Giving Psychology Away: Teaching Students to Communicate with the Public

03 Feb 2019 10:25 AM | Anonymous

Judith Danovitch  (University of Louisville)

As an educator and a researcher, one of my primary goals is to enable my students to apply psychological findings to their daily lives. To this end, I encourage my students to share what they have learned in my child development courses with others, but I also worry about them being able to do so accurately and comprehensibly. The last thing I want is for my students to contribute to the pervasive misconceptions people have about psychology (see Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio, & Beyerstein, 2011). Inspired by the growing interest among psychologists in translating research for the public, and the success of innovative outreach events (e.g., the Ultimate Block Party; Grob, Schlesinger, Pace, Golinkoff, & Hirsh‐Pasek, 2017), I designed a course to teach undergraduates how to communicate with the public about psychology through a direct experience.

 “Giving psychology away” is a seminar that fulfills a university capstone course requirement for Psychology majors. The course goals have students identify how psychological theories and concepts can be applied to solving real-world problems, and understand and critique how the media represents psychological concepts and findings. In the process of meeting these goals, students develop their ability to translate scholarly language into lay terms, and ultimately demonstrate their capacity to do so by teaching local children about psychology.

Course content and class sessions

The course begins with readings and discussions about the value of psychological research for promoting human welfare (Zimbardo, 2004). It then proceeds to sessions addressing the representation of psychological concepts in the media, with examples of both accurate and inaccurate representations, and how the public perceives psychological research (Lilienfeld, 2012).  This includes a discussion of common misconceptions in psychology and how they originated (e.g., the Mozart effect; Bangerter & Heath, 2004). The course also covers ongoing challenges for psychological scientists, such as the “replication crisis” and reliance on WEIRD samples (e.g., Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010). Although students have typically completed four years of coursework in psychology, they often remark that the course content is new to them.

Class sessions revolve heavily around open discussion and each session includes an activity that incorporates communication skills. One skill that students practice repeatedly is summarizing research concisely using language that a lay audience can understand. For example, after reading a research article, students must state the problem the research addresses, the solution based on the research findings, and the relevance of the study to the public using only three sentences. Students also complete activities intended to support the public’s understanding of science. For example, in a session on media representations of research, students write 3 tips for evaluating a newspaper article about a research study, and I compile the tips into a class-wide document that students can share with others. In addition, one of the primary writing assignments for the course is to compose a 250-word blog post about a research study. These posts then undergo several rounds of peer editing and are eventually published for the public on the class blog (see

The Get Psyched! Outreach Event

To put their communication skills into practice, students work in pairs to develop a demonstration of a psychological concept or finding for third graders in the local community. The purpose of teaching third graders about psychology is two-fold: 1) educating children about a scientific discipline that is rarely included in elementary school curricula, yet has direct applications to children’s everyday lives, and 2) challenging students to be as clear and concise as possible. Third graders are an ideal audience because they are old enough to complete basic tasks, yet they have short attention spans and low tolerance for jargon and excessively detailed explanations. As I often tell my students: if you can explain psychology to a third grader, then you can explain it to anyone!

The first challenge for students is to identify and develop a 3-5-minute task that is engaging and comprehensible to children. Students begin by brainstorming a long list of potential topics, and then narrowing them down to a set that includes a variety of concepts while avoiding overlap (e.g., having 2 false memory demonstrations). Students are then paired into teams and assigned a topic based on their interests and they spend the majority of the semester developing the demonstration, including written and verbal explanations of the concept. Some students have presented classic introductory psychology demonstrations such as the Stroop task, and others have developed novel and creative demos of concepts ranging from spatial memory to social conformity. The demonstrations make use of common, inexpensive household materials (paper cups, index cards, blindfolds, etc.) and the only restrictions are that these should not involve consuming food, be very messy, or be excessively reliant on technology. After preparing their materials and practicing their presentations in class, the course culminates with the “Get Psyched!” event in which students share their demos.

As of Fall 2018, we have held two “Get Psyched!” events at the University of Louisville. The first event was held on a Saturday in a large space on campus. With funding from an internal grant, we printed and posted advertisements for the event around town and parents were invited to register their children in advance. The event was successful in that approximately 50 parents and children attended, and they unanimously provided positive feedback. However, there was a relatively high no-show rate and, despite our efforts to advertise in lower SES and predominantly minority communities, we found that attendees were predominantly white and from higher SES areas. Requiring college students to be available on a Saturday was also barrier for students who had family or work commitments.

The second time the course was offered, the Get Psyched! event was held on two separate school days at an elementary school close to campus that served children from predominantly low SES backgrounds. Students set up their demonstrations in the school gym and third grade classes were invited to attend with their teachers. Children were divided into groups of 3 or 4 and circulated through the demonstrations. Every 8 minutes they rotated from one station to the next, and completed all 7 demonstrations by the end of the hour.

At the beginning of each event, each child received a “lab notebook” (made of 4 sheets of standard paper, printed on both sides and stapled in the center). Each page in the notebook corresponded to one of the demonstrations and included three sections: 1) “what is the task?,” followed by a preprinted description of the activity, 2) “what happened?,” with space to enter data or mark responses, and 3) “what does this show?,” followed by a blank space. During the demonstration, students explained to the children what they would be doing, and supported them in recording their data (e.g., how many seconds it took to name the colors of each list of words). The students then discussed the results with the children (e.g., “you were slower at naming the colors when they didn’t match the words”), explained the concept underlying the demonstration (e.g., “this happened because you read the words automatically and your brain had to work harder when the color and the word did not match”), and, most importantly, gave an example of how the concept was applicable to the children’s daily lives (e.g., “when you have practiced something many times, it becomes automatic.”) Children were also given an opportunity to ask questions about the demonstration. After completing each demonstration, children received a child-friendly written description of the concept and its relevance to daily life printed on a large mailing label that they were to stick in the “what does this show?” section of their lab notebook. Thus, by the end of the hour, children not only heard and discussed the explanations of each demo with the students, but they also had a complete notebook to take home and share with their families. Additional resources for parents about psychological concepts including the class blog website, were printed on the back page of the lab notebook as well.


Anonymous evaluations from parents and children who participated in the Get Psyched! events were universally positive. In their evaluations, children were asked to list their favorite and least favorite activity and one new thing they learned. Following each event, students reviewed the feedback from attendees and wrote a reflection paper about their experience. In these papers, students frequently remarked on how challenging they found the presentations and how communicating psychology to the public was more difficult than they expected. Despite the challenges, students indicated that this course was the first time they had to apply their psychological training outside of the classroom, and that the experience was educational and useful. As the instructor, I have found that teaching this course has helped me develop my own communication skills as well and doing so has been a uniquely enjoyable and rewarding experience.

Author’s note

In the spirit of giving psychology away, the materials for Giving Psychology Away and the Get Psyched! Events can be accessed here:



Bangerter, A., & Heath, C. (2004). The Mozart effect: Tracking the evolution of a scientific legend. British Journal of Social Psychology, 43, 605-623.

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). Most people are not WEIRD. Nature, 466, 29.

Grob, R., Schlesinger, M., Pace, A., Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh‐Pasek, K. (2017). Playing with ideas: Evaluating the Impact of the ultimate block party, a collective experiential intervention to enrich perceptions of play. Child Development, 88, 1419-1434.

Lilienfeld, S. O. (2012). Public skepticism of psychology: why many people perceive the study of human behavior as unscientific. American Psychologist, 67(2), 111.

Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B. L. (2011). 50 great myths of popular psychology: Shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior. John Wiley & Sons.

Zimbardo, P. G. (2004). Does psychology make a significant difference in our lives? American Psychologist, 59, 339-351. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.59.5.339

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