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Agnes Ly, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences
A typical student in one of Agnes Ly’s introductory courses at the
University of Delaware is new not only to the subject matter but also to
“They’ve been told to study hard,” Ly says of first-year students
making the transition from high school to higher education. “But they
often haven’t been told how to do that in a way that works. They haven’t
learned how to learn.”
Luckily for them, Ly knows where to find a roadmap to effective learning, and it’s in the subject she’s teaching. Psychology.
“Science tells us how we learn,” said Ly, associate professor and director of undergraduate advising in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.
“We can use that to develop strategies, because there are many ways to
study, but not all are equally effective. I use a module early in the
course that helps students learn how to be successful, not just in my
class but in all their classes.”
The module focuses on such psychological processes as how we take in new information and form memories. When students learn, for example, that seeing words and visual representations of a concept combined in one space is known to create stronger memories, they can apply that to how they study; instead of just trying to memorize a definition in a textbook, they might link that definition to what a graph is depicting, or they might label and summarize key ideas within an illustration. When they learn that a deeper level of engagement helps a person remember, they might listen to a professor explain a new concept and then practice explaining it to someone themselves.
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Ly also shows students the value of creating a study schedule,
perhaps breaking assignments into separate tasks to make the work more
“Making a calendar might seem obvious to some people, but it can be a
tough skill to develop if you’ve never been exposed to it before,” she
This research-based learning module is just one aspect of Ly’s
“Introduction to Psychology” course, a class that often consists of as
many as 300 students. Most are in their first year at UD, and the vast
majority are probably not planning to major in the field, so her goal is
to provide a kind of “psychology sampler” that gives students a taste
of the wide range of topics included in the discipline.
“People are extremely complex, so learning to think about human
behavior in a holistic way is something you can use in every aspect of
your life,” she said. “I want students to look at the world and think
about people in different ways—biologically, socially, culturally—and
about why they behave the way they do and what they might do next.
People talk about nature vs. nurture, but that’s not really the
question. The question is: How do nature and nurture combine and
Ly works hard to keep her large classes varied enough that students
remain engaged. She takes frequent breaks during a lecture to have
students do activities, such as answering a survey question or turning
to their seat mate to talk one-on-one about the subject she’s just
discussed. Throughout the semester, she asks students to write a
reflection each week outlining the study strategies they’ve used and
assessing which ones worked better than others.
She hopes that her enthusiasm for psychology is apparent to students
and encourages their love of learning. Although she estimates that some
90% of her introductory students will not go on to major in psychology,
she says she’d teach the class the same way if it consisted entirely of
When Ly received the College of Arts and Sciences’ Excellence in
Teaching Award last year, she explained her approach to teaching as
inspired by her favorite childhood book, The Phantom Tollbooth, and the
adventures of its protagonist, Milo, whose experiences change how he
sees the world.
“The fascinating content that I get to share with my students has the
potential to change how they see their worlds, just like it did for
Milo," Ly said. “Milo begins his adventure as many of my students
do—taking their world at face value but ready to change perspectives as
long as someone 'bothers to explain otherwise.' My role is like that of
the characters along Milo's journey—to provide the tools and
environments that motivate and scaffold students to grow."
First-year students, prospective students (and some of their parents)
wonder and worry how they will handle the academic transition from high
school to college.
In a series of stories,
UDaily speaks with University of Delaware professors who teach courses
commonly taken by students during their first year on campus. The
subjects include biology, calculus, writing, business, political science
Article by Ann Manser
Published February 14, 2022