300-Level Psychology, Sensory Processes (Writing-Intensive)


Before I ever taught writing-intensive classes I'd give them an assignment, hand it to them on a piece of paper that described the term paper, and say "go do it, turn it in at the end of the semester," and that's all that was ever said about it. I used to give the students a chance to rewrite every one of the assignments a second time, then give them feedback and grade it. I was essentially a lecturer who made students write a lot. But today you're seeing the Cadillac; I've evolved to this position, taking more from the writing perspective.—Professor Robert Cole


The major objectives of the course and thus of the writing exercises is to get the students to think and write in the analytic manner of a perceptionist. We explore causal relationships between physical stimuli, physiological mechanisms, parallel psychological processes and perceptual experiences in humans.

Students must learn the language of these parameters (i.e. physics, physiology, and psychology). They learn the methods for producing data, the theories that integrate and explain the data, and the analytic processes that interrelate the two.

The writing contributes to class discussions. I do focused freewriting. I might say "Let's start out today with a ten-minute freewrite on what does the two-point tactile threshold tell us about the skin system." They should have done the demonstration, they should have read the chapter, they should be able to take the little quiz. Quite often my focused freewrite is a precursor to the quiz that they'll take at the end of the hour. It's kind of like taking the fear out: "Oh, I've just written about that at the first of the hour, and now we've talked about it for and hour, and now I'm going to write about it again.--Professor Cole



The instructor comments, "The journals they do every week on the material they're reading teach them the terminology, concepts, and analytic skills — and they're having fun at it too."

Students keep a 3-ring looseleaf binder to record weekly perceptual demonstrations they themselves perform. The demonstrations — provided in their textbook — give them the opportunity to directly experience perceptual phenomena.

For example, students are given the blind spot phenomenon to demonstrate to themselves and to study. Students put an object at a certain angle from their left eye, then close their right eye. The object "disappears" when its image falls on a space on the retina where the optic nerve forms and where there are no light-sensitive elements. Students then apply a formula to determine the visual angle on the retina and the relative approximate location of the blind spot.

For each demonstration, students write:

a. a brief description of the necessary stimulus (such as the X on a page);

b. a description of the procedures they followed to make the percept occur;

c. a description of their individual perceptual responses and their observations; and

d. an explanation of what the demonstration reveals about the human perceptual system and the ways in which information is processed.

For example, with the blind spot experience, students record their data and observations, describe the experience, then explain what the demonstration revealed and what they learned about the blind spot, the optic perceptual system, and how that system processes information.

Included in the journals are informal notes of conditions and experiences while they are happening, to ensure that students don't forget observations that may later prove critical in explaining phenomena. Students hand in their journals weekly.

The instructor and teaching assistant read them and return them with comments. While students are not required to revise, they should show improvement in writing and analytical skills with each successive journal report. At the end of the semester, the journals are graded as a whole and as a record of progression in writing about perceptual analysis.

PURPOSE: Not only does this activity encourage students to think analytically and write in the manner of a perceptionist, but it also exposes them to the many levels of analysis employed in explaining perceptual phenomena. According to the instructor, the journals also are "an excellent vehicle for developing their analytic skills by providing hardcopy with which to evaluate, modify, reconfigure, and integrate their own ideas."

The weekly writings, as miniature versions of a research report, provide successive practice and a gr hand. It teaches them the analytic process, terminology, and concepts necessary to perceptionists.


Students are given the case history of a person who became blind at the age of ten months, who had his vision restored as an adult by means of corneal transplants, and whose vision and senses were studied by perceptionists. After students read the study, they are first required to write a short paper in which they briefly summarize and critique this study, then provide the thesis statement of their analysis.

It must focus on and explore in depth one perceptual phenomenon studied in this case history (e.g. size-distance relationship, pictorial perception, cross modal transfer). Or students may focus on and explore a larger, theoretically-based issue (e.g. the effects of nature vs. nurture in the development of perception, or the relative roles of computational - vs. knowledge - based positions on perception) exemplified in the case.

After turning in this brief abstract, students develop their analyses, do library research on the phenomenon, read about the relevant theories, read the empirical studies that tested the theories, and integrate all of that data into a cohesive term paper that includes four sections:

1. BACKGROUND. Students describe and summarize the case study, its major features, the perceptionists' method of study, the perceptionists' results after observation, and the perceptionists' conclusions (as related to general principles that govern perceptual abilities).

2. STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM. Students briefly explain the problem they plan to explore.

3. DEVELOPMENT OF THE PROBLEM. Students develop the theory and other assumptions within which their analyses occur, providing the background and research supporting these theories/assumptions. Within that framework, students then evaluatively analyze the data and conclusions from the case history.

4. SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS. Students summarize their main points, state their conclusions, and explain how the conclusions are significant in human understanding of perceptual abilities.

A total of four drafts are submitted for writing-group and instructor feedback. Feedback often helps students develop a "re-vision" of the paper and helps them focus or get back on track.

PURPOSE: The initial abstract will help focus and direct students' ideas. Drafting and developing the longer analysis immerses students in the subject and study of sensory processes, allowing them to explore perceptual phenomena in depth, to extensively read professional psychology articles, to develop and apply their analytic skills in the field of perceptual analysis, and to express their ideas in the professional vernacular of the field. In reviewing psychological literature during their research, students read for themselves examples of professional writing.


Professor Cole comments on his class (excerpts from an interview):

When the students are gone, they're going to forget All the terminology and detail. What I want them to learn is how to think critically and analytically about the phenomena in this field.

I feel the best way to learn to write is to read and do the writing of that profession.

In different ways, I have done some of the assignments before in other classes, but not in the cohesive, coordinated manner with the goals that I have now. This is all becoming clearer to me as I continue to teach the writing-intensive courses. I've evolved to this position, taking more from the writing perspective. Now I'm trying to use those assignments as vehicles to get them to be able to follow a writing process because I feel that by breaking that up into steps, they learn much better my major objective, which is the analytic process. Now I'm trying to use the writing and the discussion to teach more of the analytic process, not just the "content" of the course.

Writing is a mechanism for students to think critically and analytically about these relationships among factors that explain perception. They’re not just memorizing statements that come out of the book but by constructions they make in their own words on paper. Then they can look at them, read them, modify them, and change their way of expression and their way of thinking. I don't think you can separate writing and thinking.