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Getting students to love psychology

Shawn Jones, Ph.D., brings a lighthearted approach paired with pop culture knowledge and an open communication style to his Psych 101 classes.

This article is part of a series featuring innovative teaching practices in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Shawn Jones

Shawn Jones, Ph.D., in the Department of Psychology, loves Shonda Rhimes’ hit TV show, “How to Get Away with Murder.” So it’s no surprise that he modeled the opening moments of his Psychology 101 class off the very first episode of the series. In the show, the lead character, criminal defense professor Annalise Keating, played by Viola Davis, walks into her classroom and scrawls “How to Get Away with Murder” on the chalkboard. Jones kicks off his class with a similar method, but instead writes, “How to Learn to Love Psychology.”

“Some students think it’s super corny, some love it, but loving psychology is my goal. From the brain to prejudice to anxiety, there will be something that you can love,” says Jones.

And when classes went virtual last year, Jones recorded himself at the chalkboard reenacting his famous intro [CAS authentication required]. This lighthearted approach, blending pop culture knowledge with an open communication style, makes Jones’ teaching methods standout.

With an average of 300 students in each of Jones’ Psych 101 classes, it can be hard to connect with every student, but Jones makes it a priority. Before the pandemic Jones held weekly in-person coffee hours at the Starbucks in Cabell Library. This relaxed environment encouraged students to visit, as well as provided ample opportunities for random encounters, for those students who just happened to need a caffeine fix. When the pandemic hit, Jones switched to virtual coffee hours.

shawn jones at the cabell library starbucks
Jones hosts a weekly virtual coffee hour for students.

“The virtual coffee hours have been very successful. I’ve been on the whole hour with students, those who ask clarifying questions, but even those beyond ‘when is this due?’ I had a student ask me how I feel about virtual learning and how it impacted how I teach the course, which is a bold question,” says Jones. “Many of the students in my course are early on in their undergraduate career, and so it is important to me that they feel that the class is more local, more tangible, and most of all, that I am invested in the learning of each student.”

Jones also makes it a point to do shout-outs at the beginning of his classes, highlighting interesting student questions or interactions. He uses Packback, a sophisticated online discussion forum that uses artificial intelligence, to find compelling posts. “Each week, Packback gives me insight to who improved or had interesting comments. I also do my best to give students name recognition when they catch an error or ask a really intriguing question that benefits the entire learning community,” explains Jones. Packback also allows Jones to highlight a variety of students, not just those that are the most vocal or outgoing in class.

To engage further with students, Jones makes it a point to discuss current events in class. “I try to balance local, state, national and global events. For example, we’ve discussed everything from Richmond’s Lobby Day to Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crash to the 1619/400th anniversary of enslaved people in Virginia. So much of what we talk about is relevant to what we are learning about in class,” says Jones. “I see this as my contribution to ‘making it real’ when it comes to psychology. If my students can see psychology—grief, social influence, prejudice—in these stories, then I count it as an educational win.”

“I read each one of my students’ final reflections and respond to each and every one. It’s my last attempt to say ‘I see you.’”

For Jones’ final assignment, he asks students for a reflection on what they learned that semester and why those topics matter to the student and to society. And students aren’t just tied to the page; they have the option of creating a TikTok video or Twitter thread to address the assignment. “I wanted to give my students the opportunity to share what they learned with their broader community. That way everyone learns something about psychology. Students become producers of knowledge, not just consumers,” says Jones. “I tell them, ‘Why don’t you post on Twitter and see how people engage?’ It’s about encouraging folks to engage with mental health content.” Jones has even taken to TikTok for some of his own research and community outreach. (Here’s a video of him dancing to ‘NSYNC to publicize Men’s Suicide Prevention Month.)

This final assignment is also the most important to Jones. He responds to every single student — all 300 of them. “Some of the responses can get emotionally heavy. This past year, students wrote about losing family members to COVID, the election, social justice issues,” says Jones. “I read each one of my students’ final reflections and respond to each and every one. It’s my last attempt to say ‘I see you. Even if you never came up to me, I see you.’” And those responses matter to his students. “I do have students reach out to me after class ends and tell me that they really appreciate what I wrote to them. It takes a long time to respond to everyone, but it’s definitely worth it.”

Another fun fact about Jones: He won Wheel of Fortune! Watch him stun Pat Sajak and Vanna White with his mind-blowing win from 2016.