As a developmental psychologist, my research interests and field of study inform my approach to teaching and setting goals for my students. Throughout the semester I focus on students’ change in knowledge and skills over time, while providing different levels of scaffolding. I rely on a wide variety of in-class activities and assessment opportunities to accommodate for individual differences in learning styles. My assignments are designed to allow students to take an active role in their learning. The theoretical frameworks presented in class are supplemented with real-life examples, thus grounding theory in practice. My teaching is organized around four main goals for my students: to acquire knowledge, to learn research methods and analysis, to apply scientific reasoning and problem solving to everyday issues, and to share their knowledge and findings. Each goal represents a stage in my students’ development as independent psychologists ready to contribute to the field.
Stage One: Acquire Knowledge
As first-year students enroll in Psych 101 classes, my goal as a teaching fellow is to introduce them to the major perspectives, theories and fundamental issues/questions in the field. I set an additional goal to help students identify common misconceptions and differentiate between their intuitions about human behavior and cognition and research findings on these topics. Often, I like to start discussion sections with a class poll to identify baseline knowledge on the topic and catch common misconceptions that students hold. Throughout the class, we gradually address these and by the end of class, we revisit the survey questions as a group to assess understanding.
To engage students with class material, I have found it useful to relate abstract theories to everyday examples and practical applications. For example, when I teach Memory during the second week of Psych 101, I make sure to have remembered all of my 100 students names and use this as an example of how mnemonic strategies work and how students can use them to study class material. Referring to students by their first name helps me create a friendly atmosphere and paying attention to their interests throughout the semester helps me come up with examples that are relevant to them.
Content-heavy classes that require students to acquire a lot of knowledge on a wide range of topics present a great opportunity to model for students how to sift through and identify the most relevant information. To do this, I typically assign an empirical paper for students to read at home. As they are reading, students are required to fill out a worksheet, which includes definitions of key terms and questions that guide them to the sections of the reading that are most relevant and that they are expected to know. In class, we go over the reading using the worksheet as an outline. With each following paper assigned, as students start to identify the key parts on their own, I reduce the number of questions in the worksheet.
To assess students’ understanding of the material, I use tests, brief reading reflections, in-class discussions, and mini presentations. The variety of assessment approaches accommodates students’ different learning styles and testing preferences and brings me a step closer to assessing their knowledge/competence and not just performance influenced by the format and demands of the assessment context (e.g., time constraints, written expression, oral expression).
Stage Two: Learn Research Methods and Analysis
Introduction: Once students have a general understanding of major topics in psychology, the next step is to demystify the research process from coming up with a research question through experimental design, data collection, statistical analyses, and research findings/conclusions. Underlying my teaching is an emphasis on active learning, inclusion, and relating the material to students’ experiences.
Procedure: I focus on students’ understanding of experimental design. I assign each student the methods section of a different empirical paper and have them summarize it for homework. Students bring their summaries to class and exchange them. Each student is asked to read their classmate’s summary and re-create or act out the task (this works really well with studies on infants’ mathematical cognition that do not require many props). As students are acting out the tasks, this allows me to check their understanding of the experimental procedure, to address questions about what should be included in a methods section, what level of detail, as well as to provide feedback on my students’ summary skills. An added bonus is that students can put themselves in the shoes of the experimenters and the participants, and take an active role in understanding experimental design, which they often skim over when reading papers.
Participants: Talking about participant sampling in psychological research provides me with a unique opportunity to address issues of inclusion and diversity. After reading an empirical paper, I ask students to tell me everything they know about the participant sample (e.g., age, sex, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, etc.). Their answers serve as a starting point for an open discussion about bias, prejudice, and generalizability of results beyond the most commonly recruited WEIRD (Western, educated, industrial, rich, democratic) participant samples.
Results: To teach basic statistical concepts, I use my students’ responses to informal mid-semester evaluations. A month or so after the beginning of the semester, I typically collect evaluations that allow me to ask specific questions about preferred and most useful activities, about the pace and difficulty of the class, and to solicit recommendations. The added value of these evaluations is that they provide me with a context to teach basic statistics that is relevant to students as it would determine how the course will be structured during the second half of the semester. I graph responses to a question about the pace of the class to talk about normal distribution (this works well with large lecture classes). I introduce descriptive statistics as I am going over students’ ratings of different activities. And I include anonymous comments from the outliers/students who completely disagree with the majority of the class. This allows me to start a discussion about the structure of the course, to solicit recommendations, and to include students in the decision-making process, thus encouraging them to take ownership of their own learning.
Stage Three: Apply Scientific Reasoning and Problem Solving to everyday issues
Once students engage with the literature and have a good grasp of research design, they begin to think about their contributions to the field. For students’ semester-long projects, to write a research paper in the case of my first-year writing course or to conduct a study in the case of an experimental psychology class, I encourage them to pick topics that are relevant to them but that are also going to fill a gap in the field. To help facilitate my students’ research independence, I use a series of assignments with a decreasing level of scaffolding. For example, at an early stage I have students read already published studies and come up with ways to improve them. This way they do not have to start from scratch but rather build on what has already been done.
Next I have students design a study to address a specific question that we have briefly talked about in class. In small groups, students come up with their study designs and in the process pose important questions about narrowing down the topic, operationalizing constructs, determining causality, generalizability of results. Then we, as a class, compare students’ proposals with studies on the topic that have already been conducted. When I reveal the original study designs and the findings, students get to compare their design to already published work, which is encouraging and gives them an idea of where they stand.
The next step is to have students identify their own research questions and come up with studies to address them. At this stage I arrange peer-feedback activities and provide individualized feedback during one-on-one meetings. This allows students to ask questions and work through some practical and logistical issues related to their research, and it allows me to tailor feedback to individual students’ needs.
Stage Four: Share Knowledge and Findings
The fourth goal for my students is to provide them with the skills to be successful communicators across disciplines, contexts and genres. When providing writing instruction, I go back to modelling reading. I assign book chapters, empirical papers, news articles, podcasts, TED talks, and in addition to discussing the content, I pose questions about style, format/presentation and target audience. This works really well when I assign the same author across genres (e.g., Paul Bloom’s “The Baby in the Well” article in The New Yorker, excerpts from his book Against Empathy, and empirical papers), as it allows for a direct comparison of style, amount of detail and use of terminology. Early in the semester I ask a lot of guiding questions, but gradually decrease prompting as students begin to identify elements of style and rhetorical moves on their own.
Once students can analyze the style and argumentation of others, we transition to comparing assigned readings to their own writing or the writing of their peers. An activity that is a student favorite is the-tweet-your-thesis in-class workshop. I have students tweet their papers’ thesis statements anonymously and we discuss them as a class. This activity allows students to see what others are writing about, to see how their work is perceived by their peers, and to provide and receive constructive feedback. The students leave the class with concrete advice on how to improve their thesis.
As students prepare full drafts of their papers, I require them to me schedule individual meetings with me. They have to bring three questions they have about the assignment, their writing, their style or anything that they struggle with. These meetings have allowed me to address specific questions and to have conversations with students about their writing and research goals and professional development.
I see the process of writing and reading as a dialogue between writers and readers, which is why often provide feedback in the form of questions that students have to answer (e.g., Based on this topic sentence, what would the reader expect this paragraph to be about? or …). As students are answering my questions, they themselves identify their papers’ strengths and weaknesses. This feedback loop continues throughout the semester across assignments.
The goals at each stage are deeply intertwined. The skills students acquire both build on and are in constant interaction with each other. Although there are divergent pathways as students move on to take other classes, choose their majors, discover different interests, my goal is to equip them with the skills of good readers, sound methodologists, critical thinkers, and effective communicators that transfer across disciplines.