Psychology: Students improve communication skills through action and adventure
W alking campus this fall, you might’ve seen some peculiar sights.
On Front Campus, student groups were moving on and off tarps, touching and calling out numbers. Students were seen building tall towers, piece-by-piece with plastic piping. On the walkway between Arts & Sciences and Beeson Hall, groups moved slowly, tightly gripping brightly-colored bandanas and balancing cups of water.
These activities are being used in Dr. Lee Gillis’ senior capstone class “Experiential Therapies.” The psychology chair is a leading researcher of adventure therapy, which uses challenging ventures for healing and treatment. He first learned about experiential activities from his mentor, Karl Rohnke, who used them to foster trust and encourage cooperation.
Now, Gillis is showing students how action plays a role in communication. It helps when identifying problems and finding solutions.
Call it career-ready competencies—wrapped in a bit of fun.
“In traditional therapy, you have the therapist and client sitting in chairs,” Gillis said. “We want to get them out of their chairs and out doing something. I have broadened the class beyond my area of expertise, Adventure Therapies, to include other experiential therapies like art, music, the wilderness, equine and gardening.”
On Mondays, Gillis assigns a psychology article for students to read. They use Galileo or another database to research and dispute or support assigned reading. Data collected in class will be used in their final capstone presentations at the end of the semester.
The class did about eight different activities this fall.
In one, the entire group was blindfolded except for a ‘consultant’ who verbally instructed the others as they put large, plastic puzzle pieces together. Blindfolded members asked questions, but the consultant could only answer ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
In another activity, two groups worked together—one with eyes open and the other with eyes tightly shut. Students with sight told those without how to rubber band cups together and insert an object on top.
Good communication skills were required to accomplish each task. The purpose of ‘blind’ experiments is to get students accustomed to open-ended questions and the need for precise language.
The most popular activity involved bandanas and cups of water. Student groups had to move about 30 yards—maneuvering corners, steps and platforms without spilling.
Almost always at first, groups super focus on the cup and the outcome.
In time, they become more aware of the process, and how they’re treating others. They learn to give clear instructions, telling classmates when obstacles or steps are behind them. They quickly figure out the shortest person should go upstairs first, and the tallest should go down first.
When someone is tired, they learn it’s easier to ask for help.
Cooperation and communication get the job done, Gillis said. Students become more encouraging with each other and exact in the words they use.
Gillis once used the bandana/water experiment with a troubled family. They sought help because of a rebellious teenaged son. But during the activity, it became obvious to everyone—including the mother—that she was overbearing. While she barked out orders, the family was unable to complete the task without spilling water. Had he told the mother she was domineering, Gillis said, she might’ve been disbelieving and defensive.
The activity changed the dynamics of the family group, and they began working together.
“Literally, in this activity,” Gillis said, “people have to pull together to get a task done. We don’t have to talk about what happened yesterday or last week. It’s happening right here in front of us, right now. Everybody sees what’s happening.”
Students like the element of physical movement. Senior psychology major Mitchell Foskey of Tifton, Georgia, said most of his classes are sitting through lectures and taking notes. He likes the group aspect of experiential therapy.
“Sometimes we’re too focused to speak. We pay way too much attention to the cup instead of teamwork. It’s a lot harder than you’d think,” Foskey said.
Someday, he’d like to work as a sports psychologist. Foskey knows he’ll be able to use the activities he’s learning about this semester.
“There’s a wide variety of different experiential therapies, like doing nature walks,” he said. “You get to see everybody’s point of view. I thought experiential therapy was something you experience within four walls, but it’s more than that. We get to live out the example and experience the activity for ourselves.”
Senior psychology major Heidi Urena of Woodstock, Georgia, agreed. When first hearing about the family and domineering mother, she wondered how one activity could be so powerful and transforming.
Doing the activity helped her understand.
Urena might become a behavioral technician, working with criminals in prison. Gillis’ class has given her a few extra tools to use in that environment.