School name: Washington & Jefferson College (W&J)
Type of school: Small Liberal Arts College (about 1400 students)
School locale: Washington, PA – small town about 30 minutes south of Pittsburgh
Classes you teach: First-Year Seminar, Elementary Psychology (semesters 1 & 2), Cognitive Psychology, Sensation & Perception, Advanced Laboratory in Sensation & Perception (capstone)
Average class size: 12-25 students
What’s the best advice about teaching you’ve ever received? Learn how to say “no”! While this advice wasn’t initially about teaching specifically, this advice has been useful in keeping my academic life organized. My graduate advisor, Gordon Legge at the University of Minnesota, gave me this advice when I was spending most of my time teaching instead of finishing my Ph.D. research. The advice allowed me to finish my Ph.D. successfully. In semesters at W&J that I overcommit myself outside of the classroom, I struggle with teaching and advising. When I say “no”, even occasionally, teaching and advising goes back to being my primary role … and love.
What book or article shapes your work as a psychology teacher?
I guess the one book that has influenced my teaching most recently has been Small Teaching by James Lang. While there are lots of teaching books on my shelves, one of the things that Small Teaching has helped me with is understanding that making the classroom a better place doesn’t necessarily require extensive makeovers. Sometimes a small change, or a small addition, or a small subtraction is enough to make the environment of the class better. Since I have tried to make all of my classes very applied in nature, the chapter on “Connecting” has been particularly meaningful in helping me think about how to work with students to connect ideas that we discuss in class and/or things that they read about outside of class time. The time commitment to more intentionally do that kind of connecting work really is quite minimal compared to the work to learn the topics. But, making those connections really is a big part of a liberal arts education.
Briefly tell us about your favorite lecture topic or course to teach.
Although my field is cognitive and perceptual psychology, and I teach Cognitive Psychology, Sensation & Perception, and a capstone on the topic of reading, my favorite course by far is actually my section of our First-Year Seminar titled “The Art and Science of Vision and Visionaries”. We teach approximately 15-20 sections of First-Year Seminar every fall, each topic-based and decided by the individual professor but centered around students learning about the key set of skills that they need as students. The topics are just “excuses” to teach a good course about the liberal arts and what it means to be a good college student.
My course is split into two halves. The first half of the course is about visual perception, but with the spin that we learn about principles of visual perception and cognition through the study of art. We’re lucky that we live near Pittsburgh and have fabulous art museums in the city. I have the students go to the Carnegie Museum of Art early in the semester and then again later in the semester and I ask them to think about how they have changed (or added to) their way of viewing artwork. I sometimes try to get them to the Andy Warhol Museum or the Mattress Factory, very different types of art museums to see if what they have learned can transfer to different types of museums.
The second half of the course is about visionaries and how and why people get placed into that category. So, we read Where Good Ideas Come From, learn a little about Steve Jobs, and watch Flash of Genius as a few of our examples. It’s a good excuse to think about how good ideas come about throughout a liberal arts education with an important message that often those ideas don’t appear in a formalized educational setting. The course and topics also provide a good basis for discussing how a liberal arts education is set up to allow the type of visionary thinking that we read and watch in the course.
Briefly describe a favorite assignment or in-class activity.
One of my favorite in-class exercises comes about halfway through my Cognitive Psychology class. While I start the first day of the semester talking about study skills, and how those important study skills are informed by research in Cognitive Psychology, once we have studied attention and memory in the class, we are ready to talk about how we can actually support those study skills experimentally. The students in the class have read the assigned textbook pages in the Goldstein Cognitive Psychology textbook, they have done a series of CogLab exercises on memory, and they have read articles by Willingham (including “What Will Improve a Student’s Memory?”) and Roediger & Pyc (“Inexpensive Techniques To Improve Education”) on applying memory research to the topic of study skills. Students have also done brief presentations on the chapters in following books: Brown, Roediger & McDaniel (“Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning”), Willingham (“Why Don’t Students Like School?”), and Lang (“Small teaching”). The students come to class and work in groups of 3 or 4 and are given the task below which they work on for the entire class period. The goal is to get everyone thinking about how what they have been learning can be applied directly to learning, and for our Education majors, to teaching.
Assume you’ve been given a single exam question that says:
- a. Briefly describe each of the 5 study techniques covered by Goldstein on pages 202-204 (Elaborate, Generate & Test, Organize, Take Breaks, Avoid Illusions of Learning) plus the additional technique I mentioned on Day 2 of the semester (Match Learning & Testing Conditions).
- b. Briefly describe two pieces of evidence to support each of the 6 study techniques (thus 12 total pieces of evidence). Your evidence should come in the form of: 1) Experiments we’ve discussed in class; OR 2) Experiments from your text reading during the last couple of weeks; OR 3) Examples of principles from “What Will Improve a Student’s Memory?”; OR 4) Examples of principles from “Inexpensive Techniques to Improve Education”; OR 5) CogLabs we’ve completed and discussed in this unit
- c. Briefly: How would you apply these techniques specifically to set up a study strategy for Exam #2?
What teaching and learning techniques work best for you?
I still use lecture as a teaching tool in most of my classes, mixed with activities, class discussions, projects, presentations, discussions of primary source articles, etc. When we renovated our building a number of years ago, we decided that we wanted a seminar-style room to facilitate classes like our capstones and other smaller classes like our First-Year Seminar classes taught by Psychology Department members. The room, and the U-shaped setup of the tables, allows for a natural setting for discussions and presentations rather than lecture. Although the picture shows what the room looks like during a First-Year Seminar writing exercise, the important thing is that the room structure helps to facilitate the desired teaching and learning techniques for many of my classes.
What’s your workspace like?
While I want students to see my office as a “professional” space, I also want them to feel comfortable coming to visit. So, I’ve tried to put as much of “me” in the space as I can … soccer, Cleveland, NASA, Star Wars, family / kid pictures, etc. These extra things in the office provide a comfortable environment for me to work, but also provide a relaxing space for current students to visit. The space also provides some additional ways to make connections with current students, but also with prospective students and their parents when they visit campus. I do like to watch visiting prospective student parents gazing at the things in the room while I talk with their son or daughter. I have also tried to pilfer just about every extra chair around the building so that I can host groups of students or prospective families.
Three words that best describe your teaching style.
Supportive, practical, integrative
What is your teaching philosophy in 8 words or fewer?
Teaching with an eye toward real-world applications
Tell us about a teaching disaster (or embarrassment) you’ve had and how you dealt with the situation.
The easiest example that comes to mind (yes, more than one example comes to mind!) is my first, and only attempt to teach our Mind, Brain, and Behavior course early on in my time here at W&J. The folks in the MBB program were trying to find new instructors for their program’s introductory course, and for someone interested in Cognitive Psychology, it seemed like a natural fit. Well, I made the mistake of trying to teach the course based on a syllabus from someone that had taught the course previously. I did try to modify the syllabus to be slightly more psychological than philosophical given my interests, but I didn’t do enough. I’m quite sure that there were class days where I was just as lost in the material as my students were. I tried to run the class as a discussion class but I wasn’t well enough prepared to do that, and the students certainly didn’t have the background, and I didn’t do a good job of preparing them for those discussions. It really was a horrible class. I occasionally still have a nightmare about that class! I didn’t give up on the techniques that I tried in that class … I’ve applied those in other classes. But, I never taught the class again. Maybe it’s because I was hiding under my desk when they went looking for people to teach the class in later semesters. The MBB program was later cut from our curriculum. I’m a program killer!
What is something your students would be surprised to learn about you?
I occasionally wear jeans or shorts! While there are lots of ways to present yourself as a teacher, I’ve always done dress pants and shirt/tie in the classroom since arriving at W&J. During the winter, I like sweaters, and occasionally on a course evaluation I get a comment about my “matching” sweater and socks. But, once in a while on a final exam day, or a sports event on campus, or just wandering aimlessly around Washington, PA with my wife and daughter, I run into students or alums, and lo and behold I’m wearing jeans or shorts. It’s funny how many times students will remark on how “normal” I seem outside of the classroom. In the midst of a busy, and sometimes stressful college career, I’m not sure that students always think of faculty also as “people.” Being Facebook friends with a small subset of students after they graduate has also helped to reinforce the idea that professors (and students/alums!) are normal people, parents, citizens, etc. I’m looking at my wall of fun quotes in my office from former students and one of them commented: “Once you graduate college, it’s funny how you realize that your professors who you thought were so perfect are really just like you.” I love that many of my former students are now also parents and I get to follow their parenting adventures on Facebook as I struggle my way through being a parent of an 8-year-old.
What are you currently reading for pleasure?
I’ll just be honest. Right now I’m not reading anything for pleasure. A lot of my reading time is devoted to reading articles and books to prepare for my classes. We’re in the midst of the Middle States Reaccreditation process, reading applications for a Visiting Assistant Professor, doing a departmental self-study, preparing for college-level Strategic Planning, etc. I’m lucky at this point if I have the reading energy for the weekend newspaper right now! At some point, I’ll get back to reading for fun!
What tech tool could you not live without?
I don’t know if this is a good answer, but I don’t feel particularly married to any tech tool. I use PowerPoint in many of my classes to show primarily graphs and figures, but almost never text. I still like using the chalkboard more than any technology. I use Sakai, our Learning Management System at W&J, as a place to make links and articles available to my students during the semester to read. But, in cleaning files this summer, I came across the big stacks of handout originals that I used to use instead of Sakai. I’m happy to not be killing as many trees, but I feel like I could live without Sakai if needed. Maybe it’s a good sign that there aren’t technologies that I feel like I could live without. As I mentioned before, Facebook has become a wonderful tool to stay in touch with students that have graduated from W&J. I’m in touch with many more alums in the Facebook era than I am in the pre-Facebook era.
What is your hallway chatter like? What do you talk to colleagues about most (whether or not it is related to teaching/school)?At the time I am writing this, W&J is in the midst of many transitions … President, Vice President of Academic Affairs, Vice President of Enrollment … and others. So, naturally some of the hallway discussions are about how all of that uncertainty has an impact on students, faculty, and staff. But, I find more often than not that discussions are about ways to help students succeed at W&J … specific students or students in general. I am also really fortunate to have an office neighbor who also has an 8-year-old daughter, so sharing kid stories is always an important part of nearly every week!