School name: Eastern Connecticut State University
Type of school: We are “Connecticut’s only public liberal arts university”. We primarily serve undergraduate students (especially first-generation students) but have a handful of masters programs as well.
School locale: Small town – Willimantic, CT, former “Thread City USA” due to the American Thread Company and other textile businesses, which left the area several decades ago.
Classes you teach: Cognitive Psychology, General Psychology, Behavioral Science Statistics, Research Methods I, Research Methods II, Sensation and Perception, and a freshman colloquium course on Psychology in South Park
What’s the best advice about teaching you’ve ever received?
Some of my colleagues argue that you should never go into class too prepared, in order to be ready for interesting sidetracks that the class may want to take. I cannot completely follow this advice – I have to feel as though I am prepared enough to handle not only the content, but also potential questions that might arise. I put a lot of time into preparing not only what content I will cover, but how I will cover it, and I use my prior experiences to hone that content and the delivery to improve each semester.
I do try wherever possible to encourage students to ask questions and I freely admit when I do not know the answer. Some classes (and some students) are more willing to engage and ask questions, and I encourage this without letting a sidetrack take us too far from my goals for that class period. Students do not realize how important they are to the class – their enthusiasm and energy actually improve my teaching and the experience of the other students.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I attempt to use what I know about cognitive psychology to improve the learning experience – incorporating videos and activities to “break up” class to help them stay attentive, and making explicit connections to their own lives and experiences to promote memory associations. I also plan very carefully across all my classes so that I don’t have multiple major assignments coming in at the same time so that I can return graded work as soon as possible.
What book or article has shaped your work as a psychology teacher?
As a graduate student at Penn State, I took a course on How to Teach Psychology. The reading material in that course included McKeachie’s Teaching Tips and Perlman, McCann, and McFadden’s two-volume Lessons Learned: Practical Advice for the Teaching of Psychology. These materials ensured that my first teaching experiences as a graduate student were successful, and many of the skills that I learned in that class I have carried with me to this day. Some of my favorite strategies have remained the same in the ten years since: using low-stakes weekly writing assignments and in-class activities that require thinking in-depth about the topic and discussion with nearby peers. I have also adapted my teaching due to interactions with other teachers.
Tell us about your favorite lecture topic or course to teach.
My absolute favorite class to teach by far is my freshman colloquium course, Psychology in South Park. In it, first-semester freshmen psychology majors view episodes of the animated television show South Park that have been selected by me to portray a handful of relevant psychological topics. The course as I teach it currently is cross-listed with an introductory psychology course, and the episode viewed each week contains a portrayal relevant to the topics being covered in introductory psychology at that time. (For example, the episode Follow That Egg! shows an example of a terrible experiment, to go along with the “research methods” content, and the episode Grey Dawn shows cognitive impairment in elderly drivers, to go along with the “aging” content.) Students watch the episodes as a class and research the topic(s) they identified in the episode using PsycINFO. After discussion with their peers as well as some guidance from me, they individually write analyses of the accuracy of the show, focusing on all the major psychological concepts present. Last year, I created a psychological critical thinking program that taught students incrementally how to critically evaluate the episodes, and was able to show that they did improve on critical analysis and written communication as the semester progressed. I am replicating the study this semester. Students love the course because the content is fun, even if they have to write a lot more than a typical course. Besides this, they are learning skills of research and analysis that will benefit them as they progress through the psychology major.
Describe a favorite in-class activity or assignment.
In my Cognitive Psychology course, I always conduct an in-class activity on false memories. Using the Deese-Roediger-McDermott paradigm, 15-word lists of words are read to the students. They are asked to try to remember as many of the words within a list as they can. This length (15 words) surpasses human short-term memory capacity, but the words are all related to each other, which boosts memory. The problem is that the most “obvious” word that should be in the list is not. (For example, in a list with rye, butter, and toast, the obvious word “bread” is missing.) Using three separate lists, I can generally get at least half of the class to “remember” the word that wasn’t on the list at least once across the three trials.
What teaching and learning techniques work best for you? (quizzes? homework? take home exams?)
I almost always require students to complete online quizzes (using our learning management system, Blackboard Learn) over the reading prior to covering the content in class. They are told that the purpose is to ensure they are reading prior to class. The quizzes are short (10 or 20 questions depending on the class) and mostly multiple choice. They are permitted two attempts and their higher score is kept. They are encouraged to complete the quiz once, then review the reading to determine why they missed the questions they did prior to completing the second attempt. These quizzes boost student knowledge in the critical topic areas and also provide a boost to their grade that is a function of the effort they put in.
I also require weekly journals, also submitted through Blackboard, which require students to make an explicit connection between some topic learned in class or through the reading that week to a current or recent event in their life. Making these associations may help students better learn and remember the topic. (My department also has an unofficial rule that all of our courses will require substantial writing in order to develop written communication skills. I find these brief writing assignments are much easier to grade than longer research papers and frankly over the course of a semester, students are typically writing just as much as if they had written a longer term paper.)
The biggest practice that has helped me tremendously as a teacher is that I now only use PowerPoint for picture and video materials (and I do try to use as many relevant pictures and videos as I can). Several years ago, I made the transition from using word-laden PowerPoints to using the old-fashioned chalkboard (or these days, whiteboard). Since making the transition, students are more attentive and more inquisitive rather than merely copying down words. I make sure that I begin every class with a written outline on the board and write down any words that I want to make sure they spell right or that I want to emphasize, so I know they’re getting the “bones” of the lecture just fine. By not trying to frantically write down all the words on a slide, they are able to simply listen, and over the course of the semester, most learn to pick out the most important information.
To supplement instruction, I provide a list of Suggested Review Questions that students can use to guide their note-taking as well as their studying for the exam. All exam questions are drawn from the material that appears in the answers to the Suggested Review Questions, although I rarely use the same wording. Focusing studying on using these questions promotes active memory retrieval and thus may help with retention of the material.
What’s your workspace like?
In the office, I try to keep the materials on my desk in neatly-stacked piles. My desk is shaped like an L with a computer at the junction, and I’ve rotated the desk so that I see the door and can immediately greet students who come in. The part of the desk facing the door has my materials for the next day of classes and the stuff I’m working on at that moment; the part of the desk against the wall contains printed materials for upcoming class periods, old and future lecture notes, and materials needed for my many roles on university committees. It often has my lunch or snack too. Tacked onto the corkboard on the wall above my desk, I keep the page from the syllabus of each course I teach outlining the required reading, assignments, and topics for each day of the semester. This ensures that I can always quickly determine what is coming up by just looking up.
I attempt to use every spare moment of the day to squeeze in work. I sometimes work from home, using my home desktop computer, and I also often grade exams sitting on my couch. I also prepare a lot of my lectures, at least on paper, in the cafeteria of a local school while my son is at his weekly Cub Scouts den meeting. If I’m alert, I try to work because there is always something I could or should be doing.
Three words that best describe your teaching style.
Current, relevant, evidence-based (the hyphen makes it one word!)
What is your teaching philosophy in 8 words or fewer?
Help students see the connection to their lives.
Tell us about a teaching disaster (or embarrassment) you’ve had.
Several years ago, I was teaching two sections of my Psychology in South Park class – one for psychology majors and one for non-majors. In the section of non-majors, two male students behaved in inappropriate ways and challenged my authority as the instructor on several occasions. It started on the very first day, when one of the students interrupted my comment that “The course won’t be all about watching South Park; you’re going to have to do some work too” with “no, we don’t!” This caught me off-guard that somebody would be so brazen on their first day of class as a freshman. The second male argued with me (loudly) in front of the class about a point penalty on a paper, insisting that what he did wasn’t wrong. Later in the semester, he rudely interrupted a presentation on academic integrity, insisted that using the same paper for more than one class was alright to do. There were many other incidents that semester as well. I have never in all my years teaching experienced such an utter lack of respect; fortunately, it hasn’t happened since.
I also unintentionally induced a seizure in an epileptic student when I showed videos of the phenomenon change blindness in my Cognitive Psychology course. I now always provide a warning prior to showing the videos in class!
What is something your students would be surprised to learn about you?
I actually have pretty severe social anxiety and hate being the center of attention. This probably sounds bizarre coming from somebody whose career is being the center of attention. I perform well in front of a crowd while teaching or giving a presentation because I know what I want to say and I tell myself that people are listening because I know things that they want to learn. I practice exactly what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it, and this practice allows me to manage the anxiety. Informal social situations where I don’t know people well and there’s no “script” provoke a lot of anxiety in me and really tire me out. I get especially anxious if I am in a crowd and people are too close to me, so poster sessions at conferences are my worst nightmare.
In addition to working hard at the university, I serve the community by being a founding member and officer of the PTO at my son’s school and I both sing soprano and ring handbells in my church choir.
What are you currently reading for pleasure?
I don’t get a lot of time to read for pleasure, but if I can spare the time I “binge read” for entire days. I particularly enjoy books made for children and teens, such as the series by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Harry Potter. Most recently, I re-read Watership Down. I find that reading the books as an adult gives me a different view and appreciation of them than when I was a child. I get more out of them, and especially love to think about the historical context of the books and the events within.
What tech tool could you not live without?
Although probably not your idea of a “tech tool”, I can’t live without Google and YouTube. I depend on them to find interesting real-world relevant issues and videos for my classes. I find Google Scholar to be much easier to use than PsycINFO when searching for full-text research articles. I don’t have any fancy tech tools except an original Kindle Fire – finances are too tight for expensive fancy gadgets.
What’s your hallway chatter like? What do you talk to colleagues about most (whether or not it is related to teaching/school)?
We talk about contract negotiations (which are going on now – see https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/10/09/connecticut-state-u-professors-see-administration-proposal-attack-tenure) or other things related to school culture and events, especially funny things that happen in class. My favorite topics though are cool videos, news articles, or research studies we’ve seen, especially things that are related to psychology. We also talk about our children; across the department, there are 11 of them under the age of 10!