For psychology majors at George Mason University, PSYC 372: Physiological Psychology is a required course for both the BA and BS degree programs. Plus, the course can also be taken as partial fulfillment toward the information technology requirement for Mason Core. However, as a content-heavy and demanding course, PSYC 372 is often met with reluctance from students. Dr. Jennifer Sontag Brielmaier, who teaches various courses in behavioral neuroscience and biological psychology at Mason, enjoys the challenge of getting her students interested in the relationship between behavior and biology.

jennifer sontag brielmaierDr. Jennifer Sontag Brielmaier. Photo courtesy of Mason Creative Services.

“Not all psychology majors are interested in this course, and not many are interested in this type of psychology. They worry that it involves too much hard science and a ton of work, which can make this course very intimidating,” she admits. “I’ve always considered this a fun challenge to get students excited about the course and interested in the materials.”

In an attempt to engage student interest in the field and make the course content more accessible and convenient, Dr. Brielmaier recently transitioned the course to an online format.

Guiding Students through Challenging Content

As noted in the Mason Catalog, PSYC 372 explores various aspects of neuroscience, including basic neuroanatomy, neural and synaptic transmission, and neural and biological mechanisms as they relate to behavior. The course is very content-heavy, and students are expected to learn many new terms and technologies prevalent within this subdivision of the field. Given the challenges of this course, one of the greatest benefits that the online environment affords is constant access to course materials and lecture videos.

Providing accessible “chunks” of information through 10-15 minute course lecture videos, Dr. Brielmaier helps her students to effectively interpret and engage with the content. “I think the students appreciate being able to view the lecture videos at their own pace and to replay any parts that aren’t clear,” she explains. In addition to this approachable lecture style, Dr. Brielmaier also attempts to capture student interest with supplementary materials and instructor presence, as she notes that these can be challenges to the online format.

Students also comment that the ability to revisit the content and lessons helps decrease the level of stress in the course. “I took Psych 372 online instead of face-to-face because […] it was such a difficult topic I wanted to be in my own comfort zone to relax me for this class,” explains psychology major Bobbie Nelson. “This course is the one course most psychology majors try to avoid. I heard so many bad things about this course! But taking it with Dr. Brielmaier was not as bad as I had thought.”

Keeping the Student Perspective in Mind

Many PSYC 372 students opt for the online format for convenience, and this is a thought that Dr. Brielmaier shares. “In my opinion, the greatest benefit to the online learning environment is the flexibility it offers both the students and the instructor,” she suggests. “A lot of Mason students are taking classes while working or raising families, and online courses can make it a bit easier to juggle all of that.”

In fact, Dr. Brielmaier kept the student perspective in mind, especially those who have never taken an online course, as she developed the online section. Piloting the first online lesson with her face-to-face students, she was able to incorporate student feedback and determine the most effective course structure. She says, “I had students submit a survey for extra credit, asking them to provide comments and suggestions for improving the course. Almost all completed it, sharing an overall positive experience, and over half explicitly commented that they enjoyed the online lesson.”

Dr. Brielmaier continues to make adjustments to the course to ensure that her students are successful. Having streamlined the weekly tasks, she now requires one individual assignment or a group activity each week, rather than both. She notes, “I think this helps students feel a bit less overwhelmed with the course tasks but allows interaction with classmates to remain a prominent part of the course.

A relatively new technique for non-invasively stimulating the human brain, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) can be used to investigate the role of certain brain areas in behavior and has the potential to treat certain psychiatric disorders, such as depression or schizophrenia. Video courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Brielmaier.

Interested in taking Physiological Psychology with Dr. Brielmaier? PSYC 372 is available completely online each semester, including summer! See for more information.