Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

Good Teaching is Alive and Well

Think positively about education in psychology.

By now you are probably tired of talk about New Year's resolutions--although their promise is high, so, alas, is their failure rate. I want to propose a more palatable, less self-focused, and more constructive resolution for you: Assume that good teaching is alive and well. So, this year, try not to "buy in" to all the doom and gloom regarding the state of higher education, students' abilities (or the lack thereof), and professors' supposed disinterest in--even distaste for--teaching. In fact, let's focus on the latter point. The usual claim is some variation of this barb: Psychology professors would rather work on their research than focus on their courses or the needs of their students.

Don't believe it. Teaching certainly matters. Think about it: How could teaching not matter when the bulk of what most professors do is related to the classroom? In the first place, there are relatively few college or university faculty members who have careers that are purely focused on research. If you want to verify this yourself, take a look at the survey data collected by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA. Every two years, HERI surveys a representative sample of faculty from different types of institutions (the other years they survey entering first year college students on their beliefs, experiences, and expectations). A perusal of these data (too much to attempt to summarize here) reveal that most faculty careers are dedicated primarily to teaching (bearing in mind that the typical professors do a myriad of other things in addition to teaching, including conducting research or pursuing scholarship of some form, as well as serving their institution). Moreover, faculty take teaching seriously. For example, HERI data published in 2009 indicate that virtually all faculty respondents (99.6% out of 22,562 surveyed) believe it is "very important" or "essential" to teach critical thinking to students; almost that many (96.4%) believe that "promoting the ability to write effectively" matters as much. (Note that HERI survey involves faculty who hail from many different disciplines, including psychology.)

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In my own (admittedly anecdotal) experience, the majority of psychology faculty I had when I was an undergraduate and then a graduate student took their pedagogical responsibilities very seriously (and I attended two research intensive universities). Good teaching was not really emphasized at either school (this has changed for the better in the intervening decades), yet I always felt there was a positive relationship between my teachers' scholarly productivity and their teaching effectiveness. Were all my professors exceptional and dedicated teachers? No, but most took their classroom responsibilities seriously nonetheless by constructing meaningful exams, crafting thoughtful writing assignments, and often doing more than simply lecturing to the class. I've always assumed that good researchers want to be good teachers, even if it's only out of a desire to effectively communicate their expertise related to some empirical question or research area to their students or other audiences.

What about the reverse situation? Are good teachers also good researchers (this is an old debate, so we can only skirt its surface)? Many times, the answer is probably yes, but it often depends upon the nature and mission of the institution where a given faculty member works. Faculty who teach at research universities are hired to produce scholarship (although teaching quality is increasingly necessary for ongoing employment). Faculty hired at teaching institutions--often called primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs)--are hired primarily to teach (although requirements for some scholarly activity are now usually present). A variety of other relevant situational variables affect faculty behavior at both types of schools, including institutional selectivity, class size, teaching load (number of courses each professor is expected to teach each year), the availability of resources (size of institutional endowment, space, lab facilities, graduate students, library resources), teaching assistants to help with grading, not to mention the idiosyncratic particulars found at each and every school.

In my own situation--I teach at a liberal arts college--faculty members are encouraged to involve students in their research programs in order to provide students with a meaningful, "hands-on" perspective of the discipline. Much of the resulting work is subsequently presented at professional conferences and may be published in journals or other scholarly outlets. My colleagues and I also work with advanced students on developing their own research projects, either within a class or as a senior honors or independent study project. These efforts are not unique: The aforementioned HERI survey reveals that over 40% of the faculty respondents report engaging students in their own professional research projects; another 57% indicated they worked with undergraduate students on some research project. These are--or should be--seen as heartening results.

Teaching is alive and well, too, if you consider the number and variety of conferences dedicated to improving the teaching and learning process where psychology education is concerned. As I write these words, I am attending the annual National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology (NIToP) where, across 3.5 days, teachers from two and four year institutions, as well as high schools, attend workshops, presentations, poster sessions, idea exchanges, and casual discussions concerning ethics in research, using technology in and out of the classroom, genes and the environment, neuroethics and neuropsychology, tips for teaching introductory psychology, and the social psychology of gender, among many other topics. Over 325 psychology teachers from across the country and around the world are currently spending a relaxing week learning from one another about how to share their enthusiasm for psychology--not a bad way to begin the New Year (I'm certainly learning a lot I can take back to my classes).

So, I hope you will begin 2011 knowing about one bright spot in psychology--that, generally speaking, interest in and emphasis on good teaching is alive and well. Many students will have dedicated instructors of psychology who care deeply about teaching and learning, either now or at some point in the future.

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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