School name: Centre College
Type of school: SLAC (small liberal arts college)
School locale: Danville, KY
Classes you teach: Introduction to Psychology, Physiological Psychology, Foundations of Behavioral Neuroscience, Sensation & Perception, Human Neuropsychology
Average class size: 15
What’s the best advice about teaching you’ve ever received? Take 15 min. after each class (or as soon as possible) to reflect on what worked, what didn’t, and what you want to change for the next time you teach the class. Keeping a “pedagogy log” or teaching notes has been a lifesaver!
What book or article has shaped your work as a psychology teacher? Oh, so many! Make it Stick by Mark McDaniel & Peter Brown has had a lasting impact on my teaching. I started giving low-stakes pre-class quizzes over the reading, and my classes suddenly went from mostly lecturing to dynamic, interactive discussions. The students were more prepared, aware of what topics they needed more information on, and curious about other issues that had piqued their interest. I’m now trying mastery-based grading, where the students have the option to re-do assignments to demonstrate their mastery of a topic. I hope this method will alleviate the frustration that comes from giving an exam and discovering that the students haven’t learned what you wanted to, and with no way to go back and correct their mistakes. Allowing them to correct their errors has been a lot more satisfying than having just to accept that they don’t know something and go on.
Briefly tell us about your favorite lecture topic or course to teach. Hands down, my favorite course to teach is Sensation and Perception. I tell my students that if they don’t leave class every day with their mind, just a little bit blown, then I haven’t done my job. It’s so much fun to reveal to students that what they perceive is only that which their sensory systems can provide. There are so many fun illusions and demonstrations to do in that class. Inevitably, students start sending me examples of illusions that they’ve discovered on their own. Often they are things I’ve not seen before, so I add them to my arsenal of “Stuff to blow your mind” examples. I teach it with a lab where they collect data on themselves, so they also learn more about statistics and data analysis. My course evaluations generally indicate that although they had learned about data analysis and statistics in their research methods class, they learned more from applying it in my class. That’s also very satisfying.
Briefly describe a favorite assignment or in-class activity. I do a one-eye dark adaptation activity in my sensation & perception class that I absolutely LOVE. The students cover one eye with sterile bandages (no conjunctivitis vectors!) and keep it covered for a ½ hour while they do depth perception related activities (tossing a ball back and forth, navigating a maze, etc.). I hand out a sheet of paper (face down) that has color photos and a couple of paragraphs written in colored text. It’s on heavy paper so they can’t see what’s on it. Then I turn off all of the lights (there is a slight amount of illumination from a window in the door) and ask them what they can see. Most can see the outline of the paper, so I have them turn it over and tell me what they see. Some say it has pictures and words, but don’t know what the images are of or the words are. Many say they can’t see anything. Then they take the patches off, and the whole room erupts in various exclamations of surprise, confusion, or disbelief. I ask them again what they can see, and walk them through the differences between scotopic and photopic vision in all it’s glory. It’s worth noting that I do warn them ahead of time that many students find this activity unsettling, and some even get nauseated because their brain can’t reconcile what is happening in their visual system. I’ve done this for over ten years now, and it never disappoints! Best day of the year every year!
What teaching and learning techniques work best for you? As noted earlier, I have found repeated low-stakes quizzing before the class meeting time has raised the quality of the in-class discussions considerably. I also use a lot of spontaneous think-pair-share, especially when I get the impression the students are getting confused or struggling with the material. This slows things down a bit, but I’ve learned to value quality over quantity. I’ve shifted my focus from teaching content, to teaching students how to be independent learners. The content then ends up being a byproduct of that method. I also used to think that every class period had to be a neat, complete unit. But one year, I got off by about 1/3 of a lecture and kept ending the class meeting period in the middle of a topic where the students were still struggling to understand the material or didn’t have the complete story. I was frustrated and upset with myself for leaving them hanging. But over a few class periods, I discovered this was actually an effective technique. It ended up, that because the students were frustrated and confused, they continued to reflect on the topic they were stuck on, and continued to think about it to try to figure it out between class meetings. Many students would go back and study the topic again between classes and come back with a better understanding next time. We would start class with their questions and work on clarifying what they were still struggling to understand. What I discovered was that when the lecture was neatly tied up with a bow a the end, they basically closed the book on it, assumed they understood everything and didn’t reflect at all between classes. But when they left the class feeling a little frustrated and confused, they remained more engaged with the topic and worked to understand the material better. I now understand that confusion and frustration, in moderate and controlled doses, are very effective teaching methods!
What’s your workspace like? I LOVE where I work. My colleagues are amazingly collegial, supportive, and kind. We are very fortunate not to have a lot of the typical political and hierarchical struggles that many campuses have. It’s a very small college, so we pretty much have to get along. The students are also generally very high achieving. Most of them were in the top 10% of their high school classes, so they come to Centre with the expectation that the courses will be rigorous and challenging. Many first-year faculty discover that they have to raise the bar considerably in their classes to meet the expectations of the students. But it keeps us all on our toes and at the top of our game. You really can’t slack, but most of us earned our PhDs because we too want to be challenged, so I often feel that my students are more like collaborators than students.
Three words that best describe your teaching style. Spontaneous, Improvisational and Socratic
What is your teaching philosophy in 8 words or fewer? Make it personal and make it real.
Tell us about a teaching disaster (or embarrassment) you’ve had and how you dealt with the situation. I’d have to say this moment in time is the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced. I’m rolling with it like everyone else is. I am trying to keep everything as much the same as possible, keeping as much of my class housed in our CMS software (that I already used a lot) and not asking my students to learn new platforms or add new things to their repertoire. I’m cutting back on workload and just trying to make due as opposed to make well.
What is something your students would be surprised to learn about you? This is tough to answer because I’m very open with my students. I tend to use a lot of personal stories to create relatable examples in class, so things students might find surprising (like the fact that I had a concussion in my 20’s and lost six months’ worth of memory) come up in class. So I’m drawing a blank on this one!
What are you currently reading for pleasure? I’m re-reading James Clear’s “Atomic Habits.” It’s been a game-changer for me.
What tech tool could you not live without? My computer and the internet. Even though I (usually) teach face to face, I use our course management software for quizzes, exams, assignments (every essay is typed! No more deciphering handwriting!), and I use a lot of videos and animations to make the material come alive.
What is your hallway chatter like? What do you talk to colleagues about most (whether or not it is related to teaching/school)? We are a very teaching-focused institution, so our whole world revolves around teaching and students. Yes, we sometimes talk about specific students, but usually, we’re bouncing ideas off of our colleagues about how to do things better, or if they think a certain idea would work, or how they’re doing something we also want to do. Sometimes we talk about research or family, but usually, it’s just “how are you holding up today?” Of course, right now we have to “chat” via zoom or text message. There aren’t many opportunities for hallway chats these days… but hopefully, we’ll continue to find ways to connect.
One additional thought: Before pursuing a degree in Behavioral Neuroscience, I spent the first ½ of my life as a horse trainer. I started in my teens and trained professionally (competing at the national level) up into my 30’s, so this is my 2nd career.
I firmly believe that everything I ever needed to know about being a college professor I learned from training horses. The horse training part was easy. Teaching their owners how to ride them that is hard. Being a riding instructor requires you to be able to communicate to someone else, how to communicate with yet another creature who not only doesn’t speak your language but also has an entirely different agenda and communication style. The only way you can tell if your “student” is doing it right, is by observing the horse they are riding to see if it’s receiving the messages effectively. Sometimes the horse is doing their own thing regardless of what the rider is doing, and vise versa.
It was in this context that I received the best lesson in “how to teach.” It is a well-known fact that you should never give a family member lessons in anything. But, I was a successful trainer, and one of my older sisters wanted to ride. I found her a very well trained horse to ride with the goal of getting her into the show-ring quickly. One day, while I was giving her a riding lesson, the horse’s performance just kept getting worse and worse. Her reins were un-even and her position was all wrong. She was frustrated and getting angry, the horse was frustrated and getting angry, the instructor (me) was frustrated and getting angry. The horse was to the point that it was going to express its frustrations (do something bad), so I told her to just STOP what she was doing, and do it RIGHT instead. She did stop (the horse), threw down the reins and looked dead at me and said: “I’m doing what you are telling me to, so if I’m doing it WRONG, then you must not be explaining it RIGHT.”
I was rather taken aback, but she also had a good point. I realized that the reason the horse was getting worse was because of how she was interpreting what I was saying. She was earnestly trying to do what she thought I was saying. I realized that if she wasn’t doing it right, I needed to change what I was saying or how I was saying it. It’s really the same as training a horse. If you are trying to get the horse to do one thing, and they do the opposite, you have to stop and figure out how to communicate with the horse in a way that they understand what you want (not the other way around).
This personal experience has shaped everything I do as a teacher. Granted, I can’t be responsible for every students’ learning. Sometimes there are things that are outside of my control that I just can’t accommodate or anticipate (like our current events!). But if several students aren’t “doing it right,” then I need to step back and think about how I’m communicating what I want from them. What am I doing that’s creating this result? It’s not always my fault, but taking that moment to reflect often reveals things that I can do better the next time.