Productively Incorporating Lived Experience into Assignments
Morgan Jerald, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Macalester College
To deepen students’ comprehension of course material, I encourage them to make links between our class material, the outside world, and their lived experiences. Inclusive pedagogy prioritizes lived experience as part of teaching and learning. Students should be encouraged to regard their own life experience and those of others as a valid way of knowing and to bring that lived experience into the classroom. At the same time, it is important to me that we maintain a focus on psychological theory and science and learn how to make an evidence-based argument. When applying this teaching principle, there is sometimes a risk that students won’t engage seriously with course content and readings and instead rely too heavily on anecdotal experiences. How can the sharing of lived experience be used in the service of grasping a theoretical concept? One way is to create assignments that give students the opportunity to both understand how psychological concepts and findings bear on real-world issues and to practice evaluating everyday claims through a critical lens.
The summer before the Fall of 2020, I was preparing my courses and considering how to meaningfully incorporate this teaching philosophy against the backdrop of the uncertainty of the pandemic and the grief and rage erupting in the Twin Cities over the murder of George Floyd. At the same time, my Instagram timeline was flooded with what writer Terry Nguyen describes as PowerPoint Activism— slideshows on Instagram that aimed to educate the public about social justice topics.
In my Psychology of Black Women seminar that semester, students took advantage of this social media trend to engage important issues related to the experiences of Black women. First, students wrote an op-ed for an outside publication that made a persuasive argument, based on scientific evidence, for addressing an issue of their choice. Second, students created an Instagram slideshow on the same topic.
Through the project, students were able to meaningfully address social justice issues and communicate psychological research beyond the classroom to both academic and non-academic audiences across two different mediums. Many of my students were active social media users, already adept at creating this kind of content, and relished the opportunity to demonstrate their proficiency with a tool they use every day as a part of a course assessment.
Living and learning are inseparable. We should continually challenge ourselves, as educators, to develop course content that remains dynamic and engaging to students at a personal level and relevant to the outside world. I have also applied this philosophy to assignments in other classes—for example, by requiring students to conduct a content analysis of television shows or by writing an autobiography about their social identities. Ultimately, I hope students in my courses develop a toolbox of critical thinking and problem-solving skills that will serve them long after our time together has ended. Course components that allow students to experiment with relating class material to their personal experiences and skillsets have been one means of achieving this goal.