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Enhancing learning for all ages

By Sarah Meyer '08
April 24, 2008

Thirty minutes, a classroom of eager kindergarten students and the task of teaching classical and operant conditioning: This was the assignment laid out before St. Olaf College psychology students Joseph Budish '10, Adam Burman '08 and Jacob Nelson '10. The three introduced themselves and the project to the class, explaining that "training our pets at home is a form of conditioning," Budish says.

Tiffany Bratten '08 teaches students about Kurt Lewin's Field Theory of social pressure. The children are representing social forces that push and pull individuals toward engaging in behaviors. Courtesy of Dan Iverson/Northfield News.
Budish, Burman and Nelson formed three groups or "stations." Every 10 minutes the children moved to a different station. At one station, the kindergarten students played the game Simon Says to learn about classical conditioning. Another group activity focused on operant conditioning. At the last station, Nelson played the guitar and taught the children a song to help reinforce what they had just learned. Finally, the class was brought back together to review what they had learned and to sing the song.

"One thing I took from this experience was a better understanding of how kids learn things much, much differently than the way college students do," Burman says. "Having them act out the theory of what they were learning was more than just a way to keep their attention; one little girl in Joe's game station actually said 'I think I see a pattern.' The best part was probably during our summary session when we were listening to the kids recall what they had learned in such a short period; most of it came in the form of song lyrics!"

An annual assignment
Working in this way with elementary school children has been an annual assignment for students taking the introductory psychology course since Assistant Professor of Psychology Gary Muir joined the St. Olaf faculty in 2005. The project was inspired by Muir's visit to his son's kindergarten classroom to talk about different parts of the human brain during Brain Awareness Week.

"It was so much fun," Muir says. "The elementary school students were so excited to learn about brains, but I had to really think hard about how I was going to communicate with them in ways that they could understand. I could see how sharing that experience with St. Olaf students and presenting them with a similar challenge could really enhance their learning."

Putting the project together
In groups of four, St. Olaf psychology students choose a topic in their textbook that is age-appropriate to elementary school children, ranging from the study of emotions to dreams. Together they collaborate on finding creative and effective ways to engage the children in the study of psychology. Teachers for grades K-5 at Northfield's three elementary schools then choose from more than 20 topics and sign their class up for a particular presentation from one of Muir's student groups.

"It's fun to get off campus and be involved with the non-college student community," Nelson says. "It was also exciting for me to be reminded of the enthusiasm little kids can have when pretending to be some sort of animal while singing a song."

Learning by doing
The project can be classified under the larger umbrella of experiential learning, which facilitates a deeper understanding of course materials. For St. Olaf psychology students to convey complex concepts in simple language to a second-grader along with fielding questions, the students need a deep, nuanced understanding of the subject.

"I have been thrilled with the way the project has been able to benefit both the St. Olaf and elementary school students," Muir says. "I think it's an excellent demonstration of the benefits of college-community collaborations."

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or