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The Use of Correspondence in the Classroom

Charles I. Abramson and Douglas A. Hershey

Oklahoma State University

Scheduled to appear in: In L. Benjamin, B. Nodine, R. Ernst, C. Blair-Broeker (Eds.). Activities handbook for the teaching of psychology, Volume 4. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Abstract

An exercise is described in which students write to eminent psychologists in order to increase their understanding of the field. Students find the activity both creative and engaging, and instructors find that the exercise can accomplish multiple learning objectives. Described below are two different classroom tested letter writing exercises in addition to a number of variations on the basic theme. The exercise can be effectively adapted for use with students at all academic levels: from introductory psychology students to graduate students.

Concept

The ability to clearly express one's ideas in writing is a key training objective at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Unfortunately, a common complaint heard in academic units is that students do not receive sufficient opportunities to engage in written communication, and therefore, their writing skills are weaker than students trained in the past. The letter writing exercise can be presented to students as a clearly structured task (e.g., requiring each student to write a psychologist in order to ask a specific series of questions), or it can be presented as a more involved and creative task (e.g., requiring an entire class to develop their own "mini-survey" as a group, and then devise a plan to solicit opinions from a representative sample of psychologists). The adaptability of the exercise makes it appropriate for use as an individual or group assignment.

Materials Needed

The materials needed for this exercise are quite modest and will depend upon the scope of the project as defined by the instructor. In the simplest case the exercise requires only an envelope, a sheet of paper, a postage stamp, and access to some type of professional directory such as the membership directory of the American Psychological Association. Alternatively, an e-mail version of the exercise could be employed which would require access to an end-user terminal with word processing capabilities, an e-mail account, and a server with a connection to the Internet.

Instructions

The general goal of the assignment is for a student to open up a dialog with an individual whose work excites the student. Ideally the student has been exposed to the work of that individual in the course of the class. The letter writing exercise can be assigned at any time during the semester. We have used the exercise both as a formal component within the class, and/or as an extra credit assignment. Students can generate their own questions, or alternatively, receive some assistance from the instructor. If the responses to the letters are to be compared, it is necessary that at least some of the questions be similar from student to student.

Once the student has identified an individual(s) they are interested in corresponding with, the address can readily be obtained from any number of sources such as the APA or Society of Neuroscience directories, or from reprints of articles. If electronic mail is available the student can use a number of on-line search engines available on the World Wide Web which are designed to locate an individual e-mail address.

What follows are two examples of the letter writing exercise. The first was designed as an exercise in comparative psychology in which students wrote open ended letters containing questions on a variety of topics. The second example is a "survey-style" version used in a course on cognitive aging.

Case I: The individualized letter approach. In this approach the student makes up his or her own questions. To encourage comparisons among letters we suggest, however, that a core list of questions be common to all letter writers with the addition of several questions unique to the student. Core questions we have found useful include: What is your main area of focus? What do you consider your most significant contribution? Who do you consider your greatest influence? What is your prediction for the field? Would you recommend that I enter the field of comparative psychology? What are the job prospects like? What tool or apparatus do you find most useful? What type of research design do you typically use? What species have you worked with?

Questions which are unique to students have include: What classes do you teach? Does being a comparative psychologist influence your social life? What do you enjoy most about being a comparative psychologist? What is the most valuable advice you can give a future graduate student? What one person do you think has exemplified the field of comparative psychology the most, and why? What are the job prospects for a comparative psychologist? Is there a particular animal species you like to work with the most?

Case II: Multiple mailings. We have also tested a "survey-style" version of the exercise, in which a small group of undergraduates were assigned the exercise. These students took on the task of contacting a number of the top researchers in the sub-field of cognitive aging. These researchers were identified using a conference proceedings program from the biennial Cognitive Aging Conference. Their goal was to solicit the opinions of these researchers regarding important developments in the field past, present, and future. The initial step in the project involved directing the students to develop a small set of carefully worded questions. After a week of deliberation they arrived at the following set of questions: (1) Briefly, what do you see as the two most significant challenges facing the field of cognitive aging in the foreseeable future? (2) What do you consider to be the most significant advances seen in the field of cognitive aging in the past 50 years? (3) What do you see as the most significant issues to be addressed in training young researchers entering the field of cognitive aging? (4) Who do you consider to be the three most influential researchers (living or deceased) in the field of cognitive aging in the past four decades? (5) What research areas do you feel should receive more attention in the next 20 years?

Variations of correspondence in the classroom. There are many possible variations of this exercise. The exercise can be used with any type of course (e.g., abnormal, comparative, developmental, experimental, history, learning, neurobiology and personality). It can be aimed at obtaining information of a personal nature (e.g. why did you join the field?), of a retrospective nature (e.g., what do you think have been the most important developments in your field?), of a prospective nature (e.g., what trends to you foresee?), and of an informational nature (e.g., what do you see as the best way to select a graduate program?). One of our colleagues, for example, used the exercise in his history of psychology class, having students write to psychologists located in institutions outside of the United States. His goal was to have students explore a different cultural perspective on psychological issues.

Discussion

It has been our experience that students find this exercise not only informative but fun as well. At first, many students are hesitant in writing to eminent psychologists especially with the individualized letters approach. This initial reluctance is readily forgotten when students begin to receive replies. In some cases students have received detailed responses including reprints and offers of assistance. Students are excited to receive a reply from someone they have come to respect and admire through the course of their studies.

There are some limitations of the exercise that the instructor should be aware of. First, we have found it best if the exercise can be assigned early in the semester, in order to allow adequate time to receive responses. We have also found that approximately half of those in the multiple mailing responded. Letters which contain a few questions rather than many questions are more apt to get a response. Students will be disappointed if they do not receive a reply and should be encouraged to try again. Second, some students will need guidance on how to obtain an address, e-mail address, and/or how to write a polished letter. Third, there is always the possibility that a student will receive a negative letter. Fourth, the instructor should be aware that several students may seek a reply from the same individual. While we do not view this as a problem, it can be easily overcome by assigning students to write to specific individuals

The correspondence exercise can stimulate the development of many spin-off lectures and hands-on exercises. For instance, if the mini-survey approach is taken, issues of representative sampling and response rate problems can be discussed. Students can also perform content analysis of the replies and other comparative qualitative research techniques.

Writing component

One of the clear strengths of this exercise is the fact that it fosters formal written communication of a scientific nature. We would recommend that the student be asked to compose and turn in more than one draft of the letter before mailing. Students should explain to the correspondent that the letter is part of an assignment in a course. Students can also be asked to critique drafts of letters composed by their peers. Finally, students should be encouraged to write thank you notes upon receiving replies.

References and Suggested Readings

Barrass, R. (1978). Scientists must write: A guide to better writing for scientists, engineers, and students. New York: Chapman & Hall.

Gottschalk, L. A. (1995). Content analysis of verbal behavior: New findings and clinical applications. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Rosengren, K. E. (1981). Advances in content analysis. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Dr. Charles I. Abramson
Department of Psychology
116 N. Murray
Stillwater, Ok 74078-3064
(405) 744-7492
via E-Mail: charles.abramson@okstate.edu


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