“He who dares to teach must never cease to learn.”
~ Richard Henry Dann
Midway through my doctoral program, I attended my first annual meeting of the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology. While there, I sat in on a roundtable on teaching Introduction to Psychology. I expected most of the other attendees to be novice instructors, like myself. Instead, I was surprised to find myself surrounded by a wide range of teachers of all levels of experience. However, all of them expressed frustrations and difficulties with managing the challenges of teaching 16 chapters worth of material in 12 weeks; or, at least, of teaching it well. And I remember, with startling clarity, sitting there and thinking: But you’re real teachers!
As the hour progressed, we discussed many solutions for the idiosyncrasies of teaching Psych 101. Some of these including moving parts of the text from later in the semester to earlier on. Others suggestions were to throw whole chapters out entirely. And I remember, with startling clarity, sitting there and thinking: You can do that?
That experience taught me two incredibly powerful lessons. 1) It is a mistake the think of “becoming a good teacher” as a singular achievement. I will not someday reach a point of peak instructional effectiveness and then no longer have to worry about it. Rather, it is important that I continue to find ways to develop my skills and meet the changing needs of my diverse groups of students. 2) As a teacher, you have to take ownership for what your students encounter within the classroom. If something is not working, I need to be willing to stop, take the time to figure out why that particular technique is not helping my students achieve, and see if I cannot find something that is going to be more effective.
Placing these two beliefs at the core of my teaching has dramatically altered the way in which I teach. Taking ownership of my courses allows me to alter things in a way that makes instruction more effective. For example, one complaint I had in the graduate stats lab that I taught is that the copy and paste nature of the instruction was not engaging. I had actually had the same complaint as a student in the course myself, but I initially lacked the confidence to change things when I inherited the course as an instructor. However, I have since created a series of exercises that allow students to more directly engage with the code they are being asked to learn to use. Students enjoy this method of working with the material better, and it is more effective in teaching them to troubleshoot the statistical computer program. By accepting that it was my responsibility to shape the course to be most effective for students, I was able to make a positive change.
Addressing one area of change sometimes has the unexpected and exciting side effect of exposing other opportunities for growth. For example, I decided to move the chapter dealing with human memory from the second third of the semester to the second week in my introduction of psychology course. This change addressed a problem by allowing me to show students how psychological research can be directly applicable to their life (by improving studying skills) while at the same time avoiding having several chapters worth of dry subject matter (research methods and biological bases of behavior) in a row. This change works very well. The students are always engaged with the memory games we play, and they always perk up when they hear that I’ll be telling them how to study better.
In the course of altering my syllabus this way, however, I had another “big moment” realization: Many of my students are freshmen. While I knew that, objectively, based on course rosters, it had never “hit home,” so to speak. I realized, then, that my goal should not only be to teach Psychology 101, but also to teach College 101. From that point on, I added elements to my syllabus designed to encourage critical thinking, time management, etc. For example, I assign online activities along with class readings for each chapter. However, instead of having the Chapter 1 readings due when we are finished covering Chapter 1, assignments for Chapters 1-4 are due when we have Exam # 1, which covers those chapters. In that way, students can complete the work at their own pace. I make sure that they know that the exercises are designed to be completed as we discuss each chapters=, and that completing them in that sequence will provide that most benefit, but the rest is left up to them.
Another “real life” skill I encourage my students to develop is critical thinking. The final project in my Psychology 101 classes is the “Mythbusters” project. On the first day of class, I tell my students that I want to get an idea of the baseline of psychological knowledge they already have. Everyone answers a set of 25 True/False questions. Using an online polling service called Kahoot!, students are able to see everyone’s responses in real time. Usually, an equal number of students answer True and False for most questions. Then comes the reveal: I tell the students that all of these statements are, in fact, false. This is by far one of my favorite moments of the term. The shock in the room is always palpable—jaws drop, there are exclamations of shock, chatter immediately breaks out. And, whatever else may happen over the rest of the semester, for this one moment in time, whether there are 35 or 270 students in front of me, I have them. This activity leads nicely into a discussion of why we believe “commonsense” myths like “Some people are right brained and others are left brained” and what makes it so shocking to learn that it is not true that “Schizophrenics have a split personality.” I then assign the students to work in teams over the course of the semester to create a 2 to 4 minute video that exposes the truth of one of these myths, using peer-reviewed academic sources. This project allows students to see how easy it is to be fooled by credible sounded or “common sense” sources and gives them the skills to use and evaluate academic sources.
My insight that there are more skills that I can and should be teaching in classroom besides just the content material is one that has carried over to other courses I teach, depending on the needs of the students. In upper level undergraduate courses, I want to encourage students to begin to consider life outside the “bubble” of campus and to apply what they are learning in the classroom to the real world. So, I always try to find a way to bring something unique to Birmingham into our classroom discussion. In Social Psychology, for example, we make a class visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to inform our discussions on stereotypes and prejudice. In Developmental Psychology, the galleries of the Birmingham Art Museum are used to consider how perceptions of childhood have changed across time and culture. We have a wealth of resources in the Magic City and, if I can, I try to bring them into my classroom and my students’ lives. In my graduate courses, my students have different needs. So, for example, when I teach graduate statistics labs, I not only teach how to use the program, but I pay particular attention to helping students learn how to report statistics in appropriate forms and to follow the particular formatting that may be requested be certain journals.
Finally, I am an active participant in the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL), a consortium of 43 universities across North America dedicated to training the next generation of STEM educators. I have completed all of the trainings CIRTL offers and continue to be highly involved with various activities. This means that everything I do in the classroom and with my students is based in CIRTL’s three mission values: 1) teaching-as-research, 2) learning communities, and 3) learning-through-diversity. While I hold all of these values dear, I have a particular interest in creating inclusive learning environments.
Through strategies such as providing multiple formats of textbooks (hardback, loose-leaf, e-book) to address various financial situations and/or learning preferences, replacing stock images on slides to improve representation, or providing multiple ways for students to reach out and share concerns, I always strive to ensure students feel comfortable and included. I am well aware that my students represent multiple and often overlapping forms of diversity—gender identity, sexuality, college major, disability status, age, race, ethnicity, major, SES, etc. Too often, these differences are viewed as obstacles that, at best, can be avoided. However, I believe that our various forms of diversity, if approached with respect and understanding, are actually a tool that can deepen understanding and shepherd deeper learning. My students demonstrate this regularly when they participate in some of my teaching innovations. For example, the trip to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute obliges many students to confront aspects of diversity they may have been avoiding. I have had many students tell me that they have lived in Birmingham their entire lives but have never visited the BCRI before. One Caucasian student even confessed that his family believed they could not gain anything by visiting, because it was a place for African Americans. Yet, without fail, all my students, regardless of race or ethnicity, find the visit powerful, and they come out of it more comfortable with our discussion of stereotypes and prejudice, not less. In my experiences, some of the biggest successes occur when students abandon their “homogenous islands” (Bruni, 2015).
Moving forward, I will continue finding ways to make my classrooms more engaging and welcoming places for all of my students. Many times, when I am leading a classroom discussion, guiding a mentee through a research project, or planning a course syllabus, my thoughts will turn towards how I can best create a moment of instruction for everyone involved.
And when that happens, I remember, with startling clarity, sitting there and thinking: What’s next?