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Structuring a Broad Survey Course

OCW Scholar

In This Section

Prof. Gabrieli presents his approach to offering a broad and comprehensive introduction to the discipline of psychology, while also including salient details in his lectures.

Covering the Core Sequence

Some people find teaching introductory psychology 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 of 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 students feel confident that they've had a full survey that has not ignored central topics.

Diving Deeper into Special Topics

I emphasize content about which I think there’s real information to be gained, and about which I think I can communicate the most exciting ideas to students.

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.

— Prof. Gabrieli

I aim for a mix of new research that has just been published, topics that students have become excited or disturbed about in the past, and topics about which this year’s students are curious. Sometimes we’ll go deeply into one topic just to give them a flavor of what concentrated study is like. 

A topic that students often wish we would talk more about is sleep and dreams. We talk a little bit about sleep and dreams, but we leave that subject mostly for the textbook portion of the course. Lectures can’t cover everything, and as fascinating as dreams are, unfortunately, there’s not a huge science behind the subject. I would not be able to present ideas that would be anymore clarifying than students' personal experiences.

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 students can ask all kinds of questions about and I am able to answer them because I spent so many hours with the patient.