Sharlene Walbaum

Sharlene Walbaum

Professor of Psychology

BA, University of Oregon; MA, PhD, University of California-Davis

Center for Comm.&Engineer LA  111


PS 233Cognitive Psychology   -   Spring 2015
PS 409Senior Seminar in Psychology   -   Spring 2015


I could say many different things about my teaching philosophy, but a very simple idea is at its heart: curiosity is what keeps me teaching and is what I hope to awaken when I teach. The concept of curiosity is based on the assumption that the organism – human, crow, or cat – can’t help but notice problems or puzzles. Infant research shows us that even neonates notice when their head-turns make a colorful mobile move. Then, babies will work until they find the head-turning combination that brings the motion under their voluntary control. No food reward is needed – the process is inherently rewarding. Curiosity is a natural drive to find solutions or to solve riddles. As a consequence, the organism acquires new knowledge and develops new skills. I was drawn to cognitive psychology because it was all about puzzles of human perception, thought, and memory. It fed – it feeds – my curiosity about how the mind works. This content is directly relevant to teaching because it provides many opportunities to apply research on attention, learning, and recall. But, the most powerful concept that cognitive psychology offers me as a teacher is that of constructivism. According to constructivism, learning is powered by curiosity. When attention is engaged and when prior knowledge is activated, learning happens almost automatically. But, there is an important caveat – new learning is framed by past learning. In other words, ultimately the student determines what is learned. For example, when someone is exposed to Grand Theft Auto, it will either get added to his or her gaming repertoire or to a critique of gaming culture. New learning happens in light of old learning. With each new class, my first challenge is to spark students’ curiosity. I use a variety of means to do this. Sometimes I do something unexpected. For example, for a lesson on eyewitness testimony, I ask a friend to walk in and hand me a note while I am teaching. (This is someone I know from off campus and, therefore, likely to be a stranger to everyone.) I pretend to read the note as the person stands facing the students, pretend to write a response, and then dismiss the faux messenger. Afterwards, students form small groups with the instruction to reach consensus regarding a description of the stranger’s hair, build, skin color, and clothing details. After comparing small group descriptions, I provide the actual description. Unfailingly, their eyewitness recall is wrong - despite strong feelings of certainty in some students. They are surprised, but intrigued. This gives me an “in” to teach about the variables that affect accuracy. Sometimes I engage curiosity by getting students involved in research. For example, when teaching about the cognitive consequences of expertise, I discuss classic examples of chess players, doctors, and physicists. Decades of research indicate that experts detect domain-specific patterns quickly and accurately - chess masters can perfectly recall details of a chessboard after only seconds of exposure. I explain that these findings apply to all domains of expertise, whether radiology, physics, or mixology, and expertise develops with extensive experience in any area. Finally, I challenge students to choose a domain and conduct a short-term memory study. This awakens their curiosity and they do cool stuff, studying waitresses, librarians, auto mechanics, and video gamers. Another way I try to enlist students’ curiosity is deceptively traditional. Because I teach a history of psychology course, I face the risk that students will discount the material and be disengaged. I think that the perception that history is boring and irrelevant comes from being disconnected from it. So, I ask them to be historians. They do projects for which they forego electronic searches. They go to archives, use pencils and paper, read brochures, conduct interviews. I’m no Luddite; there is nothing inherently wrong with digital research. But, I find that this approach wakes them up to what they can learn from the historical record. It starts out being stressful, but students end up being surprised at what this kind of research (so familiar to many professors) can show them. The drive to satisfy my own curiosity is why I never teach the same course in the same way twice. I am drawn to new concepts, teaching strategies, and course designs. The students are new every time, too, and that sparks my curiosity. I want to know what they need to understand, what they are drawn to, and what group dynamics are operating. In the end, I guess I am saying that teaching is a selfish activity for me. It is fun. It is always new. It keeps me challenged.

Research Interests

I have two strands of research. First, I focus on everyday problems of human memory, mostly studying prospective memory (the way memory is used to plan and carry out future actions), idiosyncratic memory strategies, and the effectiveness of mnemonics. Second, I study the history of moral treatment in asylums. Embedded in the values of the Society of Friends, it transformed treatment in the late 1700s. By the mid-1800s, a transformed version of moral treatment became the standard in secular asylums. It goes without saying that I advocate the use of a variety of research methods, including observation, questionnaires, archival research, and experimentation.

Courses Taught

Like all of us in the Psychology Department, I am dedicated to good teaching. I emphasize the development of expository writing as a learning tool. I also work to encourage the development of information literacy. Scholars do much of their research and writing electronically and, therefore, students need to learn to tell the difference between an authoritative online source and one that is designed to look authoritative. I have taught a variety of content courses such as Cognitive Psychology, Mind and Culture, Applied Cognition, Psychology of Writing, and Child and Adolescent Developmental Psychology. I have also taught many of the courses that form our methods sequence for psychology majors: Introduction to Psychology; Introduction to Statistics in Psychology; Methods I: Experimental Methods; Methods II: Non-experimental Methods (team taught); History and Systems in Psychology; Senior Seminar.

My Son Takes Cool Photos

My son, Michael, is a talented nature photographer. Given that I am a regular mom, I can't help showing you some of his work.

This photo of a night heron was taken at Aububon Park in New Orleans.

Audubon Night Heron

This photo was taken in Lee Dyer's lab at Tulane.

Saturn Caterpillar!

I love this study of raindrops on a flower

Purple Flower

Summer Work 2013

Follow Ben and Tucker as they work and play in England, Ireland, and Scotland.

Dogs on the Road

Summer 14 History of Psych in London

We spent a month in London, learning about the History of Psychology, in general, and British Psych, in particular. Students conducted archival studies at the Wellcome and British Libraries.

Student Blog