By OLu research partner, Brad Ermeling
It could be said that everything psychological is biological because biology undergirds all that we learn in psychology. One of the first learning goals for AP Psychology students is developing a foundational understanding of these connections between the disciplines. Specifically, students learn about the structure and function of neurons and the role neurons play in shaping human behavior.
Angela Wingert (AP Psychology) teamed up with colleague Jill Ronstadt (AP Biology) to help students deepen their understanding of these concepts. Ms. Wingert found that students can memorize and figure out the structural parts of the neuron but have more difficulty understanding how it functions in the body as part of a larger system. She also wanted to help students make a connection with drugs and understand how drugs induce changes in neurological activity and altered states (e.g., causing the neuron to release more dopamine).
The lesson storyline they planned included five main components:
- Activate prior knowledge and experience: Write about a personal experience involving an intense reaction to an external stimulus
- Direct instruction: Introduce structural components of the neuron
- Direct instruction: Introduce functional components of the neuron
- Physical simulation Part I: Act out process of neural transmission
- Application: Learning about the neurological effects of drugs and altered states
- Physical simulation Part II: Demonstrate effect of drugs in neural transmission
- Extended Practice: Mouse Party (Web-based interactive learning tool)
- Homework: Mouse Party Data Matrix
Learning through Simulation
The teachers worked together to introduce specific elements of the simulation activity that would help students capture the nuances of the transmission process and how much information is preserved or lost as a message flows within a neuron and across the gap to other neurons (from the dendrites that receive information all the way to the terminal buttons that release neurotransmitters across the synapse). Each student performed a role as part of the neural transmission process. Students connected around the room in a long, curving line and squeezed the shoulders of the next student in front, setting off a sequence of signals that culminated with the axon terminal button releasing neurotransmitters (balls of wadded paper) to the receiving dendrite.
To demonstrate altered states, the teachers also designed a new element of the activity which would help students visualize the dramatic effects of different drugs (depressants, hallucinogens, stimulants, and opiates) on the overall nervous system. Mrs. Wingert brought up the two students who earlier played the roles of the axon terminal button and receiving dendrite and had them act out the effects of four different drugs with the same balls of wadded paper.
Depressants (alcohol) – Teacher slowed down transmission by partially restraining student acting as axon terminal from throwing neurotransmitters (wadded paper balls) across the synapse.
Hallucinogens (marijiuana) – Student acting as axon terminal tossed five extra neurotransmitters to receiving dendrite.
Stimulants (Cocaine) – Teacher attempted to block the reuptake of neurotransmitters.
Opiates (Meth) – Student acting as axon terminal tried to pass 100 extra neurotransmitters across the synapse.
Here’s how the lesson played out in the classroom. Click here to view a sequence of clips from the opening discussion, introduction to neuron structure, and whole-class simulation.
Two weeks after completing the lesson, the teachers analyzed students’ responses to test questions specifically related to neurons and neural transmission (see item analysis chart below).
Results from the test showed that students had a working knowledge of the neuron structure and understood many aspects of the neural transmission process. Work submitted from the mouse party assignment also showed they could summarize the action of a drug and its primary effect on the nervous system. Some students didn’t understand the difference between sensory and motor neuron sending and many struggled with understanding where reuptake takes place.
The interview excerpts below provide a snapshot from two students’ reflections on the lesson. Both students (Riley and Khalil) were also featured in the video clips previously referenced. Riley acted as the axon terminal in the simulation and Khalil was the receiving dendrite.
I: How did the simulation activity affect your understanding of neuron transmission?
KE: For the action potential to take place it has to reach a certain threshold to fire. The simulation illustrated this with the six students who acted as the cell body. When the last student in the cell body received five squeezes on the shoulder that was the threshold needed to initiate the transmission. If four students were squeezing and one wasn’t, that threshold still wasn’t going to be met…I think it also did a nice job of showing the handoff of the neurotransmitter from the axon terminal to the receiving dendrite.
RF: I think looking at a chart or diagram it just goes right over our heads and with this experience we will remember it…you can think about what you were thinking while you were watching it.
I: Describe what you learned in the lesson about the connections between biology and psychology…how the structure and function of the neuron can influence your mental state.
KE: I took honors anatomy and physiology…so I’m pretty familiar with the neurons and their structure. When we were talking about specifically methamphetamine…it releases so much dopamine that it floods the system and leads to one of the worst crashes you can have. I was really able to visualize that in terms of anatomy and physiology….Generally…when a drug is introduced in the process it either inhibits it or accelerates, which can be a good thing or bad thing but typically a bad thing causing an extreme high followed by a really bad crash and the high is super addictive for the body.
RF: I think with biology we learn the normal way our body functions and we learned in class what happens when you choose to alter that and you put different substances in your body…some can make it go a lot faster and some slow it down…I actually want to study psychology…not for research purposes but for counseling and I think we’ll have to know the science and biology. When you counsel people it will help to understand what they are going through.
Riley also shared an interesting insight about the use of video for reflecting on the simulation. In the moment, while she was performing the role of axon terminal, she was mostly focused on following instructions for her role in the demonstration and did not fully grasp what the simulation was illustrating. She described how helpful it was to see the video of the lesson a few days later and learn even more from the activity as an observer.
Three big ideas emerged from the analysis, observations, and post-lesson discussions.
Making complex ideas interesting and accessible
The teachers worked to design learning activities that were both engaging and instructive. The goal was not simply to entertain students but to deepen their understanding of neurons. Evidence from video observations and comments from interviews provide evidence that the simulation activity helped students visualize the neural transmission process and better understand specific elements such as the threshold for initiating transmission and the release of transmitters across the synapse. In future lessons, as a supplement to the simulation, allowing students to watch a video of their own engagement experience could further enhance their depth of knowledge and insight. The teachers are also planning some adjustments to the simulation to more effectively illustrate how reuptake takes place.
Maximizing cross-curricular connections
Ms. Wingert and Ms. Ronstadt approached his lesson with hopes of enhancing connections between biology and psychology. Their experience planning and teaching the lesson reinforced their interest and commitment to leveraging these cross-curricular opportunities. Both teachers plan to continue collaborative efforts to establish common vocabulary (e.g., terminal button vs. terminal bulb) identify gaps in content (e.g,. AP Biology no longer covers neural transmission so it will be essential to cover this in AP Psychology) and increase coherence between courses. Exposing students to key ideas and concepts in multiple contexts not only reinforces learning but also creates opportunities for deeper synthesis and application.
Preparing students for life and work
Teaching students about the connections between biology and psychology provides an important foundation for future studies, passing AP tests, and meeting requirements for college applications. More importantly, the teachers hope it will equip students with valuable information to pursue healthy, productive lives and meaningful professional work.