The Secret to Strengthen Your Teaching

26 Feb 2020 7:30 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)
By Flora Ma, M.S. (Ph.D. Student), Palo Alto University

It is typical for graduate students who have completed their doctoral degrees to be thrown into institutional or faculty roles within various academic settings. However, there is much more to teaching than domain expertise. How do you help students care? How do you teach when there are so many different personalities in the room? How do you handle strong personalities? How do you cope with your own emotions and stress as a teacher?

Many graduate schools provide minimal to no adequate training or appropriate support for novice professors. A national survey reported that 62% (146 out of 236) of graduate psychology departments prepare their graduate students for teaching with some form of teacher training (Buskist & Benassi, 2012). However, only 42% of those 146 graduate psychology departments have a formal graduate course that focuses on the teaching of psychology (Buskist, 2013). Research also shows there is a significant gap between the rated importance of training and the actual training graduate students receive on how to be an effective teacher and involved member in academia (Meyers, Reed, & Quina, 1998). In order to address this training gap, I had the opportunity to collaborate on the development of the Center for Educational Excellence (CEE) at Palo Alto University (PAU) to expand pedagogical support from faculty to graduate students.

PAU recognizes the value of providing resources and training in evidence-based teaching strategies for instructors at all stages of their career for excellence in education through an inclusive, student-centered, and active learning environment. The vision of CEE aligns with PAU’s mission to engage minds and to improve their students’ learning outcomes and academic success of the overall university through innovative pedagogical education. The recent pedagogy shift emphasizing the importance of learning and the learner/student rather than focusing on teaching and the teacher (Barr & Tagg, 1995) has led to new expectations for faculty. These include knowing how to support students, how to facilitate active learning with the use of collaborative and innovative practical learning experiences (e.g., service in the community), and how to ensure a high-quality learning experience for graduate students. 

PAU’s CEE provided teaching workshops that challenged me to critically think about multifaceted elements of classroom education. Instead of simply meeting course goals, I had to think about creating measurable learning objectives, accessible learning materials, and the right learning environment for my specific students. These trainings expanded my ability to navigate common teaching challenges with practical examples and integrate technology intelligently into teaching. For example, I learned about an audience polling tool, Participoll, to gather students’ learning progress and thoughts as well as how to integrate video technology like Arc video in a flipped classroom. By embedding these videos in my courses and harnessing active learning strategies during class time, I have been able to optimize learning and help students better assimilate and process concepts. Another benefit of this video resource was that it provided me with information like which students viewed the videos and when, as well as the feedback they have about the materials in real time. 

The PAU CEE’s biggest event is our annual evidence-based teaching (EBT) conference that aims to improve faculty members’ teaching competencies to increase student classroom engagement and satisfaction and to prepare PAU students interested to enter future faculty or teaching roles. Our 2019 EBT conference sparked novel ideas, such as writing a Wikipedia entry as a course assignment and experience in publishing professional writing. Other workshops, such as one on the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning, helped me to better understand the assumptions, cognitive processes, and key principles (i.e. segmenting, pretraining, modality, personalization) related to effective learning. 

Here is my favorite initiative: a podcast series called “Teaching at PAU” which interviews PAU faculty members to illuminate innovative tools and perspectives on the multidimensional nature of pedagogy. This podcast fosters and strengthens the culture of continuous learning among PAU faculty, students, and other individuals interested in psychology and instruction. My favorite podcast episode (episode #4) was on pedagogy humility, which addressed the importance of cultural humility and intersectional pedagogy (i.e. effective teaching and learning strategies that address intersections of identity; Case, 2016) to continuously learn and adapt to be an effective teacher for a diverse student audience. 

An offshoot of the student teaching summer workshops – the Society for Pedagogical Excellence (SPE) – was designed to provide year-round support for graduate student teachers across programs. Students in the SPE have been actively involved in research, often presenting their findings at the EBT conferences, and have taken leadership roles in managing student-led projects. Participating students have also gained knowledge and explored options to better prepare them for a career in pedagogy. Most recently, the SPE workshop speaker addressed general teaching competencies, ways to develop a teaching-related professional identity, and the various roles and responsibilities between research, teaching, and administrative services as a professor among different teaching contexts (e.g., research-intensive, regional comprehensive, liberal arts, community college). 

Now’s your time. Find your local Center for Teaching and Learning or Center for Academic Excellence online. If you need help finding any and resources, I’m here for you - Find the insights that can help you the most. Find that you’ve discovered a new pedagogical home.

Teaching is about understanding. Knowing my students and the relationships I hold with them matters as much as the content itself. Participating in the CEE has inspired me to think creatively and flexibly about how to implement strategies (e.g., the intersection of pedagogy with technology and diversity) to create meaningful results for and with my students. This is just the beginning of my pedagogy journey, and I’m relieved to know that I’m not alone. You’re not either. This insight into the CEE isn’t a secret; it’s an open invitation to join in.



Barr, R. B., & Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning—A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning27, 12-26.

Buskist, W., & Benassi, V. A. (Eds.). 2012: Effective college and university teaching: Strategies and tactics for the new professoriate. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Buskist, W. (2013). Preparing the new psychology professoriate to teach: Past, present, and future. Teaching of Psychology40, 333-339.

Case, K. A. (Ed.). (2016). Intersectional pedagogy: Complicating identity and social justice. Routledge.

Meyers, S. A., Reed, P. T., & Quina, K. (1998). Ready or not, here we come: Preparing psychology graduate students for academic careers. Teaching of Psychology, 25, 124–126.


Flora Ma, M.S., is a Ph.D. Clinical Psychology doctoral student at Palo Alto University (PAU) with experiences as a teaching assistant and a tutor in graduate courses including research methods and statistics, cultural differences, ethics, and professional standards. She also co-developed pedagogical evidenced-based teaching resources and co-hosted the Annual Evidence-based Teaching Conference for the Center for Educational Excellence at PAU. In her clinical work and research, Flora has focused on the intersections of culture and innovative technology in psychological interventions for underserved populations, specifically the geriatric population.

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