Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

Avoiding Summer Slippage

Keep your mind relaxed but active during the summer.

For the majority of college students, the summer months represent a break. A time to kick back, lay back, hang out, and relax after two semesters of schoolwork. To be sure, some students may be taking a college course or two, either to catch up or to get ahead where credits towards graduation are concerned. But most students are probably working (or looking for work) that will earn them money for tuition, living expenses, or some combination of both. Studying per se is not on the horizon, at least not until late August or early September when the great migration back to campus occurs.

As the lazy, hazy days of summer pass, parents of elementary, middle, and high school students often worry that time off from learning tasks in the summer takes a toll where their children’s skill retention is concerned. Should college students worry about this sort of summer slippage? Should a rising college junior worry about what she might “lose” knowledge-wise from May until the dog days of August? Should the former freshman wonder whether the skills acquired during his first year will fade fast?

Probably not. But I don’t think the summer months should be lost as a time for learning something new. I wouldn’t worry so much about slippage where particular skills are concerned, rather I think college students (and former college students!) should use their down time for doing some things linked to the life of the mind. Here is a modest list of activities aimed at keeping students intellectually sharp where psychology and related topics are concerned.

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Read something you routinely avoid reading. If you like to read mysteries, then pick up a piece of nonfiction. If beach reading is your usual fare, then pick up a classic (a friend is soon to lend me Jane Eyre, as I mentioned I’ve never read it). If you don’t like poetry—which probably means, like most of us, you don’t know much about poetry—then give it another chance. Don’t pick a challenging poet; pick an accessible one (Emily Dickinson is arguably both, but she is a pleasure to encounter a first time). If you like movies, then read a play. Death of a Salesman is wonderfully psychological, as is virtually every play by Eugene O’Neill (if you’ve never read Long Day’s Journey into Night, now is the time).

Read a trade book on a psychological topic. There are now numerous books written by academic psychologists for general readers on topics like happiness, behavior change, decisions, economics, and political orientation, among others. An online search or a visit to an actual bookstore (remember those?) will allow you to choose one that interests you. Then you can sit pool, lake, or beachside and think about psychological issues while relaxing—and you will feel virtuous at the same time!

Head to a museum. It doesn’t really matter what sort of museum—art or science, for example. Just spend a couple hours walking around and looking at the exhibits. You may discover an artist, an art form, a scientist, or some fact you never heard about before. Take a friend so that you can talk about the experience afterwards.

Go to the movies. Although I am a big fan of seeing at least one blockbuster during the summer, the sort of film that doesn’t make any intellectual demands on you (confession: I loved the first Transformer movie and there is a summer long James Bond film festival in the city where I live), I think you should balance the celluloid equation by going to an art film or a documentary of some sort. If your city or town has an Indie sort of theater, then you may have lots of unfamiliar films to choose from—if not, you may have to look around harder or hit up Netflix. If nothing else, see A Dangerous Method for an intriguing portrayal of Jung and Freud.

Listen to some new music. Outdoor concerts are a terrific way to connect with nature and listen to some great music. You may think you don’t like classical music or jazz, but have you ever given it a chance? You may dismiss rap in favor of rock but, again, have you really listened? Go with a friend, someone who can suggest a great concert, and then take an open mind with you.

Here’s a radical idea: Take a class! No, not necessarily one of those classes—take one that is meant to relax and enrich you at the same time, such as a drawing or painting class, a photography class, or woodworking class, something that is challenging but not overwhelming. A class that will introduce you to some new skill (bird watching, gardening, beer making, wine tasking, cooking) but that does not require the sort of formal, familiar studying associated with the college classroom. Pick something that motivates you to do something once or twice a week.

Summer slippage may not be a real problem for most students, but summer will soon slip away. Don’t let opportunities to broaden your mind slip away, too. Pick one—just one—of the above now and get started. Repeat as needed.

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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