Dr. Brooke Miller helps students internalize and absorb concepts by connecting them to their lived experiences with journaling, media, and more.
Instructor of Psychology,The University of Texas at Austin
PhD and MA in Developmental Psychology; BA in Psychology, Biology, and Cognitive Science
When news surfaced about immigrant children being separated from their parents at the border, Brooke Miller saw an opportunity for learning. She used the accounts as take-off points for discussion in her Developmental Psychology class at The University of Texas at Austin.
“There was a lot to discuss, [such as] what does the research show about separating children from parental figures at different ages, and what outcomes does that lead to?”
This is just one powerful example of how Miller uses personalized and localized learning to help students connect abstract psychology concepts to their own lives, time, and/or place to encourage deeper understanding. In this case, she was able to “attach” child psychology research to current events in her students’ area of the country. She believes such an approach serves two purposes: First, it improves the retention of the material, and second, it boosts students’ motivation to learn it.
“We remember information more when it is attached to ourselves,” she explains. “It’s not narcissistic. It’s just that information is more meaningful if you can place that information onto a scaffold you already have.”
As for motivation, Miller says she leans into the expectancy value theory—the idea that motivation is based on whether students expect to be successful and how much they value the task at hand. “Linking the course material to their personal histories—and getting them to reflect on themselves and their community—keeps the motivation focused on the information rather than a grade,” she adds. “It makes them better lifelong learners and better citizens.”
5 Ways to Personalize Learning to Each Student
Dr. Miller shares some tips on how to personalize learning so that students can draw connections to their own lives. Certainly the subject of psychology lends itself to such approaches and insights, but she notes that students can be asked to find personal links between their lives and any type of subject matter.
1. Ask students for a bio in week one
On the first day of class, Dr. Miller asks students to fill out an index card answering the following questions:
- What is your name?
- What do you want to be called?
- What gender pronoun(s) do you prefer?
- What do you want to do in the future?
- Why are you are taking this class?
- What are your hobbies and interests?
- What are some specific media you enjoy (specific books, podcasts, videos, etc.)?
Then she uses these cards during class, so she can call on students and ask them questions that are relevant to them personally. After a few weeks, as her students realize that she is actually paying attention to who they are and what their interests may be, they begin to participate more enthusiastically.
“I respect the knowledge that students bring to my class,” she says. “I don’t want to only reward the ones who come to my class knowing everything. I want to make a point of valuing all the different perspectives. For me, this is about social justice and equity. And personalizing and localizing the education comes from that.”
2. Encourage reflection with micro-journaling
Before and after each class, Dr. Miller assigns a three- to five-minute ungraded, handwritten journaling exercise in which students reflect on the material they are learning and link it to their own lives. “In order for students to fully realize what they have learned, they need to reflect and consider where the information fits into their lives,” she says. (Miller leans into research from her colleague Dr. James Pennebaker, who has done extensive research on the benefits of journaling on emotional health and well-being.)
“[With a gender-studies unit,] I ask questions like, ‘When were you first aware of your gender? Do you even remember? Was there a moment when you realized you would grow up to be a woman or a man?’ I just want them to get out all of their preconceived ideas of what these topics are,” she says.
Students end up reflecting on personal information, such as memories of the first lie they told (Did they get away with it?) or stories about who raised them (Was it a community? What is their relationship with their caregiver today?). These stories are not shared with the class. “The point isn’t for anyone to read their personal stories,” says Miller. “It’s to have students realize that the things we talk about in class are personally relevant. My hope is that it sparks insights.”
While she will not share personal information, Miller will sometimes graph responses to such prompts as, “When did you start crawling?” so the students can see trends across the entire class. “This helps them understand why the range for each motor milestone is so broad, and that, in the end, it doesn’t matter if they were an early walker or a late walker—they are all [now] in the same class.”
3. Encourage students to learn about themselves
“When I teach in the fall, there’s a reflection I ask students to do at Thanksgiving—where they talk to someone who raised them and ask about their milestones: Did you crawl early? Did you go from sitting to walking? They’ll come back with hilarious stories, and with more respect for their parents who had to deal with their frustrating behavior,” she says. And, she adds, they may later draw connections to these revelations when they discuss psychology concepts related to early childhood.
4. Offer extra credit for personal research
To encourage her students to think about the course content outside of class, Dr. Miller awards up to five extra credit points per semester for additional one-paragraph reflections about movies, podcasts, or other media that are relevant to what they are studying. “In the first two weeks, nobody does it, but then someone does it, and I talk about it, and soon they’re all doing it.”
She cautions against offering too many points for extra thought, because she also wants students to be intrinsically motivated. But a small amount helps encourage them to get in the habit of going above and beyond.
5. Teach with the types of media they love
Dr. Miller has a giant spreadsheet of videos collected from other professors , and she shares her own YouTube channel with every class. “I always make those links available to students so they can view them on their own time,” she says. For example, she uses videos to illustrate difficult content, such as how researchers know what babies know and concepts such as egocentrism. “Seeing the video makes the concept come to life for them,” she adds.
Dr. Miller also plays podcasts, such as The Nod and This American Life. “There’s this amazing Christmas special with kids of different ages telling jokes, and I play it when I’m teaching development of communications,” she says.
The students respond enthusiastically to this multimedia approach, and not just because the clips are funny. “It gets to that ‘show, don’t tell’ aspect of teaching,” says Miller. “And students are so much smarter and intentional about [consuming media] than people give them credit for.”
Dr. Miller’s goal with all of these approaches is for students to reflect on their own experiences in order to draw better connections to the coursework. In assigning these reflections, it is her hope that they learn about themselves, develop a real interest in the subject matter, and retain the information in the long run.
A side benefit of this personalized-learning approach, she says, is that it helps students become more attuned to their own interests. That can impact them not only in the course but potentially throughout their lives. Dr. Miller knows this firsthand: She says she began college assuming she would follow in her parents’ footsteps and go into medicine, but realized while sitting for a practice MCAT test that that was not what she wanted. “I walked out thinking, ‘Now I have to find something else to do.’” Luckily for her classes, she has landed right where she belongs.