“Much learning does not teach understanding.”
–Heraclitus (544-483 B.C)
Like any academic discipline, psychology is more than just a collection of facts to be ground into students ad nauseum. Rather, psychology introduces its students to an entirely novel way of thinking about the world. As an effective teacher of psychology my first responsibility is to enthusiastically welcome students to this new process and encourage them by displaying my own passion for the subject. Above all else, tackling the mysteries of what makes people tick is exciting. Whether giving a lecture on the basic methodology of psychological studies, providing a hands-on lesson on statistical analyses, or mentoring more advanced students as they begin their own research, I show students that the tasks I set will provide them with necessary skills to investigate the larger questions of human development.
Once I have convinced students to enjoy their visit to the world of psychology, I assist them in the guided acquisition of the basic skills that will help them to navigate it. Regardless of the particular course, I always seek to help students make connections between what they are learning and how that knowledge applies to the real world. One of the most critical skills a psychology student learns is to take the results of psychological study (what we learn) and critically apply them to the context of a larger problem in a way that expands our understanding of people and the way they interact with one another and the society we create together (what we understand). When students see the practical value of what they learn, they are more motivated to refine that knowledge. Over time, as I teach students more facts, I also coach them to seek out the bridge between what they learn and what that understanding can actually mean, making them more likely to take the initiative and do both tasks on their own.
While most lower- level psychology courses are traditionally given in large lecture halls to hundreds of students, it is still possible to use active learning to deepen students’ understanding of the raw facts and the ways in which those facts fit l into the larger framework of the discipline. For example, I make use of the iClicker in my developmental psychology course. This allows the class to honestly share their opinions on various issues, often jumpstarting more comprehensive discussions when the students are asked to break into small groups. Clicker questions are also a great opportunity to encourage students to make those learningàunderstanding connections mentioned above.
In upper-level psychology courses, my students have mastered the basic skills, and my role as a teacher changes. These students have successfully made their way along the path of established knowledge. Now, they need encouragement and guidance to blaze new trails, using their skills to discover knowledge which can be their own unique contribution to the discipline. I begin this task by assigning students, in groups or individually, to design their own novel research projects. Through this process, students not only hone their factual knowledge of the minutiae involved in conducting psychological research, but they also gain firsthand experience in identifying an unanswered question, developing ways to assess that question, analyzing the specific results of that exploration, and then interpreting both the impact of those facts within the context of the question and the ways in which these new facts inform/change/bolster/challenge a larger knowledge base.
As a teacher, my job is not simply to be an expert on the subject matter but to present the material in such a way that students become enthusiastic about learning more, encouraging them not simply to memorize the facts needed to pass an exam, but fostering in them an affection for a way of thinking about the world that students will take far beyond the walls of my classroom. I must also remember is that my students are not the only ones in the room. Every class and every situation provides me with new opportunities to learn. Students come from a variety of diverse backgrounds, and I am always careful to consider how their individual experiences may affect what they need from a teacher. There are a myriad of ways in which students can learn effectively, and an equal number of creative ways subject matter can be presented. By paying attention, I learn new ways to engage my students. I then use these insights to provide students with an environment of learning which allows them to continue on their journey with a strong understanding of the various aspects of psychology and how it broadens our understanding of the world.