School name: Duke University
Type of school: R1
School locale: Suburban meets small hipster city
Classes you teach: My primary focus is on teaching our large (250 student) Introductory Psychology course, but I am also teaching a first-year seminar called The Psychology of Student Success, and I teach seminars on teaching and on doing classroom research.
Average class size: My class size is bimodally distributed. J Classes are either huge (230-250) or small (<18)
What’s the best advice about teaching you’ve ever received?
I think probably the simplest, most impactful advice I received was just to be “intentional.” Instead of just doing my best impersonation of my own college professors, or trying to shove as much content into my class as possible, my teaching choices should intentionally reflect my goals for my students. This seems so obvious to me now, but as graduate student teaching for the first time, it wasn’t obvious at all. I really thought of teaching as more of a performance than as a project with desired outcomes. This advice came indirectly from two of my colleagues at Stanford: James Gross and Kelly McGonigal, who are two of the best teachers I know. They talked about teaching in this way, and it really changed the way I thought about it.
Briefly tell us about your favorite lecture topic or course to teach.
Over the years I’ve really tried to find a way to fall in love with each and every topic I teach. I have to discover something—a story, a particular study, a theme—that makes me really eager to share that topic with students. If I can’t connect with its meaning or purpose, then why am I covering it? As a result, I truly love all the topics I get to teach. If I had to pick a single favorite, I think I’d choose Sensation and Perception. Visual illusions illustrate at a very basic level how the mind constructs reality. The active role of the mind in shaping our experiences is one of the most powerful lessons that a psychology course can teach a person and this all begins with how we interpret information coming through our senses.
Briefly describe a favorite assignment or in-class activity.
For years, I have been illustrating the reconstructive nature of memory in my introductory psychology course by planting a false memory about the first day of class. This idea was originally conceived in collaboration with my former colleague at Stanford, Greg Walton. In a lecture on the brain, I describe the function of the cerebellum and offer a joke: “this part of the brain wasn’t working very well for me when I spilled my water bottle the first day of class.”
Several days later, I give students a survey that they can complete for modest extra credit (a single point on an exam). The survey contains a number of questions related to memory, including questions asking students to recall details about events from the first day of class. The false event from the first day of class—me spilling my water bottle—is listed alongside three to four true events.
Although most students report not remembering this false event, anywhere from 20-35% of my students do, and most will confabulate details of the incident, including the color of the bottle, where I was when I spilled it, the noise it made, what I said, the fact that students laughed, etc. I then use student quotes describing the false event in my lecture on memory. After sharing some of Elizabeth Loftus’ and others’ classic research on false memory, I reveal students’ own data illustrating their false memories.
Critically, we discuss the ethics of the demonstration. I explain how much I value honesty in the classroom, and don’t use deception without careful consideration. I further explain that I want students to experience the vulnerability of their memory in a safe setting, where the worst thing that can happen is that they feel mildly embarrassed that their anonymous description ended up on my PowerPoint slide. Students overwhelmingly think the demonstration is worth the mild deception, and appreciate the lengths I’m willing to go to help them understand psychology.
What teaching or learning techniques work best for you?
I have two favorite teaching techniques. First, I love telling stories as a pedagogical tool. Listening to a story has always been one of my favorite ways to learn, and I think that creating a compelling narrative is a strength of mine. My lectures are structured to be story-like, and I use specific stories to illustrate important concepts and to describe a classic experiment. Telling a successful story forces me to take my students’ perspective: What do they already know? What will they care about? What will surprise them? Anger them? Inspire them? I’m always collecting new stories by listening to wonderful podcasts that feature psychologists and their work. My favorites are This American Life, Invisibilia, Hidden Brain, Radiolab, and the Ted Radio Hour.
Second, I love a good discussion. I like to pose a good question and really listen to and build on what students have to say. I used to think that teaching was all about “talking,” until I observed some brilliant friends and colleagues who were skilled at facilitating discussions. They knew how to pose thought-provoking questions and then just listen, really listen, to what students had to say. With intense listening, they would easily come up with a great follow-up question or comment that would inspire other students to join in and create a true conversation. I’ve really enjoyed developing this skill myself because it forces me to be in the moment with my students, learning along with them.
What’s your workspace like?
When I’m getting down to the business of lesson planning or grading, my workspace is just me and my computer, because everything is digital. I have a sit-to-stand desk so that I can get up on my feet. I like to have multiple screens for lesson planning, because I’m usually doing a mix of reading, writing, and building slides all at once. I also think a lot about teaching when I’m walking and driving. While driving, I prep for class by listening to previously recorded lectures from my own classes or to podcasts that have stories I want to share with students. While walking, I sometimes use “retrieval practice” and mentally walk through the lesson I have planned for the day.
Three words that best describe your teaching style.
theatrical, empathetic, meticulous
What is your teaching philosophy in 8 words or fewer?
Always start from a place of empathy.
Tell us about a teaching disaster (or embarrassment) you’ve had and how you dealt with the situation.
I’ve made so many mistakes over the years, most small, but occasionally a bigger one. Probably my worst teaching disaster was when I was in graduate school, teaching a summer session course that I helped to design on “The Psychology of Mind Reading” (really a course about social cognition). This was one of my first real teaching experiences. At the last minute, I’d decided to add a description of a recently published study to my lecture plan. When it came time to explain the study in class, my mind went completely blank. I just could NOT remember the details of the study and just stood there, looking blankly at my slides for a long time. Eventually I gave up, tried my best to laugh about it, and explained that I would “study up” before our next class session. I think my students gave me the benefit of the doubt because they’d seen how prepared I’d been for our previous classes, and they knew I cared. By the next class we seemed back on track. Ever since, I’ve been extra careful to make sure I understand the studies I plan to cover in class, taking time to check out the original article and make sure I have a grasp of the methods, partly to make sure I can explain it, but also to be prepared for interesting questions students may ask.
What is something your students would be surprised to learn about you?
Most of my students are surprised to learn that I’m also a group exercise instructor who likes to choreograph fitness routines to music. I love to exercise and have been teaching exercise since my first year of graduate school. Occasionally one of my students stumbles into my exercise class on campus and then takes a few minutes to recognize me because I look pretty different decked out in my workout gear.
What are you currently reading for pleasure?
I don’t have very “elevated” book selections—I love fantasy fiction written for young adults because I can read it before bedtime without having to strain my brain too hard at the end of the day. I most recently read Sabaa Tahir’s Reaper at the Gates which is part of her Ember in the Ashes Series. I haven’t picked a new book yet. I love audio books because I can listen while walking or driving.
What tech tool could you not live without?
I could not live without Google image search. My lecture style is very visual. I don’t like a lot of words on my slides and Google’s image searching capability makes it so easy for me to find the perfect picture to compliment whatever I am trying to say.
What’s your hallway chatter like? What do you talk to colleagues about most (whether or not it is related to teaching/school)?
I definitely ask my colleagues about how their teaching is going this term. Because I’m at an R1, I don’t think faculty talk as much about their teaching, so I try to start that conversation. We also talk a lot about our kids. I have two daughters, aged 7 and 10, and they are always up to something fun that I like to share.
PSYCHSESSIONS UPDATE: Listen to Bridgette Martin Hard talk with Garth about connections between teaching psychology and storytelling, theater, and improvisation!