals have their own, unique learning styles.” Granted, it is important that people are knowledgeable enough about science to reject the Flintstone theory that humans and dinosaurs coexisted (though only 59% do so, according to a survey conducted by the California Academy of Sciences (2009)). However, mistakenly believing that vaccines cause autism is potentially far more consequential to individuals and society.

Scientifically literate individuals should not only have a basic true/false level working knowledge of scientific concepts and findings, but should also be able to process scientific information at a deeper level. This is surely something teachers and college instructors strive to impress upon their students. The concept of civic scientific literacy speaks to this goal. The term civic scientific literacy was introduced by Benjamin Shen (1975), and subsequently developed further by Jon Miller (1998), who has used the concept for a multi-national assessment of scientific literacy across the U.S., Europe and Asia. Miller offers a practical definition of civic scientific literacy, identifying it as “…a level of understanding of scientific terms and constructs sufficient to read a daily newspaper or magazine and to understand the essence of competing arguments on a given dispute or controversy” (p. 204; see also Jarman & McClune, 2007).

Civic Scientific Literacy in the Classroom

I find the concept of civic scientific literacy to be of great use to many aspects of my teaching. In seeking to teach this type of literacy, I am able to link content from the textbook with contemporary and real-world issues. A civic scientific literacy approach also provides opportunities for instructors to update and refresh topics that they can bring to the classroom. As those who work in primarily teaching institutions know, keeping up with major issues and findings across different areas of psychology can be very challenging, and incorporating a civic scientific literacy approach is one way that instructors can keep up with important new findings and developments in our field.

One way I have applied civic scientific literacy in my classroom, is by assessing student understanding of media reports about recent research findings. The Science Times section of the Tuesday edition of the New York Times is a great resource for finding relatively short articles, many of which cover recent research in psychology. These articles typically include terminology that can be found in the glossary of most introductory psychology textbooks, as well as explanations of current psychological theories and concepts. My colleagues, Daniel Corts (Augustana College) and Daniel DeNeui (Southern Oregon University) and I have used a measure of civic scientific literacy that requires students to read two science news articles during the first week of a 10-week term, and two additional articles during the final week of the term. After reading each article, the students answered questions of progressively deeper levels of complexity. The levels of the questions are based on a modified version of Bloom’s taxonomy (reference), beginning with defining scientific terms, then on to more complex levels, including understanding concepts, applying information, and evaluating claims (see Table 1 for sample questions).

Table 1. A sample multiple choice quiz used to measure student understanding of a media news report about research in behavioral neuroscience. The question levels are adapted from Bloom’s taxonomy.

Level of understanding

Sample question

Terminology 1. The frontal lobes are located in which area of the brain?

a. The cortex, the outer surface of the brain.

b. The middle region of the brain lying beneath its outer surface

c. Inside of the spinal cord

d. At the base of the brain, just above the spinal cord

Understanding 2. Which of the following best describes how fMRI technology can be used to study brain activity:

a. Radioactive glucose is injected into the bloodstream where it travels to the brain. Brain activity can be measured by the location of the radioactive particles.

b. Electromagnetic radiation is beamed through the brain, providing a two-dimensional photograph.

c. A detailed three dimensional picture of the brain is taken while blood flow to specific regions is measured.

d. A region of the brain is rendered inactive by creating a lesion (a surgically damaged area) and the behavioral impairment that results is studied.

Application 3) Imagine you are a neurologist and a patient who experienced brain damage pays you a visit. You play for her the videotape of the exchange described in the article and she fails to detect the sarcasm. You conclude that her right hemisphere is damaged. How might you determine whether her left hemisphere is also damaged?

a. Ask her if she understood the words that were used on the videotape.

b. Mute the volume and ask her if she can detect sarcasm with visual cues alone.

c. Speak sarcastically to her to see if she can detect it in person.

d. Test her for Alzheimer’s disease

Evaluation 4) The article describes a brain region that is lost or diminished in size in people who fail to interpret sarcasm. The scientific evidence for this claim was well established. Which of the following pieces of the article went beyond the scientific evidence that was actually described in the article?

a. That a brain region that is lost or diminished could account for poor ability in interpreting sarcasm.

b. That people with mild Alzheimer’s are able to perceive sarcasm

c. That language involves both verbal and nonverbal (“paralinguistic”) cues.

d. That Jon Stewart and others who are humorous would have larger right hemispheres given their humorous personalities.

The article is Hurley, D. (June, 2008). The Science of Sarcasm (Not That You Care). Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/03/health/research/03sarc.html

Articles were selected on the topics of behavioral neuroscience, sleep, cognitive psychology (problem solving), and pharmacology (anti-depressant drugs). Students were randomly assigned articles, with one article coming from each of the four topics; two were read in the first week of the semester (pre-test) and two in the final week (post-test). Overall, students showed a significant improvement in their ability to answer the questions between the first and last weeks of the class. Improvements were particularly apparent in questions measuring terminology and understanding (the first two of levels from Table 1). Students were better able to define basic terms, such as neurotransmitter, generalized intelligence, and temporal lobe. Students also demonstrated improved understanding of concepts, such as how selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors work and what functional magnetic resonance imaging allows scientists to measure.

Assignments such as these can be easily administered both online and during in-class sessions, and can be used in a wide range of class sizes. They can also serve as useful assessment tools for instructors who wish to measure teaching and learning across various levels of scientific understanding.

Why is Civic Scientific Literacy Important?

One appeal of the civic literacy approach is that it encourages students to contemplate the role that science plays in their everyday lives, and to apply and evaluate the relevance of science to public policy and concerns. This is the case for learning in any scientific discipline, for example, in biology, people who understand the basics of the carbon cycle will be better equipped to evaluate policy and debate about global warming, and students who understand the basic, yet fundamental concepts of evolution can better appreciate and contribute to issues such as species conservation.

In addition to natural and physical sciences, knowledge about psychological science is certainly germane to personal and public matters. Showing students how and why this is the case is a great way to draw them into course material—especially prior to wading into detailed concepts and theories in upper division courses. To illustrate, each year I teach several sections of a course on learning and memory, and on the first day of class, I engage my students in a myth busting exercise on relevant issues, one of which is that we have individually based learning styles. I am often struck by the number of students who believe (sometimes quite adamantly) that there are individual learning styles. On occasion, I have had students who came from schools that fully integrate Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences into their curricula. My introduction of Pashler et al’s (2008) critical review “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence,” raises much discussion, and sets the stage for scientific discussion of how we learn and remember.

Some other topics of civic importance within psychology include:

1)      Diagnosing mental disorders. A working knowledge of how psychological disorders are diagnosed is critical. Some that might be most personal to today’s students are: ADHD, PTSD, and autism, disorders that students have likely heard about or even been directly or indirectly affected by, though they often lack a basic scientific understanding of these disorders.

2)      Sex/gender differences. Our students often come into the classroom assuming we will confirm what they already believe about behavioral and cognitive differences between males and females. Certainly, many important civic issues depend on a public that understands the differences that do actually exist, how they arise, and those that only exist in myth and misunderstanding.

3)      Diet, exercise and other factors that may (or may not) influence cognition. The burgeoning scientific research on these topics can help students not only lead healthier lives, but also separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to non-scientifically based claims.

4)      Eyewitness testimony. Although students are typically fully aware that forgetting happens, and that two people can have very different memories of the same event, they typically do not realize the far-reaching consequences associated with our inherently imperfect memory systems. The topic of eyewitness testimony offers seemingly endless opportunities to link psychological science with real world applications.

5)      Moral reasoning and beliefs. When we query students about the origins of their personal beliefs, we often get the response, “Because that’s how I was brought up”. Scientific discussion of this topic has advanced considerably recently, with psychologists exploring where beliefs come from, how emotion influences moral reasoning, and how group processes influence beliefs. Students who learn about this research can therefore be better equipped to make reasoned and mindful personal, occupational, and political decisions.

Obviously, there is no shortage of opportunities for psychology instructors to raise civic issues and to teach students about the personal relevance of psychological science. One only need peruse any of the articles of Psychological Science in the Public Interest to appreciate this. This journal is a fantastic resource for topics relating to civic scientific literacy, and is a very valuable teaching resource.

Caveats and Conclusion

Since psychological topics are so pervasive in the media that psychology instructors often find themselves in the position of having to disabuse students of myths and oft-repeated false or half-true statements. One complicated aspect of civic scientific literacy concerns the nature of the sources we encounter. If, for example, our metric of civic scientific literacy is the ability to understand the contents of media reports about a scientific study, then we must also consider the media source itself. I am confident that many readers of this article read or peruse the science section of the New York Times because of its high quality and standards of science writing and reporting, but news reports of scientific findings from other sources clearly range in quality. Some media sources may stretch the implications of research findings, or simplify the language of the work to a point where it borders on inaccuracy. Poor quality science writing may also help to reinforce psychological myths. Students may be susceptible to believing these myths, especially if they encounter it frequently enough, have an anecdotal experience that appears to confirm it, or have “read it somewhere.” An important step to reversing mythical beliefs about psychology is to be explicit as to why they are false, and it appears that this is most effective if myths are refuted not just in lecture but also in the students’ textbooks (Kowalski & Taylor, 2009).

These problems with using media reports as a metric for scientific literacy also create opportunities for teaching. One aspect of critical thinking is being able to identify sources of information as being appropriate versus inappropriate sources. Introductory psychology instructors at my institution require their students to read both an original research article as well as a news article reporting on that research. The students’ task is to compare and contrast the two sources of information. Those who have used this assignment (myself included) have grown accustomed to responses such as “the research article had more numbers and graphs,” or “the news article seemed more opinionated.” Although such responses are superficial (and thankfully can be much more sophisticated), this type of assignment can serve as a good starting point toward getting students to identify different sources of information, and to think about and understand why they are different.

For many of our students, introductory psychology may be one of only very few science-based college courses they will take. We have an opportunity in our introduction to psychology classes, to help students think scientifically and gain a greater understanding of the science of psychology. Although introductory psychology is the focal point of this article, a civic scientific literacy perspective can also be readily applied to upper division psychology courses. Both new and veteran psychology instructors are aware that developing higher level thinking and analytical skills is an ongoing process. The four or so years we have with our students are critical for developing vital skills in scientific literacy, namely those that they can use when they encounter psychological science as it applies to civic and public affairs.

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