There are a lot of teachers, like myself, who have a growing interest in psychology and its application to the classroom environment. I can’t speak for anyone else but my studies in this area have been completely “student-led” and are therefore undisciplined. I have a great many holes in my knowledge and probably harbour a good number of misconceptions.

It turns out that I’m not alone. Even experienced psychologists often make errors in the terminology and concepts that they use. Two papers led by Scott Lilienfeld highlight this deficiency of discourse. The first lists 50 terms to avoid. These terms are “inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous or logically confused.” The second lists 50 pairs of words which are often confused but mean very different things.

The papers are highly readable and absolutely fascinating and chock-full of further reading. Aware of the fact that my fellow psych-amateurs probably won’t have time to read through 100 terms and word pairs, I have copied and pasted the ones I think are most important for teachers on a day-to-day basis. I have added a couple of sentences here and there in italics to illustrate cases where I think they might be relevant. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

Terms to avoid

(4) Brain region X lights up. Many authors in the popular and academic literatures use such phrases as “brain area X lit up following manipulation Y” (e.g., Morin, 2011). This phrase is unfortunate for several reasons. First, the bright red and orange colors seen on functional brain imaging scans are superimposed by researchers to reflect regions of higher brain activation. Nevertheless, they may engender a perception of “illumination” in viewers. Second, the activations represented by these colors do not reflect neural activity per se; they reflect oxygen uptake by neurons and are at best indirect proxies of brain activity. Even then, this linkage may sometimes be unclear or perhaps absent (Ekstrom, 2010). Third, in almost all cases, the activations observed on brain scans are the products of subtraction of one experimental condition from another. Hence, they typically do not reflect the raw levels of neural activation in response to an experimental manipulation. For this reason, referring to a brain region that displays little or no activation in response to an experimental manipulation as a “dead zone” (e.g., Lamont, 2008) is similarly misleading. Fourth, depending on the neurotransmitters released and the brain areas in which they are released, the regions that are “activated” in a brain scan may actually be being inhibited rather than excited (Satel and Lilienfeld, 2013). Hence, from a functional perspective, these areas may be being “lit down” rather than “lit up.”

If anyone tries to sell you an educational programme based on neuroscience and brains lighting up be very suspicious

(9) Genetically determined. Few if any psychological capacities are genetically “determined”; at most, they are genetically influenced. Even schizophrenia, which is among the most heritable of all mental disorders, appears to have a heritability of between 70 and 90% as estimated by twin designs (Mulle, 2012), leaving room for still undetermined environmental influences. Moreover, data strongly suggest that schizophrenia and most other major mental disorders are highly polygenic. In addition, the heritability of most adult personality traits, such as neuroticism and extraversion, appears to be between 30 and 60% (Kandler, 2012). This finding again points to a potent role for environmental influences.

Genetics is very complicated. I think I’m just not going to get involved with it. I’m not sure what difference it makes to day to day teaching anyway.

(12) Hard-wired. The term “hard-wired” has become enormously popular in press accounts and academic writings in reference to human psychological capacities that are presumed by some scholars to be partially innate, such as religion, cognitive biases, prejudice, or aggression. For example, one author team reported that males are more sensitive than females to negative news stories and conjectured that males may be “hard wired for negative news” (Grabe and Kamhawi, 2006, p. 346). Nevertheless, growing data on neural plasticity suggest that, with the possible exception of inborn reflexes, remarkably few psychological capacities in humans are genuinely hard-wired, that is, inflexible in their behavioral expression (Huttenlocher, 2009; Shermer, 2015). Moreover, virtually all psychological capacities, including emotions and language, are modifiable by environmental experiences (Merzenich, 2013).

Similar to above

(14) Influence of gender (or social class, education, ethnicity, depression, extraversion, intelligence, etc.) on X. “Influence” and cognate terms, such as effect, are inherently causal in nature. Hence, they should be used extremely judiciously in reference to individual differences, such as personality traits (e.g., extraversion), or group differences (e.g., gender), which cannot be experimentally manipulated. This is not to say that individual or group differences cannot exert a causal influence on behavior (Funder, 1991), only that research designs that examine these differences are virtually always (with the rare exception of “experiments of nature,” in which individual differences are altered by unusual events) correlation or quasi-experimental. Hence, researchers should be explicit that when using such phrases as “the influence of gender,” they are almost always proposing a hypothesis from the data, not drawing a logically justified conclusion from them. This inferential limitation notwithstanding, the phrase “the influence of gender” alone appears in over 45,000 manuscripts in the Google Scholar database (e.g., Bertakis et al., 1995).

Schools are obsessed with “groups” of students and we should be very careful and sceptical when discussing cause and effect.

(20) Objective personality test. Many authors refer to paper-and-pencil personality instruments that employ a standard (e.g., True–False) item response format, such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 (MMPI-2), as “objective tests” (Proyer and Häusler, 2007), ostensibly to contrast them with more “subjective” measures, such as unstructured interviews or projective techniques (e.g., the Rorschach Inkblot Test). Nevertheless, although the former measures can be scored objectively, that is, with little or no error (but see Allard and Faust, 2000, for evidence of non-trivial error rates in the hand-scoring of the MMPI and other purported “objective” personality tests), they often require considerable subjective judgment on the part of respondents. For example, an item such as “I have many headaches” can be interpreted in numerous ways arising from ambiguity in the meanings of “many” and “headache’ (Meehl, 1945). So-called “objective” personality tests are also often subjective with respect to interpretation (Rogers, 2003). For example, even different computerized MMPI-2 interpretive programs display only moderate levels of inter-rater agreement regarding proposed diagnoses (Pant et al., 2014). Not surprisingly, clinicians routinely disagree in their interpretations of profiles on the MMPI-2 and other “objective” tests (Garb, 1998). We therefore recommend that these measures be called “structured” tests (Kaplan and Saccuzzo, 2012), a term that refers only to their response format and that carries no implication that they are interpreted objectively by either examinee or examiner.

Schools: stop handing out personality tests! I don’t even know why we do these; is there any evidence that students doing a Myers-Briggs or OCEAN actually helps them in any way?

(26) Steep learning curve. Scores of authors use the phrase “steep learning curve” or “sharp learning curve” in reference to a skill that is difficult to master. For example, when referring to the difficulty of learning a complex surgical procedure (endoscopic pituitary surgery), one author team contended that it “requires a steep learning curve” (Koc et al., 2006, p. 299). Nevertheless, from the standpoint of learning theory, these and other authors have it backward, because a steep learning curve, i.e., a curve with a large positive slope, is associated with a skill that is acquired easily and rapidly (Hopper et al., 2007).

That makes sense when you put it like that. *facepalm*

(30) Acting out. Numerous articles use this term as a synonym for any kind of externalizing or antisocial behavior, including delinquency (e.g., Weinberger and Gomes, 1995). In fact, the term “acting out” carries a specific psychoanalytic meaning that refers to the behavioral enactment of unconscious drives that are ostensibly forbidden by the superego (Fenichel, 1945). Hence, this term should not be used interchangeably with disruptive behavior of all kinds and attributable to all causes.

Who knew?

Confused pairs of terms

(1) “Negative reinforcement” versus “punishment.” This distinction is familiar to every introductory psychology student, who knows (or at least learned) that negative reinforcement, which involves the withdrawal of a stimulus, increases the likelihood of a previous behavior, whereas punishment, which involves the presentation of a stimulus, decreases the likelihood of a previous behavior (Baron and Galizio, 2006). Nevertheless, this fact has not prevented the misuse of these terms in numerous popular sources and even television shows, including The Big Bang Theory (see, not to mention their ubiquitous confusion by generations of undergraduate psychology students (Tauber, 1988). For example, in a news story entitled “British Soccer Players Get Negative Reinforcement,” the reporter (Michelson, 2011) described a policy whereby members of a British soccer team were forced to drive around in an old, ugly car for a week following a disappointing showing in a game. In fact, the team management was almost surely punishing, not negatively reinforcing, its poorly performing players. It probably goes without saying that the phrase “punishing reinforcer” (e.g., Gupta and Shukla, 1989) is a whopping oxymoron, at least in behavioral lingo.

So negative reinforcement is removing an impediment so perhaps giving a student a lunch pass as a reward removes the impediment of having to queue. Punishment is a detention.

(4) “Working memory” versus “short-term memory.” Although these terms are often used interchangeably (e.g., Veletsianos and Russell, 2014), most contemporary cognitive psychology scholars differentiate between them. Specifically, working memory is typically regarded as an interrelated group of systems for the transient storage and manipulation of information. In contrast, short-term memory is typically regarded as one specific system within the broader working memory apparatus, namely, as a system that serves as a “scratch pad” for keeping information active in memory for a few seconds before it is handed off to other systems for further processing (Baddeley, 1986; Cowan, 2008).

Very important one especially given the current trend for cognitive science.

(5) “Conformity” versus “obedience.” Although both terms refer to forms of social influence, they differ in at least two ways. In conformity, the direction of social influence is “horizontal,” that is, from one or more peers to an individual, whereas in obedience, the direction is “vertical,” that is, from one or more authority figures to an individual. Moreover, in conformity, the influence is typically implicit (covert), whereas in obedience, it is typically explicit (overt; Loevinger, 1987). For example, whereas the famous Asch (1956) line judgment studies are properly construed as investigations of conformity, the famous Milgram (1963) shock generator studies are properly construed as investigations of obedience. This distinction notwithstanding, some authors refer to Milgram’s studies as investigations of conformity (e.g., Wite, 1987).

These ones get thrown around quite a bit as “dirty words” reminiscent of renegade behaviourist teachers with antiquated behaviour management expectations. But they have very specific meanings and shouldn’t be chucked around as pejoratives.

(10) “Anxiety” versus “fear.” Numerous authors use these terms interchangeably. For example, Wolpe (1987) elected to discuss anxiety and fear synonymously “because they are physiologically indistinguishable” (p. 135). Nevertheless, a consistent body of literature demonstrates that measures of anxiety and fear are weakly or best moderately correlated and display different psychological and physiological correlates (White and Depue, 1999; LeDoux and Pine, 2016). For example, in the brain, anxiety tends to be left lateralized, whereas fear tends to be right lateralized (Sylvers et al., 2011). The bulk of the research literature further suggests that anxiety is associated with negative affect in the presence of an ambiguous and potentially avoidable threat, whereas fear is associated with negative affect in the presence of an imminent and largely unavoidable threat. Moreover, anxiety tends to persist even after threat dissipates, whereas fear tends to diminish or disappear after threat dissipates (Sylvers et al., 2011).

An interesting one when considering student attitudes to stressful situations

(11) “Empathy” versus “sympathy.” Although the construct of empathy appears to be heterogeneous and is often ill defined (Zaki, 2014), most authors define empathy as entailing the capacity to appreciate or grasp the emotions of others. In the eyes of most (e.g., Bloom, 2017) but all not all (e.g., Baron-Cohen, 2011) scholars, the individual experiencing empathy is presumed to experience the same emotions, such as distress, fear, or unhappiness, as is the target of empathy. In contrast, in sympathy, the individual typically experiences concern or compassion for the other person (Clark, 2010; Decety and Michalska, 2010). According to most authors, in empathy, the emotional experience of the two individuals is therefore largely isomorphic, whereas in sympathy, this experience tends to differ considerably

This is another interesting one; these words get bandied around quite a bit when dealing with conflict at school.

(13) “Repression” versus “suppression.” In psychoanalytic lingo, repression is a defense mechanism marked by the unconscious motivated forgetting of unpleasant material. In contrast, suppression is a defense mechanism marked by the conscious forgetting of unpleasant material (Akhtar, 2009). Some authors have argued, with reasonable justification, that several widely cited laboratory studies that have purported to provide persuasive evidence for repression (e.g., Levy and Anderson, 2002) in fact provide evidence only for suppression (Kihlstrom, 2002).

I actually reckon these words should be banned by teachers as they smack of armchair psycho-analytics which teachers shouldn’t be a part of.

(50) “Testing” versus “assessment.” Psychological testing refers to the act of administering psychological measures, such as self-report indices, interviews, or intelligence tests, to individuals. In contrast, psychological assessment refers to the integration and interpretation of test scores, almost always in conjunction with other information (e.g., life history data, behavioral observations during testing) to draw inferences concerning the individual’s mental status (Matarazzo, 1990; Hecker and Thorpe, 2005).

This ones really interesting and I wonder if we need to make a similar distinction. I can give my students a test, but when I take that test together with other data I have then I can make an assessment of a student’s learning. This distinction would be vital in understanding AfL: if you ask students a question or to perform some task that is a test not an assessment. The assessment is the way you take that data and other sources of information to establish next steps.


For those looking for more I recommend Didau & Rose, Psychology: What Every Teacher Needs to Know. I really enjoyed it. You can read a good review here by Sue Gerrard.