A look to the future of psychology pedagogy

Madeleine Pownall and Hannah Slack report from the European Society of Psychology Learning and Teaching (ESPLAT) 2021 Conference.

03 September 2021

Two years ago, the inaugural European Society of Psychology Learning and Teaching (ESPLAT) conference was hosted in beautiful Utrecht in the Netherlands. This year, the biennial conference was hosted in parallel Zoom rooms, as all good things are nowadays, with a refreshed agenda for discussions of psychology pedagogy. As most of the presentations and posters kicked off with: “teaching has been... quite different this year.” If Covid-19 has done anything, it has given us an opportunity to seriously take stock of where we’re at, figure out what can actually be done pretty well online, mourn the loss of things that only really work in-person, and look towards the future. ESPLAT 2021 had the latter of these in spades, which was reflected in the theme of the conference, “Teaching and Learning Psychology in Times of COVID and Beyond”. 

Across two days of Zooming, educators and scholars from across the world (hailing from countries far beyond Europe, despite the title of the conference) tackled important, pressing questions of psychology pedagogy. How do we engage students with psychology content online? What does studying online mean for students’ sense of identity? How do students make friends over Zoom? And, with all of this in mind, what does the future of psychology in Higher Education look like? 

As many of the presentations noted, online learning presents some tricky challenges for both educators and students. For example, as Eva Hammar Chiriac (Linköping University) noted in her presentation, online teaching largely reduces the capacity for physical social signals, which means that students must create their own, new ways of calibrating group dynamics online. Distance (or online) learning creates a sense of “Zoom or Doom!”, as one student in their study put it, in which students must figure out a way to engage, or else miss out on making important friendships. Other contributions discussed emergent pedagogical issues that Covid has thrown into the mix. For example, there was a useful talk by Nathalie Schauffel et al (University of Trier) on students’ ‘TechnoStress’, an insightful qualitative study on online exam anxiety presented by Dr Emily Nordmann et al (University of Glasgow), and a mixed methods investigation into student preferences for the future of their education (presented by Dr Richard Harris et al University of Leeds). We must not forget, however, that there are students who happily opt-in to online learning, such as distance learning postgraduate students, as Dr Libby Orme (Northumbria University) covered in her talk. 

The ESPLAT conference was a perfect example of “psychological literacy” in action. Psychological literacy is the act of applying psychology knowledge to solving ‘real world’ problems (as Prof Jacquelyn Cranney et al covered in their presentation within the ‘scientific literacy and scientific beliefs’ symposium). It is the action of translating the stuff that we teach in lectures to actual ‘on the ground’ life, in a way that is meaningful and useful. Throughout the ESPLAT conference, the challenges of Higher Education were all discussed through a sharp lens of psychological knowledge and presenters used their psychological literacy to make sense of the challenges of online teaching. For example, contributions discussed issues such as student’s social identity management (informed by classic social psychology), cognitive psychology educators discussed improving students’ retrieval practices in lectures, and there was an overriding focus on wellbeing throughout. 

Beyond the focus on Covid-19 and teaching, the conference also addressed other pertinent pedagogical issues, again informed by psychological theory and knowledge. For example, Marcus Friedrich (Technische Universität Braunschweig) led a fascinating discussion of how gender-fair language constructions in German may affect students’ comprehension of teaching materials. Camilla Hakelind and Anders Stainvall (Umeå University) shared research on how cleverly confronting students with their own gender stereotypes (by showing them videos with voices morphed to sound masculine or feminine) can lead to an “Aha! moment” that is useful for helping students understand stereotyping and prejudice. It wouldn’t be a psychology teaching conference without a nod to the unwavering issue of statistics anxiety, and Abigail Jones (Birmingham City University) shared research on how students experience research skills and statistics modules in their training. 

Beyond these presentations, there were two keynotes that also set the tone for the discussions throughout the conference. In Professor Diane Halpern’s rousing keynote, she argued (rather convincingly) that critical thinking may be the key antidote for the chaos and uncertainty that fake news, trolls, bots, and conspiracy theories have caused. This talk too had a flavour of psychological literacy. As Halpern demonstrated over her hour-long keynote, critical thinking is an increasingly critical skill. Teachings from social psychology, such as our tendency to engage in self-serving biases, to endorse implicit prejudices, and to conflate correlation with causation should be applied to some of the ‘big picture’ issues (e.g., tackling climate change skeptics, flat earthers, and statistical illiteracy). 

The conference wrapped up with a second keynote and discussion on the final day by Professor Teresa Guasch, which brought the focus back to the challenges of online education, again with a keen focus on the future of teaching provision. Guasch’s keynote addressed principles of “techno-pedaogical” design (i.e., the dos and don’t of online teaching) and the challenges of providing “dialogic feedback” (i.e., feedback designed to form a reciprocal conversation between staff and student) in an online context. Guasch warned of the dangers that can come from assuming that simply moving traditional in-person assessments online is sufficient for effective online learning. Such an assumption ignores the challenges that come from studying online, i.e., increased distractors and more demanding cognitive workload. Guasch ended by proposing a series of recommendations for effective online learning, including planning assessments that are appropriate for the online format and providing feedback that is personalised to the student’s needs.

Overall, one thing from the conference was clear: the past year of online learning has provided a useful opportunity to think about the whys and hows of our pedagogy, and some of these lessons will carry forward to the ‘new world’ of post-Covid education. We may not know what this future looks like, but these discussions certainly bring us one step closer to improving the way we teach psychology.

- Madeleine Pownall is at the University of Leeds, and Hannah Slack at the University of Nottingham.