There are several classes I’ve taken at Berkeley that I found to be great ways to have fun, explore interests, learn important skills you might not be exposed to in your usual coursework, and fulfill breadth requirements. Taking different classes creates a unique academic profile that makes you stand out professionally as well. For example, my coursework prepares me to write creatively and technically in the domain of user interaction.
I will share with you my favorite class from each of my academic disciplines: cognitive science, creative writing, and data science. Maybe some of these classes will appeal to your intellectual appetite as well (you can pass/no pass them if you don’t want to worry about grades)!
Psych 160 (Social Psychology) changed up my worldview. Taking the class was a reflective and eye-opening experience, and the thinking I gained is integrated into how I approach the world on a daily basis. If you’re looking for a class that is readily applicable, and allows you to see how the subjective nature of experience can be logically examined and replicated, then this is the one for you.
This course covers how the individual navigates the social world, interacting with others and making sense of different situations. Topics I found interesting include human desires, presenting the self, group dynamics, social influence, altruism, automatic thinking and biases, attraction, persuasion, self-knowledge… I can go on.
Here’s an everyday example of how I apply a social psychology principle in my life. While learning about mindful versus mindless behavior, one of the experiments we discussed was the Xerox Machine study.
The study demonstrated that when asking for a favor (in the study, the confederate asked to cut in front of the participant to copy papers), giving a placebic explanation that sounds reasonable is pretty much just as effective as giving a real explanation in low-risk situations. This is because mindful thinking is only elicited when there is a lack of a script to follow or an effortful response is required.
Most UC Berkeley libraries require one to present an ID card to the worker for entry; mine is inside my opaque phone case so taking it out is a bit of a hassle. Now when I enter libraries, I hold my phone with my hand covering the bottom half as if to show them my ID card — every time so far, I am let through, because the motion of showing the worker an object where an ID card usually is is enough to induce compliance.
Because I am a big cognitive science guy, here are three honorable mentions (in increasing complexity of topics) if you are interested in psychology in general.
Psych 1 (General Psychology). If you didn’t take Psychology in high school, this is a must-take as it gives a fairly comprehensive overview of how psychology appears in everyday life. Lectures are fun, with interactive activities and memorable experiments. This class allows you to think and see you and the world around you in a more critical manner.
Psych 140 (Developmental Psychology). I gained greater empathy and understanding of how people fundamentally operate as human beings, and develop into the people they are after taking this class. I thought some of the concepts were very important to know, as they explain and inform how I approach my relationships today,
Mcellbi C61 (Brain, Mind, and Behavior). If you’ve already taken Psych 1 (or equivalent), this class is a great place for deeper exploration. The class is more materially heavy, but really broke down everything that makes up a human being (emotion, perception, sleep, language…). For me, it was really cool to learn about consciousness and what is involved in processing inputs to our experiences.
Modes of Writing (Exposition, Fiction, Verse, etc.)
I had a great time in English 141 (Modes of Writing) with Professor Melanie Abrams.
The class gave a great overview of common creative writing forms: short fiction and poetry. It was a writing playground where I was motivated to write for fun in a safe environment. Moreover, it was enjoyable to receive ample feedback and reactions to pieces I wrote. This class not only helps you explore your interest for creative writing and build a portfolio, but also exercises your story-telling and creative muscles, which are valuable no matter where you are.
Foundations of Data Science
If you’ve never tried coding but are interested, Data 8 (Foundations of Data Science) is the place to be. I had such a great time taking it for my cognitive science major that I decided to take on a data science minor.
The course introduces coding in a simple and practical manner, since it enables you to analyze and present large amounts of real-world data. I remember being interested in the questions we’d investigate in the homework and gaining satisfaction writing code that did what I wanted it to do.
Academically, I am interested in analyzing how individuals function and think in the social world. Creatively, I enjoy making art or exploring a world with words. Finally, I like working with data to answer questions I am curious about; I also wanted to try coding. The courses I mentioned have helped me to explore all of that!
There are still some classes I want to take but haven’t had the opportunity to, like Human Happiness and Psychology of Sleep. Hopefully, this list has inspired you to stay curious, Golden Bears!
Hosea Chen is a junior at UC Berkeley majoring in cognitive science, and minoring in creative writing and data science.
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