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

Kate Synder: I'm a Member of STP and This is How I Teach

15 Sep 2018 1:42 PM | Anonymous

School name: University of Louisville (UofL)

Type of school: Large public research institution

School locale: In the city of Louisville, with Churchill Downs (the home of the Kentucky Derby) located just a few miles away from campus.

Classes you teach:

Human Development, Advanced Issues in Human Development, Learning Theory & Human Growth & Development (Educational Psychology), Learning Systems: Theory & Practice. I have also taught Research Methods, Measurement & Evaluation, a seminar on Understanding Genius, and independent studies on a variety of topics (achievement motivation, gifted education, and independent studies on teaching human development/educational psychology courses).

Average class size:

My class sizes have ranged from ~10 (doctoral student seminars) to ~40. What’s most fun is the diverse mix of students in these classes. The Learning Theory & Human Growth & Development course has music education undergraduates alongside MAT (Master of Arts in Teaching) graduate students. One semester, that class had juniors and seniors, MAT students, and two doctoral students (Curriculum & Instruction and Nursing), which was a really fun challenge!

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

Make changes thoughtfully and intentionally. There is always this temptation to make lots of big changes to a course, whether after learning about a new technique that sounds intriguing, coming across a cool reading, or responding to student feedback (course evaluations or mid-semester feedback). Being adaptive in teaching is important, but it quickly can turn into too much of a good thing. Make several changes at once and it’s hard to isolate what exactly was the cause of any improvement, so then you’re left not really knowing what works and what doesn’t. I’ve found this to be especially true when making mid-course changes, such as considering changes after mid-semester feedback – you might end up changing something that had been working. I try to keep in mind that any change I make should be thoughtful, intentional, and carefully implemented.

I wish I could remember who gave me this advice, but I think I’ve heard it from several mentors and colleagues over the years. It’s probably the advice that I give most frequently to others, too.

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

It’s tough to pick just one. Make it Stick was incredibly helpful in supplying clear explanations of cognitive psychology principles that improved my teaching. Similarly, I love The Learning Scientists blog and website for a wealth of resources on how to implement those cognitive psychology techniques.

Briefly tell us about your favorite lecture topic or course to teach.

I always joke with students that, "This course is my favorite to teach because every course is my favorite to teach!"  I think each course is my favorite for different reasons; it's just as exciting to push the doctoral students to become theoretical scholars in the Advanced Human Development seminar as it is to get emails from the pre-service teachers and counselors in my courses about how they are putting the content into practice. Each course challenges me in different ways, too.

Briefly describe a favorite assignment or in-class activity.

I have a huge fondness for myth-busting, so it might be a tie between debunking learning styles or debunking self-esteem myths. For the latter, I have students engage with two vignettes highlighting times that facets of my self-concept and self-esteem took a hit (snippets from a particularly brutal manuscript rejection and tough feedback from a lesson I took with an elite equestrian). As they answer questions around the vignettes to figure out the structure of self-concept and its relation to self-esteem, they also get to see me as a real person who receives failure feedback.

What teaching or learning techniques work best for you?

My teaching is an eclectic mix of highly-interactive lecture interspersed with retrieval practice, small group and whole-class discussion, and activities.

What’s your workspace like?

Organized chaos. I know where things are, but it doesn’t always look that way.

Three words that best describe your teaching style.

Enthusiastic, authentic, demanding.

Tell us about a teaching disaster (or embarrassment) you’ve had and how you dealt with the situation.

One that I’m willing to share for a wide audience? I’ll go with a hilarious embarrassment. It was my first year teaching at UofL and I was getting my PowerPoint set up for one of the classes in Learning Theory & Human Growth & Development. The projector screen was one of those pull-down screens with the string. For some reason I couldn’t get the whole first slide to show. I was talking through some of my frustration with students who were sitting in the front row of the class – trying to sound smart by reasoning that I just needed to adjust the screen resolution on the monitor.

And that’s when one of the students gently pointed out that it wasn’t the screen resolution. I just hadn’t pulled the projector screen down all the way. And if that wasn’t embarrassing enough, it was the week that we were covering giftedness. Which meant that I had chosen the Far Side “Midvale School for the Gifted” cartoon for the first slide – a kid pushing on a pull door. There’s really nothing much to do in these situations except laugh at yourself.

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

I think my students would be shocked to know that I hated developmental psychology when I took the course as an undergraduate - especially because I eventually earned my Ph.D. in it and I love teaching human development courses now! I even include “Fall in love with human development” as a learning objective for each course. At the time, I was adamant that I would not take another course in development. Looking back, it's an important reminder that whether we want to or not, we serve as ambassadors for our disciplines. I carry that forward with me now by trying to be the best ambassador I can for my content area.

For something a bit more lighthearted, one of the lesser-known facts about me is that I make really good homemade limoncello. It takes about two hours to carefully peel all of the lemons and then close to three months for it to age properly.

What are you currently reading for pleasure?

Like most fans of David Foster Wallace, I’m forever able to say that I’m reading Infinite Jest.

What tech tool could you not live without?

Notecards. I was recently discussing this with a colleague and we agree that while high-tech classrooms can be cool, we can accomplish a lot of magic with just notecards and sticky notes.

What’s your hallway chatter like? What do you talk to colleagues about most (whether or not it is related to teaching/school)?

There is a lot of talk these days about our new president, Neeli (yes, she prefers to be called by her first name). She is our university’s first female president and has brought a lot of positive energy to our institution. It’s not often you hear about a president giving out their cell phone number to every student they meet – so that’s certainly generated some hallway buzz!

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