College professor recognized for Netflix and Skill assignments

May 2—GREENVILLE — When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Thiel College — along with every other college and school district — was forced to embrace remote learning.

Like her students, Dr. Kristel M. Gallagher, an associate professor of psychology at Thiel College, found herself watching quite a bit of Netflix at home during this period.

But where some viewed Netflix as a way to pass the time, Gallagher — an associate professor of psychology — said she found a way to teach psychology using a service most of her students were already familiar with.

That idea would eventually lead to a positive experience for her students, and the chance to present her work at the national level.

"I spent that summer binge-watching hours and hours of Netflix shows, and I realized this would be great to use in class, and the students would love it," Gallagher said.

Gallagher piloted the assignments, which she dubbed "Netflix and Skill," in the fall of 2020 as part of her social psychology class.

Gallagher said the class would watch something at the beginning of a week, then spend that week in class discussing different psychological concepts.

In the beginning, Gallagher's course included many of the reality shows she previously watched, such as "Tiger King," a series about the former zookeeper Joe Exotic.

Later, the class expanded to other programs, such as a documentary about the failed Fyre Festival in the Caribbean to "Black Mirror," a science fiction series that a student recommended to Gallagher.

"I think it's neat for the students to see that, whether it's a documentary, drama or sci-fi, psychology is everywhere," Gallagher said.

At the end of each week, those students would worked on assignments that incorporated those lessons and whatever they watched.

However, each assignment was different, Gallagher said.

For "Tiger King," which touched on concepts such as groupthink and how groups can make bad decisions, the students made a PowerPoint presentation for the workers at Joe Exotic's zoo, Gallagher said.

Between the different shows and assignments, Gallagher said her students greatly enjoyed the class' variety and opportunity for student input.

"Psychology is a field where student engagement is very important," Gallagher said.

One of her students was freshman Madalyn Triskett, who took the social psychology course last semester.

Triskett said she was excited when Gallagher first discussed using Netflix for assignments, and thought the idea would be a fun contrast to the more strict assignments in other classes.

"There's so many different characters and types of shows you can watch, that you never really think about analyzing the characters," Triskett said.

"Now after taking the class, any time I'm watching a show I think, 'oh, I know what that is,' so it really helps you apply the skills you learned."

Senior Paige Long took the social psychology class as a freshman in the spring of 2021, when she was deciding between social psychology or developmental psychology as a career.

Netflix and Skill proved to be very different but exciting for the students, with the reality show "Hoarders" becoming one of the more memorable assignments due to the lessons the students gleaned from it, Long said.

"We learned a lot about fundamental attribution error, where you're basically attributing someone's behavior to their personality instead of the situation," Long said.

"So with 'Hoarders,' a lot of people think hoarders are greedy and selfish or compulsive, but a lot of people's hoarding habits come from an illness, or their mental or cognitive ability."

For the final Netflix and Skill assignment, the students could choose their projects — which for Long involved the series "When They See Us" about the Central Park Five case in New York City.

Seeing concepts such as automatic thinking, stereotypes and accountability played out through the show served as preparation for when Long will have to apply psychology in a hands-on setting, such as an internship or in a clinic.

"It's definitely helped me when dealing with implicit bias and challenging myself a lot more, or if I'm with a group of friends in public I might start challenging what we're doing," Long said.

"It's kind of nerdy, but it's been very helpful."

At the end of the course, Gallagher asked students what they thought of Netflix and Skill.

Gallagher said she was surprised to see that students enjoyed the course and by how much they students learned, compared to other assignments in the psychology department.

In particular, the students overwhelmingly said "don't get rid of this," Gallagher said.

Gallagher had a chance to present her findings, "If You Can't Beat 'em, Join 'em — From Netflix and Chill to Netflix and Skill," at the 46th Annual National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology, where she received the Doug Bernstein Award.

The institute's faculty determined Gallagher's presentation to be the most humorous, creative or original, or as making the strongest contribution to the teaching of introductory psychology.

Gallagher said it was a "big surprise" to win the award, although she prides herself on finding fun and exciting opportunities to reach her students.

"I let the students create their final assignment, and I let the students sometimes recommend things to me, so it shows the students that they're interested in it and gives them some ownership in the class," Gallagher said.

Both Long and Triskett recommended future psychology students give "Netflix and Skill" a chance, both due to the continued popularity of Netflix and other streaming services and the course's educational value.

"My friends and my roommate were always very interested in these assignments, but the class in general really is a foundational psychology class," Triskett said.

"Dr. Gallagher does a great job finding ways to make people want to learn while covering so many different things."

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