UniServe€Science News, Vol. 4, July 1996

Software in Psychology Teaching

Steve Provost is with the Psychology Department at the University of Newcastle.

In 1993 we (Steve Provost, Brett Hayes, Richard Heath, Andrew Heathcote, Don Munro, and Peter Pfister) received a grant from CAUT to develop and evaluate software for laboratory teaching in Psychology. At that time, the department did not employ any computer-based methods, other than the standard introduction to statistical packages in our `Methodology' stream. We hoped to contribute towards the Department's teaching program, as well as raise awareness about the potential of computers in learning. The focus was on material for teaching developmental psychology, which we felt to be an area of need (cf., Trapp, Hammond & Lucas, 1994, for confirmation).

Two `products' emerged from this program. The first, Object Search was a straightforward HyperCard stack, designed to supplement lecture material, and incorporating text, pictures, and some QuickTime movies. Some of the concepts covered in this part of the subject were difficult to convey in a conventional lecture format, and the intention was to assist students understanding of these concepts with self-paced learning via the stack. The second product, VisFix was designed to simulate experiments investigating cognition in infants using the visual fixation task. It is normally impossible for students to gain experience in conducting such experiments, since they involve an infant subject. By simulating infant visual fixation on the screen and allowing students to act as experimenters we hoped to substantially improve their understanding of such procedures.

We bombarded the students with questionnaires both before and after their exposure to the software. The evaluation of the software was generally favourable, despite serious technological limitations in its implementation. Our expectation that students evaluation might depend upon their approach to learning (Richardson, 1990) was proved false. Evaluation was not correlated with performance in the subject assessment. A significant proportion of our second-year students (about 10%) agreed strongly with the statement "I am a computer phobic", and their evaluation of the software was correlated with their attitude towards computers in general. Three factors were identified in the student's attitudes towards computers, anxiety, educational value, and access. Interestingly, computer anxiety was positively correlated with a surface learning approach. Computer anxiety was reduced following experience with the stack, although students who reported being a computer phobic did not change their self-image.

The software is presently in use within the department. There are a number of difficulties concerning the effective use of VisFix in particular that we are seeking to address. The use of QuickTime and HyperCard makes it difficult to get screen display rates of sufficient speed to obtain a very realistic simulation of infant behaviour. Improvements in the base performance of the hardware (we now have a lab of PowerPC Macs) has provided some assistance. We are currently trying to re-write at least some of the code in C, and to make the program more modular. This should allow us to develop a more flexible product, which we hope will have some value to ourselves and other educators.

Steve Provost


Richardson, J. T. E. (1990). Reliability and replicability of the approaches to study questionnaire. Studies in Higher Education, 15, 155-168.
Trapp, A., Hammond, N., & Lucas, L. (1994). Educational technology in UK university psychology departments: Part 1 - a survey of current practice. Psychology Software News, 4, 32-42.