GSTA Blog co-editors Maya Rose and Sarah Frantz recently had the opportunity to sit down with Jill Grose-Fifer, Patty Brooks, and Maureen O’Connor to talk about their new book, Teaching Psychology: An Evidence-Based Approach, and discuss what student-centered teaching is all about. Their book (pictured below) offers an in-depth guide to student-centered teaching in the undergraduate classroom, providing practical advice and effective teaching techniques based on multi-disciplinary research and scholarship on teaching and learning.
What are you most passionate about in teaching?
Jill: I think teaching is really fun when you see the light bulbs going off in students’ minds and you see them really getting excited about what you are excited about. I like seeing students’ excitement, seeing them grow and develop, and transforming into confident mature critical thinkers.
Patty: I love making things and doing projects with my students. As such, my teaching philosophy stems from constructionism and the idea that when you create things, you feel empowered. You look at what you made and you think how cool it is and you realize that you developed skills that you didn't even know you needed. So I think that my passion for teaching is about figuring out ways to do creative work with my students that also informs their understanding of psychological science.
Maureen: I think I am passionate about teaching because it extends from my interest in mentoring. So when I'm in the classroom I feel like I'm guiding and helping students find what they really already can do and know. I'm putting in place the structures they need to learn those things themselves. So to me it feels like an extension of my passion for mentoring.
We know that the Teaching of Psychology taskforce was the inspiration for the book. Can you tell us about the taskforce and what inspired the book?
Maureen: I remember a graduate student coming into my office at the Graduate Center literally in tears, sitting down in front of me and saying, “I've just been told that I have to teach Developmental Psychology at Hunter College. I've never taken Developmental Psychology and I've never taught. What do I do now?” I thought, wow, what's wrong with this picture? I said, “There's nothing wrong with you. What's wrong is that we think you should be able to do this with absolutely no support, no training, and no teaching.” At that point there were about 500 doctoral students in psychology in CUNY undergraduate classrooms, and I realized at that moment that they had been sent there almost completely without any preparation or training. So I and a wonderful group of student leaders created this task force to really think about how we address this. It really was student-led and students figured out they were passionate about it. We developed the idea for a conference and for a class. The first class was this amazing group of student leaders and we really used the class to figure out what do we need to know, what do students need to do, and how should we best support them? This student leadership group was called the Pedagogy Task Force.
At first, this book was nowhere in our minds. It wasn’t anything to do with the book. It had to do with: We are psychologists and we understand what it takes to do teaching and learning. Let's figure out how to develop a course that brings the best of psychology to this process. And then Patty and I co-taught the course, and then Jill came in to guest lecture because Jill was already my model. [Jill chimes in to reassure M and P as well as the interviewers that it was more guest activities than lectures!] And it had been clear to me as Chair at John Jay that Jill was the most sophisticated thinker about pedagogy that I knew. Then it turned out Patty was equally sophisticated and amazing, so we started being a team.
Patty: I think what was really frustrating was that when we were trying to find readings for the students in our course, a lot of readings seemed to be saying the opposite of what we were emphasizing. There is a tension in higher ed between lecturing and information transmission and the other point of view which focuses on student development. As a developmental psychologist, it was always, to me, about student development––not about trying to get somebody's brain to have the same content that I have in my head. So I think that we were struggling to find the readings that were really resonating with where we were coming from.
Jill: I think also it's really challenging because there is a lot published about evidence-based teaching. But how do you put together a manageable set of readings for a course on a weekly basis which really are giving a comprehensive overview that you can use in a very practical way as well? And sometimes I think pedagogy papers don't always adequately describe how they actually taught the course. They did something, it's described relatively briefly, and here are the assessment data. But it's sometimes not quite enough to really think about, “Oh, well how could I adapt this to my course with some more specific ideas?” I think for me it was always like we're just kind of scratching the surface all the time. We're not really giving a broad enough overview of what's out there and also we're not necessarily helping our students to see how to apply it in their own classes. So the practice part of the class is really important. It's a practicum where the students are teaching mini lessons.
How do you respond to those who are convinced lecturing is the gold standard in teaching?
Jill: I think you have to push back on that and say, “Well, where's the evidence that lecturing is better?” I had a conversation just before the book came out and I was talking about it to an older colleague who said, “Well, yeah, but you know there's also something to be said for lecturing.” And I said, “Based on what evidence?” I think if we're social scientists or neuroscientists, we base our research on evidence. So just saying, “I’ve enjoyed a few lectures in my life”, doesn't mean that it's an effective way to help students learn.
Patty: I would just add to that, when we say lecturing, we're not saying direct teaching. There's always a lot of direct teaching that sets up more active ways of engaging with material. One of my student’s dissertations demonstrated that students often flounder under conditions of pure discovery where they are given an unstructured task and have no clue what they are supposed to do. But they do better, when compared to lecturing, when the assignment or activity is scaffolded. There's a big difference between pure discovery, where the student is kind of left on their own to solve some problem, and scaffolded instruction, where you are a guide and you provide a lot of direction.
Jill: Right. I think lecturing is really a presentation and sometimes it's a terrible presentation as well. Maybe it's entertaining at times, but it's a presentation, it's not teaching. It's so ironic that so many people in Psychology are locked into this lecturing style when so many of the other subject areas, like the humanities, would never think about doing that. They have a much more student-centered focus. I think STEM has really led the way in this field because it's often in subject areas where students are struggling to understand abstract ideas, you have to be more intentional about the way you teach. As a cognitive neuroscientist, some of the classes that I teach are about the biological basis of psychology and it's not everybody's cup of tea. But it is a course that most students will take, and so how do you make it somebody's cup of tea? And how do you make people feel empowered in that course, that they're confident they will be able to manage the material and get something out of it that's really meaningful to their own lives?
Patty: There’s now quite a lot of evidence, as indicated by a large-scale meta-analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that when you pit lecturing and active learning against each other, students have higher rates of passing courses and higher exam grades when they're doing active learning. Another recent study showed that when students enjoy the lecture and have the sense that everything in the lecture makes perfect sense, often times that experience is actually negatively correlated with their learning.
Jill: Other research has shown us now, too, that when you're using a student-centered philosophy in your classes, students are outperforming the lecture students largely because they're engaging in more critical thinking. They show evidence of more in-depth critical thinking in their work.
Maureen: The wonderful thing for me about working with the students and with Patty and Jill on this is that we all came from different theoretical frameworks and backgrounds. So Patty brought the developmental piece, Jill brought the brain and cognition piece, and my training in the law actually had really informed my teaching. What I didn't realize until I had the sort of framework to know what I was talking about, was that I was doing active learning because in the law you develop hypotheticals. I realized now why that was working and why students were so engaged in those classes. It was interesting material, but it was also active learning! I didn't have the words for it until I started working with these guys.
Jill: I think that teaching is really a process. Nobody comes to it as an expert and, even as you get better, all the time you're improving. It's really evolving all the time. And sharing and learning things from others and with others is really important.
Patty: I also think it has to do with what kinds of attributions you make when you are teaching and you feel like the class didn't go as you intended. When the class didn't go as intended, there are people who are quick to dismiss it either because the students didn't read or they weren’t prepared for class. I really think that our job is to teach the students who are in our classes, not some idealized version of them. If we are dissatisfied with the way that our classes are going, then it is our responsibility to do some research and figure out what we could be doing differently that would make our classes more effective. I think that's what makes the distinction between my teaching interests and my research increasingly blurred. I think you have to be looking towards yourself as an agent of change when there are situations in your classrooms that you're dissatisfied with.
Jill: We hear so much that so many students aren't college ready. Instead of saying that, what we should be saying is, “Are our colleges or our faculty or instructors student-ready?” So thinking about who it is that's in our classes and teaching to them. We have to really be thinking all the time about trying things and adapting them so that we support our students in a holistic way.
How have your experiences at CUNY, which has a highly diverse student population, motivate you to focus on inclusion in the classroom?
Maureen: I think a lot of the teaching focus, and a lot of the energy around teaching of psychology, comes from really small liberal arts, heavily upper middle class institutions. I think all of us, because of our commitments around CUNY and what CUNY represents, and the access to education that it allows, it's like the rubber meets the road. We can't pretend that we're able to help every kind of student succeed if we target our learning strategies to people who don't really need our help.
Patty: Instead of teaching some minutiae about some study that was conducted three decades ago, let's have students work with data and learn how to manipulate data in spreadsheets, and try to draw some conclusions from the data. Once you start moving away from the sort of esoteric content to very general skills, then all of a sudden, it's all very relevant to the students. I love to have them learn skills that they could potentially put on their resume.
What types of activities do you use in the classroom?
Jill: I like that I have a flipped classroom in Sensation and Perception so we do mini labs and workshops in the flipped class. That's a lot of fun because students are kind of discovering the sensory perceptual experiences but also how to graph that data. I love that and I also like workshopping writing assignments with students. That's fun as well because I think often students have never really thought about writing in their own words. They've plagiarized a lot in the past and they don't know that it's plagiarism because that's just what they've always done. So just helping them to think about writing in their own words and giving them permission to write maybe in a more colloquial kind of way...giving them permission to write in a way that's more natural. I think it's really helpful to students. I also love role-playing in class.
Maureen: I always had students debating. I did a lot of mini debates: three best arguments and then switch sides. I think it really helps to sharpen thinking and to realize that there's a difference between an opinion and an evidence-based argument.
Patty: One of the best assignments is the five-slide presentation. Five slides, but not even five slides, really––one is the title page and one is references, so it's really just three slides. And first-year students in Intro Psychology teach the class in week four with these slide presentations. I think it makes the students more sympathetic to my position and that makes the class nicer! And the students do a beautiful job. I'm also very much committed to having my students write Wikipedia articles. That has been transformative for me. Every semester when I look back on my students’ work, I am so proud of them.
One of the main goals of the handbook is to promote the implementation of teacher training in psychology. Do you see doctoral programs beginning to implement teacher training?
Jill: I think at least locally it's changing. Some years ago Maureen and Patty and a whole lot of people from the GSTA contributed to a handbook of the various psychology programs around the country that were offering some kind of training. I think it's surprising to me how many colleges now have teaching courses in their psychology departments which is encouraging.
Maureen: I think relative to 20 years ago, it's improved. I think an interesting challenge for our field is we tend to see things a little bit either-or, right? You do clinical or you do research or, in our case, you do teaching. And what is beautiful about what Patty and Jill do, and the GSTA, is seeing how those are related. But I still think there's some resistance: the idea that time spent on pedagogy can be time away from the other kinds of work you should be doing. So I run up against that now at my own institution. We have a lot of people who are very interested in pedagogy and doing some really good work. We offer workshops but they are not yet required. Notice I said not yet. And because of that, not everybody is exposed to it. We are doing what Jill suggested, which is in order to teach, you have to have participated in the workshops. But I think we've got a long way to go honestly. I had an interesting discussion recently with some faculty about the idea of being student-centered as being a “anything the student needs, they get” kind of thing. So there's not a shared understanding in our field about these values that we've been talking about.
Jill: I was at a faculty development workshop recently where we were actually giving a workshop on how to make your syllabus more welcoming. Some faculty asked, “But don't students take advantage of you?” And it's not like you can do whatever you like in my class. It's like let's work together to try and make sure this is a good learning experience for you.
Patty: For us, student-centered is about thinking about what we want the students to get out of the course. I think we can expand that by asking, “what do you think the students hope to get out of the course?” If we can also incorporate some of what the students hope to get out of the course and not just what we hope the students will get out of the course, we're actually creating an even better environment where the students are going to be more invested in their learning. But it always starts out with what we and the students expect to get out of the course and then making sure that we have created the opportunities for the students to get there. We also need to be finding out whether we're getting the job done, and if we're not getting the job done, figuring out how we can change our instruction to do a better job.
How do you want faculty and graduate students to utilize this handbook?
Maureen: One of the things I hope for is that people in our field recognize that all we're asking them to do is use the best information from our field to inform one of the really important things they do. It's like owning the fact that we're psychologists and that we produced most of the literature in that book and yet we haven't always translated that into the practice.
Patty: I would like for it to be something that people can fall back on when they are frustrated. So they might try something for the first time, try to do something with group work in the class and they weren't very satisfied with how it turned out. I'd like for them to then be able to say, “well, let me see how other people are doing group work.” And be able to read our book and have a place where they can get some ideas, so that they are encouraged to try it again. I do think that we're really practiced at presenting and we are really trained to be good presenters at conferences. But then when we try any of these other things, we feel like we're novices. We don't always feel like we get it right, and it's just too easy to say, “Oh, it didn't go well. I'm not gonna do that again!” I want people to have a resource where they can learn a little bit more about the craft of it.
Jill: You don't have to read it from cover to cover. Instead, to be able to say, “Hmm, I'm sure I want to do this but I'm not quite sure how to go about it. Let me see if I can get some ideas.” And it can just be a tiny little thing. It doesn't have to be a really huge project. It might just be, “My students don't seem to want to talk in class. Why not? What can I do to try and encourage that? How can I change my classroom environment?” For instance, after exploring the book, you might say, “Well, I'm not ready to do a big group project but maybe I can do a think-pair-share in my class.” The book is just very explicit about how you might be able to do some things. And it also backs it up with evidence, so you can feel confident that you're doing something that is likely to be successful in the classroom.
If there are three takeaways from this book, what would they be?
Jill: My takeaways are nurture the whole student by teaching in a culturally responsible way, teaching is not presenting, and learning to teach well is a process constantly evolving.
Patty: Teaching means that the student has to be doing and that doing needs to be intentional and purposeful. I think it's really important to communicate to the student what the purpose of the class or the activity is from the outset and get the buy-in, because it's something that you're doing together.
Maureen: Psychological science has contributed substantially to what we know about teaching and learning. We should embrace that and use that knowledge in our own teaching.
Jill: So effective teaching is evidence-based and, because of that, we know it has to be student-centered: active learning.
Maureen: So much of psychological science and training even in Psychology is about the individual. It focuses on individual learning and individual accomplishment and what’s your impact factor. But it was collaboration that produced this book. Collaborative learning is what we did to produce the book and I think collaborative teaching is what allowed us to do that. In collaborative work, students are learning from each other and they're learning alongside the instructor. We did the same thing. This book would not be what it is if we had just sat down and looked at the literature.
Can instructors outside of Psychology use the book?
Jill: It can be used by anybody!
Jill Grose-Fifer, PhD, is a cognitive neuroscientist and Associate Professor of Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She earned her bachelors and doctoral degrees from the University of Aston, in Birmingham, U.K. Her current neuroscience research focuses primarily on event-related potential investigations of adolescent brain development.
Patricia Brooks, PhD, is a Professor of Psychology at the College of Staten Island, CUNY, where she directs the language Learning Laboratory. Her research interests are in three broad areas: 1) individual differences in first- and second-language learning; 2) the impact of digital media on learning and development; 3) development of effective pedagogy to support diverse learners. Dr. Brooks served as the Faculty Advisor to the GSTA from 2014-2019.
Maureen O’Connor, PhD, JD, is President of Palo Alto University (PAU), an institution dedicated to education and research in psychology. At PAU, she supports an annual evidence-based teaching conference. Prior to that, she was Professor and Chair of Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, and Executive Officer of the Doctoral Program in Psychology at CUNY’s Graduate Center.