Tutorials and practicals for biological psychology teaching

This month I have been teaching 1st year Lincoln Undergraduates Neuroscience for the first time. I started teaching this topic at Exeter University 10 years ago and over that time I have developed materials, resources and approaches which address some of the problems lecturers often face in teaching psychology students about the brain.

   One problem is that neuroscience is often taught to students as “facts” rather than hard earned knowledge acquired from research studies, but unlike other areas of psychology it is difficult to find published studies in neuroscience suitable for using as the basis for a tutorial. Another problem is that very few psychology departments have facilities to give 200 undergraduates hands on experience of electrophysiological techniques or dissection of real brains, which limits what can be done in a lab class format.

   As a solution I devised several small group tutorials which engage the students in active problem solving tasks. In our “neuropsychology clinic” students are given patient case descriptions (based loosely on real cases). They work in groups and in turns request items of further information to view from the patients “records”, including various different neuropsychological test results, visual perimetry plots, MRI scans etc.. They have to use this information to work out a diagnosis e.g. apperceptive agnosia. In the “Neural Communication tutorial”, amongst other activities, students work through a series of cartoons depicting neuronal dendritic trees with several incoming axons and synapses, each with a different specified excitatory or inhibitory weight and action potential activity. Their task is to work out whether the neuron will reach a given threshold and “fire” or “not fire” its own action potential and the adding, subtraction and multiplication involved gets more and more complicated in each successive problem. This exercise helps students understand the work of John Eccles on post-synaptic potentials (PSPs), processes of temporal and spatial summation of PSPs and how computational processes occurring at the cellular level relate to the psychology of choice and decision making.

   Finally in our “Brain Lab practical” students visualise structures in the brain on a real 3D MRI scan. They learn how to operate a commonly used software tool for neuroimaging research in order to visualise cortical and sub-cortical brain structures. Students are then given a series of scans of real patient brains alongside a series of patient case descriptions and have to match the MRI scan to the correct case description (e.g.  Brocas area stroke; fronto-temporal dementia). Brain models, atlases, text books, colouring books and brain hats! are made available in the classroom to add to the fun.

   Both tutorials can be run by post-graduates with little advanced specialist knowledge of the topics covered, will work with groups of up to 25 and last about an hour each. The practical class requires MRIcron software to be installed (free) and fills a 2 hour session.

Please let me know if you are interested in using or adapting any of these resources in your course and I will be glad to send you the supporting materials.

38 thoughts on “Tutorials and practicals for biological psychology teaching

  1. Hi Timothy sir
    I am teaching Biological psychology to third year students in Symbiosis School for Liberal arts, Pune, India. Please share few of your notes and experiments for my class.

    • Hi Gitanjali,
      Yes, I can drop you an email and send you some resources.

  2. Hi Timothy,

    Are you still monitoring this site? I appreciate that it’s more than 10 years ago..
    I am interested in your course material. The dropbox folder with the scans is empty, by the way.
    Many thanks.


  3. Dear Timothy,

    These practicals look great! I am teaching a 2nd year undergraduate Psychology module on Biological Psychology next year. It will be the first time and I was searching for fun and engaging practical that did not cost a lot. If you don’t mind, I would very much like the material for the three lab practicals. I see that this is a post of 10 years ago, so very much hoping you will still get this message. Thank you so much!

  4. Dear Dr. Hodgson,
    I am teaching a first-year Psychobiology course and will greatly appreciate your “Neural Communication tutorial” and “Brain Lab practical”.
    Thanks for your initiative and help to the field.
    Raz yirmiya

  5. Hi Timothy,

    I am teaching Biological Psychology for my 3rd year undergrad students. I would love to try out the tutorial materials.

    Thank you.

  6. Any of you whom I have sent details of the Brain Lab practical may be interested in knowing that I have made the neurological scans available via a dropbox link:


    I have only recently confirmed that consent was given by the individuals at the time of scan for these to be used for educational purposes, therefore I am happy to make them available to you exclusively for that purpose.

    • Hi there!
      Your lesson materials sound great ad I would love to take a look at them.

      I tried to access them at the dropbox but got a message saying the box does not exist.

      Could I possibly access the material another way?

      Thank you!

    • Hi Mark
      I will send you an e-mail. The Dropbox folder should just contain neurological scans but clearly something has happened there so will look into it.
      Best wishes

  7. Hello Timothy,

    I’m teaching my first biological psychology course this year and your tutorials sound like great way to teach this material in a more interactive manner. I would like to take you up on your offer to share these materials.

  8. A ran across your web site while browsing the internet for new ideas to bring into my classes in psychology. I find your ideas to be creative and am would love it if you could share your ideas so I can liven up my classes and jump start my own creativity! Thanks a bunch!

  9. I would be very interested in the tutorial materials. I have been teaching undergraduate Biological Psychology and am always looking for ways to incorporate more hands-on activities to aid learning.

  10. Hi Tim

    This really sounds great. Please could you send me your materials. Would like to consider using them for my first year tutorial class.

  11. Hello Tim,

    I’m a UoL student, now in my 2nd year and I am gutted to hear how you teach your topic, I really wish I was a first year again now!

    Neuroscience is one of my greatest areas of interest, and although i’m quite late replying to this post, I was wondering if I could have a look at some of the materials you used, as i’m really interested to learn from them.

    See you around.

  12. Hi Tim,

    Your tutorials sound great. I would like to take you up on your generous offer to share your materials. I will be teaching Biological Psychology to Year 1 and Year 2 Undergraduates and these would be very helpful.

    Thank you.

  13. Thanks for offering to share your materials. They will certainly help us better explain key concepts with good visual aids. Please forward me the materials when you get a moment.

  14. Dear Mr Hodgson,
    I noticed this link when reading a BPS Newsletter and found the idea interesting. I am currently an Undergraduate working towards a BSc in Psychology with the OU. I am currently studying a course which is associated with Biological Psychology and find it fascinating.

    Although I am not a teacher etc and only a student I would be interested in viewing your material in order to get a better understanding of Biological Psychology.

    Thank you for taking the time out to read my message, I look forward to hearing from you soon.


  15. The material for the problem-solving tasks looks really interesting. I would like to take you up on your generous offer of shared resources.

  16. Hi Tim,
    Great idea. I am always amazed to find students who do not find brain science as interesting as some other scientific fields, and I’ve come to attribute this to a lack of opportunity to study this in a hands-on way. I teach A-level psychology and run an extra-curricular psychology club, and this sort of thing would be a fantastic piece of extension material for kids who are considering neuroscience related degrees. Have you ever trialled it in a school setting? I’d be happy to try it out for you and let you know how it goes!

    • Hi, I’ve done some work in schools and I think the formats suggested here would work well although the content would need changing as they are specific to the university level courses I have run. I also have some other tips for making neuroscience fun for kids too so I will be in touch via email soon.
      NB I am out of the office this week but will get back to you and others as soon as I can

  17. As an educator and writer currently going through my own Psychology course I think this is a great approach. I’ve always found that examples (And working ones that can be applied even better).

    Would love to see the material if it is available to mc at mcslp.com

  18. Hey this sounds really interesting. Its great to see someone share their own work especially when it is novel and has shows a personal effort. I would be interested in the materials offered.

  19. Your tutorials sound great and it is very generous of you to share them. I am very greatest for your offer; I am sure your tutorials will help me to be a better teacher. I would try to adapt them for my classes, and at the same time I am sure I will learn from them.

    • Please drop me an email and I will send you more details so that I can keep track if who is using what where.

  20. This is a brilliant idea and very well thought out! I have just finished my BA in Psychology and started a PGDip in it now and we have never really got a chance to have such a hands on experience like this. I think as well as giving students the chance to get a better idea of what is involved in diagnosis which could help with future career choices, it will also allow for much better understanding of the biology rather than simply being told how things work.
    This is really going to help a lot of students.

  21. Hi Tim,

    Love your lesson plan here. I’m in my final year of my undergrad and have been heavily involved in the peer to peer learning sessions my university runs.

    I would love to have access to your material, I know the students could really benefit from it.

    Inspirational teaching. 🙂

  22. I have helped deliver a few of these tutorials in some form or another at the University of Exeter and students really appreciate these session in the context of a topic that to some first years is relatively daunting. As with most of psychology, it’s often difficult to cater for the huge range of backgrounds – none more so than with biological psychology. I think these pitch well in aiding the understanding of those who are grappling with the basic concepts and keep those students who may already have some understanding interested. Just sent through this link from the BPS Research Digest Link Feast!!! Well done for sharing Tim, hope Lincoln is treating you well!

    • Thanks Fayme thats great. I hope some aspects of these are still being used in Exeter. I think they provide an inspiration for what sort of things can be done. Variants on a case study / clinic approach can work particularly well in explaining the relevance of neuroscience to the “real world”. I am still very much enjoying life in Lincoln. Watch this space and follow me on twitter for more updates.

  23. Good idea Tim! I think we spend far too long re-inventing the wheel across different universities. Some time ago I create a series of video tutorials on how to use SPSS and E-Prime for a course in York. They were extended to include general stats in Exeter and will probably be developed further still. I put them on my website and the website serves up a steady 2-3GB of data a month with these things so I guess someone finds them useful!

    • Glad you like them. I agree its good practice to share good practice across institutions. I think your visual illusions tutorial is very good as well and one that others could use. I haven’t put the tutorial materials and instructions up, but will email them on request so that I can monitor interest.

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