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

"This is How I Teach" Blog

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Teaching shouldn't be a private activity, but often it turns out that way. We don't get to see inside each others' classrooms, even though we'd probably benefit if only we could! In order to help Make Teaching Visible, we've introduced this blog, called "This is How I Teach." We will be featuring the voices of STP members twice a month. Psychology teachers will tell us about how they teach and what kinds of people they are -- both inside and outside the classroom. 

Are you interested in sharing your secret teaching life with STP?

We’d love to hear from you!  To get started, send your name, institution, and answers to the questions below to the following email:  

  1. Tell us about your favorite lecture topic or course to teach.
  2. What are three words that best describe your teaching style?
  3. What is something your students would be surprised to learn about you?

"This is How I Teach" edited by: Mindy J. Erchull, Editor (University of Mary Washington); Jill M. Swirsky, Associate Editor (Holy Family University); Victoria Symons Cross, Associate Editor (University of California, Davis); and Lora L. Erickson, Associate Editor (The Chicago School)

  • Emeritus Editors: Rob McEntarffer
  • Emeritus Associate Editors: Virginia Wickline
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  • 05 Feb 2014 8:53 AM | Anonymous

    Background questions

    I teach at Lindenwood University, a medium-size liberal arts university in St. Charles, MO, just outside of St. Louis.

    My classes include Abnormal Psychology, Personality, Psychotherapy, Critical & Creative Thinking, and various occasional Special Topics courses in the area of psychopathology (to date, this has included courses on Depression, Personality Disorders, and “Madness”).

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

    I kind of backed into teaching, transitioning from 11 years of clinical practice to adjunct teaching, to full-time teaching. I don’t really recall any seminal advice I received about teaching, as I never had a formal mentor or guide who prepared me to be a teacher. Of course, once I started doing it I cultivated valuable relationships with more senior colleagues, but the advice they shared with me was mostly about small, day-to-day matters related to grading, managing the classroom, etc.

    What feels like the strongest “shaping influence” was the model presented by my major professor in my own undergraduate days – Dale Noyd, a man who taught with great passion, humor, and incisiveness. I seek to emulate him each time I step into my own classroom.

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

    If I had to pick one book that has shaped my work, it would be Jerome Frank’s Persuasion and Healing. It’s about psychotherapy, but also about so much more – what with its cross-cultural emphasis (before this was fashionable), its wide-ranging exploration of “healing traditions,” its relentlessly broad perspective, and its effort to cut across discordant theoretical schools in search of what unites them all.

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

    My favorite course to teach is ABNORMAL PSYCHOLOGY (and various special topic courses derived from it). In this course I relish the opportunity to capture students’ interest, stoke it further, and to challenge the unfortunately numerous misconceptions about this field that are widely held. I also like being able to extend beyond the “disorders” themselves and explore how they can serve as inroads to fascinating topics like: What is “normal”? How much influence does culture exert on people’s behaviors and perceptions? How do “mind” and “body” interact with each other? How does “different” get transformed into “undesired”? What challenging things happen at the intersection of science, marketing, and mass media?

    What teaching and learning techniques work best for you? (quizzes? homework? take home exams?)

    Concerning teaching/learning techniques, my favorite is unquestionably discussion. I like to engage students face-to-face, respond to them in individualized ways, and facilitate their engagement of each other. I get to know the students, their ways of thinking and their ways of expressing themselves. My favorite move in discussions is to relentlessly adopt a “devil’s advocate” position, prodding students to think more deeply as they seek to support or justify their perspective on the material under discussion. I always did this when I was a student, and it feels very natural to continue it in my role as instructor (which, of course, is simultaneously a role as student).

    I recently took an online course, with online feedback given/received, and “discussions” conducted solely through the keyboard – and I pretty much hated it!

    What's your workspace like?

    I’m notorious for having music playing constantly in my office – it energizes me and helps me focus, especially when I’m doing routine or mundane things (for serious writing, the music goes off). It’s fun to perplex my students with my eclectic tastes – ranging from electric Chicago blues to bebop jazz to 1940s R&B to 1970s soul to modern hip-hop.

    My walls (in my office as well as in my home) display numerous of my photographs – having them around me reminds me that I can be creative, and they make me feel centered and “at-home” with my creativity when I’m at work.

    I make a point of arranging my office such that I can engage students with no desk between us. It might be a holdover from my days as a clinician. Most of my colleagues have a desk between them and students who come in to talk.

    For grading and/or extended reading of books or papers, I have a second rolling chair that I position near my large windows; they afford me lots of natural light (I often turn the electric lights off in my office; I find dim environments soothing), and some fresh air when the weather allows it.



    Three words that best describe your teaching style.

    My teaching style is often described as PASSIONATE, HUMOROUS, and ENGAGING.


    What is your teaching philosophy in 8 words or fewer?

    My short, punchy teaching philosophy? Engage them, intrigue them, and strike a spark that blows their minds open. I realize that’s more than eight words, but it’s in keeping with the notion of broadening rather than confining!


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

    My teaching disaster happened this past semester. I distributed a multiple choice exam to my Abnormal Psychology class, and two-thirds of the way through the exam a conscientious student came up to tell me that her exam had the answer key printed on the back of the final page of questions. Soon thereafter, another student approached me to deliver the same quiet message. I then realized that every question packet probably had a copy of the answer key on the back of the last page. I quickly announced this to the class and asked them not to peek at the back of that page as they finished their exams. I told them this was an excellent opportunity to demonstrate their academic integrity. I later graded the exams, fully expecting that I’d have to re-administer it – but found that the grade distribution for the exam was similar to what I’d seen previously with this version of the exam, and there were no astonishingly-high scores. The next class period I apologized to the students for my error, confessed my embarrassment, and told them I was impressed that they apparently had behaved honestly. Several students then volunteered comments like “when I noticed there were answers on there, I just assumed it was some sort of psychological experiment you were doing on us …”. I do occasionally use dissimulation in small ways in my classes, so I guess this is understandable.  


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

    One thing my students would be surprised to learn about me is that I’m a published writer of satire, humor, and light verse, and that I’m taking coursework toward a MFA in Creative Writing.


    What are you currently reading for pleasure?

    I don’t really “read for pleasure,” unless reading academic books counts. I read a LOT in my job, and reading is often the last thing I want to spend leisure time on. Having said that, I am constantly reading new releases within my fields of interest, always looking for new and fresh material for classes, and new prospective texts for classes. I have one full shelf of recently-published books in my areas of interest that I’m slowly making my way through. 

    What tech tool could you not live without?

    At the risk of sounding like the old fogey I’ve apparently become, I’d cite e-mail as my indispensable “tech tool.” I LOVE e-mail as a method of communication with students (second only to face-to-face contact). I HATE talking on the phone, and I find that phone calls can be intrusive (whether making them or receiving them) – but I can respond to e-mails when the time is right for me, and so can recipients of my messages. I also like having an electronic paper trail of communications with students and administrators. Lastly, I am an e-mail pack-rat, archiving messages indefinitely. There have been probably a half-dozen occasions when I was able to retrieve some important bit of information by pulling up an old e-mail from last month or last year …

  • 20 Jan 2014 6:00 PM | Anonymous

    School name: Carl Sandburg College


    Type of college/university: Community College


    School locale: Galesburg, IL; rural


    Classes I teach: 

    Intro, Developmental, Gender and Society. I have also taught Human Sexuality and Social Psychology. 


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

    Some of the best and most recent advice that I received came from my vice-president. I was discussion the lack of motivation and sense of responsibility when it came to student learning. She looked at me and simply said, "They are not the students you were, but you have them, and you have to figure out how to teach them." That is when I completely changed my teaching style from traditional lectures and passive learning to peer to peer collaboration and active learning. 


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

    Lately I have found inspiration in Dr. Mark Taylor's article about "Generation NeXt." I have come to the realization that complaining about lack of student preparedness and whose fault it is does nothing to educate the student. It is my job as an education to figure out a different path to meet the educational objectives of my courses. I have totally thrown out all lecture notes because of Dr. Taylor, Eric Mazur, and others like them.


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

    I absolutely LOVE discussing how media influences our gender development. Students will start off very rigid in their belief that the cartoons they watched, games they played, or stories that were read had little to no influence on their gender belief system. We usually watch the documentary Mickey Mouse Monopoly, which has a variety of scholars decoding and analyzing what Disney characters teach us about gender and race. Because students grew up watching these shows, it is easy for them to identify with the characters discussed in the film. There is always a lively conversation about the impact childhood shows like this can have. The reason I love this topic is because for many, if not all, it is the first time they ever really looked at the hidden messages about gender that are given to us. Some students dig their heels in and refuse to believe that it had any influence on them (and that is ok), but most are amazed when these messages are brought to their awareness. Regardless of where they fall, students always leave the class talking about it and continue to talk about it outside of the classroom. It is very rewarding to have them come back to class and tell me how they discussed it with their friends and family. 


    What teaching and learning techniques work best for you?

    I finally came to the realization that students do not learn the way I learned. I was having dismal completion rates and had to do something. Students weren’t reading the book and there weren’t really studying for their tests, so I decided I needed to teach them how to do both of these things. I made study guides. They had assigned questions for each class and would be given a study guide quiz (on which they could use the study guide) at the beginning of each class. The questions on the quiz were application questions, such as identifying an unconditioned stimulus in an example rather than giving the definition.  I wanted to see if they could go from factual to applicable while they had the notes right there, and folks, some of them couldn’t. So the study guide served two purposes; it taught them how to read a textbook and it was used to illustrate critical thinking.


    After the quiz, we get in small groups. Students tell me which questions they need clarification on and what we need to discuss. Once all the confusing questions are listed, we begin with small group discussion to attempt to answer each question to make sure everyone understands. Then, I call on one student to explain it to the class, at which point I may add some other examples. This process makes everyone participate, because it is very difficult for someone to “check out” when you are in a group of 3-4 and everyone is talking to you. I think the greatest benefit is the connection students establish with each other; that connection has been found to be important in completion.


    The last thing I want to touch on is multiple testing. I have created a test bank of 100s of questions. Students can practice taking the test over and over though our learning management system (we use Moodle). Once we finish a series, students have a week to take the test with me. We go to the computer lab on campus and they have three tries to take it. I wanted to show them that using practice tests, even though the questions may be different, is a very effective way to prepare for tests. Student grades and completion rates skyrocketed in my class. The interesting thing about all of this is that the test questions did not really change. I just added more of the same to create big test banks. Now, are the students learning the way I did…no. Are they learning? You betcha, and I would bet money that their retention for this information is much better than my previous classes where they had one test and that was it. My objective is for students to learn, not to learn the same way I did.


    What’s your workspace like?

    I have one of the most magnificent views on campus. I have a huge window where I look out at a lake and trees. I have seen bald eagles, deer, coyotes, grey squirrels, egrets, and a variety of other water fowl. It gives me a place to turn and take a couple of deep breaths when things start getting stressful. I have pictures of my family, autographed pictures of blues artists, and a star fish sitting on a desk, which is there to remind me that sometimes we need to fell the reward of helping one.


    Three words that best describe your teaching style.

    Relaxed, collaborative, student driven.


    What is your teaching philosophy in 8 words or fewer?

    Once a teacher, always a student.


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

    I would say the pivotal semester (Spring 2011) when I had 69% fail or drop my class was the most embarrassing moment in my teaching career. That was the catalyst of change for me. Because of the pedagogical changes I made after listening to Eric Mazur and Mark Taylor, last spring (2013) I had a 6% drop or fail rate. Quite a change!


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

    I am 53 year old blues groupie that goes to blues concerts and hangs out after the show in hopes of meeting the artists. Right now I have five 8x10 autographed pictures of me and various blues artists in my office.


    What are you currently reading for pleasure?

    I just finished I am Malala and am now reading The Power of Habit.


    What tech tool could you not live without?

    Learning Management System: Moodle. It is so efficient to provide materials to students, contact them, record grades, etc. It even allows my face to face students to have due dates on Sunday.


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

    Interestingly enough, our hallway has a whiskey club. We usually are discussing the next type of whiskey we will try and who will be hosting the event. My favorite so far has been Johnny Walker Blue. 

  • 03 Jan 2014 11:05 AM | Anonymous

    School name:  Carleton College


    Type of college/university:  Liberal Arts College


    School locale: 

    Small town (pop. = 20,007) in a rural area in close proximity to a major metropolitan area (Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota).


    Courses I teach: 

    Introductory Psychology, Social Psychology, Laboratory in Social Psychology, Personality, Laboratory in Personality, Psychology of Endings, Positive Psychology, First Year Interdisciplinary Seminar on Quantitative Reasoning called “Measured Thinking”.


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

    Reading is the source of the most memorable prods about teaching I’ve encountered.  Here are two.  The artist Josef Albers observed “Good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers” (Interaction of Color).  In Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace, the classicist James O’Donnell wrote “…we teachers do not automatically deserve a future.  We must earn it by the skill with which we disorient our students, energize them, and inculcate in them a taste for the hard disciplines of seeing and thinking.”  Quite the challenge.


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

    Peter Gray’s “Engaging Students’ Intellects”, published in Teaching of Psychology, 1993, 20(2), 68-74.  I first heard him talk on the topic at the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology in 1992, and I thought he captured sharply my more muddled and evolving philosophy of teaching.  It was thrilling to hear, and I recommend his article highly.


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

    There isn’t a course I teach that I don’t love teaching, and there are important, challenging, exciting ideas and findings in all of them.  I suppose if I could only teach one, it would be my Measured Thinking course on quantitative reasoning.  Although not in content a psychology course, Measured Thinking embodies the methodological values and insights of psychological science.  If I were forced to choose one topic, it would have to be the Milgram “obedience” experiment, which I take to be much less about obedience than about the challenges of navigating social-situational influences on behavior.


    Describe a favorite in-class activity or assignment.

    I enjoy conducting demonstrations of “telepathic” abilities but nothing equals the sheer terror of staking your own financial health on strategic interaction games or class lotteries (see, e.g., Larson, Teaching of Psychology, 1987, 14(4), 230-231).  However, what I value most in class are those times discussions I’ve structured to have a high probability of generating “Aha” moments when students understand or apply ideas in a newly insightful way actually succeed.  For example, in my social psychology course after we discuss students’ personal experiences conducting social norm violations, we then consider what social life must be like for someone whose attributes or status may be taken to violate social norms on an ongoing basis.  In my personality course students view psychoanalysis in a different light after I ask them to apply psychoanalytic thinking to understanding emotional reactions to relationship break-ups. 


    What teaching and learning techniques work best for you?

    Lecturing!  My style is rather old school, not surprising given that I’ve been teaching for 40+ years.  I have found that a well-constructed presentation, one that invites student attention and participation and that does something meaningful or challenging with material, stimulates active learning.  I strive to cultivate students’ thoughtful listening, intellectual excitement, and disciplined engagement.


    What’s your workspace like?

    Flooded with books, papers, notebooks, posters and plaques, odd paperweights, vintage pens, and mementos of cycling trips, family, and former students, but open to views of campus trees and Carleton’s historic Goodsell Observatory.


    Three words that best describe your teaching style.

    Serious, challenging, playful.


    What is your teaching philosophy in 8 words or fewer? (OK, Eight big words!)

    Encourage informed and responsible thinking, the critical use of evidence, and a love of learning.


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

    What’s more meaningful to me than an embarrassment is a teaching disappointment, which I experience often.  It occurs when I am excited about the material, have invested heavily preparing a class, can’t wait to try something out, and find that the session flops.  I don’t perseverate about embarrassments; I’m haunted by teaching failures.


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

    Do students recognize how much skin I have in each and every class?  I’m not sure.  As for the “me” outside of work, students soon learn about my passion for cycling, a bit about family origins (e.g., the fact that my grandmother couldn’t read or write, or that my daughter failed the water-level task), and my interest in vintage fountain pens (which mark and sometimes stain their papers).  It’s still startling to me that I once won a blue ribbon at the Minnesota State Fair for my sour cherry-rhubarb-blueberry jam.  I suppose that might surprise students as well.


    What are you currently reading for pleasure?  

    Certainly not the computer screen on which I type this.  I just finished Aili and Andres McConnon’s Road to Valor, about the cyclist Gino Bartali, who won the Tour de France before and after World War II and worked courageously during the war on behalf of Italian Jews in Italy.  Starting to read Scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, a popular contribution to behavioral economics and cognitive psychology.


    What tech tool could you not live without?

    My career offers a pre and post-test of work in academia relying on the everyday use of the Internet and the World Wide Web it supports.  I treasure the nearly instant access to information we have, our ability to satisfy curiosities so richly, and the opportunity to share what I learn through teaching.


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

    Minnesota weather, beer, classes and teaching, travel plans, family.


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