As a teacher, I have the following goals:
● Engage all students and foster curiosity and enthusiasm about psychology
● Prepare students to analyze critical subject knowledge
● Encourage students to apply psychological knowledge when considering personal, community, and worldwide issues
● Foster respect for diversity in all forms and exploration of the role of psychology in addressing issues of equity and inclusion
● Grow students’ abilities to think scientifically and to critically evaluate information
● Create an inclusive environment where students feel respected, heard, and valued
● Embrace teaching opportunities outside of the classroom
To engage students in the classroom, I frame material to clearly show relevance and positive application for the students’ lives. For example, many of the primarily first-year students who enroll in my Introductory Psychology courses report, at the beginning of the semester, being excited or expecting to learn about abnormal and/or personality psychology. However, the first 5-6 chapters of most introduction texts contrast with those expectations, as the entire first unit of material covers research methods, the biological bases of psychology, and sensation and perception. While these are undoubtedly important topics, the disconnection between expectation and reality can be jarring for students, and they find it hard to see the relevance of the topics to their own lives, leading to a level of disengagement that is hard to recover from (Gigliotti, 1987). To combat this, I like to discuss the chapter on memory, which is usually placed at around Chapter 9 or 10, immediately after the critical introduction to psychology as a science and the discipline’s research methods. The unit on memory is extremely engaging–there are many recall games and cognition demonstrations that keep the class active and amazed. Perhaps more importantly, covering memory at this point allows for a discussion of how knowledge of memory organization can help students be most effective in their studying at the beginning of the semester. Not only does this provide critical subject knowledge, but it provides a concrete example in a highly salient domain that the content we will be covering in class can (and should) be applied to everyday life.
In addition to considering the types of personal application described above, I also prepare my students to apply psychology to community, cultural, and worldwide level problems. A favorite way to accomplish this is to have students explore resources outside of campus that illustrate psychological principles in a broader context. In my social psychology course at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), students visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and wrote a reflection paper discussing the exhibits in the context of our course unit on prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination. In my lifespan development class, students visited the Birmingham Museum of Art and found art pieces that reflected changing views of childhood or old age across time and/or culture. Classwork and student reports demonstrate that these activities successfully prompted students to think of psychological principles in the larger context of community, culture, and the world around them. Students also indicated that these projects, the visit to the BCRI in particular, made them realize how psychology can be used to understand and address issues of inequity and injustice. I intend to replicate these assignments with local resources and, moving forward, offer an option for students to suggest appropriate contexts themselves and/or create curated online resources.
Besides encouraging students to consider and respect issues of equity and inclusion, I strive to create a safe and inclusive learning environment for my students. Through teaching experiences at multiple institutions of higher learning, I have had interactions with students representing multiple and often overlapping forms of diversity—gender identity, sexuality, college major, disability status, age, race, ethnicity, major, SES, etc. To ensure that my students feel comfortable, included, and heard in my learning contexts, I use a variety of resources and strategies. For example, while teaching at Agnes Scott College, I noticed substantially fewer students than I am accustomed to attended my office hours. I began offering virtual evening office hours via web conferencing, and attendance dramatically improved. I later heard from students that attending any office hours during the day was extremely difficult due to athletic or work schedules, and that I was the only instructor to offer an alternative they could use. (Please see my Statement of Inclusive Excellence for more information on my views and approaches to inclusion, equity, and diversity.)
In the previous example, conflict between student lifestyle and course structure impacted students’ ability to access course resources. However, the affordances of a classroom itself can influence the educational experience students and I create together. Regardless of physical environment, it is critical that I demonstrate flexibility and innovate in the face of classroom limitations to maintain active learning. For example, my sections of Introductory Psychology at UAB regularly included approximately 200 students. In addition to the large class size, the course took place in a large amphitheater-style lecture hall, which made active learning difficult. I addressed these challenges by dividing students into learning teams on the first day of class. Each team sat together during classes, which made it easy to divide up for in-class group work and allowed for a sense of community even with a large number of students. The teams also worked throughout the semester on a group video project. This “mythbusters” project required each team to create a short video, suitable for their peers, which debunked a commonly held myth about psychology (e.g., humans only use 10% of their brains; myths taken from Lilienfeld et al, 2010) . By drawing on the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (e.g., Evaluate and Create), this project requires students to process information in more complex ways, which ultimately leads to more complete knowledge (Krathwohl, 2002). Perhaps for this reason, students reported enjoying this activity more compared to prior courses including group papers or PowerPoint presentations. In addition to being a successful educational innovation in terms of course content, this project also contributes to students’ abilities to think scientifically and critically evaluate information.
Finally, I am always aware of and anxious to take advantage of teaching opportunities outside of the direct transmission of content within the classroom. Specifically, the two forms of this I most frequently use are modeling and mentoring. Showing my students that I use the information and strategies we are discussing, and that they are helpful for me, is more impactful than a discussion alone. For example, when I tell my first-year students that the most effective way to learn new information is to relate it semantically to something you already have stored in long term memory, I give them an example using one of my favorite pop culture references. For in-class work, I then have them generate an example using one of their favorite references. I later use these references for context in exam questions throughout the semester, which reminds students of the relevance of both completing in-class activities and of that particular cognitive psychology fact. During a course, I also try to demonstrate the two important, related, qualities I hope my students will adopt: self-motivated learning and a willingness to embrace failure. When I do not know the answer to a student’s question or otherwise face a challenge in class, I freely admit to it and then express what I learn through the process of struggling. I also make students aware of my continuous process of self-development through reading, seminars, etc. by sharing resources and interesting facts.
Mentoring relationships are another excellent opportunity to grow my skills as an educator outside of the classroom context. Though details of the situation are different, my overall goals for research students remain the same as those for students in the traditional classroom. Some potential unique benefits of the mentorship context, however, include: 1) more opportunities to provide students with challenges that require creative problem-solving, and 2) more frequent one-on-one communication with my mentees that allows for reciprocal feedback.
In my teaching career to date, I have sought out multiple professional development experiences to gain skills needed to meet the goals and activities described. As appropriate for the educational need, I use a range of evidence-based pedagogies including the 5E Instructional Model, backward design, in-class polling, jigsaw classrooms, facilitating small- and large-group discussion, formative and summative assessment, etc. (Bybee & Landes, 1990; McKeachie, 2014).
Backward design, one of these techniques, involves deciding what acceptable evidence of successful learning will look like for some unit of one’s academic context, whether that is a chapter, unit, or the whole course (Wiggins and McTighe, 1998). Extending that principle to my entire philosophy of teaching, what does successful learning in psychology look like to me, in general? Largely, all of the goals I have outlined above can be subsumed under the larger aim of creating psychologically literate citizens as described by McGovern et al. (2010). As I continue to grow as a teacher, my benchmark of effectiveness will not be the amount of information students are able to remember after the brief time they sit in my classroom. Rather, I will count myself successful if they leave my classroom with a developing thought system characterized by strong critical thinking and scientific reasoning skills, an awareness of the larger role of psychological principles in the broader social context, and a recognition of the importance of global citizenry (Hulme et al., 2015).
- Bybee, R. W., & Landes, N. M. (1990). Science for life and living: An elementary school science program from Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. The American Biology Teacher, 52(2), 92-98.
- Gigliotti, R.T. (1987). Expectations, observations, and violations: Comparing their effects on course ratings. Research in Higher Education, 26(4), 401-415.
- Hulme, J.A., Skinner, R., Worsnop, F., Collins, E., Banyard, P., Kitching, H. J., …, & Goodson, S. (2015). Psychological literacy: A multifaceted perspective. Psychological Teaching Review, 21(2), 13-24.
- Krathwohl, D.R. (2002). A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An overview. Theory Into Practice, 41(4), 212-218.
- Lilienfeld, S.O., Lynn, S.J., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B.L. (2010). 50 great myths of popular psychology: Shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior. West Sussex, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell.
- Mcgovern, T.V., Corey, L.A., Cranney, J., Dixon, Jr., W.E., Holmes, J.D., Kuebli, J.E., Ritchey, K., Smith, R.A. & Walker, S. (2010). Psychologically literate citizens. In D. Halpern (Ed.), Undergraduate education in psychology: Blueprint for the discipline’s future (pp.9–27). Washington, DC: APA
- McKeachie, W. (2014). McKeachie’s teaching tips (14th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth-Cengage.
- Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (1998). What is backward design? in Understanding the design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.