'Running' an introductory module

Orla T. Muldoon and Aisling T. O’Donnell on a novel idea for your classroom

The energy and enthusiasm of first-year undergraduates is powerful and infectious, yet few opportunities are presented to undergraduates to channel this enthusiasm and resourcefulness as they enter the university system. As psychologists, we often like to believe that the popularity of psychology courses and modules rests on the usefulness of the discipline. And whilst most of us truly believe this to be the case, when students commence their degree programme in psychology, knowledge is offered in a very hands-off way (via lecture materials).

Perhaps reflecting this, applied work is often seen as the business of postgraduate education rather than as the core of the undergraduate curriculum. Moreover, those involved in higher education often view teaching introductory psychology as ‘pulling the short straw’. First-year psychology is, however, an important and legitimate stage of all undergraduates’ education. Every year literally thousands of undergraduates arrive to study psychology, many of whom have not had any previous exposure to the subject, and some of these are on the first step of their journey to becoming professional psychologists. Others will find different paths. Their experience of psychology, however fleeting, is also important, as they can be influential in determining the wider views of the discipline.

So, when redesigning this introductory module this academic year, the value of psychology to starting undergraduate students was at the forefront of our minds. We decided to meet enthusiasm with enthusiasm! We wanted students to evidence the value of our discipline’s knowledge for themselves. Central to this enterprise was a learning approach that encouraged students to take ownership of the material presented, and see how it could enhance and inform their everyday lives. Our own experiences as students and educators, along with the wider literature, told us that just presenting this material might not engage all of the students. Our cohort of 160 students, included those who were taking psychology as their primary degree subject and those who were not, and we wanted to bring the material to life for the most and the least engaged.

After due deliberation, advice from the appropriate professionals and a little resistance from colleagues, we scaffolded student learning with real-world activity. We encouraged students to participate in regular training with others in their class for a big local event called ‘The Great Limerick Run’. Those not interested in running were tasked with raising sponsorship money for their running peers – an equally viable and valuable alternative to running. Our aim was to encourage student learning, promote their health, and introduce the concept of reflexivity early in their academic careers.

Over the course of the module, students encountered material which encouraged them to think about biological-, cognitive-, social- and individual-level factors that contribute to health and well-being. Psychological research tells us, for example, that regular exercise, a sense of shared identity or connectedness with others and social support are all important determinants of health and well-being. Similarly altruistic behaviour was analysed in the classroom, and students were encouraged to think about how these multiple factors might relate to their engagement with training and/or fundraising.   

This plan was not a flight of fancy. We were keen to introduce both the breadth and the depth of the discipline. The planned module was one that was heavily embedded in the contemporary literature and that sought to introduce students to the multiple levels of analysis in psychology. And, as always, this was what formed the substance of the lectures and readings for the module. For example, theory and research has been central to explaining the relationship between physical activity and health, and has recognised the positive effects
of exercise on many elements of physical health. However, psychology is also central to understanding those factors that promote and inhibit engagement with exercise. The analysis of these relationships in class occurred at multiple levels. Students were encouraged to think reflexively about their own exercise habits and how they might relate to dispositional or temperamental factors.
In this way, students were encouraged not only to take control of their own learning but also to think about how their own actions might influence their health and well-being.

To this end, in the first tutorial session at the start of the module, each student audited their own physical health.  They measured their own blood pressure and pulse rate (on three occasions to correct for any reactivity to measurement), weighed themselves, calculated their BMI and measured their body fat. For most students, these indices were within normal range. However, there were five students who were clinically hypertensive and 31 per cent of the class had BMIs that were outside the normal range. For those willing to tackle the Great Limerick Run, a timed mile was also completed.  

Exercise is also believed to have an effect on psychological well-being over and above the effect on physical health (Hassmén et al., 2000; Scully et al., 1998). This effect appears to work by flattening the biological reactions to stress and by modulating the variability in levels of neurotransmitters in those who take regular exercise. Others suggest this effect is mediated cognitively (Salmon, 2001). Regular vigorous exercise has been found to reduce ruminations associated with mood disorders, for example.For our students, the review of this material again facilitated the use of multiple perspectives in informing a particular phenomenon, in this case emphasising the core areas
of biological and cognitive psychology.    

Haslam and colleagues (2009) suggest that psychological benefits are often moderated by a strong sense of shared identity; that is, by feeling part of a larger group or enterprise. Often being part of a larger group can be symbolised and evoked through collective events or through having a superordinate goal. A central element of the module, therefore, was students collectively choosing a charity that they felt they could support, and working as a group to fundraise. In this way, theories of altruism and prosocial behaviour, and their causes and consequences, could be linked into early teaching in the module. As well as this, the charity element of the module allowed runners and non-runners to engage in the module as equal partners.  

Again drawing on the psychological literature that outlines the health benefits of social interaction and social support (Ybarra et al., 2008), the importance of these social elements and the power of peer support in occupational and educational contexts was emphasised.
In order to allow students to self-assess, students completed measures of social support (Sherbourne & Stewart, 1991) mindfulness (Feldman et al., 2006) and psychological well-being (Goldberg, 1978) at this stage. A very high proportion of our group (35 per cent) scored above the cut-off that is claimed to be indicative of psychological disorders (Werneke et al., 2000).

It was not all plain sailing; difficulties inevitably arose as students sought to build a consensus around their chosen charity. There were competing and conflicting agendas. Once the charity was settled upon, conflicts arose within the group around how to execute fundraising efforts. Students who took up leadership positions to drive fundraising were sometimes treated ambivalently by their peers. These issues were treated as ‘learning opportunities’ and were embraced to encourage students in reflexive practice. Practically, this meant they were dealt with openly to illustrate materials covered in lectures relating to group dynamics and leadership.

Despite these challenges, we are delighted to report that the students really rose to the challenge offered by this alternative learning approach. Our own reflections and analysis suggest that we had a more engaged group of first-years than in previous years. Students speak to us more freely, first-years are more engaged in the student-led Psychology Society, and we know them better than has typically been the case. Of 157 students, 120 registered for the Great Limerick Run. The students organised three fundraising efforts: a coffee morning, a humorous sports day, and sponsorship. In total €3224 was raised for Pieta House, a local organisation that works with those at risk from suicide and self-harm. This charity was wonderfully responsive to their interest. A clinician visited and spoke to the students, much to their delight. The charity provided  T-shirts to increase visibility of the students on fund-raising and race days and they came back to thank the students for their efforts.

At a class level, the changes evidenced in physical and psychological measures have also been impressive. The collective weight loss of the students enrolled on the module was 221 kg which is equivalent to 487 lb or 34.8 stone! There are two students who previously had blood pressure high enough to warrant a clinical diagnosis of hypertension, who ended the module with blood pressure that was within the normal range. We also have eight students whose BMI is back within the healthy 18–25 range as a consequence of their participation. Blood pressure, pulse, BMI, General Health Questionnaire score, social support and mindfulness – showed significantly improved mean scores. The students’ coursework assignments, which detailed the changes in their own scores and their reflections on their participation, are littered with comments suggesting a depth of learning that would not have been achieved had we used last year’s standard lecture and multiple-choice assessment format.

The positive effects of this new approach to student learning are therefore wide-ranging and encouraging. Far from being tied specifically to the issue of physical exercise and physical and psychological well-being – important though these are – our findings also speak to the general issue of engaging students in the practical application of theory, right from the beginning of their university careers in psychology. Students arrive to study psychology bursting with enthusiasm and interest about what it can tell them about the real world and real people. We argue that in addition to the traditional delivery of psychological content, we as educators should do our best to nurture the eagerness and curiosity of this new generation of psychologists.

Orla T. Muldoon is in the Department of Psychology, University of [email protected]

Aisling T. O’Donnell is in the Department of Psychology, University of Limerick 


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