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Aha! How three psychology professors are inspiring their students

by Emily Sohn

In a huge lecture hall, it can be easy for students to fade into the crowd while professors rhapsodize about abstract academics. But that scenario is no fun for anyone -- teachers or students. And passive listening rarely leads to a lifelong love of learning. Instead, psychology professors at the University find entertaining and unusual ways to engage their students, whether they are teaching a class of 20 or 200. Meet three professors who are inspiring students to learn -- and enjoying themselves in the process.

Marti Hope Gonzales

Early in the semester, Marti Hope Gonzales shows an episode of The Twilight Zone to her Introduction to Social Psychology class. In the show, called "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," residents of a typical American town become convinced that some of their own are aliens from outer space.

Determined to figure out who the monsters are, neighbors start ganging up on each other, even though none of them are actually aliens. "All of a sudden, the schemas they use color their interpretation of innocent behaviors, like looking at the sky when they can't sleep," says Gonzales.

Social psychologists study human behavior, including human shortcomings. So, after showing the episode, Gonzales asks her students to write a short paper about why they think the residents of Maple Street abandoned good sense and acted so irrationally. At first, the students resist, unsure of their answers. When she shows the episode again at the end of the semester, she notices a major shift in their knowledge and their confidence. "Hands go up," she says. "People begin talking like social psychologists. It's rewarding for me and for them to see how many scientific concepts they have made their own."

Equally rewarding is giving her students tools to better understand themselves and the world around them, says Gonzales, who has been teaching at the University for 21 years. One way she does that is to have students participate in illuminating experiments. In one class exercise, for example, students are paired, given fictional information about the personalities of their partners, then asked to interview each other. Unintentionally, students end up asking questions to elicit the answers they expect. When they are told to determine whether their partners are extroverts, for example, they might say, "Tell me about the last party you went to." Even introverts will sound like extroverts when they are talking about parties.

"They hear me talk about the biases people hold and the consequences of being less than rational," Gonzales says. "They think, 'Other people might do that but I'm special.' After I put them in the role of participants in experiments, they realize, 'My God, I do behave like those other participants do.'" Gonzales makes sure boredom is never an option, even in her largest classes. She walks around the room, makes eye contact, encourages students to talk, and repeats what they say. "Kind of like Oprah," she says. And she throws herself into her lessons -- literally. One time, she fell flat on her face while she was pacing around a lecture hall filled with hundreds of students. After the laughter died down, she explained how psychologists have learned that mistakes make competent people seem more human and appealing. "I work to make everything fodder for learning," she says, "even when I mess up."

Traci Mann

At some point every semester, Traci Mann stresses her students out -- on purpose. "I walk into class, make them all shut up, and tell them we're having a pop quiz," says Mann, a health psychologist who came to the University last year. "I put up really hard questions and let them get miserable for two minutes."

"Miserable" is putting it mildly. The students grow furious. Their palms sweat. Their hearts pound. Some try to get up and leave. Once Mann is sure they hate her, she tells them there's no quiz. Then she leads a conversation about the connection between stress and health -- one of her research specialties. By that point, everyone has something to share, including Mann, who has strapped a blood pressure cuff on her arm during the exercise to gauge her own stress levels. "I literally worry about it the whole day every time I do it," Mann says. "But it does cover the entire topic."

Making subject matter personal is just one way that Mann inspires her students to learn. And the joke isn't always on them. In Los Angeles, where Mann lived before moving to Minnesota, she pursued a hobby as a stand-up comic, often making herself the butt of her own jokes. She carries that spirit into the classroom, where students appreciate her personal anecdotes, especially when they make her look bad. "I always tell the most embarrassing stories about myself," Mann says. "The more embarrassing to me, the more they love it."

Exchanging stories, she has found, is a great way to make learning mutual. In her freshman seminar last year, for example, she and the students bonded about being new to the University. They also shared a sense of discovery about the seminar's topic -- the psychology of eating and body image. Even though Mann has been conducting research on that very subject for more than a decade, she was as surprised as the students were to learn how much women in our culture engage in "fat talk." For a whole week, the class had to avoid making negative comments about their bodies or what they ate. Mann participated, too. "It was even hard for me," she says. "And I'm an adult who doesn't have body image issues in this stage of my life."

By engaging her students on a personal level, Mann hopes to send them off with more than just academic lessons. "I don't expect any of my students to be researchers in health psychology, but I do expect them to go on and be the kind of people who want to be healthy and happy," she says. "Hopefully those are things they can learn about in class."

Chad Marsolek

Chad Marsolek wants to know how the mind works. In his lab, the cognitive neuroscientist studies how our emotions and social interactions influence what we see, remember, and learn. It's complicated stuff that combines abstract philosophical theory with high-tech brain scans. That scientific rigor is what drives Marsolek, who has been conducting research at the University for 12 years, but he also loves sharing his passion for discovery with his students. Their insights, he says, make him better at what he does. "It's great to hear their takes on difficult material," he says. "They sometimes come up with things I haven't thought of."

Marsolek especially enjoys teaching graduate seminars. Every week in these small groups of advanced students, he distributes a collection of recent journal articles that touch on a single topic. Each study, for example, might involve a part of the brain that scientists don't yet understand very well. As the students draw connections between articles, "aha" moments accumulate, Marsolek says. Excitement is collective. And inspiration follows. "After the best seminars," he says, "students come away with ideas about experiments they want to do next."

For the first time last year, Marsolek also taught a freshman seminar. He struggled at first to get into the mind-set of students who were only recently in high school. Once the class got going, though, he was impressed with their questions. A few students in particular seemed especially interested, and he encouraged their curiosity. "I simply opened the door," he says, "and asked if they wanted to try doing some work in my lab." For credit, two undergraduates are working with him as research assistants.
If nothing else, Marsolek wants to share his love of research with his younger students, who don't often realize that psychology is a real science, not just a way to help people. "We can do experiments that allow us to draw solid conclusions about how memory works," he says. "It's interesting to take that kind of work and apply it in therapy and other ways. But generating basic scientific knowledge about something as ephemeral as the human mind can also be really interesting in and of itself."

Over the years, Marsolek has discovered another benefit of teaching. "The rewards you get from research come months or sometimes years after the work was done," he says. "The rewards you get from teaching immediately follow your work."