Students are exposed to different information and opinions from the media every day. In fact, according to a survey conducted by MSNBC and the Wall Street Journal, Americans are more divided than ever. With Packback students participate in academic discussions with their peers to question information and make connections between lecture, life experiences and current events. One group of Experimental Psychology students from The University of Alabama spent a semester asking thought-provoking questions and refining their views on trending topics.
These students brought ideas from the media and Hollywood to the classroom by adding credible sources into the mix. Students even sparked conversations that questioned the role of psychology in society. Some of the most popular topics of the semester included the rehabilitation of criminals, pretrial psychology evaluations and the role of ethics in scientific advancement.
During one week of class, a student set the tone by digging into the rehabilitation of criminals. After learning how other countries focus on rehabilitating their inmates, the student asked, “Should our prison systems be punishing or rehabilitating criminals?” Another student answered by referencing a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, which states 64 percent of local inmates, 56 percent of state prisoners and 45 percent of federal prisoners show symptoms of serious mental illness. The student said he/she thought rehabilitation should be the top priority of prisons, considering the number of mentally ill inmates, but explained that according to the study, rehabilitation is expensive and funds aren’t easy to obtain.
The class was intrigued. Many students jumped in by applying psychological theories from class to craft responses, and one student emphasized the difference between punishment and discipline he/she remembered from a Human Development class. The student explained that punishment often continues a cycle of aggression while discipline can teach why an action is wrong and discourage the behavior. The consensus from this discussion, grounded in psychological theory, was that rehabilitation would result in better outcomes for inmates after they are released.
This conversation led to a discussion about pretrial psychological evaluations. A student asked, “How much empathy should an evaluator give to a potential criminal?”
The student supplemented his/her question with a research paper that correlates low empathy from an evaluator with negative psychological testing results of a criminal. The paper concludes that many inmates are sentenced to harder punishments and not given proper treatment because evaluators often show little empathy. This claim sparked other students’ curiosity and many responses followed. The class concluded that examiners need to have a healthy level of empathy which creates trust, but they also need to be aware of manipulative behaviors, which can take advantage of an overly empathetic examiner.
Later in the term, curiosity took the students beyond published research. Students asked questions about other information they were consuming. One student pushed his/her classmates to think about the role of ethics in scientific advancement by sharing a scenario from the television show House, M.D. The characters in the show are asked to treat a researcher who was responsible for many medical accomplishments but did so through unethical practices that resulted in many human deaths. This student asked, “Is it okay to sacrifice a few for the good of many?”
This question rekindled an age-old debate where students brought different views, grounded in reliable sources and research.
With a basic understanding of class materials and psychological theory, these Experimental Psychology students were able to critically think through real-world scenarios and challenge one another.
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