This post provides a rationale and tips for how to craft meaningful psychology curriculum for gifted students.
To this day, I can still remember the awe of being a student in my first psychology course.
There I sat, in a lecture hall of almost 300 students just a few miles outside of Philadelphia, on an unseasonably warm September morning. Some of the students around were dozing off, some eating breakfast, others checking their social media instead of taking notes. But not me. There I sat in the third row with my head tilted towards my professor, searching for the perfect angle for every word he spoke to travel the path of least resistance to my ears so I could in turn furiously capture it in my notes to think about later on.
I just couldn’t believe it–here it was, an entire course explaining WHY so much of my life had occurred the way it did. Personality? Of course there was such a thing as extraversion and introversion, thus explaining why sometimes I felt energized by the presence of others, and sometimes drained by it. Memory? No wonder I had trouble memorizing my student ID number; I wasn’t chunking the information correctly. Learning? How lucky was I have to the capacity, the growth mindset as Carol Dweck suggests, to continue understanding the world around me with such depth and breadth.
How do we teach the discipline of psychology to gifted students?
Years later, I sat in another psychology class, this one at the doctoral level. Our task was to come up with a mixed methods research project, and all I could think to study was the journey I was currently on: the experience of seeking to “have it all” as a first generation female graduate student. My professor, one of the kindest I have ever known, wrote on my proposal, “Sounds good. Research can sometimes be me-search. Hope you find what you are looking for.”
The concept of research as me-search once again redefined my understanding of myself and my motivations as a graduate student and carried me through much of the highs and lows of that particular academic journey. More importantly, though, thinking through the notion of research as me-search changed me as an educator of psychology, particularly in my work with gifted students.
Gifted Students as Psychology Students
In many ways, the gifted students I work with in the Psychology class of the Duke TIP eStudies program experience the “ah-ha” moment I had as a college freshman. This class is typically their first psychology course. Many of our gifted students bring a level of intensity with their desire to learn psychology, and they hope to connect to their own personal construction of identity, purpose, and context. As I have designed this course and also the Abnormal Psychology course for Duke TIP, I find psychology concepts are perfect for gifted students. Gifted students are typically hyper-analytical: they love to dissect problems. Additionally, they understand concepts at very high levels (who, what, when, where) — and want to deal with why. Gifted students are creative and produce many ideas and products, usually in a focused, inquisitive, and highly systematic way. Finally, gifted students are critical thinkers, making them perfectly suited for the study of psychology.
Encourage the Art and Science of Study.
One of the best parts of teaching psychology is that it is a discipline of both art and science. Gifted students can thrive in an area such as this because of the many strengths they possess and can apply with vigor. In learning the “how” of psychology — concepts like research methods — students can better understand the “why” of something — such as how siblings differ — based on birth order. For example, each semester, I begin our Psychology discussion board posts by asking students to come up with a research question based off their everyday experiences. It looks like this:
Think of a question that you have about everyday life. Then, based off your knowledge from our reading, design a short experiment.
- What is your research question?
- What inferences do you currently have about the matter?
- How would you find samples?
- Provide a structure of your experiment.
- Then, respond to two of your classmate’s studies on how they could improve their study for a more robust understanding of their research question.
Here is an example for you: Why are people so superstitious? What is so scary about stepping on a crack or seeing a black cat? How does superstition get passed from generation to generation?
If students are looking for a framework of inquiry, I will often pull a mentor text from any John Cresswell text to help guide their thinking.
Psychology is an excellent way for students to flex both their analytical and artistic muscles, all while learning more about themselves and how they hope to engage with the world around them.
Highlight The Shades of Gray.
Many gifted students are used to discovering answers to difficult concrete problems with relative ease (one great example is math). Psychology is a field full of moving targets, complex processes, and, a lack of answers. This can be especially frustrating for students who are intellectually advanced, but emotionally, age appropriate.
I have had great success over the past few years with my online class doing this activity: simulating a Board of Education meeting on whether or not to ban high school football in light of the overwhelming research on Traumatic Brain Injury.
- I present students with a scenario of a championship-eligible program with plenty of community support, corporate sponsors, and college scouting opportunities.
- Then, I ask students to prepare for our real-time session by reviewing the resources found with PBS’s League of Denial, including interviews from football players, their families, and researchers, and also do a little research of their own through places like the Boston University CTE Center.
- When we meet, students bring their prepared proposal of how football should be addressed. Students struggle! Is it better to keep football so students can continue to have the opportunity to attend college on athletic scholarships? Oppositely, at what cost are we willing to provide these opportunities? Or is there a solution somewhere in the middle? My “board members” work hard on this activity, and rarely is there ever a concrete solution.
I assist students in understanding that answering questions with shades of gray is not only acceptable, but sometimes, these are the most interesting problems to work on.
Be Solution Focused.
One great trick that I have learned in teaching some of the more difficult components of psychology is to present the current state of a problem in an accurate and representative way, and then to encourage the students to be solution focused with a creative product. One perfect example is lack of adequate mental health treatment in America.
- After learning a history of mental health treatment (this State of Mental Health in America report is an excellent place to start), I put students to work by asking them to create a systemic, creative proposal of how our nation could do better. This engages many of gifted students’ strengths and skill sets, such as analysis, creativity, systematic thinking, and more. It also allows them to see themselves as a part of the solution.
- Another neat example is to have students “transform” some of the infographics provided by places on the National Alliance on Mental Illness into “before” and “after” based on their proposals. They love the creative (and succinct) message of infographics, and are excited to think about their ideas can create calculated change.
Generally speaking, gifted students love to read. To complement the more clinical textbook used in class, I also include additional young adult novels that portray mental health issues for use in literary circles.
- Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls tells the story of two main characters facing eating disorders.
- Sarah Skilton’s Bruised shares a main character with Post Traumatic Stress after a shooting.
- Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story follows a gifted student who struggles with depression.
Students can see mental illness from both an objective and subjective lens, which again shows the complicated nature of psychology.
Do you have other examples of YA literature that would be a good fit? Please share! I am always looking for suggestions.
In the spirit of research as me-search, many students enter into the study of psychology because they themselves or someone they love has been affected by some type of mental illness or concern. While the intellectual pursuit of such understanding can be healing for some, it can be inflammatory for others. Some suggested places to watch as you guide your students:
- response or reflection assignments that ask a student to make connections or be introspective about themselves or their surroundings;
- free-write/ journal responses where a student may feel they can be more open about their struggles;
- discussion board posts where students are connecting with others who may (or may not) have experienced something similar;
- And even occasionally artistic assignments that require symbolic reflection of their state of being.
If you are seeing even the slightest warning signs of a student considering harm to self or others, listen to your inner voice and respond immediately. Do so by bringing in a professional to assist you–whether a guidance counselor or other administrator who can help you take action and craft an appropriate response. They are the experts and will be able to assist you on how to best serve this student in this season of their development.
Similar to many others in this field, I find that teaching is much more than a profession for me: it is a calling. It’s a window through which the winds of change move, touching individual hearts and minds. The discipline of psychology provides a wonderful platform for educators to usher the gusts of equity, inclusion, and social justice–and not just into our classrooms, but into the fabric of our society. Psychology asks us to consider not only what is, but what has been, and what could be. As students learn more about themselves and the world around them, they become the informed, responsive, motivated generation that we are waiting for. Each year, by conducting “research as me-search” my students give me hope for the promise of a brighter tomorrow — and I am honored to be a part of their story.