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Structuring a Broad Survey Course

OCW Scholar

In This Section

Prof. Gabrieli presents his approach to offering a comprehensive introduction to psychology while teaching salient details.

Covering the Core Sequence

Some people find teaching introductory psychology sort of daunting because you have to cover so many topics very far from your field of specialization. For me, it’s turned out to be really joyous every year to share information on such a huge range of topics – everything from how a neuron fires to how a group of people do a wonderful thing or a terrible thing together.

The sequence for the course is very much a standard sequence. It starts with topics related to how work is done in psychology and neuroscience and what tools are available to study human nature. Then we progress through different aspects of the human experience. How do we perceive? How do we think and remember? How do we have relationships with people? How do we develop from childhood to adulthood? I think it’s important to go through this standard sequence so you can be confident that you’ve had a full survey that’s not ignoring huge topics.

Diving Deeper into Special Topics

There’s room for every teacher to choose how they emphasize things. A lot of it has to do with where I think there’s real information to be gained, and then there are just personal choices about where I think I can communicate the most exciting ideas to students.

There’s room for every teacher to choose how they emphasize
things.

— Prof. Gabrieli

I aim for a mix of new research that has just been published, topics that students have gotten excited about or disturbed about in the past, and topics that this year’s students are curious about. Sometimes we’ll go deep into one topic just to give them a flavor of what deeper study is like. If you just pick one topic and hone in on it for an entire lecture, what is that like? Most lectures cover a very large range of topics so I try to mix it up and go specific on some topics and give a quick overview of other topics.

A topic that students often wish we talked about is sleep and dreams. We talk a little bit about that, but we leave that mostly for the book portion of the course. Lectures can’t cover everything, and as fascinating as dreams are unfortunately there’s not a huge science behind that. I can’t present things that would be more clarifying than anybody’s own personal experience.

Probably my favorite lectures are the ones on amnesia and memory because of my personal experience with a patient who, after a surgery, could not form new memories ever again. That patient has been such a major influence on how we understand how humans remember things and what’s going on with Alzheimer’s disease. Although many unusual patients are presented in the course, this is one historical patient where students can ask all kinds of questions and I am able to answer them just because I spent so many hours with the patient.