Society for the Teaching of Psychology: Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

Mindy Erchull: I'm a member of STP and this is how I teach

03 Nov 2023 11:11 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

School name: University of Mary Washington (UMW)

Type of school: One of the rare public liberal arts colleges

School locale (including state and country): Fredericksburg, VA, USA

How many years have you taught psychology? This is my 19th year of full-time teaching. I did some teaching prior to that as a grad student, but it wasn’t a key focus in my program.

Classes you teach: General Psychology, Research Methods, Social Psychology, Psychology of Women & Gender, Cultural Psychology, Health Psychology, Social Influence, Research Seminar in Social Psychology, Undergraduate Intern Supervision, First-year Seminar: Feminism in the 21st Century

Specialization: My degree is in social psychology, and I have training in health psychology and the psychology of women and gender. As you can likely tell from the list of classes I teach, I consider myself a generalist, however.

Average class size: 20-25 students

What’s the best advice about teaching you’ve ever received? I think the best general piece of advice was given to me when teaching my first class as instructor of record while in graduate school. I was finding it challenging to balance class prep, work on my dissertation, my TA responsibilities, and what little personal life I had. My supervisor urged me to try to limit my prep to 2 (and definitely no more than 3) hours per hour in the classroom. I didn’t always meet the goal that first semester, but I’ve become much better at it as the years have gone by. I’ll always wish I’d had more time, so sometimes good enough really will do.

What book or article has shaped your work as a psychology teacher? It is all but impossible to narrow this down to one, but I can point to me reading Intersectional Pedagogy: Complicating Identity and Social Justice, edited by Dr. Kim A. Case, as representing a turning point in how I approached my classes and my work with my students.

Briefly tell us about your favorite lecture topic or course to teach. While I have a soft spot for teaching research methods since it was a class I hated as an undergrad but later discovered a deep love of research, my favorite class has traditionally been psychology of women and gender. I typically only teach one section of this course every second year, so the wait may make me all the more excited for it when it happens. I love the seminar-style format and that students always make the class distinct from all those taught in prior semester. In a self-serving way, I also now like it because I get to use the textbook I co-authored for the class – inspired in large part by a desire to better serve students who take this course with me. This semester, I’m teaching cultural psychology – a new addition to our major – for the first time, and I think this course may given psych of women a run for its money as a favorite. Finally, my gender studies soul loves that every few years I get to teach a first-year seminar on feminism and step into interdisciplinary territory with a fairly non-psych-focused course.

Briefly describe a favorite assignment or in-class activity. I have lots of class activities I enjoy, but one of my favorites is when I teach about social influence in my social psych classes. At the end of the week, students work in small groups to evaluate a crowdfunding campaign (that is completed and clearly not endorsed by me) to identify the influence principles being employed. This helps them both see how common they are as well as how many different ways they can show up.

What teaching and learning techniques work best for you? I tend to be eclectic in my approach to teaching. I really thrive with structure, so that comes through in both my course planning and execution. That said, I think many of my most successful classes are ones where I cede a lot of the content coverage and execution decisions to students who lead discussions, so the meetings become inherently unpredictable. I’ve found flipping my classes works wonderfully for some (e.g., my honors general psych course) but worked less well for others (i.e., my research methods course). I’ve developed a focus on oral communication in many of my classes, and I favor frequent, low-stakes assignments to reduce the speaking anxiety that is so common for many (including me).

What’s your workspace like? For me, this means my office on campus. All our offices are on the third floor of the building, and we generally have our office doors open so we’re aware of each other, can ask each other questions, can provide support to each other, etc. 

In my office, I have a large L-shaped desk against the window that looks out into a wooded area (when leaves are on the trees) or to the hills across the river (when there aren’t leaves). One part of my desk has my double monitors and laptop on a standing desk overlay (that I use far too little since it means I have to move the ring light that lets people actually see me during zoom meetings), and I always have a pad of paper – and usually some post-its – on top of my laptop. The other part of my desk generally has stacks of folders with notes to take to class or meetings, books for classes that semester, and books I’m trying to read “on my own time.”

I have pictures of family and former students around my office along with some fun toys on my bookshelves. I have a small folding table with my electric kettle and tea supplies, and a comfy chair in one corner I like to use when I’m reading.

I’ve set up my office so the desk isn’t between me and students when we’re meeting, and my office is open enough that groups of 3 (or 4 if I borrow a chair from down the hall) can easily meet with me at one time. And I have a large whiteboard on one wall which I use for brainstorming with students regularly.

Three words that best describe your teaching style. Challenging, Skill-based, and Structured

What is your teaching philosophy in 8 words or fewer? Helping students build skills for life-long success.

Tell us about a teaching disaster (or embarrassment) you’ve had and how you dealt with the situation. I’ve been teaching for long enough that I have myriad options to draw from here, but I always find myself going back to the first class I ever had independent responsibility for – a small section of Introductory Statistics while I was in graduate school.

While I had taught individual topics before in a number of classes, I had never had full responsibility for planning and executing a class, and I spent many hours preparing before each class meeting. I no longer remember what topic we were covering, but it was clear two-thirds of the way through one class meeting that my students were lost. I was a novice enough teacher that I just kept powering through, but I knew that learning hadn’t really happened (at least for my students) that day. 

When we next met, I told the students to rip out the pages in their notebooks from our last meeting, and we started over with me covering things in a different way, at a different pace. It was a great reminder that the same approach won’t always work and that I needed to be flexible – something that doesn’t necessarily come easily to me

What about teaching do you find most enjoyable? It’s the “aha” moments students get. When something starts to get stale or repetitive for me, this reminds me that it’s new to my students. One time it was the student who came to me crying at the end of a class focused on intersectionality because she was so moved by considering her own experiences of privilege. Another time, it was the Spanish major who took my health psych class to complete her speaking intensive courses gen ed requirement, discovered the field of public health, and went on to get a masters and work in that field. Sometimes it’s just the small moments of a student realizing that what we talked about that day reflects something they experienced that week. My students are why I do this, and while I can be frustrated by them at times, the moments like these remind me why this difficult job is worth it in the end.

What is something your students would be surprised to learn about you? Other than inappropriate oversharing, I’m pretty open with my students, so I’m not really sure. I know some have been surprised to learn that I’m both a first-generation college student as well as a graduate of a college-prep boarding school. Some might be surprised to learn I own more than 300 board and card games (although given that I sometimes play games with colleagues in one of our open collaboration rooms over lunch, others wouldn’t be surprised at all). Most recently, many students in one of my classes were shocked to learn that, as a gender studies professor, I had yet to see the Barbie movie.

What are you currently reading for pleasure? Most of my pleasure reading happens during school breaks. I am, however, currently reading Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story by Jacob Tobia. Every semester, our Safe Zone program hosts a book club for faculty/staff, and Sissy is our focus this semester. I’ve found campus book clubs are a great way for me to read one or two books each semester while also being able to connect with people on campus with whom I might not otherwise interact much.

What tech tool could you not live without? I’m taking my computer, phone, dropbox, and zoom out of the equation for this one. Looking beyond those, this semester it’s ziplet. I’m teaching two sections of a completely new-to-me course and one section of a completely redesigned course, so frequent feedback is something I knew I wanted. This lets me set a digital “ticket out” to use at the end of each class meeting, and students can get to it with a QR code unique to each class (or a stable short URL if they struggle with the QR code). I’m enjoying what it allows me in terms of taking the temperature of the room, giving students a “safe” way to ask questions, or just asking silly questions from time to time. I now plan to keep using it in future semesters.

What is your hallway chatter like? What do you talk to colleagues about most? As is true for many, it sometimes involves venting frustrations about students and administrators. Most of the time, however, we’re chatting about our families, plans for the weekend, a book we’re reading, etc. We’re all open to sharing ideas, activities, and assignments, so sometimes we’re brainstorming how to approach things when one of us is struggling.

Has your teaching changed because of the Covid19 pandemic? If so, how?  One thing that immediately comes to mind is that I was reminded that I can do things outside of my comfort zone. I never wanted to teach online, but because of my own health and family-care responsibilities, I taught online for 1.5 years. Not everything I tried worked well, but I found a lot more success than I expected.

Another change is my comfort with making class-specific videos. This has led to me flipping two of my classes and making many narrated videos for things like using PsycINFO, SPSS, and Qualtrics that students can watch on their own time and refer back to as often as needed.

In terms of a negative change, I totally burned out. Between the extra effort of teaching online when I never had before, the added flexibility I tried to build in to meet student needs, and my own needing to deal with living in a global pandemic, I was stretched to the breaking point. That means the 22-23 academic year was the worst I had since starting to teach full-time. I largely took the summer off to give myself time to recharge, and I’m looking forward to my spring sabbatical, so this year is going far better!

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