James Pennebaker

Psychology professor James Pennebaker was listed among the top-200 most influential psychologists of the post-World War II era. Pennebaker ranked 153 on the list, while psychology professor David Buss ranked 143.

Photo Credit: Mike McGraw | Daily Texan Staff

Two psychology professors at the University were listed among the top-200 most influential psychologists of the post-World War II era, according to a University of Virginia study.

David Buss was ranked number 143 on the list, and James Pennebaker was ranked number 153. 

The study, published in late September, ranked psychologists according to their work’s eminence, or the long-lasting impacts of their work in the psychology community. This was determined by the impact of research citations, the number of textbook citations and scientific awards received. According to a statement issued by the University of Virginia, the study serves as a reference point for people interested in influential psychologists and understanding what types of ideas are valued. 

Randy Diehl, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and a former psychology professor, said the rankings reflected the University’s commitment to research. 

“[These rankings] confirm what we have been saying all along: that The University of Texas at Austin is home to some of the world’s top researchers in the field of psychology, and that our department is among the best in the nation,” Diehl said in an email. “These rankings are also important because they help us attract the very best faculty and graduate students to the department, and that benefits all students who take psychology courses.”

Diehl said he was pleased, but not surprised, to discover Buss and Pennebaker had made the list.

“Both … are longtime colleagues of mine in the Department of Psychology, and for many years I have admired the creativity and innovation they have brought to the field,” Diehl said.

For more than 40 years, Buss has researched evolutionary psychology, specifically focusing on mating strategies among humans. Buss said he did not know the long-term value of the study, but appreciated
the recognition.

“Science is an ongoing process,” Buss said. “Scientific theories are overturned and replaced by new theories, and you hope that, as a scientist, you make some contribution that will stand the test of time.”

Pennebaker has researched how people perceive symptoms of illness and the use of writing as post-traumatic stress treatment and language use. He said the list represented the impact of ideas — not researchers.

“I don’t want to sound jaded, but you can’t take these things seriously,” Pennebaker said. “They’re flattering and they’re nice, but they’re one of many different types of beauty pageants. … It’s flattering for both [Buss] and for me because it means the ideas that we are driving are having an impact on the culture.” 

Psychology professors James Pennebaker (left) and Samuel Gosling deliver a video lecture for an online psychology course. Students who took the online course were found to perform better on tests than past students who were taught using a conventional approach.

Photo Credit: Marsha Miller | Daily Texan Staff

The College of Liberal Arts has expanded its synchronous massive online course offerings for the fall semester by an additional course for fall semester.
The SMOC format was launched in fall 2013 by psychology professors Samuel Gosling and James Pennebaker. Gosling and Pennebaker co-taught an “Introduction to Psychology” SMOC, which they named “Psychology LIVE.” The college also offered an “American Government” course in the SMOC format the fall 2013 and spring 2014 semesters.
SMOCs, or synchronous massive online courses, are live-streamed online-courses that require students to log in at specific times to watch live lectures, take quizzes and exercises, and participate in chat room discussions.
According to Pennebaker, students participating in SMOCs are able to engage in more social online interaction than they would be able to in massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which do not require live participation from students.
“Online education is revolutionizing education as we know it. The benefits far outweigh the downsides,” Pennebaker said. “Depending on the quality of the online course, students can learn more efficiently at a fraction of the price compared to traditional classes.”
In addition to offering “Psychology LIVE” and “American Government” again for the fall semester, the College of Liberal Arts is including “U.S. Foreign Policy.”
While UT students can sign up for the courses during registration, non-admitted students can also take the classes for credit through University Extension. However, only Gosling and Pennebaker’s psychology course is being offered to non-admitted students as a SMOC. The government courses will only be available to non-admitted students in an “on-demand” format similar to that of a MOOC.
The college is also offering four other for-credit courses exclusively through University Extension with the “on-demand” model.
Government professor Robert Moser, who will be co-teaching his first SMOC, “U.S. Foreign Policy,” believes that the format can provide an attractive and valuable alternative for students planning on taking introductory courses.
“As an instructor, the online format provides opportunities to introduce technologies such as video clips, online surveys, live chat, and simulations that I could not easily integrate in a traditional in-person course,” said Moser, who is also the chair of the government department. “Since I was going to ask my colleagues in the government department to consider this new technology in their introductory courses, I thought I better try it myself.”
Government professor Eric McDaniel, who will be co-teaching the “American Government” SMOC, said there are both pros and cons to the format, like any other type of class.
“A significant gain in these online courses is that I have more time to deliver more content material. I spend less time repeating myself in the SMOC than I do in the traditional lecture setting,” McDaniel said. “Of course, with online courses, I lose the ability to assess students’ understandings with eye contact.”
The SMOCs are priced for non-admitted students at either $200 or $350, with an additional $10 library fee to access online material. Registration closes for the courses on Sept. 15, but a $60 late fee will be charged to those who sign up after Aug. 15.

Psychology professors James Pennebaker (left) and Samuel Gosling deliver a video lecture for an online psychology course. Students who took the online course were found to perform better on tests than past students who were taught using a conventional approach.

Photo Credit: Marsha Miller | Daily Texan Staff

Psychology professors Samuel Gosling and James Pennebaker have found that students perform better in an online classroom with daily “benchmark” quizzes rather than a traditional classroom with monumental midterms.   

UT has transitioned some courses to an online platform, developed by the two professors, named Texas Online World of Educational Research, in which students can participate online through broadcasted lectures that are formatted much like a television show. This is their third semester teaching with the new method.

“We started daily testing people, and we thought maybe it improves performance, and we found that it does improve performance in students, especially in students with low socioeconomic backgrounds,” Gosling said. “The idea is that if they bring their laptops in, we can give them personalized feedback based on their responses … to integrate many of those things that work well in an intimate class and try to scale those up for the big classes.”

After using the new program, the professors compared the students’ performances to years past and saw a few major differences, Pennebaker said.

“First, students did better on the tests than in previous years when we used a conventional teaching approach,” Pennebaker said. “Second, our students made high grades in their other courses both that same semester and the semester afterwards. Third, our new method reduced the traditional achievement gap between those from upper middle and lower middle class students.”

Portuguese sophomore Helena Delimaverde said she adapted quickly to the unconventional course structure. 

“I feel like this class really gives the chance for students get involved in class,” Delimaverde said. ”We have chats during class with other students, so you are able to discuss problems with other students.”

Students have a benchmark in each class that covers the previous class. These assessments make up 88 percent of the total grade.

Currently, Pennebaker’s and Gosling’s psychology class and a government class are the only two courses using this online platform, but Gosling said the University has been supportive of the idea and helping to implement it.

“It’s not exaggeration to say that thanks to the University’s support of what we’ve done that The University of Texas is at the very forefront of this,” Gosling said.

Psychology professors Sam Gosling and James Pennebaker are currently teaching one of UT's first Synchronous Massive Online Courses, or SMOCs.

Photo Credit: Sam Ortega | Daily Texan Staff

In the fall of 2012, psychology professors James Pennebaker and Sam Gosling launched a bold teaching experiment: They moved their face-to-face, lecture-based Psychology 301 course from the classroom to the Internet. They live-streamed the course to an audience of approximately 900 enrolled students. Twenty-five to 30 students were invited to attend each taping, to play the part of the studio audience, but the majority of students took the semester-long course online. The pedagogical, logistical and technical challenges of such an undertaking are enormous, not least because it meant that UT had to ensure that there was sufficient bandwidth available on campus for such a large number of students to access the recordings simultaneously. To facilitate the delivery of the course, the Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services (LAITS) worked with Pennebaker and Gosling to design and build an in-house platform called TOWER (Texas Online World of Educational Research). At present, the functionality of TOWER can be embedded in the CANVAS learning management system that UT-Austin has adopted and begun to implement across campus. The TOWER platform allows the instructor to capture data about how students use the available tools, navigate quizzes and interact with content, thus providing instructors with valuable insights into how students are learning the course content. In a very real way, it has taken a village of coders, graphic designers and a talented audio and video team, as well as two talented faculty, to produce this innovative learning experience for UT-Austin students.

This fall, Pennebaker and Gosling returned to the recording studio with renewed energy, an improved version of TOWER and an even more ambitious plans for their course. They have renamed it a SMOC, that is, a Synchronous Massive Online Course. Their plan is to offer it not only to UT-Austin students but to learners around the state, country and even world for the very reasonable price of $550 — substantially less than a 3-credit, campus-based UT-Austin course. This fall, the students are primarily UT-Austin students, approximately 750 of them, but with some aggressive marketing, that audience could expand to include current high school students, lifelong learners and others. Also this fall, the live streaming course experiment has expanded to include a second large-enrollment course, Government 310L, American Government. The course is led by the veteran teaching team of government professor Daron Shaw and associate government professor Eric McDaniel. It was capped at 700 students, but on the model of Psychology 301, could be scaled up to reach thousands of students at once.

In both Psychology 301 and Government 310L, the twice-weekly, 75-minute class sessions begin with a 10-minute online benchmark quiz that assesses students’ mastery of previous material. The quizzes are individualized and the TOWER platform makes it possible to have previously missed questions reappear in altered form on future quizzes. In the SMOC format, larger-stakes midterm exams have been entirely replaced by these short, formative assessments that require students to stay engaged with the course content on a class-to-class basis. As Pennebaker notes, “There is now compelling research evidence going back 25 years that students learn more and more effectively if they are tested frequently and learn from their mistakes.” The challenge, he continues, is managing the logistics of frequent assessment in a large-enrollment class. Moving the quizzes online, with the capacity to offer immediate feedback, has made it possible to apply this research to the pedagogy of a large class.

Following the benchmark quiz is a live, interactive lecture. Both teams of instructors sit at a desk with their laptops in front of them and discuss the course content, often with a significant amount of entertaining banter, video clips and demonstrations. For the student on the other end (full disclosure: I played the role of student for several weeks in Psychology 301), the experience is somewhat akin to watching an informative talk show. Guest experts visit the studio to speak about their research and there are repeat segments, such as “In the Laboratory” or “Psychology in the News.” The element of synchronicity comes into play when students are asked to take surveys, participate in polls and engage in group discussions. Additionally, over the course of the semester, functions have been added to TOWER that allow students to send in questions. For Pennebaker and Gosling, the fact that their lectures are live streaming is essential. “The live broadcast … allows the class to generate a shared sense of excitement about learning,” Gosling said.

The SMOC is still very much an evolving model of course delivery. With each iteration and expansion to new courses, instructors are learning more about what students need to learn effectively in this brave new online environment. They are experimenting with the interplay of synchronous and asynchronous learning and figuring out how best to engage students during a live streaming lecture. At the same time, as all of the current instructors report, it is a challenge to teach at a distance from students. “The biggest weakness with this is that we cannot read students’ faces,” McDaniel said. “While students have the opportunity to post questions in the chat room, few do … This medium requires the students to be much more active in asking questions.” 

Psychology 301 and Government 310L have been trailblazers in the world of synchronous course delivery. While we still have much to learn about the pedagogy of synchronous delivery, for what courses this mode is best suited and how we can produce high-quality courses at a reasonable cost, it is certain that the SMOC will play a role in the future of UT-Austin students. As McDaniel put it, “Students should still have the opportunity for traditional intro classes, [but] I believe that [the SMOC] can relieve the burden on professors to teach massive lecture courses and give students more freedom in how they take these courses. While there will be trial and error, I believe that its benefits far outweigh the costs.”

Ebbeler is an associate classics professor from Claremont, Calif. Follow Ebbeler on Twitter @jenebbeler.

Psychology professors Sam Gosling and James Pennebaker are currently teaching one of UT's first Synchronous Massive Online Courses, or SMOCs.

Photo Credit: Sam Ortega | Daily Texan Staff

After the first full week of classes, the world’s first synchronous massive online course (SMOC) program still has fewer than 40 non-UT students enrolled in one of its two classes.

Though SMOCs rely on classroom technology integration and are meant for large audiences, they are different than massive open online courses (MOOCs), as SMOCs are live-streamed and involve more individual participation.

The program, launched this semester by the College of Liberal Arts, features an “Introduction to Psychology” course first developed and taught by psychology professors Samuel Gosling and James Pennebaker. The program also features an “American Goverment” class taught by government professors Eric McDaniel and Daron Shaw. While only 30 to 40 non-UT students are signed up for the class, there are more than 800 UT students enrolled. 

Each class session is filmed in a studio designed especially for the program in Mezes Hall, and 24 of the 800 UT students are invited to attend each class in person and to participate as an audience. 

Gosling said the SMOC combines in-class learning with online education — using technologies such as online chat rooms, secure testing systems and high-speed live streaming.

“The idea is to try and use technology to both retain what is good about in-class teaching, but at the same time, use technology to scale it up,” Gosling said.

Gosling and Pennebaker developed the SMOC in which students watch the course live by streaming it on their computers. During class, students are assessed and participate in group discussions through the course website. Pennebaker said he thinks the small turnout this semester is because the University does not know how to properly advertise this class.

The SMOC emerged out of a series of changes Gosling and Pennebaker made to the “Introduction to Psychology” course they have co-taught over the past eight years. Gosling said they use data they collect from each semester to improve their class.

“We didn’t sit down and say, ‘Let’s build a SMOC,’” Gosling said. “Each year, we’re improving things, and this coincided with the emergence of these new technologies that suddenly facilitated being able to do things one couldn’t do before.”

In the spring 2013 semester, Gosling and Pennebaker ran a scaled-down version of the SMOC before the College of Liberal Arts broadened the format for the fall.

The professors said they format the course as a mix between a talk show and an educational program.

“We’ve learned a lot from watching Jon Stewart and these others, because it’s a completely different way of teaching,” Pennebaker said.

The University also launched a massive open online course (MOOC) program with online education provider edX this semester. Unlike SMOCs, MOOCs do not require live participation from students. These classes are being offered to the public for free, but cannot be taken for University credit.

“There are a lot of different experiments underway and innovative approaches that are being explored across the campus,” said Harrison Keller, vice provost of higher education policy and research at UT. “The University is committed to supporting faculty innovation around teaching and learning.”

Although the course shares some similarities with a MOOC, Gosling said the SMOC works differently.

“Although our class looks like a MOOC, it’s only a superficial resemblance to a MOOC,” Gosling said. “The inside of it isn’t a MOOC at all.”

The SMOC allows for more social interaction between students and instructors and also between the students themselves, Pennebaker said. 

Additionally, he said SMOCs are more financially sound options than MOOCs for the University. Since many MOOCs are being offered for free, Pennebaker said they present a financial issue. The SMOC courses are being offered for credit to the public for $550. 

“The big issue with MOOCs such as Coursera and edX is that they don’t have a really viable business model,” Pennebaker said.

Pennebaker said they originally planned on having 10,000 non-University students and using money garnered from the course to fund graduate education. However, less than 40 non-University students signed up because of a lack of advertising.

The professors said they would like to see the University continue to expand the teaching format but will remain focused on improving their own course.

“Now that so much is mediated through technology, the distinction between researchers and teachers is breaking down,” Gosling said. “As we teach, we gather data that informs us, [and] we improve our teaching.”

UT psychology professor James Pennebaker, author of “The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us,” developed a program with his research team called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count. The program scans text for its diction and produces a report that Pennebaker says uncovers the powerful implications of what he calls our “most forgettable words.”

Surprisingly, Pennebaker hadn’t run his own book through the program. When asked, he spun his chair around to his desk, entered “The Secret Life of Pronouns” into the LIWC, checked his email and within minutes, the program finished. Pennebaker interpreted the findings, scrolling down a table of percentages.

“We can see my article use is pretty high, which probably means I’m an older guy. I use a high rate of social words, so I’m interested in other human beings,” he said.

Pennebaker has spent the last 15 years dissecting language digitally. He has run diary entries, blog posts, eHarmony profiles and great works of literature through the LIWC. For him, the link between the program’s statistics and the human mind is self-evident. However, for most of us, even experts, pronoun use is an area where our intuition fails.

For example, after the 2008 election news analysts, critics, English scholars and certain presidential speech writers began commenting on what one media critic dubbed President Obama’s “inordinate fondness” for the pronoun “I.” His frequent use of the word showed his over-confidence and his distance from people, critics claimed. The only problem was that until Pennebaker, no one bothered to crunch the numbers. It turns out that Obama sets a record low “I” use for presidents going back through Truman. But according to Pennebaker’s research, low “I” use and Obama’s language in general do “suggest self-assurance and emotional distance.” Critics and analysts weren’t off in their assessment of his personality, but they completely misunderstood his language style.

When we talk with someone, we are sometimes not as interested in what they say as how they say it. Realizing this was a breakthrough for Pennebaker in developing LIWC, which distinguishes between content words such as “table,” “apple” and “jump” — and style words such as “I,” “the,” “up,” “have” and “don’t.” While content words tell what someone is reading or eating that day, style words often reveal fundamental aspects of our personalities.

“Style may not tell us much about where a person is walking, how hungry they are or their preference in fruit,” Pennebaker wrote. “But it is a meaningful window into people’s lives, attitudes and social worlds.”

To figure out how to interpret style words in different contexts, Pennebaker compared word-use trends for people of different genders, ages and social classes.

In a section called “The Sound of Power,” Pennebaker explains how two general word groups repeatedly emerged. Men, older people and those in higher social classes used more articles, nouns, prepositions and “big words.” On the other hand, women, young people and people in lower social classes used more pronouns and auxiliary and cognitive verbs. By applying these general trends, the LIWC was able to assess gender, truthfulness and social relationships with surprising accuracy. For example, the program correctly identified gender 72 percent of the time, proved a better lie detector than policemen, psychologists or federal interrogation officers and was a reliable judge for relationship compatibility.

Though Pennebaker’s program can outperform our intuitions in certain contexts, it has definite limitations. Though the LIWC has the advantage of being able to process massive amounts of data, it can miss context clues which would be obvious to a human.

“Don’t be misled. It’s a remarkably stupid program,” Pennebaker said.

The program can’t replace our intuition, but it is Pennebaker’s hope that if we pay attention to the cues he’s uncovered, the program might help us improve how we think.

“The effects aren’t going to be transformative, but it provides another way for us to think about relationships with others,” he said.

Printed on September 12, 2011 as: UT professor links word use to identifying personalities

What we say may not reveal as much about ourselves as how we say it, says a UT professor in his upcoming book.

Professor and Psychology Department Chair James Pennebaker and his students have been researching the significance of word use for more than 15 years.

“The basic idea here is that the words we use in everyday language reflect people’s psychological state,” Pennebaker said.

University spokeswoman Michelle Bryant said Pennebaker’s book, “The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us,” is a compilation of his research studies, and will be available on Aug. 30.

Pennebaker said there are two general types of words — content words and function words — and that his research focuses on the less-studied function words.

Function words include pronouns, prepositions, articles and other small words, while content words include nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, Pennebaker said.

He said that although there are fewer than 500 function words in the English language, these account for more than half of all words used every day and can help determine what people focus on while speaking.

“It’s not what you’re talking about that predicts your psychological state, it’s how you talk,” Pennebaker said

Pennebaker’s results come from dozens of studies undertaken by him and his students on thousands of people in laboratories, online, historical archives and even across multiple languages.

His laboratory developed a computer text analysis program, called Linguistic Inquiry Word Count, that takes any computerized text and analyzes the percentage of different words as well as other language dimensions.

The researchers found out people who lie tend to use simpler language and avoid the “I” pronoun, providing researchers with what is essentially a linguistic lie detector with 67-percent accuracy, Pennebaker said.

Related to the same pronoun, his team found that people who are depressed tend to use the “I” pronoun more.

“The way people are using pronouns tells us where they are paying attention,” he said.

The higher rate of the “I” pronoun indicates the person is more self-conscious and less involved with the world around them, Pennebaker said.

His team also analyzed speed dating and found that couples with matching language patterns are more likely to continue dating, a prediction that was more accurate than participant’s own self-assessment.

It is only fairly recently that researchers have been able to the understand the connection between psychological states and the words people use, said David Beaver, an associate professor in the department of linguistics.

“This is a very general phenomenon. You can apply it in very simple interactions in a classroom, or you can apply it on a political level to look at the behavior of world leaders,” Beaver said.

He said there is increasingly greater interest in this field of research from military, political, commercial and academic groups, stemming from the wide applicability of easily learning about individuals through their language.

Beaver and Pennebaker are currently working on a research study looking at how people keep secrets and whether they use deceptive language differently from how they use sincere language.

Seven new department chairs have been appointed in the College of Liberal Arts, UT’s largest college. Four are women, making one-third of the department chairs in the University female.

Kristen Brustad, Dan Dixon, Mary Neuberger, Jill Robbins, Christine Williams, James Pennebaker and Cory Juhl were appointed as the new chairs.

Department of Middle Eastern Studies Chair Kristen Brustad said there is still work to be done to achieve racial and gender equality.

“One-third of the chairs at the University are women,” Brustad said. “I think that it is excellent so many incredible women are being promoted. But we still have a long way to go with other minorities. We have made a lot of progress.”

Brustad said big changes are on the horizon in Middle Eastern studies. The department is consolidating its majors to offer one major in Middle Eastern languages and cultures, instead of several in Arabic, Persian, Hebrew and Turkish.

She said she feels honored that her colleagues are confident in her abilities.

“The support of the department means a lot to me, and I’m excited to be working with a really dynamic and excellent group of faculty,” Brustad said. “That’s what encouraged me to accept this position.”

Jill Robbins was named chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. All chairs receive a pay raise and two months of summer salary, but Robbins said pay was not a deciding factor in taking the position.

“I was driven by my belief in the mission of this department, in the strength of our faculty, students and staff, and in our future as the top department of Spanish and Portuguese in the country,” she said.

Robbins said she is already taking steps to improve the department by setting aside endowment funds for graduate student research, revising and updating the curriculum and expanding the faculty.

The department chair job requires more multitasking and availability to other members of the department, she said.

“Being chair is a heavy responsibility and takes a great deal of time. In addition to more paperwork, I will be spending more time with my colleagues, administrators, staff and students but in a different role,” said Pennebaker, the new chair of the Department of Psychology.

He said he feels honored to be chosen as the chair and is excited for the challenge.

The Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies chair Mary Neuberger said that this new position will require less teaching and more decision making.

“There is a lot of diplomacy involved between faculty, students and administration,” Neuberger said. “It’s more stressful.”

However, her experiences have taught her a lot about how the University is run.

Neuberger’s department is in danger of being cut, but she said she is optimistic in saying “leadership is necessary in a time of crisis.”

“It’s challenging, but I think in a good way,” she said. “We can step up and shine and make things work.”