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Brief report: a simple stimulus for student writing and learning in the introductory psychology course.

This paper explores the efficacy of using familiar quotations and summary writing in introductory psychology lectures. I began lectures in my introductory psychology class with quotations from, an online version of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. On some class periods, students also summarized the lecture and the quotation at the end of the class. Student performance on exam questions related to the quotations improved when they wrote summaries. Quotations may enhance lectures and improve student performance when students actively relate them to course content.


A single word even may be a spark of inextinguishable thought.--Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1821/1965, p. 37

Many introductory textbooks use quotations to introduce psychological concepts (e.g., Myers, 2007; Wade & Tavris, 2008). Quotations from writers such as Paul Valery ("The purpose of psychology is to give us a completely different idea of things we know best"), William James ("A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices"), and Emily Dickinson ("Assent, and you are sane; demur--you're straightaway dangerous") may facilitate student learning by arousing interest and preparing students for subsequent discussions.

Although the use of quotations to introduce psychological concepts is relatively common in textbooks, their role in classroom instruction is unknown. In the present study, I explored the efficacy of using quotations to enhance introductory psychology lectures.

In recent years, I have begun my introductory psychology lectures by presenting students with a quotation that illustrated that day's topic. I selected the quotations from, the online version of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (2002). I drew most of the quotations from writers such as Shakespeare and Dickinson, rather than psychologists. Students appeared to enjoy the activity, but I found no obvious discernible effect on exam performance.

In the Spring 2006 semester, I combined quotations at the beginning of the class period with student summaries of the lecture at the end of the class period, the latter an activity found to improve examination scores (Radmacher & Latosi-Sawin, 1995). The purpose of combining quotations and summaries was to encourage students to identify the main point of the day's lecture and to connect it with the day's quotation.

There is reason to believe that the activity of combining quotations with lecture summaries might promote retention of concepts and hence better scores on exams. I suspected that many of my students would be unfamiliar with them. Thus, there may be a novelty effect at work, and students might be intrigued or curious about the meaning of the quotation in the context of the day's lecture. Such curiosity might lead to increased depth of processing, which promotes retention (Craik & Lockhart, 1972).

In the present study, I compared student performance on three groups of exam questions: those that corresponded to quotations that I combined with lecture summaries (combined condition), those that corresponded to quotations without summaries (quotation-only condition), and those that did not correspond to either quotations or summaries (control condition). My expectation was that only the combined condition would lead to improved exam performance relative to the baseline established in previous semesters.


Participants and Materials

Participants were 27 students in my introductory psychology class in the Spring 2006 semester at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

I selected literary, historical, and scientific quotations from includes a number of different databases, including Bartlett's quotations (literary sources), Columbia quotations (literary and scientific quotations), and Simpson's quotations (more contemporary quotations).

I chose quotations on the basis of three criteria. First, the quotation was closely related to a psychological concept introduced in my introductory course. Second, the quotation was brief, because "brevity is the soul of wit" (Shakespeare, 1603/1973, p. 914). The mean length was 25.9 words (SD = 13.8). Third, the quotation was humorous, witty, or pithy. Table 1 shows examples of quotations used in the class.

I assembled three sets of 10 multiple-choice questions based on student performance from 2003-2005. The mean number correct for each set was 7.0. The questions were distributed across the four exams in the course. Students were not tested on the quotations themselves; rather, they were tested on the concepts that the quotations conveyed. For example, performance on the Johnson quotation in Table 1 was assessed by a question on elaborative rehearsal.

The number of words in the questions did not differ significantly for the combined (M = 24.4, SD = 10.5), quotation-only (M = 30.9, SD = 16.5) and control (M = 20.6, SD = 12.1) conditions, F(2, 27) = 1.54. The number of words in the quotations was similar in the combined (M = 27.7, SD = 16.9) and quotation-only (M = 24.2, SD = 10.6) conditions. This difference was not significant, t(18) = .55. In addition, the historical dates when quotations were written did not differ significantly for the combined (M = 1881, SD = 131) and quotation-only (M = 1868, SD = 119) conditions, t(18) = .24.


On the second day of class, I introduced the activity. I told students that the purpose of the activity was to introduce a concept that we would discuss during the class period and that the ultimate goal of the quotations was to improve their retention of psychological concepts. I began most class periods (those without exams, videos, or debates) with a quotation on an overhead projector and briefly commented on the quotation and why I chose it. On summary days, I concluded my lecture five minutes early, projected the quotation again, and students summarized the day's main point. I encouraged students to connect their summaries to the quotation. The students submitted their summaries without names. I told students at the beginning of the semester that they would be writing summaries on some class periods, but I did not inform them which of these classes beforehand.


The means on the three sets of questions were 7.6 for the combined condition, 6.5 for the quotation-only condition, and 7.2 for the control condition. I compared each condition with the 7.0 baseline mean from previous semesters. The t test was significant for the combined condition, t(27) = 2.48, p < .05. The t test for the quotation-only condition approached significance, t(27) = -1.86, p < .10. The t test for the control condition was not significant, t(27) = .64.

I gave the class a 10-item evaluation at the end of the semester. Twenty-four of 27 students completed the evaluation. Table 2 shows student evaluations of the activity. The students understood both the quotations (M = 4.08 out of 5) and the purpose of the activity (M = 4.38) and recommended the activity be used in this class in the future (M = 4.29).


The activity appears to have some instructional value. The quotations improved student exam performance as compared to the 2003-2005 baseline when coupled with summaries. The students understood both the quotations and the purpose for them and readily endorsed the future use of the activity.

I did not predict the deficit in performance for the quotation-only condition. As indicated in Table 2, students were unfamiliar with the quotations and may have needed assistance in connecting quotations with lectures. Alternatively, perhaps the students simply need the bookend effect of seeing quotations at the beginning and end of the period.

This study extends earlier findings that active learning and summary writing promote student retention (Mathie et al., 1993; Radmacher & Latosi-Sawin, 1995). The significance of this study is that it demonstrates that quotations may provide a simple stimulus for summary writing. The quotations appear to orient students to the main theme of the lecture; when the theme is elaborated in summary writing, their retention of lecture material is improved.

One limitation of the study is that I did not include a summary-only condition. Thus, we don't know whether the combined condition improved student performance due to the summaries, the quotations, or a combination of the two. It is possible that summaries alone would produce better performance than the combined condition.

This activity can be used in a number of ways. Instructors may easily access quotations via Internet databases and use them in various psychology classes. Because the technique involves little class time and no student grading, the activity may be especially useful in promoting active learning in large lecture sections (Benjamin, 1991). I used most quotations to illustrate psychological concepts, but some instructors may prefer to use them as contrasts to psychological thinking (as in the Cather quotation in Table 1) or as bases for class discussions (as in the Brownmiller quotation).

In summary, this activity appears to be an engaging and effective way to begin and end introductory psychology lectures. The technique requires minimal investment from the instructor and improves exam performance, at least when students connect the quotations to the lecture. As the British writer William Hazlitt (1821/1924, p. 287) observed, "the proper force of words lies not in the words themselves, but in their application."


Bartlett, J. (2002). Bartlett's familiar quotations: A collection of passages, phrases, and proverbs traced to their sources in Ancient and modern literature (17th ed.). Boston: Little, Brown.

Bartleby (n.d.). Familiar quotations. Retrieved April 16, 2007, from

Benjamin, L. T., Jr. (1991). Personalization and active learning in the large introductory psychology class. Teaching of Psychology, 18, 68-74.

Craik, F. I. M., & Lockhart, R. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 671-684.

Hazlitt, W. (1924). Essays by William Hazlitt. New York: Scribner. (Original work published 1821).

Mathie, V. A., Beins, B., Benjamin, L. T., Jr., Ewing, M. M., Hall, C. C. I. Henderson, B., McAdam, D. W., & Smith, R. A. (1993). Promoting active learning in psychology courses. In T. V. McGovern (Ed.), Handbook for enhancing undergraduate education in psychology (pp. 183-214). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Myers, D. G. (2007). Psychology (8th Ed.). New York: Worth.

Radmacher, S., & Latosi-Sawin, E. (1995). Summary writing: A tool to improve student comprehension and writing in psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 22, 113-115.

Shakespeare, W. (1973). The complete works of Shakespeare. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman. (Originally published 1603).

Shelley, P. B. (1965). A defence of poetry. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill. (Original work published 1821).

Wade, C., & Tavris, C. (2008). Psychology (9th Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

David W. Carroll

University of Wisconsin-Superior

Correspondence should be sent to: Dr. David W. Carroll, Ph.D, Psychology Program, University of Wisconsin-Superior, Superior, WI 54880. e-mail:
TABLE 1 Examples of Quotations Used in Class

Concept          Author          Quotation

Cognitive        William         There is nothing either good or bad
Therapy          Shakespeare     but thinking makes it so.

Multiple         Willa Cather    All the intelligence and talent in
Intelligences                    the world can't make a singer. The
                                 voice is a wild thing.
                                 It can't be bred in captivity ... It

Elaborative      Samuel          The true art of memory is the art of
Rehearsal        Johnson         attention.

Gender           Susan           There is no question that a woman is
Differences      Brownmiller     apt to feel more feminine, more
                                 confident of her interior gender
                                 makeup, when she is reliably
                                 within some stage of love.

TABLE 2 Student Evaluations of Quotations in Introductory Psychology

Item                                     M (a)          SD

Quotations were interesting              4.38        0.58
Understood purpose of activity           4.38        0.49
Recommend activity in this class         4.29        0.75
Understood the quotations                4.08        0.50
Appreciation of history of ideas         3.92        0.88
Quotations were amusing                  3.71        0.75
Quotations were memorable                3.63        0.71
Helped remember lecture better           3.48        0.90
Familiar with quotations                 2.67        0.82
Did not see relevance of activity        1.58        0.83

Note. Students rated statements on a 5-point scale ranging from 1
(strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). (a) n =24.
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Author:Carroll, David W.
Publication:North American Journal of Psychology
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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