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Northwestern University

First-Year Seminars: Psychology and 'Weird' Beliefs

Course teaches students to become more educated consumers of information

As a first-year chemistry major in 2009, Laurel Friesen ’13 found herself thinking in new ways, thanks to a course titled “Psychology and ‘Weird’ Beliefs.”

“Not exactly the type of course you expect to discover in your first days on campus,” Friesen jokes.

Like many of her contemporaries — intelligent and motivated, curious and reflective — Friesen had powered through her early life. She questioned some things, she admits, but not everything. Then Friesen encountered Associate Professor of Instruction Sara Broaders and her “Weird Beliefs” first-year seminar.

The course, which Broaders has been teaching since 2004, investigates so-called weird beliefs ranging from witchcraft to superstitions to alien abduction, exploring how people develop and maintain beliefs, sometimes even in the face of contradictory evidence. The class even includes a real-life ghost hunt.

“When you’re looking for ghosts, you can find them anywhere,” Broaders assures.

But the course is hardly a real-life version of “Ghostbusters.” Broaders says her seminar serves a deeper academic purpose: to advance critical thinking.

In a world in which students are bombarded with stories about everything from supernatural phenomena to healthy eating and global warming, Broaders says her course uses topics such as ghosts and the afterlife to help students become more educated consumers of information.

“We take seemingly abstract cognitive issues and see how they apply to students’ daily lives,” Broaders says. “Before they throw the weight of their beliefs behind a claim, I hope students develop a critical approach to the information presented to them.”

For Friesen, the course proved to be a powerful turning point in her own intellectual journey, encouraging her to be more critical and questioning. Now an environmental chemist, Friesen says the lessons of Broaders’ course remain with her.

“Critical thinking is so important in science,” Friesen says. “I’m constantly asking: is there something we can do better? Is there a better process for this? And, ultimately, deep questioning like that is what drives discovery.” 

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