K. H. Grobman

What to do on the first day of class in developmental psychology? Here is a structured discussion to introduce the big concepts, set the stage for discussing developmental theories, and set a tone for open class discusssion.

First Day of Developmental Psychology Class

What we do on the first day of class makes a first impression with students that can create expectations for the semester. If you are looking for a fun hands-on first day activity, I have had success breaking students into small groups to do the Piagetian pendulum task. But I normally do this on a day about Piaget's theory. Instead I do not use hands-on activities the first class. Instead I emphasize discussion and building a framework for the upcoming classes on developmental theories. I spend about half of my first day of developmental psychology with administrative issues. Then I jump right into the subject with big developmental questions while trying to set a tone for open class discussion (e.g., so they see that no matter what they say I never belittle students and always pull out the elements that make sense for class). Even with hesitant students, this kind of discussion works on the first day because student can respond with something as low-risk as a phrase. Throughout the class discussion, I make connections like how we're going to be discussing something in more depth in coming weeks. Here are the three questions and how I structure the discussion:


"Though theories of development may be very different, all share in common having milestones. What are some of the important milestones in your life and the lives of others?" Fill up the chalkboard with examples of milestones. Some you get will be obvious developmental milestones like "first steps" but you'll also get things like "driver's license" and "voting." You might get some like "learning multiplication tables." Everything goes on the board. Then ask, "Of everything on the board, which milestones would you say are important steps in development and which aren't?" Some will clearly get crossed out (e.g., driver's license, voting) and others will clearly get kept (e.g., first steps). Yet others will be controversial (e.g., multiplication tables) but if they're not use your tone and rhetoric to create debate. Sure you have learned something when you master multiplication tables, but is that development? Is any change development? How about a car rusting, is that development? I also pull out the question of individual differences and different developmental trajectories through life. Close this segment by indicating how different theories of development consider different milestones important and have different takes on just what counts as development (e.g., Piagetian vs. Information Processing).


"It's not enough for a theory to just list milestones, all theories share in common having mechanisms. Mechanisms are what takes us along the path from one milestone to another. What are some mechanisms in your life and the lives of others?" Fill up the chalkboard with examples of mechanisms. Afterward, pull out how some mechanism are "nature" and others are "nurture." Pull out how some mechanisms illustrate a special role for the social context. Pull out how some mechanisms are what the child brings to the situation (e.g., personality, motivation) and others are things they are passive recipients of (i.e., active vs. passive child). Close by indicating how different theories of development consider different mechanisms as central to moving us through milestones.

Quantitative versus Qualitative Change

I pull milestones and mechanisms together with a slide illustrating quantitative versus qualitative change using a metaphor of a tree getting bigger or a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. I note how the different milestones and mechanism lead to different metaphors for development. I ask students to think back to when they were 10 years old and I poll the class for if they see themselves now as more sophisticated and more experienced versions of the person they were at 10 (gesture to tree metaphor) or if they look back and see an almost different person (gesture to butterfly). Let them discuss why they see development in each of these ways. Close by indicating how different theories suggest each of these different metaphors.

In my class, I continue with a skeleton of the history of developmental psychology. Class ends with a slide on why studying development matters: practical reasons (e.g., parenting, teaching), public policy (e.g., child labor laws imply a view of childhood as a special time), and for personal understanding. For personal understanding I indicate how I can't help but compare and contrast class to my own life and how studying development opens our eyes to how our lives could have been different from how they are. I use that to end class with my hopes for them to think deeply about everything we talk about over the semester.