How many uses can you think of for a paper clip?

“It is not what the man of science believes that distinguishes him, but how and why he believes it. His beliefs are tentative, not dogmatic; they are based on evidence, not on authority or intuition.”

Russell, 1945

I posted my Critical Thinking in Psychology essay recently where I discuss in depth critical (or rational) thinking in the context of A Level psychology. Here I want to share one of my favourite lessons of the year where I encourage my students to start thinking critically (find the lesson powerpoint at the bottom of the post or here).

One approach to increase students critical thinking skills is to get them considering methodological issues outside of the narrow framework of each subject specification and bring these issues to life. The use of activities such as ‘More cat owners have degrees’ demonstrating the dangers of misinterpreting correlational research and the possible bias caused by funding, and ‘The dangers of bread’ again illustrating issues of inferring causation from correlation act as excellent points for discussion about causation and correlation. Articles such as these teach students to be ‘savvy consumers and producers of research’ and develop the abilities needed to analyse, synthesise and applied learned information.

A key element of critical thinking is not taking results and conclusions at face value and questioning the methods that were used and any biases that these could have introduced when making inferences from results.  I have designed several activities  to make learners aware of  ‘blind acceptance of conclusions’conclusions’ and the fallibility of accepting results  without question. I have pulled all of these activities into one lesson with the aim of engaging students and creating an enthusiasm about evaluation.

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 16.38.14Initially, I start with abstract questions to get the learners considering critical thinking outside of psychology and allow them to develop their own awareness. This starts from the moment they enter the room when the starter is the question ‘How many uses can you think of for a paper clip‘. After giggles, head scratching and some quite lateral thinking we move on to discuss what ‘critical thinking’ is.

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Before moving into discussion explicitly linked to psychology studies I ask them to write some instructions as to how to make a piece of toast. The students are a little suspicious at this point but after a few minutes you get the usual: get the bread, put in the toaster … and of course the debate on Nutella vs Marmite! Then I pose the question ‘but where did you get the toaster from …‘ and show the excellent TED video ‘Thomas Thwaites: How I built a toaster — from scratch

From here is time to turn my new ‘questioning‘ students back to psychology …

The first activity is based on hindsight bias, or the “I knew that all along” attitude, helping students become aware of the fact that anything can seem commonplace once explained if you are not aware of the underlying methodology.

This was the rationale for the ‘Lazarfield task’ that starts with the class being divided into two groups with each half receiving conclusions from a study (adapted from Lazarsfeld, 1949). However, unaware of this, the two groups received the opposite findings. For example group one would receive:

“Better educated soldiers suffered more adjustment problems than less educated soldiers.”

Whereas the second group would have:

Better educated soldiers suffered fewer adjustment problems than less educated soldiers.”

Each group have to make inferences about ‘why’ the conclusions might be true. Following on from the task students were asked to “did the findings make sense?” and to feedback their reasons. Only at this point will the class be made aware that they had the opposite findings and how easily it is to justify a finding after the fact. A discussion about the fallibility of the “I knew that already” attitude follows in relation to the students that the students have completed. This allows for the learner to review conclusions made and consider alternative arguments, confounding variables and biases in generalisations made.

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To then scaffold students’ analysis and evaluation skills a set of critical thinking questions to frame evaluation of research was adapted. These critical thinking questions provide students with important questions that they can use to establish the credibility of a research method. It also allows differentiation across learners providing the opportunity for those with low ability to give limited responses and the more able students to expand and demonstrate their synoptic awareness of research methods and the surrounding issues and concepts.

This is one of my favourite sessions of the year – you can actually see the students thinking, discussing and debating issues. They are staring to think like psychologists, like scientists. Not accepting what is in front of them but asking important questions. What is great to see is the reaction following the session – how the students often refer back to the session.

My only warning – I asked my students to keep asking ‘but why?‘ – they do!

How do you develop critical thinking skills in your learners? Could you adapt this session to your subject? If you do – please share it in the comments.

No more highlighting – Improving learning with effective techniques.

Teaching is not just about giving the students knowledge but also providing the learner with signposts to help develop their studentship skills and become a better learner in general. A recent monograph has considered the relative benefits of a variety of revision and learning strategies that students utilise and reflected on the impact they have on both learning and retention of content.

Screen Shot 2013-07-31 at 11.32.48Some of the findings will not come as a surprise to you (highlighting and rereading are not effective strategies) but there is probably more to be gained by focusing on the top performing techniques that both us as teachers and also students themselves should be fostering. I know when students are ‘revising‘ many think that revisiting the course reader armed with a handful of multicoloured highlighters is an effective way — well at least there is something visible to show for the work!

In table 1 you can see a summary of the findings from Dunlosky’s review of research into ten different techniques often practiced by teachers and learners and their relative effectiveness.

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Elements that seem to be key to improving retention are techniques that encourage the student to think about what they are reviewing and distributing their efforts over time.

The full article is quite a read at over 50 pages but it is possible to drop into it and review each of the ten techniques individually or just read the discussion of the article. I am planning on using the findings from this research in several ways from developing more elaborative questioning techniques to altering worksheets to encourage students to explain their answers to demonstrate their understanding (more on this here).

In class I am going to develop this as a critical thinking exercise. I am going to give a summary of this paper and the table above to students and ask them to develop their own revision strategies using a variety of the discussed techniques. Then I will ask them for a rationale for why it will be an effective method.

A technique called ‘Spaced Learning’ builds on many of the concepts that Dunlosky identify as ‘highly’ effective. This involved students completing their revision in stages, which each stage (about an hour) having four key components:

  1. Review of topic (about ~20 minutes) – this can take any form and is not prescriptive – it is about allowing the student to revisit their notes and build their knowledge base before completing the next tasks. Make sure that the topic is small – anything too large and it will be too much – this is about distributing topics over shorter, more effective revision periods.
  2. Transformation exercise (about ~20 minutes) – here students put their notes away and transform the knowledge into something else – this could be a mind map, a drawing, a song, a poem, flash cards etc. (There are some excellent ideas in this resource). The idea is that by transforming their knowledge they have to keep asking ‘why’ – why does that item link with another item on a mind map, why should that part be in the drawing …
  3. Practice testing (about 10 minutes) – with a friend, family member, study buddy – or just using the cover, write check method – quickly test yourself on the topic.
  4. Exam question (about 10 minutes) – complete an exam question on the topic / sub-topic you have completed and check this with a mark scheme.

Example of Spaced Learning I designed for my students mock revision.

Example of Spaced Learning I designed for my students mock revision.

This process takes place on a rolling timescale. On day 1 of revision students complete part 1 & 2. Then the next day return to the topic and complete part 3 & 4. On that second day the student does part 1 & 2 for their second topic as well … onwards over many days and weeks.

Spaced Learning

Are there any surprises in the articles? How might you change your practice, resources or classroom in light of this? Are the techniques ranked as you would imagine them?


Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Marsh, E.J., Nathan, M.J., and Willingham, D.T. (2013) Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.

DOI: 10.1177/1529100612453266 (Full text article currently available here)

Why do we study the WEIRDest people in the world?

Psychologists are routinely publishing board claims about human behaviour that are based on biased and ethnocentric samples. Many of these samples are based on WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industralised, Rich and Democratic) societies and the conclusions assume that there is little variation across human populations and that the conclusions from social science research can be generalised to all.

I often give my students an article from ‘The Psychologist’ called ‘The use and abuse of students participants‘ to read to help them consider the implications, both methodologically and in the conclusions that are made, of using limited samples in psychological research. Helping students appreciate this is an important factor in improving their evaluative, synoptic and critical thinking skills.

Henrich et al. (2010) considered that there were many ‘certainties’ social science took for granted when explaining behaviour. They suggested that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could ?nd for generalising about humans and that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity (Henrich et al., 2010).

In his review he looks at measures of visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorisation, moral reasoning and IQ (among others) and his findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations a scientist could use for generalising about behaviour.

Screen Shot 2013-08-17 at 11.46.18One example taken from the study is that of the visual illusion the ‘Muller-Lyer’ (see fig.1 from Henrich). He reviews Segall et al. (1966) who manipulated the length of the two lines in the Muller-Lyer illusion (Fig. 1) and estimated the magnitude of the illusion by determining the approxi- mate point at which the two lines were perceived as being of the same length. Figure 2 shows the results from 16 societies, including 14 small-scale societies. The vertical axis gives the “point of subjective equality” (PSE), which measures the extent to which segment “a” must be longer than segment “b” before the two segments are judged equal in length. PSE measures the strength of the illusion.

Screen Shot 2013-08-17 at 12.03.54The results show substantial differences among populations, with American undergraduates anchoring the extreme end of the distribution, followed by the South African-European sample from Johannesburg. On average, the undergraduates required that line “a” be about a fifth longer than line “b” before the two segments were perceived as equal. At the other end, the San foragers of the Kalahari were unaffected by the so-called illusion (it is not an illusion for them). While the San’s PSE value cannot be distinguished from zero, the American undergraduates’ PSE value is significantly different from all the other societies studied.

The full article, including the commentary is worth a read, and an excellent article to stretch top-end students who want to gain more depth of knowledge of the issues surrounding biases in samples and more sophisticated debates surrounding generalising results from studies.

Screen Shot 2013-08-17 at 12.09.29There is also a fun little infographic for your classroom wall or to give to students for them to consider these issues in a more accessible way and could act as a good starting point for discussion on populations in studies and the biases that these raise in generalising the results. Getting students considering issues like this must increase their awareness of the bigger debates and help them with synoptic elements of the course.

Do you have any activities that you use to raise awareness of biases in participant samples? Does it matter that a large proportion of research considers WEIRD participants?



Henrich, J., Heine, S.J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33, 61-135.   

DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X0999152X (full article available here)

Idea-ology – The Learning Ladder

Recently I was involved in a discussion about when you should end an activity in class; when the first person finishes, the last person, about half? Lots of valuable points were given for all arguments but the consensus was it should be when the first person finishes – you can’t leave learners with nothing to do – that’s when disengagement creeps in and disruption can occur.

Slide1From this I moved the discussion on to talking about how to ensure that those more able learners don’t ‘finish first‘ and have extension exercises, differentiated tasks and follow up activities to support their learning and enthusiasm for education. This must be an issue for all classroom teachers, from primary level to sixth form that teachers have to consider when planning.

This year I have been using the outstanding Thinking Ladder from Charlotte Russell at Built on the ideas of Bloom’s Taxonomy (the new domain taxonomy with create at the top) students can select a task (see below) from each of the six stages when a classroom task is complete to extend their knowledge, understanding and develop their higher level skills.

Not only does this help with extending students’ knowledge but it also encourages metacognition and allows the learner to think about their learning and the skills that are required for different levels of questioning. This is introduced at the beginning of the year and reinforced throughout by the task instructions:

Every lesson you will have a set of learning objectives which are designed to help you move up the thinking ladder. The thinking ladder helps you to learn by developing your skills. You start at the bottom and as your learning progresses you will gradually make your way towards the top.

The skills at the bottom (REMEMBERING, UNDERSTANDING & APPLYING) are the basic skills you need to pass. As you move upwards you access the harder skills (ANALYSING, EVALUATING & CREATING). It is these skills which will help you to access the higher grades!

Slide6Students are encouraged to complete more tasks to complete a tracker sheet which can be rewarded however you see fit as a teacher. The task also allows the student to consider how confident they are on any given subject and choose (or be directed to) an appropriate level of extension exercise.

2013-09-21 19.38.47Not only does this cover you for most, if not all situations, where a student may complete a task, but is an excellent resource to have in class for students who need inspiration on additional revision or review tasks to consolidate their knowledge. This has engaged my students, added a little competition to task completion, and initiated some really interesting debates about the different skills required for different questions in examinations.

If you haven’t already, get over to and download your own learning ladder and learning ladder tasks. I can’t see why this can’t be used at every level in every subject – although some of the tasks may need to be altered to be more appropriate for learners lower down the key stages. If you do design new tasks consider sharing them on or post them in the comments. Also, with a little felt and a spare piece of cotton (and someone who can use a sewing machine – thank you Helen) you can make a great wall display for holding all the tasks.

Thanks to Charlotte for sharing such an excellent resource.

Bloom-ing great, flipping fantastic.

I am speaking at the second Hull and East Riding TeachMeet next week. I took the opportunity to talk about three experiments I am conducting in the classroom this year for my MSc in the Teaching of Psychology. Below are the resources, extra links and anything else I thought might be of use following my talk on Tuesday 8th October at Cottingham High School.


2013-09-21 19.40.41The Learning Ladder @imresourcd

For the excellent learning ladder by Charlotte Russell see where you will find the ladder and introduction powerpoint and the tasks that can be used as part of it.


Simple but effective way to engage learners, check where they are, help them reflect on aims and objectives and to many other uses. Not a Swiss Army knife, but just as many uses.

Word document or PDF document of AfL cards

Flipping Great!

flipped-classroomI’ve written before about flipped classrooms and how you can flip your classroom with Resourcd. This year I have partially flipped my classroom with one flipped task each week for students to complete over the weekend before their first session of the week – you can see it at or @jamiesflipped.

Jamie’s Flipped was created with wordpress and the sensei plugin from woothemes (which is quite expensive but a good tool that they are improving all the time). However, you can achieve a similar setup with these free plugins:

If you have any questions or comments on the talk do comment below, contact me or tweet @jamiedavies.