By Monica Kim Ngan Thieu, John C. Foo, and Caroline B. Marvin
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many educators have had to rebalance their dual roles as instructors and support systems for students, all within an unfamiliar virtual learning environment, compounded by personal and global stressors. When redesigning our introductory psychology course for active learning and remote instruction, we considered how we might help students meet course learning objectives while supporting the students through the myriad pandemic-related disruptions to their lives. This led us to explore the possibility that teaching students to see psychological aspects of the pandemic through a scientist’s eyes could equip them to navigate the pandemic outside of the classroom.
How might this happen? The pandemic has made amateur epidemiologists of us, as we try to use research to assess how safe the outside world is in any given time and place. Suddenly, people of all professions were trying to make sense of existing research, breaking preprints, and clinical trial reports. College science courses are a primary avenue for helping students develop the scientific literacy skills necessary to engage critically with pandemic-related research. While we as psychologists are not equipped to discuss virology or vaccine biochemistry in our curriculum, we are well positioned to teach general scientific literacy skills. Our discipline is also not exempt from the pandemic: COVID-19 has permeated so deeply into day-to-day life that it has reached beyond biological and epidemiological domains to raise psychological concerns as well.
For example, during the pandemic, parents have been worrying about whether mask-wearing in schools would impede their children’s development (Klass, 2020). One alternative, remote videoconference-based schooling, has come with its own set of concerns for children’s development and mental health (Kuo & Nagel, 2020). Which of these options minimizes the negative impact on children’s minds? Insights from psychology can inform policy decisions that weigh immediate virus-related public health risks against potentially longer-term risks to psychological health and normative development. Furthermore, the psychological concepts relevant to this question cut surprisingly close to those covered in introductory psychology. For example, concepts from vision (e.g., perception of masked faces), language (e.g., how language comprehension might differ with mouths obscured vs. through a video screen), and cognitive development (e.g., how children at different developmental stages might respond differently to remote learning) can all inform arguments for masked in-person vs. remote learning. Could we reverse-engineer this policy issue in our introductory psychology course to use pandemic applications of psychology to teach both the concepts themselves and the skills needed to relate those concepts back to their applications?
This debate inspired our module about whether virtual or masked in-person instruction would better support normative child development during the COVID-19 pandemic. We adapted techniques from the jigsaw method (e.g., Barkley et al., 2014), problem-based learning (e.g., Allen et al., 2011; S. Wiggins et al., 2016), the case study method (Herreid, 1994, 2004; Herreid & Schiller, 2013), and empirical article teaching (Hoskins et al., 2007; Gottesman & Hoskins, 2013) for a remote learning environment. In this module and other modules in the course, students completed directed summaries of curated empirical articles, identifying and applying their key takeaways to inform potential answers to these larger questions. Our goals were to connect experiences from other domains of students’ lives with empirical research in the classroom and to engage real-world stakes to hone students’ critical-thinking skills, which might serve them beyond the classroom as they navigated the pandemic.
The course (PSYC 1021, Science of Psychology: Explorations and Applications) was piloted in the spring 2021 semester as an active learning, group-based introductory psychology course. Students majoring in psychology or neuroscience can select PSYC 1021 as their foundational prerequisite course, while humanities and social sciences majors can use this course to partially fulfill their science requirements. In response to the pandemic, we designed this course so that students could still engage in active learning experiences remotely over Zoom. Each week, students participated in two 75-minute class sessions that combined interactive lectures and small-group work in breakout rooms.
There were 17 first- or second-year students and 12 students in their third year and above enrolled in the course for the spring 2021 semester.
To help students develop their ability to extract core takeaways from empirical research articles, we introduced basic research methods in psychology and modeled applying the CREATE method (Hoskins et al., 2007)—Consider, Read, Elucidate the hypotheses, Analyze and interpret the data, and Think of the next Experiment—to an article recently published by a colleague (Turetsky et al., 2020). Students completed a preclass quiz that required them to recognize concepts from the paper’s abstract, introduction, and methods, as well as a video interview with the first author about the research. During our synchronous class session, we dissected the article as a class, aided by real-time Poll Everywhere questions and Zoom chat prompts. The session culminated in group work in breakout rooms, where students collaborated to identify limitations of the current study and remaining open questions.
In this article, we focus on our course module: “Is remote or masked in-person learning better for child development?” We guided students in approaching this complex interdisciplinary question using insights from psychology. When designing this module, we also had the opportunity to implement several inclusive teaching practices to create a supportive remote learning environment and a community of belonging for our diverse cohort of students. We describe these practices in the following sections so that fellow educators across STEM disciplines may learn from our experience.
Our first step in developing this module was to identify a pressing human interest question raised by the pandemic that our discipline (psychology) could address. We focused on questions that were urgent and interesting and whose answers could improve people’s lives, while reducing the risk of retraumatizing students, leading us to the question presented here. This step helped us reimagine how diverse course concepts could coalesce around our framing question. For example, perception and child development are not usually taught together in introductory psychology, even though much developmental psychology research examines the development of perceptual skills. Employing backward design (G. P. Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) by starting from the framing and working toward the content inspired us as instructors to see course concepts and their connections through new eyes.
Continuing in a backward design framework, we next aimed to identify appropriate articles whose core takeaways pertained to topic-specific concerns about masked or remote learning for children, using the following criteria:
We ultimately selected four articles for this module. The first article assessed differing childhood developmental trajectories for feature-based and configural visual processing of faces (Mondloch et al., 2003), pertaining to concerns that extended masked-face exposure might impair children’s face-recognition abilities. The second article examined configural-processing contributions to the other-race face recognition effect (Michel et al., 2006), in which perceivers have been shown to confuse faces more often when the race of those faces differs from their own. This paper addressed a more specific concern that extended masked-face exposure might uniquely impair children’s ability to recognize other-race faces. The third article reviewed the effects of background noise on children’s cognitive processing (Klatte et al., 2013), addressing concerns about whether noisy home “classroom” environments might reduce students’ ability to focus on and engage with class content. The fourth paper for this module reviewed the evidence for age-specific sensitive periods for normative emotional development (Woodard & Pollak, 2020), pertaining to concerns about whether pandemic schooling (and life) disruption might do specific, lasting harm to the emotional health of children within a particular age bracket. All articles were posted as PDFs in a course Google Drive folder available to all students, as well as on the course Canvas site.
We incorporated the following strategies when writing the assignment prompts themselves:
In this module, students worked in small groups, adopting the role of a team of consulting psychologists recruited to advise a hypothetical daycare and primary school on how its pandemic school opening policy might impact child development (Figure 1). We facilitated the module by adapting the jigsaw method for remote instruction (Amador & Mederer, 2013; Aronson & Patnoe, 2011), allowing students to engage in independent asynchronous and collaborative synchronous components.
Over four synchronous class sessions, students explored possible concerns about virtual and masked in-person instruction for young children on four psychological domains: vision (specifically face perception), hearing, language, and child cognitive development.
In addition, each group member was assigned one of the four domains in which they were to gain further expertise. Before the corresponding class session, that group member independently worked through a series of questions for an assigned empirical article and wrote a structured summary. During the class sessions, these students would serve as their small group’s resident expert as they worked together in breakout rooms to complete an in-class assignment pertaining to the topic.
Addressing the overarching module challenge required each group to integrate content from across each of their empirical research summaries as well as from the textbook and from class. Students spent the entire last class session of the module working on their group challenge reports in Zoom breakout rooms. Throughout the module, we prioritized whole-class interactions and group work for synchronous class time so students could learn from each other while minimizing their need to coordinate additional meetings outside of scheduled class time.
Across articles, a majority of students correctly and unambiguously identified the methods and results takeaways according to grading criteria, while the rest identified the gist of the takeaways, with only minor issues with clarity or swapped or incomplete definitions of key terms.
We were impressed with students’ applications of those takeaways to the framing question. Students did not all arrive at the same conclusions in their summaries, but they all cited valid results from their articles to back up their claims. In real policy applications of psychological research, the same results can plausibly be cited in support of differing recommendations, depending on the context of those applications and how the real-world scenario maps on to the task tested in the study. In that spirit, we credited students whose responses demonstrated sound reasoning, irrespective of their specific conclusions.
Overall, students wrote positively about our curriculum modules (including this module) in course reflections collected four times during the semester. Some students commented on the current events framing of the course. They noted that engaging with psychology course material in such a “living” format helped them form connections between course material and everyday applications. Other students stated appreciation for the experience they gained reading empirical articles, writing that they expected to use the skills they developed in future careers outside of STEM.
We had successes and challenges in balancing the flexibility of asynchronous independent work with the community-building of synchronous group work. We were heartened to see that some groups reported bonding socially over the course of the semester, even writing in their reflections that they hoped to get dinner together when they could all safely return to campus. However, other groups struggled to stabilize when members had to miss meetings and class time for personal reasons. Foregrounding group work in our online course seemed to be a qualified success: In some ways, it was quite effective for promoting real community between screens, but our efforts to scaffold class time with asynchronous work before class made the course rather time-intensive.
Students tended to highlight the course’s large time commitment in reflections. We allocated synchronous class time for group discussion so that students would need fewer additional meetings outside of class, but this necessitated assigning more content as homework. While students appreciated that preclass readings and assignments helped make in-depth activities possible during class, the time commitment was still sometimes burdensome given topsy-turvy time demands imposed by the pandemic. In response, we reviewed course deliverables and identified components that we could scale back with negligible loss to course objectives. We amended group module projects to require fewer supporting examples from in-class content, and we eliminated grades for in-class activities so students would not need to keep working on them after class. With these changes, we kept the class time commitment aligned with our pedagogical objectives while working to respect students’ self-awareness about what they needed to succeed in our course.
Student comments helped crystallize our own reflections on the success of our curriculum: We generally met the goals we set at the outset of the course, yet future iterations could streamline many of the elements we introduced this semester.
We present our experiences with some key caveats, though we believe the results from this pilot class are still qualitatively informative.
Because the class was brand new, we experimented with several new pedagogical methods. As a result, a variety of pedagogical manipulations beyond those reported here might have impacted students’ performance and perceptions of their class experience. In particular, our use of specifications grading (Nilson, 2015) pushed us to write assignment instructions so specific they could be used as criteria in our grading rubrics (Figure 2). This improved the overall transparency of our assignment prompts, which could be maintained even without using a binary grading system such as specifications grading. In addition, students did not have to worry about tracking every single point, giving them more flexibility to take intellectual risks and alleviate the downfalls of perfectionism so long as they met the specifications.
The other notable limitation arising from the pilot nature of the class was that we do not yet have enough students to power a quantitative analysis of student outcomes as a function of our experimental course designs. Our final enrollment of 29 students was too small for between-subjects analyses and likely also for within-subjects analyses (e.g., contrasting early- and late-semester outcomes to assess dose-dependent effects of assignment design on student learning, in which students improved more as they completed more assignments). We are continuing to collect data in subsequent offerings of the course so that we can conduct these analyses in the future.
Overall, we found that early-stage psychology and neuroscience undergraduates and undergraduates majoring in fields outside of STEM can extend the key ideas of empirical articles to reason about how to adapt to the pandemic while minimizing collateral impacts on psychological processes. We hope our experience adapting the jigsaw method to implement this pandemic-informed course module remotely may empower other instructors to bring the pandemic and other current and future issues into the curriculum, both purposefully and sensitively. Scientific literacy and critical-thinking skills can help students navigate the pandemic, and we STEM educators can do our part by training students to meet the challenges facing them outside the classroom.
We thank Kyle Tower, undergraduate TA for the course, and Patricia Lindemann, Kevin Ochsner, and Zachary Bucknoff for helpful discussions about introductory psychology.
Columbia University Office of the Provost Teaching & Learning Large-Scale Teaching and Learning grant awarded to Caroline B. Marvin, Patricia Lindemann, and Kevin Ochsner.
Monica Kim Ngan Thieu (email@example.com) is a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology, John C. Foo (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the assistant director of faculty programs and services for science and engineering at the Center for Teaching and Learning, and Caroline B. Marvin (email@example.com) is the director of academic affairs in the Department of Psychology, all at Columbia University in New York, New York.
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