Newspaper headlines as an introduction

18 Apr

Getting students to realise that they can think rationally about material that is presented to them can be difficult when the material is from the discipline they are studying. Level 1 students seem to arrive at university pre-programmed to ‘record’ subject-specific information rather than ever ‘question’ it.

I have taken to using newspaper stories as a means of getting students to realise that they are able to question the material that is presented to them. During my first Level 1 lecture of the year I show students a range of newpaper stories and ask them to tell me what might be wrong with them. WIth very little prompting from me students are able to identify problems, even though they might not be able to attach an appropriate ‘label’ to the issue. I’ve set out a few of the examples I use below, but I always encourage students to email me new examples they come across.

I usually start with an obviously daft example to get them in the mood, i.e. this great story from the Daily Mail suggeasting that wine can turn you into a werewolf ! I don’t (usually) have to tell students that werewolves don’t exist, and with little prompting they come up with the idea of single-case studies themselves.

In the summer of 2009 the Daily Express produced a run of stories that provided good material. The front page story on the 5th July was Coffee cures Alzheimers’, and three days later on 8th July the front page story was about a pill that could add 20 years your life-span. A month later, on the 10th August the front page reported eye-drops that will cure blindness

These three stories allow me to start to introduce students to a range of ideas. The first story about coffee and alzheimers is solely work conducted on mice, the second story is frankly just a little odd. It usually provkes a discussion about ‘wouldn’t we have heard about this somewhere else’ and ‘wouldn’t the big cosmetics companies be involved in this’. The final story moves on from just mice as ‘participants’ to rats and then three human participants. The students can usually derive for themselves that the jump from three human participants to ‘WILL cure blindness’ is rather a large one.

At this point at least one student will usually suggest that these stories all seem a bit trivial and not much to do with psychology. However if you ask them to put themselves in the shoes of someone who’s partner is blind, or who’s parents (maybe grandparents) have Alzheimer’s and think about what their reaction would be, they rapidly see the point. This can also lead to a discussion of how enquires about such unproven treatments can tie up NHS GPs time, and allows me to introduce the students to the NHS’s web site addressing such stories.

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