Brain gains: Purdue Psychological Fitness Lab supplements Elementary Psychology students’ work

George Hollich

George Hollich led the development of the Psychological Fitness Lab, which is currently being used by Elementary Psychology students.Tim Brouk

Written by: Tim Brouk,

A new online source for brain gains and losing the weight mental stress brings was implemented this fall into the PSY 12000 (Elementary Psychology) classes within the Purdue University College of Health and Human Sciences.

The online Psychological Fitness Lab was developed by a team led by George Hollich, associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences. It mirrors the class’ topics but gives students an interactive and reflective experience, as they use it to not only supplement their work but to help their mental health too.

“Clearly, especially today, mental health awareness is a big, big issue on campus. It started over COVID, and we were concerned because many of our students seemed to be struggling,” Hollich said. “The question set before us was ‘What can we do in our introductory psychology classes to provide a resource for students?’”

The “lab” starts with a self-assessment. It also contains surveys, breathing exercises for calming down when upset and lessons designed to help students navigate college life. Eventually, the Psychological Fitness Lab will join other online student resources on Brightspace, Purdue’s learning management system.

The project was made possible by a 2021 Patsy J. Mellott Teaching Innovation Award, which recognizes and helps HHS faculty complete innovative projects that will improve students’ education. The award provides up to $2,500 for one year.

Psychological Sciences lecturers Jill Gulker and Erin Sparks Ward were key contributors to the lab as well.

First-year students as ideal users

The Psychological Fitness Lab follows the biopsychosocial model of wellness, which focuses on a biological, psychological and social approach to mental health. The model stresses the three fields are interconnected. Within the online lab, such topics as human behavior; changing bad habits; nutrition; exercise; study strategies; and much more are explored and tested.

If risk factors do come up, the students are directed to Purdue campus resources such as Steps to Leaps and Counseling and Psychological Services. Sprinkled within are aspects of research done by Hollich’s Purdue Psychological Sciences faculty colleagues.

Most students in PSY 12000 are first-year students, which, according to Hollich, makes them the best candidates to use the Psychological Fitness Lab. Many of those new students live on-campus, away from their families and support systems for the first time.

“I do think students often struggle in one way or another their first couple semesters here,” Hollich said. “But college is also the best time for them to change habits. This is about helping students get off on the right foot at Purdue. If good habits are formed now, they can be set for the rest of their time here.”

Data collected from students using the lab will help inform a new textbook that Hollich is writing.

Pumping neurons

Just about anyone living today could benefit from the lab, once it becomes more available. Hollich said most Americans should check on their mental health regularly, even if they feel OK. 

“Just like the president’s fitness test, we have a psychological fitness test. They go in and test where they’re at,” Hollich explained. “It’s a self-introspection exercise students do throughout the semester. There’s a whole interplay of the biological, the cognitive and the social/emotional factors. They all play a role in raising or lowering your risk factors for mental health issues or even just getting along with your fellow human beings.”

From sleep to diet, time management to the prevention of stressors, the lab is like a psychology course wrapped up in one online source. While improvements will be made to it before it’s launched to a wider audience, Hollich said it will be interesting to see how first-year students’ college experience changes in terms of their mental health for the next semester and beyond after using the Psychological Fitness Lab.

“Just like the Purdue (Online) Writing Lab is a resource for students to go and learn how to do APA format papers and figure out grammatical stuff, this would be the Purdue Psychological Fitness Lab where they can go and work on things,” Hollich said. “There’s an entire psychology arsenal of all the stuff that helps with your mental fitness. With everybody, it’s a series of tiny, little steps you take to try to get better as you go along.”