Behavioral Research Course, General, research, teaching

BR Reflection 1

This semester, I’m teaching Behavioral Research (BR) for the first time. BR is a two semester course, so I will have the same cohort of 16 students for two full semesters. The goal of this sequence is for students to design and carry out research studies in pairs.

Here is our course syllabus.

The students will each be creating a website/blog/digital portfolio, most likely on wordpress. They will most likely keep their sites “hidden.” They will be posting reflections and summaries from literature searches on their blogs. I’m going to be posting responses to my reflection prompts along with them. This week they will be writing about what prompted them to become psych majors and what most interests them about psychology.

Reflection 1

As a kid, I changed my mind about what I wanted to be when I grew up A LOT. I remember in pre-k wanting to be a cashier because I thought they made the most money (classic preoperational thinking…). At one point, I wanted to be a teacher (like my mom), a lawyer (like my dad), an actress (who knows why?), and eventually a writer. I settled on writer for quite awhile and this passion was encouraged by many of my teachers (thank you!). However, the career path of a writer was just vague enough that I ultimately decided to switch my career goal one more time…

I loved writing because it was a mechanism for exploring the human condition. So I naturally gravitated toward psychology – the study of the mind, brain, and behavior – as a possible career. I took AP psych through a youth summer program and loved it. Although my wandering career interests might not indicate this, I tend to be fairly decisive, so when I decided that I’d go into the field of psychology I settled on that and stuck with it (mostly, kinda).

I went to St. Olaf College and declared my major in psychology. For whatever reason (and I don’t know why) I was also especially interested in the brain, and so I immediately declared a concentration in neuroscience as well. Despite this certainty in my interests, I actually had no idea how to become a psychologist, what types of psychologists existed, or the path I needed to take to get to where I currently am today. I was wading in murky waters and my undergraduate career started off without much pizzazz. For my first year or so of college, I was a pretty mediocre student.

Needless to say, I got lucky in my experiences. I stumbled into research experiences my sophomore year of college (on accident), fell in love with research, and continued seeking out these experiences throughout my undergraduate career. I conducted undergraduate research on infidelity in intimate relationships, the Whorf Hypothesis, psychophysiology related to stress, visual attention, health psych/toxins, the benefits of undergraduate research (meta?), and pulse rate in a certain kind of worm (in biology). Based on these experiences and exposure to conferences/symposia, I honed in on my primary area of interest: the neural bases of decision-making.

I was fascinated by how our brains generated value and weighed options to come to a decision. I was intrigued by my observations that others had such different spending habits than me. How could anyone let themselves fall into massive credit card debt? I just didn’t get it! I was intrigued by my observations that someone else could make a completely different decision than me about the same thing and think their’s was the “better” choice. For example, why do we vote differently but think our choice is the right one? Why do we make different ethical/moral decisions? Why do we decide to engage is certain healthy/unhealthy behaviors? Why do I love running when others hate it? These observations were based on behaviors of my own behavior, peers, friends, significant others, and societal trends that were notable in media.

I went to graduate school at UIowa where I spent five years researching decision patterns in older adults, while I earned my PhD in Neuroscience (on the cognitive track). I truly enjoyed the vast majority of the research I conducted. But the pace and some of what went along with research at an R1 university was exhausting and stressful. I missed my undergraduate research experiences, where I felt like time was a little slower and contemplation was a little more valued. So now, I am excited to be back at a small, teaching-focused institution where I am still conducting research but at a slower pace, with learning and genuine excitement as central elements.

Some questions we (my students and I) are asking in our research: Does childhood adversity relate to temporal discounting (i.e., the tendency to overvalue the present relative to the future), risk aversion (i.e., the tendency to avoid risk in favor of certainty), or attitudes toward student debt in college students? How can we influence temporal discounting, risk aversion, and attitudes toward debt? Can we reliably use spontaneous eyeblink rate as an index of dopaminergic function?

Along with conducting research with a few students research apprentices, I’m excited to work with students this semester in BR, where my students will have the opportunity to ask their own questions and carry out their own research studies. I am looking forward to being there when my students making discoveries of their own – whether they discover a new passion or have a fascinating research finding. Research was so formative in my undergraduate career and sparked my interest in psychology & neuroscience, so I am thrilled to have the opportunity to guide 16 students through this process!

This course will likely be one of the most challenging courses the students take at UWP. I will be asking the students to think critically, be self-directed learners, overcome challenges, deal with ambiguity, problem solve, work in teams, and become effective communicators. To help develop some of these skills, we will be completing individual development plans to promote self-awareness and to recognize the application of these skills in various work settings.

This week, we are listening to the SYSK podcast (episode on the Scientific Method), reading Carl Sagan’s chapter on “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” and reading chapter 1 of our text (Beins, B. C. & Beins, A. M. (2012). Effective Writing in Psychology, Second Edition. Malden, MA:  Wiley-Blackwell). 

Based on these readings/listenings, we will discuss the scientific method, some hallmarks of science, key features of experimentation, limitations to science, and how to be skeptical/critical thinkers.

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