Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

Professional Development in Psychology I

Conferences

Being a good teacher of psychology (like any discipline) requires effort. Being a great teacher requires a commitment to reinvent oneself regularly. But how? Answer: By trying new things in the classroom, including new books or other readings, activities, writing assignments, and different exam or quiz formats, among other possibilities. No blinding insights in that list perhaps, but what is missing from the list is some infrastructure. Where, oh where, do you get “new stuff “for your psychology courses to keep them fresh?

 First of all, become a teaching locavore—look where you work. Certainly, many of us stumble on new ideas as we teach—something occurs to us and we jot it down. A student makes a suggestion or asks a question and suddenly a new assignment or activity is conceived. Other times an article in the newspaper reveals a discussion point or you hear about something—a technique, a tool—a colleague in your department or another department is using to engage students. Happily, borrowing teaching ideas is not a form of professional plagiarism—instead, it is actively encouraged.

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 Quality colleges and universities usually maintain an on-campus clearinghouse for professional development. Such places are often called a “Center for Teaching and Learning” or the similar. Some are grand physical spaces with staffs that run workshops for faculty continually; others are one-room affairs that house resources for interested teachers to check out when they have time. The point is that there is some place for faculty members to keep up on what’s new in pedagogy or to learn how old teaching wine is being poured into new educational bottles. New and seasoned teachers should routinely avail themselves of such local resources in order to stay fresh in the classroom.

A second strategy is to attend professional conferences in psychology. Psychology in the U.S. has literally dozens of conferences each year—maybe hundreds—that deal with broad topics like “teaching” as well as specialized ones that deal with issues germane to one or more of psychology’s fifty or so (and counting) sub-disciplines. Faculty members who are fortunate to have travel funds for attending conferences should use such monies to attend at least one conference in their (sub) specialty area(s) as well as one more general conferences that expose them to the broader developments in the discipline, including teaching trends.

The two major organizations for psychology in the U.S.—the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Association for Psychological Science (APS)—host annual conventions that bring together thousands of psychologists with disparate interests who gather to learn from one another. Papers, symposia, posters (encapsulated summaries of research heavy on graphics), invited addresses by the discipline’s luminaries and rising stars, discussion hours, films, special interest hours, and the like are held so that professionals have a moveable feast in which to meander for hours or even days. I would not go so far as to call it an academic Disney World (although APA’s 120th annual gathering is being held in Orlando this coming week), but it is a chance for teachers, scholars, researchers, and students to meet, mingle, chat, debate, and learn from one another.

A great way for new and would-be psychology teachers to hunt and gather some materials for their home classrooms is to attend programming arranged by APA Division Two, the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP). (APS and STP host an annual Teaching Institute that takes place the day before the formal start of the APS conference.) Each year a variety of posters on class-related activities, evidence regarding improving student learning, new teaching techniques, emerging topics (forensic psychology, for example, continues to attract attention due to what I think of as the CSI effect), new strategies for teaching classic topics (yes, Virginia, there are new ways to teach research methods and statistics--see below), and the like, are on tap, as it were.

Indeed, a great strategy for the first time conference attendee is to map out a mix of conference venues, such as taking in a talk or two dealing with his or her specialty area (e.g., social or developmental or industrial/organizational psychology) and then switching to a symposia or a poster session dealing pedagogy in psychology. One of the best parts of teaching-focused events at APA or APS is that the presenters always offer handouts or web links where materials reviewed during the talk can be accessed and downloaded for later use. With a little effort, even the most casual convention-goer can come home with enough ideas and activities to carry her through the classes she will be teaching during both semesters of the academic year.

Of course, one need not go to a big conference like APA or APS to learn about new teaching trends. There are many regional conferences in psychology that have teaching-dedicated programming (the Eastern Psychological Association [EPA] and the Midwestern Psychological Association [MPA] are two) as well as many smaller teaching conferences that often have dedicated themes. STP sponsors an annual “Best Practices” in teaching psychology conference each October. This year's conference deals with novel ways to teach statistics and research methods, two topics that new faculty members are often assigned to teach (and having teaching skills in these areas can help new PhDs land full-time positions).

So, let me encourage teachers of psychology or would-be teachers of psychology to try to attend a teaching conference this year. It is a great way to earn some professional development and to network with other professionals, a topic we will take up in part II of professional development in a few weeks.

 

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

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