Teaching Hub

Hands-On Learning in Large Psychology Course

Instructor: Ansley Gilpin
Course: Developmental Psychology (PY 352)
Audience: Undergraduates

Developmental Psychology is a large, 225-student course for upperclassmen. Some of the students are psychology majors, and others are fulfilling a requirement or an elective for another major (e.g., nursing and education). The course uses active and collaborative learning to help students understand and apply the key theories of human development.

What are your favorite teaching strategies in this class?

My favorite teaching strategies are ones that engage students. In such a large class, there’s naturally a good portion of lecture, but I infuse these lectures with entertaining videos, examples, and activities.

For example, every 5 to 10 minutes, students do a quick, 1- to 2-minute activity. This may be a solitary exercise — “write down an example of X from your own life” — or a Students in Ansley Gilpin's classneighbors, and then a few of them share their answers with the class.

We also use clickers to review what we’ve learned in a previous lecture or to anonymously poll students the audience about their life experiences. We hop from activity to activity in this class, so there should be no time for students to zone out. (Note that I rarely do major activities that require students to relocate because it’s disruptive, and crowd control wastes a lot of time.)

Students learn early on that they’re going to be involved in activities with their peers, so they are encouraged to sit near people with whom they want to collaborate. This saves valuable time and makes students comfortable with the collaboration process. It also creates small communities of students that support each other. And research shows that students involved in communities are more likely to graduate.

What challenges does this course present?

The sheer size of the course limits the activities and assignments that are feasible.

What are your solutions?

I don’t focus on the activities that I can’t do easily. I just try to incorporate the ones I can. As long as the class offers a reasonable variety of events — lecture, video, group discussion, clicker polls, individual activities — students will stay engaged.

Have you introduced something new to enrich or enliven this course?

At the end of the semester, we have a “Kids in Class” day where students invite children and their parents (relatives, neighbors, friends) to class, and then we make assessments for children of various ages. The students then administer the tests to the children in groups, so they get to see their development “come to life,” rather than just hearing me talk about it, watching a video, or reading about it in their textbook.

This hands-on learning activity is very popular with students, but I can only do it once a semester in larger classes due to crowd control.

What else do you want students to leave your course knowing?

I want students to leave Developmental Psychology having an understanding of child development, reasonable expectations for the children in their lives, and an appreciation of the careers that help children grow into successful adults.

By the end of my career, I will have taught this course to approximately 10,000 students — that’s a small town! I hope that my work, both in the classroom and in my research, makes a lasting, positive effect on children.

Gilpin is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology.