Art & Creativity
Culture & Community
Education & Training
Media & Communication
Mind & Body
People & Life
Philosophy & Wisdom
Science & Nature
Soul & Spirit
Trade & Commerce
Work & Career


Web This Site


creative commons.png
Creative Commons 2.5

Instructional Technology: The Psychology of a Psychology Course

2003 marks my son's first year in university. He was accepted into the Commerce Program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He's worked hard and has earned the right to a higher education. His high-school average was quite high and he won the Economics Scholarship. He was also at the younger end of the now infamous double cohort. What we're finding, however, is that we no longer understand what the word "higher" has to do with a university education…

The double-cohort in Ontario essentially means that after an poorly implemented curriculum "innovation" twice as many high school students were competing for university admission in the fall of 2003. Ontario universities did everything possible to try and accommodate the influx. One would expect comprises in situations like this, yet some of these compromises are difficult if not impossible to accept.

My son decided to take Psychology as an elective and has now completed one full term. The means by which this course is delivered is not only an example of the worst use of technology, but it is even questionable to refer to it as education or teaching at all. One is left to wonder how a profession that purports to scientifically study mental processes and behaviours could implement such a poor and perhaps detrimental learning environment.

The Video Professor

Twice per week my son joins a group of students in a barren classroom setting. The professor has never appeared in real life, not once, but instead delivers lectures via videotape. The students watch the videotape and take notes. Once per week a seminar takes place with the aid of a teaching assistant to help answer any questions about the videotape or the required reading. All evaluations have taken the form of computerized multiple choice tests - a trite form of assessment that often has more to do with word games than it does knowledge. While my son is sitting in the classroom with his classmates, identical "lectures" are taking place simultaneously in other parts of the campus and after looking at the course calendar it is clear that these "lectures" are being presented to thousands of students. What we are in fact viewing here is a new problem complicating the problem of overcrowding.

I wonder if anyone is this Psychology Department researching the debilitating effects on learning and the victimization they are fostering on their own turf? Isn't this really a way to promote learned helplessness? Isn't it odd that experiences like this would originate in a Psychology Department - an area of expertise that embraces the mind?

The Instructional Design of Desperate Measures

The Psychology Department at McMaster Universitypromotes the following:

As scientists, experimental psychologists conduct research to help understand why people think, feel, and behave the way they do. As clinicians, counsellors, or other practitioners, psychologists apply scientific understanding toward helping individuals, institutions, and society deal with issues relating to human behaviour and happiness.

The implication is that "helping individuals, institutions, and society deal with issues relating to human behaviour and happiness" can be achieved, at least in the first year of study, by watching videos. Of course, the University has struggled to make the best of a bad situation they did not create - they can only react to the ineptitude of our former provincial government. So to accommodate more and more students on fewer and fewer resources they could only look to desperate measures. But if we separate the conditions leading to this kind of classroom experience and look at its effects, it is clear that this form of instructional design has little to do with the promotion of learning.

When my son asks me why we have to pay for this I have no answer that will satisfy him. He recalls high school with pleasure and notes the relationships he was able to build with his teachers - this human interaction was key for him as it is for all of us. We do accept that he must complete the university course and move on regardless of what we might think about it. His solution has been to skip classes, read the textbook and write the exams - he doesn’t even need to show up anymore - and his marks are just fine.

His motivation, however, has been rocked to the core and his interest in Psychology is waning due only to the insufferable boredom in its presentation. All we can do is hope that somehow the successive years will be better in the Darwinian maze of the university - I think the survivors of this nonsense get to meet real people eventually. If the medium is the message, then both the medium and the message, in this context, are stupid. It's not even a good movie theatre and we can get into those for $12. Any professor that believes this experience has anything to do with learning, education or teaching is one to avoid. My son is now researching professors to study with, rather than courses to take. This is probably a much better path, that is, finding interesting people to work with and not being too concerned about what their area of expertise is.

The Psychological Design of Insufferable Boredom

Is the problem with the study of Psychology? No. There are many interesting things to be discovered here. Is the problem precisely located with the professor who has taped his lectures? No. What else is he supposed to do - e-Learning (I hope not - but it does worry me - I can just see WebCT fodder emerging out of this morass and presented as some kind of "solution")?

In an interview for a magazine article a number of years ago I remarked that technology is not a replacement for real living breathing teachers. It still isn't and never will be, but that is not to say we won't make it so. It's happening at McMaster University. Our ability to delude ourselves is seemingly infinite; when do we simply stop and say, "Enough is enough." Or more to the point, "When do we take out this trash?"

The Instructional Design of Waiting

Another theme has emerged in my discussions with my son about his experiences in first year undergraduate studies. Higher education, in the broadest sense of that phrase, is fundamentally important to our world. It is a cherished resource and a universal right and responsibility. It is precisely because of this bias of mine that I believe we should be taking a hard look at it.

My son and I have been told that the Commerce Program at McMaster University doesn't get "good" until the second year. A friend of mine who graduated from this same program disagrees - he feels it's the third year. So in purely economic terms that would mean that $12,000 to $24,000 is being spent on something that is "less than good." We might submissively say that it's all what we make of it, but that response just isn't good enough.

There is a rumour that the first year is a "weeding out" year. Weeding out what? Indeed, there are students that take to partying too much and do not assume enough responsibility for their own education. They plant the seeds of their own demise. But this isn't the norm. Is it that weeding out must take place before the program gets "good?" Is weeding out merely a means to capture a large number of tuition payments?

Perhaps we can also look at weeding out as a means to eliminate those that will not submit themselves to the established norms for education at the university. At the same time I saw a number of my friends in my own undergraduate studies decide to quit not because they couldn't handle the courses, but because they didn't want to. They couldn't see the relevance. They couldn't see what the value might be to their own lives. While I would admit that some of them didn't try hard enough to seek relevance, I would also have to say that the university did little to help reveal it.

There are some key questions that need to be addressed:

  • Isn't the issue more accurately that some university courses are not flexibile enough to adjust and adapt to the unique interests, talents, abilities and creative capacities of the students in them?
  • When do we give the learners a voice beyond merely rating professors through these reputation systems we're so interested in?
  • Should not courses result in new knowledge and new perspectives that can be shared in successive courses rather than being limited to transmitting established information?
  • When do we stop under-estimating our youth and embrace them as people who have important ideas to offer us?
  • Do we really believe that because we are older and more experienced that that has something to do with being smarter or more intelligent?

Theme: Education & Training | (Jan 2/04) | Home | About | References | Site Index | Other Features | feed2.png |

Bookmark: | Connotea | Delicious | Digg | Furl | Y! MyWeb |


Recent Entries

Note: Comments on all entries are closed after two weeks to prevent comment spam. You can e-mail your comment on any entry to . Please be sure to specify which entry your comment references. I will also consider suggestions for future entries. Your feedback is welcome.

Thank you for this detailed and thoughtful comment.

It is because I value university education so much in our society that I raise this concern. Our government needs to provide a great deal more support. As I said in the original post - I do believe that universities are in a difficult position. They need better funding, and the difficulties they face have only been made more challenging by the double cohort. This has practical ramifications for what can and can't be done, so we all need to be flexible in our thinking. At the same time, if this means that my son, or any other student for that matter, cannot have the exciting opportunity to dialogue (face to face in real life) with a professor then I become very concerned.

Let me say this - nobody can replace you in the classroom. Nobody. I appreciate the role that video can play in getting a semblance of your knowledge and experiences communicated to students and perhaps video does have a role to play in certain circumstances. I do appreciate that there are talented undergraduate students who do care and desire to help the cause and may be able to extend your message to a degree. Undoubtedly, they work hard and do their best. But they cannot influence students the way you can - they simply don’t have the rich experience that you do. It may be that e-Learning has a role to play in delivering the course content, but this doesn’t replace you either. None of these things can serve as a replacement, however well crafted they are, for you.

To say that I believe you should be in the classroom is idealistic thinking I know, and it flies in the face of administrative realities (I can just see the bureaucrats rolling their eyes now). The sheer demand placed on your course makes it impossible for you to be present. And this is a great loss. Perhaps your department should scale back on how much demand you can reasonably deal with? Psychology is a popular course, so what I am saying contradicts the realities of the numbers you are facing. My understanding of psychology as a profession is that it values one to one dialogue first and foremost, and also makes use of small group dynamics. If I am at least partially right here, then why is the practice of educating students about psychology so different from the practice of psychology? (OK - I know some of the answers, but I suppose I have difficulty accepting them)

I am an alumnus of McMaster University myself and I have experience with the lecture situations you described. These situations were not preferences of mine either, and I may have been one of those students that opted for video lectures in a smaller setting - if that was one of the options I had. As one who has developed small group strategies for learning over the course of my own career, I completely agree that this approach is critical. I would also have to admit the obvious and say that I have never been in one of the Level 1 classrooms nor have I seen the videos themselves. If students are indeed engaged in independent learning activities and conversing on a regular basis about the knowledge they are being presented with, then this is a good thing. Sometimes however, and I am not saying that this is the case here, I have seen educators equate the word "independent" with "alone." Too often, independent learning is reduced to completing assignments from a pre-determined set of options by working alone or in small groups. To my thinking, involving students in independent learning places formidable demands on the teacher well beyond that of delivering lectures. Multiple choice tests, while having a limited kind of utility and formidable administrative advantages, have a limited role to play.

The bottom line for me is this:

The greatest resource in the university is the professor who has dedicated their life in pursuit of knowledge and unique kinds of experience. The books, videos, and e-Learning systems are all part of the educational equation, but they are secondary.

Professors have an incredible amount to offer students and it is vitally important that they do so. I can think of a number of professors in my own seven years of higher education that had a deep impact on me - although I might have some difficulty remembering the specific courses they taught (well, I could, but that isn’t foremost in my memory). One professor during my graduate studies at York University quite literally changed my life.

The word "stupid" is a harsh word I know. Without doubt I have committed numerous acts of stupidity. My only recourse is to try and learn from those mistakes and work differently. I used the word "stupid" to describe the method and circumstances of my son's experience. This is in no way to say that the people involved in this are stupid. In fact, I am saying precisely the opposite and it is for this reason alone that I decided to write what I did. I can say this in a much simpler way:

I wish my son had the opportunity to dialogue with you for I know it would have been a great benefit to him.

In behind all criticism is the desire for something better - at least that's the way I like to look at it. People like you are far more valuable to studens than the methods and technologies we find ourselves working with.

I was drawn to this discussion because so much of it revolves around the methodology of my Introductory Psychology course at McMaster University. I would like to add to this discussion in the hope that those who consider our approach as ‘stupid’ and ‘misguided’ will do so only after having been more fully informed.

Brian’s description of how the course is conducted is fairly accurate: The course is taught via video lectures shown simultaneously in multiple classrooms, twice per week. The third weekly meeting is a full period tutorial led by the Teaching Assistant who is present during every class. This year there were 72 such classes, each with about 40 students, with three to five meeting simultaneously. Except on the first day of classes (and during my thrice weekly office hours), students do not see me ‘live’. It is also the case that 75% of the course evaluation is via multiple-choice tests. This year, the remaining 25% is based on two problem-based learning projects which are completed in groups of 4-5 students.

We began using this video format over 30 years ago, and our choice to keep it is based as much on educational considerations as on practical ones (e.g., the double cohort). It is based primarily on the idea that students learn best - especially in their first year - in an small-group environment in which they have an opportunity to meaningfully interact not only with an instructor, but with each other; an environment in which somebody knows who they are, and what their needs and interests are. That simply doesn’t happen in traditional large lecture classes.

But if I’m not in the classroom, who is the ‘instructor’? In fact, not only is there no M.A. or Ph.D.-holding psychologist in the classroom, there isn’t even a graduate student. All our Teaching Assistants (‘Tutors’, as we call them) are undergraduates. The majority are in their final year of university, but nearly 30% are in their third year, and this year one or two were in their second year. So how can any real ‘education’ be going on here?

Before I try to answer that, let me skip to the bottom line (or one of them): What do our students think of this class, and of the Tutors in particular? The answers to those questions are clear and consistent: They rate the overall value of the course above average compared with their other courses; rate the video lectures very highly for their organization and clarity, and as above average in their ability to generate interest in the subject. They report that about 65% of the course material was valuable to them and give the course solidly positive ratings when asked whether they would recommend it to students on the basis of its educational value.

But they reserve some of their highest praise (in the form of both numerical ratings and spontaneous written comments) for the Tutors. It would be hard to overstate the importance of the Tutors to the course, or to the students in their classes. Every year for the past 25 years, undergraduate Introductory Psychology Tutors have received mean ratings for Overall Teaching Effectiveness that are higher than the average given to the faculty instructors in this, or any other similarly sized, department. Tutors are given high ratings for their knowledge of the course content, and for the clarity of their explanations. They are given exceptionally high ratings for their rapport with the class, and their enthusiasm and professionalism. Each year a number of them are nominated for the campus-wide Teaching Assistant awards, and several times have won the award - over the hundreds of graduate student teaching assistants on campus.

Would faculty members do better? Well interestingly enough we had faculty members (some of our most highly-rated teachers, in fact) serve as Tutors many years ago. On the average, they were rated more highly than our undergrads (though not by much), and the most highly rated of them was surpassed by three undergraduates - one a third-year student.

Wouldn’t ‘live’ lectures be better, even if in a large auditorium holding 200, 300, or even (as our largest classroom does) 500 students? Perhaps, but our students don’t seem to think so. For a number of years we asked them to rate their preference among the four possible combinations of live/video lectures with small/large classes. Their strong preference (sensibly), was for a live lecturer in a small class. Since that is rare (if not impossible) in a huge level I course, our primarily interest was in their second choice - which was for the video lectures in a small class. Live lecturers in a large class finished a distant third in their preferences, followed by (and I can’t imagine why anyone chose it) video lectures in a large class. The answers were so consistent year after year, that we gave up asking.

But aren’t we shortchanging out students’ learning by providing them with video and undergraduate Tutors? I don’t think so at all. First of all, while two of our three classes in most weeks contain a lecture video, almost half of the class period even on those days is given over to questions and discussion. So students actually spend about 90 of their 150 class minutes per week engaged with the Tutor and each other discussing and asking questions about the course material. Second, it seems to me (and we can all search our recollections of university) that most students do very little of their learning ‘in’ traditional classes. They ‘learn’ outside class by reading and studying their texts and class notes, and by discussing the course material with teaching assistants and other students. Our students already have class notes, in the form of a handbook that contains outlines of all the video lectures, which they can supplement if they wish in class (or from the transcripts of the video lectures which we post on the course web site). So I advise them to spend their time in class listening and thinking rather than taking dictation - which is what most of them do when they take their own notes. What we want to do in our classes is engage students with the material, let them ‘get their hands dirty’. Very little of this happens in large lecture sections.

Can the Tutors answer all the question their students might have? No, nor can I. And I don’t want the Tutors to do that. I want our students to be independent learners, not tied to what they hear in the classroom. I want them to go out and look for the answers themselves, in a variety of places. And that’s exactly what they do in our problem-based group assignments.

Can the Tutors offer their students anything that I cannot? Quite a bit, actually. Unlike me (or any other faculty instructor or graduate TA), the Tutors have taken this course, and remember what it was like to try to master the material for the first time. They know better than I do what might give students trouble, and what strategies they might use to make the concepts meaningful. Year after year Tutors develop remarkably creative classroom activities that help students understand and apply course concepts. Tutors have also taken many of the other courses that their students are taking, or will take, and can provide the sort of academic advice that would be utterly beyond most instructors. Above all, perhaps, the Tutors are an indication to their students of what they themselves can expect to achieve in just a year or two - which is perhaps why the majority of students who apply to be Tutors cite their own Tutor as a major inspiration.

I could go on, but I think I have laid out what I consider to be the major advantages of our approach. I think it suffers in comparison with large lecture sections only if we view the function of the educator to be handing out information for students to write down.

While it may not be unfair for Brian to describe our classrooms as ‘barren’(in the purely physical sense), I am much more interested in what is happening in them pedagogically and intellectually - and based on what I see and hear from Tutors and students alike, they seem to me to be exceedingly rich places indeed.

Hi Bob,

"“Why not live in place where I can have professors as friends? Why not live in a place with a network of support, advice, love, respect, melodrama, and laughter? Why not live in a place where you feel like a part of something bigger, something deeper, something more?” The collegiate landscape of the future will be a landscape that is filled with history and memory, where every student is part of something bigger, something deeper, something more."

I hope you are right - this would be welcome. The narratives you tell are very interesting. My son does live in residence at McMaster and while I can't say it's the nightmare you described in one of your accounts, it isn't an inspiring way of life either. Since he lives about 45 minutes away from campus, his original plans for living there full time have now been reduced to during the week only - and sometimes less than that.

It's a great concern that needs to be addressed. The quality of undergraduate life is extremely important, yet it seems to be an area that receives little attention. My son likes to have a good time, but he can't stand the excessive partying and general goofing around that goes on. He defines "having a good time" quite differently from his peers. I know he has already told me that there is no chance that he will live on campus next year.

This is a shame. Not only do some professors seem to not care about the quality of education they provide, but the university itself does not seem to care about the quality of life on campus either. There is no real sense of community being fostered. I just don't get it at all.

Have we so embraced ignorant bureaucratic processes that we turn everything into assembly lines and only pay superficial attention to the human beings that are on them?

Is this really "higher" education? It seems that in many ways, my son's high school education was quite a bit "higher" than his university education.

Of course, my son will complete his studies and I suspect quite admirably. But that really isn't the point.

A remarkable and disturbing account. I've made a link to it on the news page of my website The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges and Higher Education Reform.

You ask: "And on the other side of the coin, where are these stories or narratives that will provide guidance? Are these stories that we read and enjoy or actually take action on?"

I offer one such narrative: my sketch of the collegiate landscape of the future.

As one of the cleverest students I've ever known once asked, "Why are we here if we're not magic?"

I read Ken's posting and added a comment - very interesting indeed.

I had two long discussions with my son yesterday. He has dropped the Psychology course. This has nothing to do with Psychology - he remains interested, but in his words, "I can't stand the method." He's right to be fed up and angry at the way he has been abused.

He found a new course - Introductory Anthropology. He found this course not by searching the course catalogue but by researching student feedback on professors and their courses. This professor's feedback is very strong. I am more optimistic about this course. He is head of undergraduate studies and places a limit on the number of students that can take his course. Based on his first lecture he speaks his mind and has thirty years experience in the field. There is a substantial waiting list and the only reason my son was able to get in was through persistence. The waiting list obviously has something to do with anthropology, but I think it has much more to do with the professor's reputation.

We're both thrilled that a real live breathing human being is going to be in the classroom for every lecture - someone that wants to be because he (from what I can tell at this early stage) respects his students and wants them to be excited about learning.

The course taught by the most famous professor at my undergraduate institution lived on in a similar fashion even after his death:

Pretty grim stuff.

I recently read a nice piece by Stephen Downes called 2004: The Turning Point. In it there is a section called "Population In Serach Of A Community" where he says:

"Despite blogrolls, comment forms, trackbacks and more (all of which are showing early signs of spam pollution), blogging is essentially an individual activity, not a participation in a group.

This mass of people will be cast adrift once again, searching for a way to form a group. There won't be a single magic bullet application that meets this need. But a suite of tools, ensuring bloggers not only the capacity to write, but also the chance to be heard, will begin to evolve through the new year. Part of this will have to do with the email reduc, which will allow readers to select their sources. The other part will have to do with effective personalization."

I hope he's right.

I can really understand why William Gibson bid blogging a fond farewell.


I don't think I have heard of Sturgeon's Law (90% of everything is crap!) but can attest that this also applies to our research on discussion group posting patterns.

We found that approximately 90% of "participants" never post, 90% of the posts that do exist are "me too" replies to original posts ("Cool. I totally agree, dude.") and 90% of original posts never receive a reply. These are approximate numbers but they reflect Sturgeon's Law very closely.

Theme: Education & Training | (Jan 2/04) | Home | About | References | Site Index | Other Features | feed2.png |

Copyright: Creative Commons 2.5