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

Stephen Chew: I'm a Member of STP, and This is How I Teach

06 Aug 2014 12:40 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

School name: Samford University

Type of college/university: Private, regional, masters-level University (although we have no graduate programs in psychology and operate more like a liberal arts college). We are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention of Alabama.

School locale: Birmingham, Alabama.

Classes you teach (current): I regularly teach General Psychology, Statistics for Social Sciences, Cognitive Psychology, Journal Seminar, and Directed Research.

What’s the best advice about teaching you’ve ever received?

Ooh, so many to choose from. I’m going to cheat and list two, one early in my career and one later. First, when I was in grad school, I attended a training meeting on how to teach. The guy leading it was an older grad student who had taught 5-6 times (that qualified him as a teaching expert), but he did make one point that I always remember. Teaching involves lying to your students because you must simplify material to make it understandable to them. You have to omit detail and gloss over controversies. You have to meet the students where they are, then take them where you want to go. The critical outcome is that your students have a better, generally correct understanding than they had before they took your course. And make sure that the lies you tell students match the lies in the textbook.

In mid-career I had the opportunity to participate in the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) run by Lee Shulman. Lee taught me how to think of teaching as scholarly inquiry. All teaching should be driven by evidence of student learning.

What book or article has shaped your work as a psychology teacher?

As far as books are concerned, The Activities Handbook for the Teaching of Psychology was a godsend when I was starting out. I have all four volumes. I also sifted through old issues of ToP. Going to conferences such as NITOP was also incredibly helpful.

Tell us about your favorite lecture topic or course to teach.

I guess my absolute favorite is Cognitive Psychology because it is my area and it is a chance to share what I love about it with my students. It’s an advanced course, so we can replicate a lot of studies as part of class. Statistics and General are close seconds. I like Stats because of the challenge of getting students over their math anxiety and I like General because I am showing the students what psychology really is and how interesting and useful it is.


Describe a favorite in-class activity or assignment.

I do one activity in General Psych that is a sentimental favorite because I learned it from my grad school mentor, Jim Jenkins. I teach research methods in General Psych about the second week of classes. I discuss descriptive methods, then correlations, and finally experiments. After explaining correlations, I discuss how correlation can’t establish causality. After some simple examples, I state that we’ve known for decades about the correlation between cigarette smoking and cancer, but, because it is a correlation, tobacco companies have always been able to claim that there is no established causal link between the two in humans. I discuss why this conclusion is correct because of uncontrolled extraneous variables. I ask the class to list some likely confounding variables between smokers and non-smokers possibly related to cancer. They come up with exercise, diet, pollution, genetics, stress, work environment, and others. Next I talk about experiments and their properties. I talk about the strengths of the method in addressing causality.  We go through some simple examples and then I pose the following problem: Say the National Institutes of Health gave you unlimited amounts of money to conduct an experiment to determine once and for all if cigarette smoking causes cancer. Design the perfect experiment for this purpose.  We go through the steps of experimental design. Who would be our subjects? They can’t be adults, too much has already happened to them. They can’t be people who smoke already, we don’t know their health backgrounds. We have to have to control for genetics. So the only solution is to use sets of identical twin babies. We have to randomly assign one twin of each pair to be a smoker and the other a control. Then we have to control all other variables. We have to ensure that they get the same diet, exercise, stress level and so on. When one baby smokes, we have to have the control baby do everything except inhale. Then 50 years later, we see which group developed more cancer. Of course, the students are APPALLED that we would even discuss taking babies away from parents and teaching them to smoke. It’s a perfect context to discuss the ethics of research and why this study would never be done. But if we can’t do it with babies, who can we do it on? Lab animals, of course, (and here I can discuss ethical principles of working with non-human animals).  So animal studies do show a causal link between cigarette smoking and cancer as well as other diseases, but now we have to worry about problems of generalization from animals to humans, and from lab studies to the real world. We discuss how the perfect experiment is really impossible to do. No one can think of all possible confounds, much less control for all of them. This give me a chance to discuss confounding and the importance of replication. This activity accomplishes a number of desirable goals for me beyond teaching research methods. It creates a sense of intrigue for students. They don’t know what outrageous ideas might be discussed in class. It shows the students that they have permission to think in unconventional ways in class.  It creates an atmosphere where students expect to contribute in class.

I’ve done this activity for all the years I’ve taught General Psych. Perhaps it takes some finesse to pull it off without offending the class and it may not work for everyone, but I find it very useful.

What teaching and learning techniques work best for you?

When done properly, formative assessments have tremendous benefits for students and teachers and virtually no downside. Formative assessments are brief, no-stakes or low-stakes activities that make the level of student learning and understanding visible to both student and teacher. Think-pair-share, exit problems, predict-observe-explain, in-class quizzes, conceptests or “clicker” questions, are all examples. The exam should never be the first time the teacher assesses student learning. But the formative assessment has to be designed and implemented properly and the results have to be used constructively by teachers and students. I see teachers sometime going through the motions without actually understanding what they are trying to accomplish with their assessments.

What’s your workspace like?

I’m happy to report that as of right now it is pristine, because I was forced to clear my office to get new floor tile. That being said, I’m terrible about taking the time to organize and file stuff away, although I do make honest efforts. I also seem to be under constant deadline pressures, but I know that is true of most all faculty. When I cleaned off the two foot high stacks of papers on my desk and credenza, I found stuff dating back to 1999. My office was pretty legendary for its stacks of piled up papers. Once it was empty, several people in the building came by just to look. I’ve taught generations of psych majors at Samford who never saw the top of my desk. I resolve to be more organized in the future.

Three words that best describe your teaching style.

Enthusiastic, demanding, supportive

What is your teaching philosophy in 8 words or fewer?

I’m happy you are here, let’s learn together.

Tell us about a teaching disaster (or embarrassment) you’ve had.

So many to choose from. I’ve actually got a mental list of them that I reflect on often and continue to learn from. I’ve discussed several of them in my chapter for the STP e-book on teaching psychology through autobiography. But here I’ll describe one that really haunted me at the time. It happened early in my career.

In the 1980’s, psychologist Nancy Wexler made a dramatic breakthrough in identifying a chromosomal marker for Huntington’s disease, which made it possible for the first time to test for the disease before symptoms developed. It was a dramatic story because Huntington’s runs in Wexler’s family and her mother died from it. Wexler then had to confront the question of whether she wanted to know if she carried the chromosome, a question that all members of families with Huntington’s now had to face.

I saw this research as a great teaching opportunity for my General Psych course. It was clearly an important breakthrough, it had a great human element, and it showed psychologists in roles contrary to the popular stereotype. I explained the breakthrough to my class. Then, to make the story more personal to them, I asked them the following: If they had Huntington’s disease in their families, would they want to know? Would they take the test for the disease? I had them write down their answers and reasons and turn them in to me. In my enthusiasm, I didn’t consider the possibility that I would have a student who had Huntington’s disease in his or her family. Of course, I did. In her written statement, she said she and her sister had been grappling with that very issue, and she had almost burst into tears when I was discussing it. She found it demeaning that I would see what was going to be a life altering decision for her as an interesting academic exercise. I wrote her an apology and offered to meet with her but I never heard back from her. My first thought was that I should never have brought up a topic that might be affecting my students in such a personal way and I should take care to avoid such topics in the future. Over the next few years, though, my thinking changed. It was an important issue for students to learn about and to understand. Many topics we cover in General Psych are personal to students, from attachment to prejudice to behavior disorders. My fault was in not mentioning the possibility that someone might be personally experiencing what we were discussing and explaining the importance of covering it. I’m much more cognizant of doing that now.

What is something your students would be surprised to learn about you?

They are surprised to learn that I used to teach ballroom dance. I was never a “Dancing with the Stars” type dancer, but I was a good social dancer and taught it for several years in Jan. term.

What are you currently reading for pleasure?

I recently finished reading Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, a history of the African and European campaigns in World War II. I also listen to a lot of young adult fantasy and historical fiction with my son in the car. I enjoy it as much as he does.

What tech tool could you not live without?

Article databases. Young whippersnappers today have no idea how much time and effort is saved by using article databases. They never had the pleasure or the exercise of sifting through volumes of Readers’ Guides and the Social Science Citation Index.

What’s your hallway chatter like? What do you talk to colleagues about most?

Mostly we talk about students. We are a small department and we know our majors well. Often we compare notes on them, resolve advising issues, and discuss research projects we are doing with them; stuff like that. We do talk about teaching, and any problems that might have come up in a class.

PSYCHSESSIONS UPDATE: Listen to Stephen Chew talk with Garth Neufeld about how he uses some of the cognitive psychology activities mentioned in this blog post with students, including a discussion about his fabulous YouTube "How to Study" series. -

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