Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

Who Are America’s Classroom Idols?

Student perceptions of ideal teachers can foster good pedagogy

In the sometimes consumer driven frenzy that is currently higher education (insert a heavy sigh here), post-recession college faculty often ask themselves this question: "What do students want?" What, indeed? Faculty from all ranks, institution types, and disciplines, including psychologists, like a downtrodden Greek chorus, could respond in unison with, "high grades and no work needed to get them." But let's not be cynical, shall we? There is ample evidence regarding good teaching practices that can counter popular pejorative characterizations of students and their professors. Perhaps becoming a classroom idol is possible.

In my last blog, I discussed some qualities that great teachers possess. This time around, I focus on those qualities undergraduate students report preferring in their teachers—that is, the ideal rather than typical traits displayed in the college classroom. I am again relying on the scholarship of teaching and learning conducted by psychologist William Buskist and his colleagues from Auburn University. Some years ago, one of Buskist's research teams examined undergraduates' perceptions of the difference between ideal and typical professors' teaching styles. They found some interesting distinctions that have practical implications for teachers and learners in the psychology classroom or any classroom. Here are a few to consider:

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Course goals and flexibility. Students need structure, just as they want to know what they will learn and do in a class—the mystery hour is never welcome, nor are surprises with strings attached (I had a sad sack philosophy prof in college who was wont to spring a "surprise" paper on a Friday that was due the following Monday—I can still feel my lingering resentment). Ideal professors announce their intentions early on, spelling out what is due when and making course corrections only when needed and only when they benefit the students. A corollary here is that students view ideal professors as those who welcome student input (not control, mind you) regarding a course (e.g., moving a due date for an exam or paper if relevant material has not yet been reviewed).

Accessibility and demeanor. Typical professors are viewed as less accessible than ideal ones; the former stick to posted office hours whereas the latter will make alternative meeting times when necessary. Ideal professors learn their students' names, use humor effectively, and display a casual and approachable manner in class (i.e., friendly but not friends). Typical professors are somewhat more standoffish and aloof. Being a mensch by chatting informally before or after class pays pedagogical dividends. These simple acts add up to a display of respect for students, who will in turn respect the professor (and with respect in such short cultural supply these days, we should work to nurture it whenever we can).

Teaching tactics. No real surprises here: Typical professors rely on the tried and true (but admittedly sometimes tired) lecture. Ideal ones mix it up a bit by also having class discussions and using in-class demonstrations and activities to supplement lectures.

Testing and assessing learning. Ideal instructors rely on a balance of methods on exams (e.g., essay questions, short answer items, fill-in-the-blanks, as well as the multiple choice question). Typical professors are apt to stick exclusively to one type of question on exams (e.g., short answer, multiple choice).

Academic honesty. Despite alarmist claims that cheating is rampant on college campuses, students actually want rules concerning academic dishonesty (i.e., cheating, plagiarism) to be enforced. More to the point, students want to know if their instructors have a serious commitment to investigating and adjudicating alleged violations. In practical terms, for example, boilerplate in the syllabus (the approach of the typical teacher) is insufficient—a frank, in-class explanation of a faculty member's beliefs and plans on such matters is welcome.

How is it going, or how to pull the course out of a nose-dive? One of the simplest ways to learn how a class is going is to, well, ask—and not just at the end of the term when evaluations are routinely done. Ask in the middle and at the end. Such anonymous, written, informal feedback can help right imperfections or misunderstandings and improve the learning atmosphere for everyone. Ideal professors ask for feedback two or more times in a semester; typical ones slog it out until the end and rely on post-mortem evaluations, making it to late to redress grievances or explain things better.

Whoa—does all this mean professors should pander to students or be-gasp-lenient? No, not at all. Faculty members are not supposed to be like Willy Loman's son, Biff, who "was always well-liked," if only in his father's mind. The issue is neither pandering nor being lenient—it's about being open, above board, and articulate about what's what in a class. No secrets, no surprise, no nonsense. Just clarity and candor. Students should know from day one how the course will proceed and teachers need only stay the course.

I think there are two other take-home messages that can be drawn from these student perceptions. (1) There are concrete actions any teacher can adopt to make the classroom a more dynamic and pleasant place to learn. (2) That being said, teachers of psychology or any discipline cannot be all things to all students-they need to develop a style that fits their personalities, classrooms, and interests, as well as local conditions in a department and larger institution. Selectivity, then, matters: Pick those actions you can reasonably do and then perform them consistently and enthusiastically and you, too, can be an ideal teaching idol.

(And here's a friendly but pointed aside to undergrads: Diversity in teaching style is important and needs to be welcomed. So, please don't expect the traits of one professor to necessarily be those of another or others. One size does not fit all.)

As the research of Buskist and his colleagues demonstrates, ideal teachers are personable, available, open to change when circumstance demands it, and quite clear about expectations for their classes. These ideals sounds reasonable, don't they? A conclusion suggesting that good teachers are made, not (in the Gaga-ian sense) born this way.

 

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

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