Snooping around

Last night, I had the opportunity to teach an honors colloquium to a group of sophomore university students. In these colloquiums, a given faculty member gets to choose a text and topic of his or her choice. Then, students write an essay prompt given by their professor. It’s one of those dream academic experiences where you get to choose what your students read, what assignment you want to give them, and then discuss said interesting topic of your choice with eager honors students. Dream come true.

For my colloquium, I my students read the book Snoop by Sam Gosling, a personality psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Snoop discusses research by Gosling on how to interpret what individuals’ spaces (home, office, etc.) say about their personalities. Using years worth of research, Gosling guides his readers through the snooping process so that they can start to become proficient snoopers themselves.

The first part of my students’ assignment was, of course, to read the book. As for giving them a writing assignment, I decided to ask myself, “What’s interesting?” when assigning the prompt. This is a question I have decided to start asking myself as a teacher so that I can give better, more engaging assignments to my students. The sky was the limit here, so I decided to think outside of the box a little. I did this with the help of my dear colleague and friend who is also a very talented teacher, Jordan LaBouff. Together, we decided on a very interesting assignment.

For this assignment, I required my students to do some snooping themselves. I had each student pick a friend or someone he or she knew whose space (room or office) he or she could “snoop” around for clues. Students were then required to write a detailed analysis of the room and make inferences about these individuals’ personalities based off the information provided in Snoop. Finally, students compared their results from snooping to what they knew about this person as a friend. In addition to completing this assignment, I had students send in pictures of their rooms, facebook pages, or offices. Then, I uploaded these pictures to a PowerPoint where we would be practicing some snooping ourselves at the colloquium.

The response I received on the assignment even before the colloquium was overwhelmingly positive. I had students writing me to tell me how much they loved the assignment and were really excited about the colloquium. One student showed up (even though she had attended enough colloquiums to gain her needed amount of points) just because she wanted to learn! It was my dream come true as a teacher – to teach something so interesting that students are naturally excited to come learn.

When students arrived for the colloquium (after having already completed their snooping assignments), we first discussed the Big Five personality traits (openness to new experiences, agreeableness, extraversion, neuroticism, and conscientiousness). These are personality traits dominantly studied in personality psychology and the focus of the book Snoop. After doing this, I had students fill out personality inventories to measure their ratings on each of the Big Five. Finally, it was time to snoop. We went through each picture (of rooms offices, and facebook pages) and tried to infer what type of personality the owner of the room had. Was the person a male or a female? Was he or she high or low on conscientousness? What about openness?

The students seemed to be very into the project. Hands flew up all over the room to make guesses based on what they had read in the book. After guessing for a while, we would then reveal the owner of the room and ask him or her how accurate we were. Finally, we would compare our analysis to the actual Big Five measures of each student. It was like being real-life snoopers, and the students loved it.

I learned a lot through this process. I learned to think outside of the box when creating assignments. I learned that doing is always better than listening. But the most basic thing I learned is to always ask, “What’s interesting?” And then do that.




About Megan Johnson Shen

I am a social psychologist graduating with my Ph.D. from Baylor University this May and moving to NYC this summer to start a new job as a postdoctoral researcher at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in the Cancer Prevention and Control Department. I love the brain, human behavior, and anything to do with understanding them better. I love research and a good dinner party. Fine wine and cheese - I'm there. Interesting experimental data? I'll probably show for that too. View all posts by Megan Johnson Shen

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