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Psychology and Neuroscience: Teaching the Neural Basis of Behavior

Abstract and Keywords

Teaching neuroscience can be a challenging undertaking for many reasons inherent in the nature of the subject itself—neuroscience is interdisciplinary, fact-dense, broad, spans many levels, constantly changing, and may not necessarily be seen as relevant by some psychology students. This chapter makes some suggestions for ways to confront those challenges, identifies some useful relevant resources, and highlights factors to consider when designing a neuroscience course and integrating neuroscience into existing psychology courses.

Keywords: teaching neuroscience, biological psychology, neuroeducation, laboratory instruction, backward design, student engagement

Neuroscience is a rapidly growing field with an immense potential to affect the human condition. The estimated cost of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias to American society in 2012 totaled over $200 billion and this cost is anticipated to increase to $1.1 trillion within the next 40 years (Alzheimer’s Association, 2012). If all neuroscience could achieve in the next few decades is an understanding of the neural mechanisms of this one disease, the benefits to society would be immeasurable. Instead, neuroscience offers the promise of a cure for countless more diseases of the brain and nervous system in the coming years. Among those students joining our classes in order to gain a better understanding of neuroscience will be the future researchers making those key discoveries; the future professionals treating those patients; the future policy makers in health care; and the future patients and family members of patients, themselves. As neuroscience educators, it is, therefore, essential that we think intentionally about how we can best teach neuroscience in ways that provide students with some understanding of the wide range of what is “neuroscience” and the tools and methods needed to answer the types of questions it asks. In addition, it is important to help our students see how their knowledge of neuroscience—gained in the classroom, lab, and beyond—can inform the future neuroscience-related decisions they may be asked to make that will affect their lives, and the lives of others.

What is Neuroscience?

You are likely reading this chapter because you are interested in teaching neuroscience within a psychology curriculum. What, however, does it mean to teach neuroscience from a psychology perspective? How might that be different than a neuroscience course taught within a different curriculum or from a different perspective? The relationship between psychology and neuroscience is a complex one: Not all psychology is neuroscience and not all neuroscience is psychology. This is due, in no small part, to the historical origins of the two disciplines, where they share commonalities and where they have diverged from each other.

The discipline of psychology originated with questions posed in philosophy. In this world view, questions about the mind were answerable using the (p. 360) tools of contemplation and reflection. Over time, however, as questions about the biological basis of the mind grew more complex and important to answer, and the existing answers to such questions less satisfactory, it became clear that new ways of answering these questions were needed if the discipline were to grow. It was at this point that psychology began to adopt scientific tools and methods grounded in physiology: Psychology as a science had been born. These scientific tools and methods have subsequently been employed in the variety of subdisciplines that exist within psychology to produce the wealth of knowledge about human behavior and the mind that we appreciate today. Those areas of psychology that have emerged specifically targeting at understanding the biological basis of behavior and the mind have come to be known by terms such as biological psychology, physiological psychology, behavioral neuroscience, and cognitive neuroscience. However, although all of psychology aims to understand the mind and behavior at some level, not all of psychology attempts to explain this relationship at the biological level. For example, it would still be true to say that the majority of social psychologists do not conduct research that attempts to understand both the social phenomena they are examining, as well as its biological basis.1

In contrast, neuroscience as a discipline is a much more recent development. The Society for Neuroscience—currently the largest professional organization in neuroscience in the world—was founded in 1969 with 500 members. These founding society members were drawn from a number of different disciplines, but all shared a common interest in developing a better understanding of neural function. So even at its roots, it was clear that neuroscience was intended to be an inherently interdisciplinary discipline. Indeed, many (but by no means all) neuroscientists are interested in neural function in research areas that fall well within the boundaries of psychology: neural function that relates to the mind and behavior. It is also important to note that neuroscience has been a rapidly growing discipline. Membership in the Society for Neuroscience now numbers over 41,000 with 28,500 attending the 2012 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. One driver of this growth has been increasing student interest in the area, especially at the undergraduate level. Consequently, the number of undergraduate institutions offering a variety of courses and programs in neuroscience has increased dramatically since the 1990s and the so-called decade of the brain.

When teaching neuroscience from a psychology perspective, one of the issues facing us is understanding the nature of the relationship between the two disciplines (see Figure 27.1). The better our understanding of this relationship as teachers, the better we can convey it effectively to our students. Although it is currently true that not all psychology is neuroscience, recent (and future) advances in technology may be changing that. The advent of functional imaging (and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging [fMRI] in particular), which allows us to see an intact mind in action, has revolutionized both the fields of psychology and neuroscience and brought them closer together than ever before. For example, questions that the area of cognitive neuroscience (which for many people, has now become synonymous with human neuroscience) attempts to answer, typically with fMRI or Event Related Potential (ERP) technology, are inextricably entwined in both psychology and neuroscience. In other words, it would be impossible to say that cognitive neuroscience is not psychology or is not neuroscience: it is, by the very nature of the questions it asks, both. The area of social neuroscience (e.g., Cacioppo & Decety, 2011; Immordino-Yang, 2011), including social cognitive neuroscience (e.g., Ochsner & Lieberman, 2001), emerged in the late 1990s and seeks to understand the neural basis of social phenomena, for example, prejudice or social influence. Thus, neuroscience has allowed us to explore the biological and neural bases of psychological phenomena where such level of inquiry was previously impossible and, especially if technological advances in neuroscience continue at the astonishing pace of recent years, we can expect neuroscience to increasingly inform psychological phenomena in the future.

Psychology and NeuroscienceTeaching the Neural Basis of Behavior

Fig. 27.1 The changing relationship between psychology and neuroscience. Advances in technology and increasing awareness of the potential impact of neuroscience in many subdisciplines of psychology may be increasing the overlap between these two areas.

This position may seem controversial to some, but whether you agree with it or not, it is essential that we, as teachers of psychology, examine our own perceptions of psychology and neuroscience and consider how that aligns with, and influences, student perceptions of the relationship between them. Students coming to psychology are increasingly excited at the prospect of studying not just behavior, but also its neural basis. In fact, today’s students are arguably more attuned to the biological bases of behavior that any that have preceded them. Whereas previously thought of in cognitive or psychological terms, U.S. society now typically describes the causes of psychological disorders such as depression in biological terms. For example, when asked for the cause of depression, students (p. 361) will readily respond with the phrase, “a chemical imbalance in the brain.” In addition, technology is becoming increasingly available which can allow students to research both behavior and its neural basis. For example, functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIR) allows functional neuroimaging in real-time using the same blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) principles as fMRI but at a fraction of the cost. If our students are seeing psychology and neuroscience as more complementary than ever before, and are excited about this connection, then it is our job as educators to align ourselves as best we can with this perspective; inviting our students to further explore these connections, and helping to guide and support them in their explorations.

Teaching Neuroscience: Challenges for Teachers and Students

There are a number of challenges associated with teaching neuroscience, both for the teacher and the student. Although some of these challenges are true of many fields, some are especially evident when teaching neuroscience in a psychology curriculum.

Neuroscience Is Interdisciplinary:

As mentioned previously, neuroscience is an inherently interdisciplinary discipline. Connections with neuroscience have been made between psychology, biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, math, music, visual arts, ethics, economics, education, philosophy, and the humanities. Although this breadth can be useful for helping to connect individual student interest with neuroscience research, it can be challenging for instructors to be aware of, and, therefore, to connect students to the multitude of opportunities that exist for making connections with neuroscience outside of psychology.

Neuroscience Is Fact-dense:

One thing that students of neuroscience courses frequently comment on is the sheer number of facts that they encounter in their studies. This issue is often compounded by the presence of language unfamiliar to students. I can still remember approaching the professor in my first neuroscience class with a long list of questions (p. 362) after trying to read a journal article, many of which concerned the alien terminology I had just encountered. This density can also be a challenge to the instructor. In some cases this language may be just as unfamiliar to the instructor as the student so the instructor is first tasked with learning a new vocabulary before they can even begin to address questions about designing the course and making decisions regarding its content. For example, how many of these facts should the student know by the end of the course? Which are the most important, which the least? These questions are nearly impossible to answer without some prior working knowledge of how these facts fit together, which is grounded in the disciplinary language used.

Neuroscience Is Broad:

Even within the discipline of psychology, neuroscience connects with many subdisciplines. Although we would all agree that this is a strength of neuroscience, it does present challenges in keeping students informed about how those connections are informing the overall discipline of psychology. Possessing an adequate understanding of the methods and tools currently used across these diverse areas of psychology can also be difficult for psychology instructors whose primary focus lies outside of neuroscience.

Neuroscience Has Many Levels:

Neuroscience research occurs at levels of analysis from the molecular to the cognitive. As with the breadth, the great advantages conferred by an ability to analyze neural phenomena at multiple levels similarly presents challenges to teachers and students in adequately understanding how the variety of these analyses are done.

Neuroscience Is Constantly Changing:

In addition to the challenges present in understanding the current state of neuroscience and available tools and methods, advances in neuroscience are occurring with such breakneck speed that what is current is constantly changing. For example, the recent development of optogenetics has revolutionized some areas of neuroscience, but how many psychology instructors could describe the basic experimental procedure in optogenetics research? If it is difficult enough for scholars within the field of neuroscience to keep abreast of such advances, how can one be expected to keep on top of current neuroscience research if it is not your area of expertise? And how can you teach the current state of neuroscience to your students without that understanding?

Making Neuroscience Relevant to Students:

Like several of the issues listed earlier, the properties of neuroscience that produce its strengths can be the very same things that generate challenges for teachers and students. Some levels of analysis that psychology students encounter in a neuroscience course—in particular, at the cellular/molecular level—may not appear on first pass to have much relevance to them. One can speculate that this may be because the issues regarding the mind and behavior that originally attract many students to the discipline of psychology are at the higher (i.e., cognitive) levels of analysis. These students, therefore, sometimes struggle to grasp how an understanding of ion channel dynamics is related to psychology and human behavior. It is also still the case that some students elect to take psychology because they believe themselves to be “no good at science.”2 In such cases, even the mention of a biological phenomenon (let alone a description of the molecular sequence required for synaptic vesicle release!) may cause them to disengage from the material.

In sum, it is understandable why the presence of these challenges can make some faculty nervous about teaching neuroscience topics and some students apprehensive about taking courses in neuroscience. It is our hope that the rest of this chapter provides some guidance to instructors for helping to overcome these challenges for themselves and their students.

Designing a Neuroscience Course

We will first address the situation in which we are designing a freestanding neuroscience course.

What Are Your Goals?

Our first challenge to overcome when teaching a neuroscience course (as with any course) is deciding what you want your students to learn from it. If we acknowledge some of the challenges stated earlier, however, regarding the complexity, depth, and breadth of neuroscience as a discipline, we must concede that there is no single, complete “Neuroscience” course. The critical question then becomes “what are your intended goals for this one?” and how can you best go about finding ways of intentionally meeting those goals. Further, it is important to consider how your goals for this one course fit into the wider goals of the psychology and/or neuroscience curriculum at your institution. To help our thinking regarding this issue, several very useful guidelines exist for structuring the undergraduate neuroscience (Ramirez, 1997; Wiertelak, 2003a; Wiertelak & Ramirez, 2008) and psychology curriculum (American Psychological Association [APA], 2013; 2007). Importantly, the (p. 363) student learning goals that you have decided upon for your course can be compared against the learning goals identified in these curricular guidelines. Note also that although these guidelines are very consistent in some areas—for example, all incorporate some level of increased knowledge of experimental methodology in their goals—they remain flexible enough to be relevant to the wide variety of program types that exist in both psychology and neuroscience (Wiertelak & Ramirez, 2008).

Utilizing backward design principles

(Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) is one very effective approach to structuring courses with “good design—of curriculum, assessment, and instruction—focused on developing and deepening understanding of important ideas.” (p.3). The essential component of backward design is that we begin our design process by asking what it is we want our students to have learned by the end of the course. Having identified those goals and the explicit “big ideas” guiding our teaching, we can then determine what acceptable evidence for having met those goals might look like. Only then, once we have designed specific ways to assess whether we have been effective at achieving our desired goals, can we design a plan of learning experiences and instruction to guide student learning toward those goals. Importantly, this goal-centered approach provides some protection against (a) involving students in activities that are interactive but not meaningful, and (b) a focus on “coverage” of material without connection to the big ideas of the topic under consideration. Given the nature of neuroscience, it is perhaps not surprising to hear instructors of neuroscience courses talk of struggling to “get through the material” or not having enough time to “cover” a topic. These backward design principles force us to critically consider what the learning benefit is to the student in these situations and how such an approach affects our students’ ability to achieve our intended goals for them.

Who Are Your Students?

When designing a neuroscience course and formalizing its intended goals, we also need to consider who the students are who will be taking the course and their reasons for taking it. Although this is an important factor to consider not just for neuroscience courses, the variety of levels of interest and background content knowledge students may have coming into a neuroscience course need to be taken into account as we make decisions regarding where we should set the desirable boundaries and levels of the course content. This issue may be most important to address for introductory neuroscience courses (Wiertelak, 2003b). For example, many early undergraduate students will be attracted to neuroscience because of information they have learned in the popular press, but they may have little-to-no knowledge of cellular-level biology. How can we best satisfy the interests of these students with courses that allow them both to explore their interest while simultaneously opening their minds to new aspects of neuroscience that they may not otherwise have come into contact with?

One possible direction to take with such an audience is represented by the course Neuroscience and Society available on MIT’s Open Courseware (Schull, 2010). This course (and other like it) allows students to expand their knowledge of neuroscience while making obvious the application of neuroscience to the “real” world without assuming a strong preexisting biological level knowledge of neuroscience.

An alternative approach is reflected in Smith College’s Introduction in Neuroscience (Hall, 2013), which focuses on understanding the biological basis of the brain and nervous system but assumes no prior knowledge on the part of the student.

Regardless of the direction taken in designing your specific neuroscience course, once you have decided on your goals for the course, it is critical that the appropriate prerequisites you have decided on as being required for meeting those goals be communicated to students along with adequate descriptions of the content and level of the course, both in terms of difficulty of the material and the neuroscience level(s) of analysis that is to be examined, for example, molecular, cellular, systems, etc.

Labs or No Labs?

Although the decision to include laboratory experiences in your neuroscience course may ultimately be out of your hands, there is a wealth of literature that highlights the benefits of experiential learning (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2013; Kolb, 1984), or “situated learning” in a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991). For example, applying Kolb’s experiential learning cycle to lab education has been shown to enhance student-learning outcomes (Abdulwahed & Nagy, 2009). In a lab experience, students can benefit from the opportunities to apply knowledge of a subject and develop skills in ways that complement and extend their existing knowledge. But not all lab experiences are created equal (Coppola, 2013). Domin (1999) identified (p. 364) four distinct lab instruction styles—expository, inquiry, problem-based, discovery—that differ in their strengths and weaknesses (see Table 27.1).

Expository lab instruction has a predetermined outcome and clear structure so students will (eventually) achieve the desired result just by following the instructions provided by the instructor. Although the benefits of reliability and cost-effectiveness still keep this form of lab instruction popular, it has, however, been frequently criticized for providing too much emphasis on learning technical skills and convergent thinking (where the goal is for student thinking to converge on a single, correct answer), and this leaves little room for divergent thinking (where consideration of multiple possible correct methods and solutions are encouraged) on the part of the student.

Inquiry (or open-inquiry) lab instruction could be considered the polar opposite of the expository type. Students are given the freedom to come up with the questions to be tested and the methods to be used. In this way, it is considered a more “authentic” experience in scientific research. Some advantages of this type of lab instruction include increased student engagement and ownership of the task. However, some caution needs to be exercised with inquiry labs because some significant degree of guidance is necessary until learners have achieved a sufficiently high level of knowledge to provide their own, internal guidance (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006). Without such initial guidance “minimally guided instruction is less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process.” (p.75).

Problem-based lab instruction provides students with the necessary background knowledge to consider how to go about solving a problem posed by the instructor. It is the goal of solving the problem that the learning is centered around, and students have to apply their existing knowledge about concepts to devise their own questions and procedures in order to achieve that goal. If they do not already understand the concept, they will struggle to solve the problem.

Discovery or (guided-inquiry) lab instruction is similar to the inquiry method in that both are inductive, requiring the students to discover for themselves a general understanding of the underlying principle, but unlike inquiry instruction, Discovery instruction leads the students to a predetermined outcome using predetermined procedures. However, as Domin (1999) puts it “Any activity that leaves the desired outcome open for discovery also leaves open the opportunity for it not to be discovered.” (p. 545), and is it still discovery if students have to be told the solution?

One excellent example of an effective discovery lab instruction in neuroscience is SWIMMY—a virtual fish simulation developed at UCLA (Grisham, Schottler, & Krasne, 2008) as part of the MDCUNE (Modular Digital Course in Undergraduate Neuroscience Education at UCLA) project. Students are guided through a series of tasks designed to help them understand how depolarizing, hyperpolarizing, and recording from individual neurons in the circuit can be used to identify the configuration of neural circuits. At the end of the lab, students are required to map out—or “discover”—an unknown circuit using the neurophysiological tools they have learned to identify which cells are involved in SWIMMY’s swimming behavior. To make this final stage of the lab more exciting for students, we divided the students into two groups and had them race against each other to map out the circuit for a small prize (brain erasers). (p. 365) The full SWIMMY teaching module—including software, manuals for students and instructors, and a number of supporting materials—is freely available at

Table 27.1 Characteristics of Different Lab Instruction Styles






















Reprinted with permission from Domin, Daniel S. “A Review of Laboratory Instruction Styles.” Journal of Chemical Education. Copyright 1999 American Chemical Society.

Regardless of the type of lab instruction you plan to use in your course, the most essential thing is that you thoughtfully consider how well the type of lab you intend to employ aligns with your goals for both the specific lab and course.

Research as Teaching?

Engaging students in research can be a powerful pedagogical tool for enhancing student learning. The Council on Undergraduate Research’s (CUR) Characteristics of Excellence in Undergraduate Research (COEUR) recognized this by including “integration of teaching and research” in the curriculum in its summary of best practices in undergraduate research (Rowlett, Blockus, & Larson, 2012). Further, undergraduate research is considered by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) to be a “high impact practice” as students report engaging in deep approaches to learning, and report large gains in practical and personal areas as a result of their research experiences (Brownell & Swaner, 2010; Kuh, 2008). Similarly, sizable learning gains in a number of areas (among them the ability to integrate theory and practice, the ability to analyze data and other information, and skill in interpreting results) have been shown in students engaged in summer research (Lopatto, 2010).

But can similar learning gains be achieved in a course setting? David Lopatto’s research also examined learning gains in “research-like” courses, demonstrating that “Generally, students in courses that have research-like features benefit in the same way, but to a lesser degree, than students involved in [dedicated summer] undergraduate research” (p. 53). Those important research-like features include providing students with the opportunity to seek new knowledge, to have input into the research process, to communicate their findings, and to participate in group work. Carefully planned laboratory classes, therefore, can provide just such a forum for students to benefit from the learning gains afforded by these research-like experiences.

What Might Go in My Labs?

If you decide on having labs, one outstanding resource that provides ideas for laboratory exercises in neuroscience is the Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education (JUNE). Importantly, many authors of these articles are sensitive to the issues of cost and equipment that are often barriers to psychology programs that want to include neuroscience labs. For example, students in most programs will not normally have an opportunity to work with extracellular single-unit electrophysiological data (that is, the action potentials from individual neurons) recorded from awake-behaving animals because it is expensive to establish such a lab and requires a great deal of time to collect such data. In their JUNE article, Cousens and Muir (2006) describe a lab experience in which students work with analyzing single-unit data (collected from the rat and monkey) using software freely available through the Internet. Access to the single-unit datasets is provided through an open website that includes descriptions of some aspects of the techniques written by undergraduate students. Such lab exercises can be used to meet a variety of pedagogical objectives for students, including fostering interest in scientific inquiry, promoting thought about the interdisciplinary nature of science, and enhancing data fluency through experience working with “big” datasets.

Electrophysiology is a very useful topic to have in a lab experience for students because it allows them to examine the basis of behavior directly through examination of the electrical activity of the brain and nervous system. Although students may have learned from their textbooks that neurons are electro-chemical in nature, hands-on experience in trying to understand how brain activity at that level of functioning relates to behavior can reinforce and deepen that understanding. There are several excellent computer-based neuron simulations to help students better understand the ionic basis of neural function, the action potential, synaptic function, and neurotransmission by exploring the properties of neurons in response to various forms of manipulation (e.g., electrical stimulation, drug application). Some excellent examples of neuron simulations are Crawdad (, NEURON’s “Neurons in Action” (; see Stewart, 2009, for an example of how “Neurons in Action” has been used in a neuroscience course), and the freely available MetaNeuron (; and on which JUNE has a forthcoming article). Offering students the opportunity to conduct actual physiological recordings, if possible, is something they will find very exciting and informative. Although this requires a commitment to acquiring the necessary equipment (p. 366) to allow for this, fortunately, some available types of electrophysiological techniques and equipment are inexpensive. For example, a company called Backyard Brains ( has recently begun selling an inexpensive (the build-it-yourself kit is under $50) amplifier with speaker that can be used to record neural activity from cockroach legs. The system also integrates with iPhones and iPads, which are used as oscilloscopes and audio devices (see their TEDtalk at

Labs in human psychophysiology are also popular with students because they allow them to directly witness the electrical bases of their own (or other students’) behaviors. It can be a powerful learning experience for students to design experiments to explore how the human nervous system operates, especially if they get to observe the electrical activity of their own brain in real time at some point in the process! Indeed, many students want printouts of their own EEG data so they can show their brain activity to others outside the lab. Although acquiring the necessary equipment for this sort of lab experience is a more expensive option, one widely used option is provided by BIOPAC (, who make systems that are versatile and user-friendly, and allow students to record a wide number of physiological phenomena from the brain (electroencephalogram, EEG; event-related potentials, ERPs), muscle (electromyogram, EMG), heart (electrocardiogram, EKG), and eyes (electrooculogram, EOG) of human participants.

There is no doubt that there is something special and awe-inspiring about holding a brain in your hands! Most students—even those who may not consider themselves greatly interested in neuroscience—will likely be excited about the opportunity to interact with actual brain tissue. Brain dissections are an excellent way to provide students with that sort of opportunity. Although a human brain may have the most impact on these students because they can easily relate it to their own brain, gaining access to human brains can be prohibitive. The most reasonable alternative that approximates human brains, therefore, is sheep brains. They are easily accessible (for example, from Carolina Biological Supplies, NC) and many dissection protocols for sheep brains are freely available on the Internet (e.g., the University of Scranton Behavioral Neuroscience Lab’s “Dissection of the Sheep Brain” Alternatively, if access to the actual sheep brain tissue is too costly, the entire dissection lab could be run virtually using these online protocols.

Another potential source of online laboratory exercises is the Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE; Although a subscription is required to access many of the full videos, there are some excellent examples of laboratory exercises in neuroscience at many different levels of analysis and available resources. For example, Eisenegger and Naef (2011) describe a lab experiment comparing the effects of testosterone and a placebo on social decision making using the Ultimatum Game. Interestingly, the social behavior of people actually receiving testosterone was opposite to those who only thought they had received it and who had (inaccurate) existing beliefs about how testosterone would affect their behavior in the game.

One final type of lab experience incorporates the relatively new idea of “crowdsourcing.” Dr. Sebastian Seung at MIT is using players of an online “game” to help his research on mapping the retinal connectome ( The game players (or “citizen neuroscientists”) manually color-in neurons in contiguous 2D slices of tissue imaged by scanning electron microscopy (SEM). It is Dr. Seung’s hope that the resulting 3D renderings of these individual neurons will be more accurate than if automated tools were used. This activity could easily be incorporated into a lab on vision and the retina, and students would know that through their participation in the “game,” they were making a genuine and meaningful contribution to generating new scientific knowledge.

Taking Neuroscience Out of the Classroom and into the Community

Experiential learning opportunities for students that differ significantly from lab experiences are present in the form of service learning or academic civic engagement (ACE). Along with undergraduate research described earlier, ACE has also been identified as a high-impact practice by AAC&U (Brownell & Swaner, 2010; Kuh, 2008) because of the learning benefits it conveys. Sponsored by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives ( and in collaboration with partners such as the Society for Neuroscience (, international Brain Awareness Week (BAW) provides an ideal opportunity to have students engage with the community in neuroscience ACE activities. Some examples of BAW outreach activities include: holding a “Brain Bee” and invite local school students (p. 367) to answer brain-related questions for prizes; “Kids Judge!” neuroscience fairs where 4th–6th-grade students evaluate college-student presentations on the science of the brain and nervous system; and student visits to local K-12 classrooms to demonstrate and explain neuroscience phenomenon (see Muir & van der Linden (2009) for a similar experiential learning project but in an introductory psychology course). If you are interested in K-12 outreach and looking for great ideas, Dr. Eric Chudler at the University of Washington maintains an award-winning website dedicated to Wneuroscience education at the K-12 level ( Given the advantages such ACE experiences can provide for your students and your community, it is worthwhile to consider when designing your neuroscience course whether there might be appropriate ACE opportunities available to your students.

Integrating Neuroscience Into Psychology Courses

Biopsychology is one of the more difficult subject areas within the Introductory Psychology course for students (Peck, Ruban, Levine, and Matchock, 2006). It may, then, come as a surprise that a recent search of articles published in Teaching of Psychology (ToP) since 1975 containing neur-, physiological, or biological in the title returned only 23 hits—that is, ToP only published close to one article on teaching neuroscience in psychology every two years. So despite the obvious challenges to instructors in teaching neuroscience in psychology, little has been published in the foremost psychology teaching journal to help instructors overcome those challenges. The Society for Teaching of Psychology (STP, APA Division 2) does, however, have a handful of other helpful resources on their Office for Teaching Resources in Psychology (OTRP) website ( under the heading “Physiological.” These include a recently created a guide for new teachers of introductory psychology that contains a useful (albeit brief) chapter with suggestions for learning objectives and demonstrations and activities for teaching biopsychology (Rhodes, 2013), and an article containing some nice demonstration suggestions for use in an introductory biopsychology course (Simon-Dack, 2012).

When asked how one should approach teaching neuroscience in an introductory psychology course, Michael Gazzaniga—one of the founders of the field of cognitive neuroscience3—suggests two things: (a) “focus on what students really need to know to be informed about psychological science … it doesn’t make sense to bombard students with neuroanatomic detail” (Rasmussen, 2006, p.215); and (b) “you need to connect brain structures to behavior, which means taking a very functional approach. It is important to know about this brain region because it does X or Y, and if you damage that region, you can’t do X or Y.” (Rasmussen, 2006, p. 215).

This is excellent advice—none of us want to bombard our students with neuroanatomic detail, especially at the introductory level—but Gazzaniga is not advocating that students should learn nothing about neuroanatomy (a quick glance at his introductory psychology textbook (Gazzaniga, Heatherton, & Halpern, 2012) reveals that), but rather that these students don’t need to learn unnecessary detail. The challenge that remains for us as instructors, however, is in deciding on what we consider “unnecessary” when it comes to our students’ understanding of the neural basis of behavior. However we answer this question, it should clearly be related to the goals for our course, but we should consider that as neuroscience connects to more and more areas of psychology, it becomes increasingly useful for students to have an understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying psychological phenomena.

Engaging Students in Neuroscience in Your Classroom

Making Your Goals Explicit

You have thought long and hard about the student learning goals while preparing for your course, so don’t be afraid to explicitly share the results of that work with your students. Indeed, sharing learning goals is seen as a valuable aid to guide learning by both students and instructors (Simon & Taylor, 2009). Include the goals on your syllabus but also spend a few minutes talking to your students about them on the first day of class. If you are integrating neuroscience into a course for the first time, share with your students your reasoning behind that decision and the approach you are taking to achieve that integration. If you let students know ahead of time how you hope your changes will be of benefit to them, they will likely be more forgiving of your experimentation in the course (especially in the unfortunate event of its failure…).

When deciding on your learning goals for the course, it is useful to not only consider how your course goals align with those of your institution’s major, but also how they align with the guidelines (p. 368) for the undergraduate psychology major published by the American Psychological Association (APA, 2007). It is also critical to have considered how your learning goals for the course align with your choice of assessment tools (APA, 2009).

Connecting Neuroscience to Behavior

One reason neuroscience may be considered harder to teach is that it may seem less intuitive than other aspects of psychology to students. For that reason, it becomes important to find ways to connect neuroscience concepts to other aspects of psychology that students connect to more readily. It can, therefore, be useful to adopt an integrated approach to understanding a behavioral phenomenon that they are already familiar with. For example, many students will be familiar with the idea of Indiana Jones-type explorers in the Amazon being paralyzed by a poison dart fired from a blowgun. Describing the mechanisms at the neuromuscular junction behind that phenomenon (i.e., curare blocks the nicotinic acetylcholine receptors on the muscle so acetylcholine cannot activate them, resulting in paralysis and, perhaps, death) then becomes significantly easier if students already know the outcome but lack an understanding of the mechanism by which that phenomenon occurs. In this way, some understanding of an aspect of neuroanatomy (e.g., the neuromuscular junction) becomes necessary (and relevant) for students to understand the phenomenon, rather than just trying to learn the neuroanatomy for its own sake.

A similar integrated approach can be used to help student understanding of other neural systems. One useful application of this integrated approach is in its use to identify the neuroanatomical cause of specific deficits. For example, a common feature of primary sensory and motor cortices is that they are organized in some systematic fashion (e.g., somatotopic in primary somatosensory and primary motor cortex; tonotopic in primary auditory cortex; retinotopic in primary visual cortex). This fact helps students understand why specific behavioral deficits occur with damage to specific brain regions. For example, most students will be familiar with the effects of a stroke but may not understand the neural basis of its effects. Mapping the specific areas of motor cortex affected to the motor deficits observed serves to help clarify that relationship and highlight the contralateral organization of the brain. Similarly, students are intrigued to hear about the effects of less-well-known deficits, such as those seen in split-brain patients and other neurological disorders such as those described by Oliver Sacks in his well-known book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (Sacks, 1985). The advantage of adopting this approach is that is encourages students to learn about the brain and its functioning in a context—that of a functioning brain system that they connect to a behavior.

The same integrated approach can be used to provide a more complete description of phenomena in other areas of psychology. For example, social neuroscience (Cacioppo & Decety, 2011) has allowed us to look at the neural basis of social phenomena such as emotion (e.g., empathy; Zaki & Ochsner, 2012), social cognition (e.g., in-group bias; Van Bavel, Packer, & Cunningham, 2008), and political ideology (e.g., neurocognitive correlates of political beliefs; Amodio, Jost, Master, & Yee, 2007). Sharing a brief description of a single neuroscience finding pertinent to the social topic being discussed helps students see the relevance of neuroscience to many (if not all) aspects of psychology while not requiring the instructor to have a comprehensive neuroscience background in the area.

How is this About Me? The Challenge of Relevance

Most introductory psychology courses will describe neural function at the level of the individual neuron and the action potential. Although there is likely to be a wide range of ways that this material is covered across different introductory psychology courses (in some part due to the comfort level of the instructor with this material), students may struggle to see how the movement of sodium ions through proteins in the cell membrane is of relevance to them and their everyday life. Therefore, in an attempt to make understanding the ionic basis of the action potential more important and relevant to students, the first author makes a point of explaining to students at the start of the topic that “You are your neurons.” Some discussion follows explaining that everything you experience about the world from your senses, everything you think, everything you do—in fact, everything you are—is the result of neurons in the nervous system talking to each other in their language: action potentials. In that way, students can see that one way of understanding all human behavior—including their own—can happen at that level. This discussion has some impact because it is clear from student reactions that many have never thought about themselves in those terms before.

(p. 369) Making these sorts of connections to increase a topic’s relevance to students is also important and useful when taking about the neural action of certain types of drugs (e.g., antidepressants) or the neural basis of certain disorders (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease) that students may have had experience with (either directly or indirectly). Students with experience in these areas may know much about the symptoms or effects of the phenomenon under discussion, but little about its neural basis.

Dispelling “Neuromyths”

Don’t be surprised if some students come into your psychology classroom with preconceived neuroscience misconceptions. Examples of such “neuromyths” (OECD, 2002) or “neurononsense” (Purdy, 2008) include: We only use 10 percent of our brains; we are either left—or right-brained thinkers; everything important about the brain is decided by the age of three; and there are critical periods during which certain learning must occur (OECD, 2007; Goswami, 2006). But the news is not all bad. Dispelling these popular misconceptions provides an opportunity to open a discussion on a subject in which students feel connected to the answer because they had believed (incorrectly) that they already knew it. When students are asked the question and are surprised to find themselves wrong, instructors can take advantage of this surprise as a powerful way to engage students in the content. For example, if the 10 percent myth is being perpetuated in part by student misinterpretation of fMRI result images showing only small regions of the brain as active, a brief description of how fMRI images are created (i.e., the fMRI image shows brain activity that is different from the baseline condition rather than total absolute brain activity levels) will help to dispel that myth. It is, however, unsettling that K-12 teachers interested in the neuroscience of learning still indicated that they believed 49 percent of the neuromyths they were presented with (Dekker, Lee, Howard-Jones, & Jolles, 2012), demonstrating that much work still remains to be done in our classrooms to help dispel these stubbornly popular myths.

Neuroscience in the Popular Media

Some recent studies have documented a dramatic increase in neuroscience related articles in the popular media over the last three decades (O’Connor, Rees, Joffe, 2012; Reiner, 2011). For example, the number of articles in 83 major world newspapers mentioning the word neuroscience or neuroscientist increased 31 times from 1985 to 2009 (Reiner, 2011). This change can be seen as a measure of the public’s increasing interest in issues involving neuroscience and the changing role of neuroscience in society (Thornton, 2011). The increasing significance of this topic can also be seen in the fact that there are now courses dedicated to helping students understand the relationship between neuroscience and the media (for example, Dr. Daphna Shohamy’s (2012) course at Columbia University entitled Cognitive Neuroscience in the Media). Importantly, this increased prevalence also provides instructors with more ways to connect their students to neuroscience through science writing that is typically easier for students to comprehend than the primary literature from which the article’s facts originated. Although this may make it easier for students to engage with neuroscience material, one major consideration is that students need to be educated on the neuroscience they are encountering in order to be able to critically evaluate it. This is even more important given findings that indicate that higher ratings of scientific reasoning are given to summary articles of fictional cognitive neuroscience research when the summary is accompanied by unrelated brain images as compared to no image or bar graphs (McCabe & Castel, 2008). One way to achieve this is to have students read popular media articles as an entrée to reading the primary literature on which the article is based. Alternatively, relevant movies could be used to explore specific neuroscience topics (Wiertelak, 2002). Marc Breedlove’s Biological Psychology listserv and website ( provides an excellent daily digest summary of published neuroscience articles in the media. These articles can be used as a starting point for a discussion in class and provide a useful way for instructors to stay in touch with current advances in the field.

Engaging Students through Hands-on Learning and Technology in the Classroom

Use of active learning techniques has been shown to improve student learning in a variety of settings (Deslauriers, Schelew & Weiman, 2011; Prince, 2004; Svinicki and McKeachie, 2013), so consider incorporating as many ways for students to actively engage with what they are learning as possible into your neuroscience class. One interactive demonstration that the first author uses regularly in introductory psychology is the “Giant Neuron” (a modification of Hamilton and Knox’s (1985) “Colossal Neuron”). In the demonstration, students (p. 370) become various parts of pre- and postsynaptic neurons during the generation and transmission of an action potential. In addition, their performance is video recorded and uploaded to the course website on Moodle. Students enjoy the demonstration and report using the video later as a study aid for that part of the course.

Technology also offers useful ways to engage students in active learning. For example, “clickers” are small handheld devices that allow students to respond to questions posed in class and therefore, become more actively involved in their own learning (for an excellent resource on using clickers, see Bruff, 2009). Clickers have been shown to enhance student learning and motivation (Mayer et al., 2009; Shaffer & Collura, 2009; Stowell & Nelson, 2007). Student responses to clicker questions can be used in a variety of ways. For example, some questions could be posed at the beginning of class to test whether students have understood the readings assigned before class, and the class content for the session modified (if necessary) to address holes in student understanding (i.e., Just-in-time teaching, JiTT; Novak, Patterson, Gavrin & Christian, 1999). Similarly, clicker responses could be used in class to gauge student understanding of a concept that has just been covered to determine whether further clarification is needed. Clicker responses can also be used to generate experimental data in class to demonstrate important concepts, for example, those underlying correlation analyses or Roediger and McDermott’s (1995) false memory effect (Muir & Cleary, 2011). Well-written clicker questions can also provide excellent prompts for a discussion, especially if the class is divided on an issue. Similar ways to obtain responses from students using other devices—such as their own mobile phones—have also been developed that may supplant the need for dedicated “clickers” (e.g., Poll Everywhere;, if such devices become ubiquitous in the classroom in the future.

Technology can also be used in other ways to effectively teach neuroscience (Griffin, 2003). For example, incorporating short video clips on a subject helps to engage student attention during classes that use a more lecture-based format. The wealth of short video clips freely available on websites such as YouTube (e.g., original footage of Hubel and Wiesel’s Nobel-prize winning research recording from individual neurons in cat primary visual cortex, PBS Nova (e.g., on Brain Trauma and TEDtalks (e.g., Neil Burgess’s 2011 TEDtalk on “How your brain tells you where you are” provides an excellent overview of our current understanding of the neural basis of navigation) make excellent tools for driving a concept home to students in an interesting and dynamic way. These videos could also be used as required or suggested coursework to be viewed outside class.

Using Web-based Neuroscience Tools Outside the Classroom

There is a wealth of outstanding online resources available to support teaching neuroscience that students could be directed to explore outside of class time. For example, there is an excellent interactive neuroanatomy demonstration on the PBS Nova website that highlights the differences between brain imaging techniques (“Mapping the Brain,” Another example is the Howard Hughes Medical institute’s (HHMI) Virtual Neurophysiology Lab (, where students get to perform virtual surgery and record from simulated sensory neurons in the leech. Thomas Ludwig’s PsychSim5 interactive demonstrations (, Worth Publishers) also include some on neuroscience-related topics (e.g., “Dueling brains” and “Brain and behavior”). A recent area of high interest has been the development of educational computer games as a tool for learning (or Digital Game-Based Learning (DGBL); Prensky, 2001; van Eck, 2006), although a lack of good ways of assessing such games’ effectiveness may have hindered their acceptance (deFreitas & Oliver, 2006). There are currently few examples of these games in neuroscience, but Rice University’s “The ReconstructorsTM”(Miller, Moreno, Willcockson, Smith, & Mayes, 2006) examines the neuroscience behind substance abuse, and one worth watching is the still-in-development “Neurbits” (; funded by an NIH SBIR grant), which has the goal of being a music puzzle videogame that teaches the principles of neuroscience through play.

Future Support for Teaching Neuroscience

Neuroeducation: Using Neuroscience Research to Help Teach Neuroscience

Neuroeducation (or “Mind, Brain, and Education Science” (Fischer, 2009; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2011) or “Educational Neuroscience” (Szűc & Goswami, (p. 371) 2007)) is a recently emerged but rapidly growing field of interdisciplinary research dedicated to understanding the processes underlying human learning from a biological perspective. Based on empirical research in education, psychology and neuroscience, a better understanding of how we learn—and the conditions under which we best learn—can then inform how we can best teach (Patten & Campbell, 2011; Howard-Jones, 2010). For example, Immordino-Yang (2011) argues that new knowledge gained from research in social and affective neuroscience will alter our understanding of development and learning, and our educational theories, models, and, ultimately, practice. Although the implications and benefits of this research to education are clearly not restricted to the field of neuroscience, neuroeducation presents a perfect opportunity to demonstrate to students interested in neuroscience the applied benefits that having a better understanding of the neural bases of learning can have for their own education. Importantly, there is growing interest in supporting research at the interface between neuroscience and education. This can be seen at the U.S. federal level in the National Science Foundation’s 2012 REESE (Research and Evaluation on Education in Science and Engineering) program solicitation, which has the “Neural basis of STEM learning” as one of its major research strands, with the goal “to identify paths by which multidisciplinary research anchored in the neural bases of human learning has the potential to inform practice.” There is also increasing visibility for such research in the private sector, such as is seen in the Hawn Foundation (founded by actress Goldie Hawn), which works with neuroscientists, educators, and researchers “to develop and deliver social and emotional learning, supported by brain research, to help create a world where children thrive.” Further, new journals such as Wiley’s Mind, Brain and Education and Elsevier’s Trends in Neuroscience and Education have begun appearing in the area.

Neuroeducation research has arguably had the largest impact to date in understanding deficits in reading (dyslexia) and mathematics (dyscalculia), where neuroimaging allows not only for a better understanding of the neural basis of the deficit, but also allows the effects of interventions to be observed at the level of the brain (Ansari, De Smedt, & Grabner, 2012). Although some see reason to be optimistic about the future impact neuroeducation will have, issues still present in the field—such as current limitations of methodology, unsubstantiated claims about the efficacy of “brain-based training” programs (Goswami, 2006), and the communication challenges that exist between educators and neuroscientists (Schwartz, Blair, & Tsang, 2012; or as Geake (2005) puts it, “It is not clear who should be more insulted: neuroscientists (for the misinterpretation of their hard-won results), or teachers (for the implication that they are too dumb to understand scientific complexities).” (p.12))—mean that a good deal of caution still needs to be exercised that expectations for the immediate impact of neuroeducation research are kept realistic (Ansari et al., 2012). Further, some claim that neuroscience research to date (and into the near future) has little to offer education beyond that we have already learned through research in cognitive psychology (Bruer, 2006), and in some cases, an emphasis on current “brain-based pedagogy” evidence may, in fact, be harmful because “… this enthusiasm [for brain-based pedagogy] has caused us to neglect research that tells us how children learn.” (Hirsh-Pasek & Bruer, 2007, p.1293). Although these are legitimate criticisms of the current state of neuroeducation, it is clearly an area educators involved in neuroscience should pay attention to in the future—not only because neuroeducation may ultimately contribute important information to the science of learning in the classroom, but because neuroscience educators may have an essential role in the production, interpretation, and implementation of this research.

Ongoing Centralized Support for Teaching Neuroscience

At present there are, unfortunately, only a handful of entities providing ongoing centralized support for educators interested in teaching neuroscience.

The first is the Society for Teaching of Psychology’s (STP) OTRP website. Already described earlier, it has several very good resources focused on the teaching of neuroscience (or physiological psychology, as it is more commonly referred to on the STP website).

A second place is the Society for Neuroscience and its recently implemented Educational Resources in Neuroscience (ERIN) project website ( By collecting submissions from educators and having them peer-reviewed (at the time of writing, ERIN has approximately 620 resources available), ERIN aims to provide high quality educational resources (including animations, images, assignments, exercises and tools) in a searchable database for faculty use with students in the undergraduate, graduate, and clinical arenas.

(p. 372) A third source of support is the Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience (FUN) and its open source journal, the Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education (JUNE; These are both outstanding resources for educators interested in teaching neuroscience, and it is no coincidence that many references to JUNE articles have been made throughout this chapter. However, it is important to note that FUN itself is an excellent source of support, consisting of a community of faculty dedicated to excellence in teaching neuroscience.


Teaching neuroscience—whether as a separate neuroscience course or as part of an existing psychology course—is a challenging, but immensely rewarding, endeavor. As neuroscience becomes increasingly used (and increasingly useful) to inform aspects of psychology and other aspects of the human experience, it benefits a growing number of students interested in neuroscience and benefits our society to have citizens with some understanding of the neural basis of behavior. Some acknowledgment of the future importance of neuroscience is evident even at the highest levels of the United States in the President’s 2013 Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies—or BRAIN—initiative, which grants over $100 million in funding to support DARPA, NIH, and NSF research on mapping the human brain in the hopes of finding new ways to treat, prevent, and cure brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury. In his remarks outlining the BRAIN Initiative, President Obama announced that it will give “… scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember. And that knowledge could be—will be—transformative … And of course, none of this will be easy. If it was, we would already know everything there was about how the brain works, and presumably my life would be simpler here. It could explain all kinds of things that go on in Washington. We could prescribe something …” (Obama, April 2, 2013). But while its future promise is vast, even neuroscience may have its limits.


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                                                                                                                                          (1.) The growing field of social neuroscience, however, is one area attempting to do exactly that.

                                                                                                                                          (2.) However, such students will be disabused of this notion once they realize that the discipline of psychology itself is unequivocally a science!

                                                                                                                                          (3.) Now part of neuroscience folklore, the term cognitive neuroscience was coined by George Miller and Michael Gazzaniga in the back seat of a New York City taxi in the late 1970s (Gazzaniga, 2011).