Students’ marathon efforts put psychology into practice

Positive psychology module mixed lectures with actual marathon running

July 25, 2017
Marathon runners
Source: Alamy

A Welsh university has found a new way of teaching students the principles of positive psychology – by getting them to run a marathon.

Twenty-two psychology undergraduates signed up to Bangor University’s Born to Run: Achieve Your Goals module, which mixed lectures and workshops on topics such as motivation and resilience with training runs.

To enrol, students had to be able to run 5km “reasonably comfortably” and had to pledge to run three times a week – however none of them had ever run a marathon before.

After the completion of classes, 13 of the students ran the Liverpool Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon, alongside Frances Garrad-Cole, a senior lecturer in psychology at Bangor. Three more completed a half-marathon, and two others plan to run marathons in their home countries of Germany and Canada.

Places are now filling up for next year’s module.

Dr Garrad-Cole described how, on the first Monday of the course, “we gave them a two-hour lecture about various theories of motivation, goal-directed behaviour, drive, resilience and so on. On the Tuesday, we all turned up in our running gear…We discussed the theories and how they applied to our running, we talked about issues such as blisters, hydration, hills and training schemes – and then we all went for a run.”

Dr Garrad-Cole – who taught the course with head of school John Parkinson, himself a keen runner and an expert in motivational psychology – had run two half-marathons previously. “I am 39, have had three children and am slightly overweight, so I was quite a good icon for them,” she said.

Since neither Dr Garrad-Cole nor Professor Parkinson is a sports coach, she said, they were wary of giving running advice and instead encouraged students to “listen to their own bodies and do their own research”. They also brought in a physiotherapist, someone from the sports psychology department and some highly experienced runners as guest lecturers.

Student evaluations suggested that the Born to Run module offered a very effective way of putting across the intellectual content, Dr Garrad-Cole said, with one commenting that “having a theory session, quickly followed by a practical session in which we could discuss the ideas and attempt to apply them, made them salient and gave us the chance to test them out”.

Dr Garrad-Cole estimated that “individual performance was higher in this module than others for probably three-quarters of the class”.

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