Here are some resources for an introductory lesson on the brain. It assumes that you have set the students a preparation task before the lesson. There is a lesson plan, a slideshow, an advance organiser on the brain and brain scanning and a Socrative quiz on some key brain areas.
I’ve started using single-point rubrics for assessing and feeding back on essays since coming across them on www.cultofpedagogy.com This post has a nice summary of the benefits which I won’t repeat here.
Here are a couple of essay questions and single point rubrics designed to develop and assess critical thinking and writing skills in line with Edexcel’s Psychology specification. They are both ‘context’ questions requiring a combination of analysis/application, critical thinking and knowledge and understanding. I’ve tried to construct them to facilitate the sort of structure that works with Edexcel (but which is also consistent good academic writing). There is one on different types of brain scanning/imaging and another on eyewitness testimony (weapons effect, postevent information). These are RTFs, so you can hack them about to make your own. If you do, please share in the comments.
I needed to use this animation, which I made in PowerPoint, but I wanted to embed as a GIF in a Google Slides deck, because I use Google Suite for pretty much everything (what I lose on the bells and whistles I make back on the portability; I’m currently running my classroom off my phone). It turned out it is possible but it’s a bit involved. In case you want to do it: I recorded the animation off the screen using Bandicam to create a .avi. This I edited in Microsoft Movie Maker and exported it as a .wmv file. This I then uploaded to Ezigif to create an animated GIF.
In principle, this should embed pretty much anywhere. However, I discovered, in the course of an hour-long experiment, that apparently animated GIFs don’t actually animate in a Google Slideshow if the source image is stored in Google Drive. I have no idea why. Therefore, I had to upload these GIFs to my own server and then use the URLs to embed them in the Google Slides. So this post is primarily for the benefit of those who run into the same problem as me and are frustratedly Googling for an answer. But in any case, the GIFs ended up on the Psychlotron server, so I thought I’d might as well share. Here’s a slowed down version, too.
Right click to save them. If you want to embed them in your own Google Slides then use the image URL.
Here are three lessons on brain scanning/imaging. They’re from early on in my course so they’re also planned to help developing important skills and ways of thinking. There is a set of brief lesson plans for each session (these plans are read from top to bottom; no timings are given).
Lesson one introduces CT, PET and fMRI (slideshow) using a text on brain imaging and a reciprocal teaching activity. This is followed by an introduction to making comparisons, with a brain scans comparison table (copy this on A3). I ask students to complete the table outside class. There is some supplemental information to help them do this.
Lesson two (slideshow) starts with a Socrative quiz on brain scanning. This is followed by an application task in which students need to choose and justify the appropriate imaging technique for each scenario. There is then an opportunity for students to develop their academic writing.
New academic year, new students, new ideas. Now we’re no longer bound by the AS exams at the end of Year 12 we’ve decided to rethink the structure of the course. I’ve decided to start Year 12 with bio-psychology, rather than memory. Here are some proficiency scales for Edexcel bio-psychology topics. I’ll be adding more bio-psychology resources soon as I need to plan next week’s lessons.
Many students seem to come to us with a block about bio-psychology. I’m not sure why this is but I suspect it’s got something to do with the English science curriculum, whose writers have apparently mistaken content load in the absence of conceptual coherence for academic rigour. But that’s an argument for another day and, probably, a different blog. The issue is, faced with content-load problems of our own, and in the face of students’ objections to learning ‘all that science stuff’ it’s easy for us to retreat into a ‘here it is, you’ve just got to memorise it’ teaching style.
And it is quite easy to teach things like synaptic transmission this way – all we have to do is drill the students with a series of steps, probably with accompanying diagrams. Provided, that is, we’re content to settle for teaching for knowledge, as opposed to teaching for understanding. Now, there are arguments for taking that approach: it’s quick, and if the assessment for which we’re preparing the students is recall based, it’s often good enough for the purpose of ‘getting the marks’ in an exam. However, if our values are oriented towards teaching as a way of changing students’ understanding of their world then it might strike you as unsatisfactory. And even if we’re not, recent changes to the A – Level psychology exams mean markedly increased demands on students’ capacity to think with content as opposed to just recalling it. There is strong justification, therefore, for teaching biopsychology in ways that move beyond the more presentation of information.
Over the past few years I’ve made increasing use of physical models to teach biopsychology. They make biological processes concrete for the students, who may find it difficult to visualise events at the microscopic level, and they reduce working memory load because having manipulable objects at hand makes fewer demands than maintaining mental representations of multiple concepts, especially when these are newly acquired and not well integrated with long term memory (there is some debate about this, but see Pouw et al, 2014).
Here’s an approach to teaching synaptic transmission that can be extended to a range of related areas including the mode of action of drugs and biological explanations of mental disorders. I’ve used it with groups of up to 20 or so students; more than that and it would probably be better to divide the group. You’re going to need lots of ping-pong balls. I bought a box of 500 from eBay for about a tenner.
- Prepare by inviting students to read about the process of synaptic transmission. This could be for a home learning task or in class using a reciprocal teaching routine. There’s a reading on synaptic transmission here that you can use or there are any number of web and textbook resources.
- Arrange your teaching space so there’s a large, clear floor area. Explain that we are going to deepen our understanding of synaptic transmission using the ping-pong balls. Tell the students that they should organise themselves to depict the process of synaptic transmission. The only rule is that each ping-pong ball represents one molecule of neurotransmitter.
- At this point, let the students sort themselves out and observe what they do. It is likely that they will arrive at an arrangement whereby one set of students is passing the balls to another set (or possibly throwing or rolling them). Whatever they do, it represents their shared conception of synaptic transmission, so it’s your starting point for developing that understanding further. At this point, pause proceedings and ask named students to explain how the model represents synaptic transmission.
- What follows is an iterative process of identifying shortcomings of the students’ model and inviting them to correct them. The ideas is that, with each iteration, the model becomes a more accurate representation and the students’ understanding correspondingly grows. For example:
- ‘Vesicles can’t throw, and receptors can’t catch’, (addresses the misconception that neurotransmitter is ‘fired’ across the synaptic gap/aimed at the receptors rather than being a probabilistic process based on diffusion);
- ‘I can’t see what’s causing the vesicles to release neurotransmitter’, (prompts the students to connect a change in neuronal firing rate with the release of neurotransmitter);
- ‘All these receptors now have a molecule of neurotransmitter activating them – what problem do we have now?’ (introduces the idea that the neurotransmitter needs to be removed or the receptors will be permanently stimulated);
- ‘There are no more ping-pong balls left in the box and loads in the synaptic gap’, (can lead to the importance of neurotransmitter concentration, the reuptake mechanism and the possibility of neurotransmitter depletion).
And so on. How far you take this depends on your inclination and the time available. I’ve found it’s usually possible to generate a model that includes the pre- and post-synaptic firing rate, vesicles, diffusion/concentration, receptors, enzymes that break down the neurotransmitter and the reuptake mechanism.
It is crucial that you keep questioning named students about the correspondences between different elements of the model and the process of synaptic transmission. The model doesn’t teach anything on its own; it’s a point of focus for the dialogue between you and the students.
A good way to finish the activity is with a free writing exercise in which students either describe the process of neural transmission from memory or write an explanation of how their model represents the process. This should be done from recall and allows them to consolidate understanding whilst giving you a chance of catching any remaining misconceptions.
Once you have established a viable model, you can use it in a number of ways. Simply recreating the model on a future occasion is a good revision activity, especially if done from free recall and if students are instructed to take on different roles from last time, so they have to co-construct their understanding again. You can use it to develop further understanding e.g. ‘what you have modelled is an excitatory synapse – how would things be different in an inhibitory synapse?’ You can also use it as a basis for teaching related ideas e.g. the effects of drugs e.g. ‘What would happen if we stopped the reuptake mechanism from working/what would happen if we blocked off these receptors?’ etc.
This approach is not without its risks. You may feel that you cannot rely on your students’ capacity to self-regulate during activities like this. That’s your call, but I would urge you to give it a go. You do need to be on the lookout for social loafing – some students may feel able to position themselves as an innocuous section of neural membrane and quietly opt out of proceedings. For this reason you need to keep up with the directed questions throughout. Finally, and most seriously, there is a possibility, when using vivid demonstrations, that what students will encode is that they did an unusual activity and it was fun but not the actual conceptual content of the demo (see Willingham, 2010). For this reason I regard the preparation reading as crucial and would never attempt to use the above approach to teach synaptic transmission ab initio. It is also critical to keep prompting the students to re-encode what they are doing in terms of the target concepts and understanding through questioning at the time and in the follow-up activity.
Of course, I cannot prove that doing it this way will result in better understanding and learning than the approach it replaces but there is good reason to believe that it might. And it’s a lot more fun.
Pouw, W.T.J.L., van Gog, T. & Paas, F. (2014). An embedded and embodied cognition review of instructional manipulatives. Educational Psychology Review, 26, 51-72.
Willingham, D.T. (2010). Why don’t students like school? A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.