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Detaching students from the idea that everything you read is true

We expect students to be critical readers. ‘But how?’ they ask. ‘You read an article and it all sounds perfectly logical and convincing, so why shouldn’t it be true?’ Psychologist Anouk van der Weiden wants to teach students to read articles with a critical eye. She has been awarded a Comenius teaching grant for this and other plans.

‘I want to keep my feet firmly planted in the classroom,’ says Anouk van der Weiden. ‘Even as the new programme coordinator for Social, Economic and Organisation Psychology, I don’t just want to spend all my time on management activities. What I really enjoy is seeing students develop. And the insights that gives me are the basis for my teaching ideas.’   

Well received by students

‘As part of their education we expect students to write critical essays, give presentations and conduct in-depth discussions, but not all students can just do that. Some of them keep on receiving negative feedback, and become demotivated and frustrated because we are asking them to do something that they haven’t actually learned to do. They’re the ones who feel frustrated that they can’t do it, but the real question is: isn’t that our problem? Because it’s what we should be offering in our teaching. We shouldn’t just be assessing their work, but also teaching them. So, I have devised some practice exercises to guide them. We’ve already tried out a few of the exercises, and they were well received by the students.'

Shaking your head while reading  

'Sometimes authors have a blind spot, I tell my students in these exercises. They may also be dealing with performance pressure, and the researchers’ conclusions and interpretations aren’t necessarily the whole truth. We know from research on persuasion that  it helps if you are shaking your head while reading an article. That’s good practice to get them detached from ‘the truth’. We also teach them to think actively about the research question and methods. How would I research that myself and how was it actually done? What does that mean for the findings and conclusions? Then, we want to have a second teaching module where students also learn to apply the theory critically.'

Psychology in practice

‘What does the research design look like exactly? Might that explain the findings to some extent, and can the design be translated to specific practical situations? That’s important, because sometimes the results are exactly the opposite in a different situation or for a specific target group. Take, for example, the effect of the social norm in energy use. You want to activate that social norm so you show people that most of their neighbours use 40% less energy. You might think that this would motivate people to use less energy themselves. But if you look more closely, you will see differences between neighbourhoods or between people. Some people will think: ‘The bar is so high that I can never achieve it. So I’m not even going to try.’ Then your wonderful evidence-based application can have the opposite effect. That’s why it’s important to look critically at what psychological processes are involved and how you can translate them to the practical environment. The third module is specifically for the thesis project where we teach students a variety of skills. Look critically at your own thesis, avoid blind spots and be transparent in your research.’   

On the right track?

‘ Of course, we also want to provide insight into and assess how good students are at critical reading. It’s useful for teachers but also for students to know whether they are on the right track, so that by the time they graduate they have acquired particular skills. I have applied for a subsidy for eighteen months that will provide research hours for a team with Hester Ruigendijk, coordinator for the Master’s in Social and Organisation Psychology, Coen Wirtz, lecturer in Psychology of Selling and Advertising, Welmer Molenmaker, thesis coordinator for Social, Economic and Organisation Psychology, and two student-assistants.’

Online platform to practise exercises

‘First, I want to show clearly how students are doing now, where things are going well and what problems they run up against. Based on interviews carried out by the student-assistants and on scientific literature, we will design new exercises which we will first pass on to our student-assistants in order to investigate whether our new exercises work. After this, our own students from our courses will indicate whether they found the teaching module useful or difficult. We will look at their input and interpret it and use it to further fine-tune the modules. Education specialist Maarten van de Ven from ICLON will also have a critical role in our team,  developing and evaluating the modules. My ideal is an online platform, preferably integrated with Brightspace where students can practise the exercises further. We will involve the Center for Innovation in this.’ 

You’re more successful at what you enjoy

‘I learned as a child to always try to get the best out of yourself, often implicitly via my parents as role models. My mother started at the housekeeping school and worked her way up to become a personnel adviser. Her maxim is: you have to get what you can out of things. If I got an 8, my father would say: “Well, that sounds good, but what could have gone better?” It’s not about the grade, but about what more you can learn. That can put some pressure on you. I think I’m a perfectionist, but I’m also grateful for everything that I have learned. And now, I am very relaxed about my work. The competitive atmosphere in research was a real eye-opener for me. You can go along with that and you will probably no longer enjoy your work, but then what are you doing it for?  I can also do the things I like doing. I’ll see where that takes me and I’ll probably also be more successful. But if not, then OK, at least I’m doing something I enjoy.’  

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