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A Technique for Improving Students' Comprehension
of Complex Material

Nancy S. Harrison

Department of Psychology
California State University, Hayward

Cognitive psychology deals with attention, memory, learning, problem solving, decision-making—topics that sound inherently interesting to almost everyone. This area of content is arguably at the very center of the field of psychology. Unfortunately, most of the theories and experiments in the area have become extremely abstract and difficult. Even after 25 years in the field, I have to struggle to make sense of the tangled mess the area has become.

In its current state it truly is more difficult than I think appropriate for undergrads (which is all I teach), and yet it can't be omitted from the curriculum because of its centrality to the field. A very few students love it and can't wait to learn more, but in the past, most of my students didn't see adequate reason to struggle to really comprehend the material. They did what was necessary to get the grade they wanted, and left with a sigh of relief, with both them and me knowing that they had learned very little.

After trying six textbooks in as many offerings, and failing to keep my students' interest with demonstrations, participation, films, co-operative learning efforts, and student presentations, I was about to request never to teach the course again even though it's my specialty. It was just too dispiriting to try once again to engage students in something they clearly didn't get, and watch attendance dwindle over the term. My basic problem was that the material really is dauntingly difficult, and I couldn't think of a way to motivate the students to think hard enough to comprehend it.

Desperate, I tried something new.

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