Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

On Pleasing Students, or the Goldilocks's Problem

Is it possible to make a psychology course "just right" for all students?

As the spring 2014 semester ends, psychology teachers will soon be passing out course evaluation forms. I did mine earlier this week. I always tell my students two things. First, I remind them that I am not the course, to please rate my teaching but do so (insofar as it’s possible) as distinct from the course. Second, tell me what you appreciated (or didn’t) about the mechanics of the course (e.g., number of exams, papers, reading assignments).

Once the semester is put to bed, I always find reading responses to the latter question to be interesting because students assume that my goal is to please future students who enroll in my classes. In a way, that’s true—I do like to change things based on student suggestions, just as I want to address their concerns. But at the same time, being a professor is a little like being a parent: Sometimes, many times, you have to say “no” out of caring, love, or simply knowing what is in the other's best interest (and no, I am not trying to be paternalistic—bear with me—ahem).

I call the challenge of trying to please students the Goldilocks’s problem. In effect, each and every student is like Goldilocks in the house of the Three Bears—each one wants the porridge (our class) not to be too hot or too cold, but instead to be j-uuuuuuu-st right (so too with other course matters, the bears’ chairs and beds, if you will). The problem, of course, is that there is but one of me and many, many of them proffering an array of opinions and options—some good, some great, some unreasonable, some unrealistic, and some frankly not in their pedagogical interests.

However, I do try to use students’ evaluative suggestions to shape future iterations of a course. For example, last semester I taught an introductory course on human adjustment where learning was assessed, in part, through three exams, one of which was a final. Students did not perform as well as I (or they) had hoped on the exams, so this semester I tried something different—instead of adding another exam to the schedule I introduced  weekly quizzes. (Readers who know about evidence-based practices know that repeated testing can enhance student learning for a variety of reasons, including what’s know as the testing effect.) Students completed 12 quizzes and I counted the 10 highest scores toward their final grade in the class (they will also complete an all-essay final exam in a week or two).

At the end of last semester, I asked my test-only students if they thought weekly quizzing was a good idea to try—most thought it made great good sense. This semester, some of the weekly-quiz students wondered if maybe having a few tests rather than all those quizzes wasn’t a better idea. Some wanted me to review for the quiz before the quiz, which I already do, which is what the brief lectures, class discussion on topics linked to the quiz, and requiring students to read the chapter prior to the quiz are all about. Any additional review would undermine the goal of the quiz, wouldn’t it? It’s a quiz, after all. And at least one student encouraged me to provide a “study guide” for the quiz (again, readings in the textbook serve that purpose already).

Or, consider another Goldilocks’s problem that teachers of all stripes encounter with regularity. Many college instructors now emphasize having engaging discussions of course material over traditional lecturing. Students share their opinions and class discussion often leads to the airing of many voices and views, even some debate. At the same time, such discussion reduces opportunity to cover course material in class, yet students are still responsible for the course material, which means keeping up on reading (and reading deeply) becomes a pressing (Goldilockean) concern. When I read my course evaluations, I routinely get comments indicating that “class discussion was terrific!” and “I loved the level of class engagement” – which I take to be indicators of success. At the same time, I also get views from the other side of the proverbial aisle encouraging me to “focus on covering the material in the chapters” and “don’t test us on things from the reading you didn’t talk about” or, more directly, “just cover what’s going to be on the test.” A teacher cannot please everyone—and pleasing Goldilocks is always a challenge.

Now, I am not suggesting that student comments on course changes are not valuable or helpful—they can be very useful. I am suggesting that students won’t necessarily have a wide view on the dynamics and mechanics of a college course. More tests seem like a good idea if you, as a student, didn’t do a good job preparing for when there were fewer tests. More writing assignments (and I am president of the club for “more writing is better”) seems reasonable if the high stakes assignment (e.g., a term paper, an experimental write-up) wasn’t taken as seriously as it might have been. I think instructors should heed student suggestions but introduce change in a gradual, not radical, manner. More to the point, any change(s) should have clear pedagogical benefits and fit well into the larger rhythms of the instructor’s workflow—more writing assignments means more grading, fewer writing assignments should mean increased expectations, more quizzes means more frequent (if quicker) grading, and so on.

So, you may not be able to please all of the students all of the time, but you nonetheless need to test new and different approaches—this keeps teaching fresh, reduces boredom for both students and instructors, and allows teachers to address, if not solve, the Goldilocks’s problem—what’s not right for some students will be just right for others. And in future semesters, you can try different approaches, just as Goldilocks’s tried different bowls of porridge, chairs, and beds (but hopefully neither you nor your students will run screaming from the bears' house—or the classroom).

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

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