Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

When Less is Actually More in the Psychology Classroom

Applying the Zeigarnik Effect to Promote Good Teaching

Modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969) gave us the memorable axiom that “less is more.” But how does less become more when teaching psychology? After all, covering the major areas and main findings—the “greatest hits” of the discipline, if you will, is an increasing challenge. Introductory books in psychology keep getting longer (the bestsellers in this category often exceed 800 pages) but the typical semester is still around 14 or 15 weeks in length.

As I’ve advocated before, depth rather than breadth should be a good teacher’s goal. You cannot cover everything, so why try? Why not focus on a few key topics linked to the major topical areas (e.g., neuroscience, memory, development, social psychology) and rely on your students (with encouragement) to get the details or the “big picture” by doing the assigned reading outside of class. This remains a sound and reasonable practice.

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But what about you, the instructor? How do you curb your tendency to want to prepare—perhaps over-prepare—each of your classes so as to reduce the inherent fear of teaching uncertainty (e.g., “What if I finish my notes too soon, then what?”, “What if I get asked a question I can’t answer about a topic I should know?”). Such typical fears—especially those yoked to the start of the new academic year—never disappear in good or great teachers (they usually do in mediocre teachers; mores’ the pity). Nor should they.

I suggest that teachers reflect on and apply some classic work from early social psychology dealing with the Zeigarnik effect. Bluma Zeigarnik (1901-1988) was a student of the social-personality psychologist Kurt Lewin. In the course of conducting her research, Zeigarnik observed something very interesting: People recall incomplete or interrupted tasks more clearly than completed ones. In other words, we can forget details of a completed task—maybe even that we did the task itself (which is adaptive: who wants to remember all the accomplished but trivial acts that comprise a given day?)—but not those things we’ve left undone or hanging. She linked this memory phenomenon to the then influential ideas of Gestalt psychology, suggesting that a mental tension exists when closure (i.e., a completed task) or a “good Gestalt” is not reached.

 Zeigarnik (1935) wrote that:

“. . . the recall-value of unfinished tasks is high because at the time of the report there exists an unsatisfied quasi-need. This quasi-need corresponds to a state of tension whose expression may be seen not only in desire to finish the interrupted work but also in memorial prominence as regards that work” (p. 313).

We all know that generally endings are welcome qualities—they indicate one thing is finished so another thing can begin. But perhaps closure for the classroom—a complete outline for a given class, copious and detailed notes, too many activities or YouTube videos ready to go, a list of prepared discussion questions, in short, all the things over-prepared and nervous (often novice) professor have in hand—is more disruptive than it is helpful. Perhaps teachers would do better if they came to class uncertain of where things were going to go—that is, class preparation is moderate and sufficient, not exhaustive.

 A little uncertainty, then, may lead to a creative (Zeigarnik-like tension) in the teacher, which means she is aware that nothing is decided about where the class will go—the students may steer discussion or some unexpected comment or observation may prompt a new line of inquiry. Some tension (note that this should not be stressful), then, can be a solid source of motivation for good teaching. Good, even great, classes and courses can emerge from moderate teacher uncertainty (not maximal). I’ve observed that the professional talks that I and others give are almost always much better if they are not over-rehearsed and scripted—doesn’t it make sense that this would also hold true for the college classroom?

 Instead of being perceived as negative, a reasonable amount of teacher uncertainty should be seen as a positive event. In turn, less preparation should allow for more spontaneity in teaching and exchanges with students in the course of a class. In practical terms, instructors should break course or class preparation into discrete units; don’t do them all at once—and don’t do everything (i.e., try to cover every topic in a chapter). Similarly, prepare a given lecture with parts that are intentionally incomplete. Jot down relevant questions in lieu of providing “answers” in your notes, either for yourself or for the student’s edification. Remember that less preparation may promote better recall for you. Better to be a teacher who is on his or her toes than one who is too complacent or assured; that way lies mediocrity.

Where good teaching is concerned, less can sometimes be more.

 

 

 

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

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