I have always wanted to be an educator. I entered college as an early childhood education major, with a coordinate major in psychology. Already in love with learning in general, I fell completely in love with psychology. However, I had not lost my desire to be an educator. If anything, my time as a psychology major strengthened this desire. It reinforced my belief in how exciting a place the classroom can be, and how much engaged learning can really change a person, even beyond the acquisition of knowledge. The way I saw the world and the relationships between people really changed as a result of the psychology courses I took.
My time as a student led me to my main teaching goals: sparking (or reigniting) a love for learning, and helping students to develop a deepened understanding of how people affect one another’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that they will continue to cultivate after the completion of their time in the classroom. Clearly, both of these goals involve engagement and activity on the part of the students. Therefore, one of my primary concerns in the classroom is actually engaging the students. At this point, very few educators will admit to subscribing to the tabula rasa view of learning, where the students are simply passive recipients of knowledge handed to them by a professor. Almost all educators in American society give lip service to the belief that students are active participants in the construction of knowledge, but this is not the same as putting this belief into action in the classroom.
Part of getting students engaged and active in the classroom is creating an environment in which students feel comfortable with one another and with me. I try to do this from the beginning of the semester. My contact information and office hours are listed on the syllabus (Appendix A) and throughout the semester, I encourage students to visit me during office hours, or by appointment. Given the potential sensitive nature of discussions that can arise in many psychology classes, the importance of respectful listening and dialoguing is included in the sample syllabus (Appendix A). During the first class of a semester, the class and I would come up with guidelines for respectful listening and dialoguing, and return to these guidelines throughout the semester.
Fostering a sense of community can also help students to be more comfortable in the classroom, and thus more likely to become engaged with the material. To that end, I set aside time during the first classes of a semester for “ice-breaker” activities (such as having students “speed network” by having short conversations with many students) in order to help myself and the students get to know one another and feel comfortable together. Throughout the semester, I encourage students to share information about campus activities or events of groups they are involved in.
However, none of this comfort in the classroom environment will lead to active engagement in the material on the part of the students if the material itself or the way it is packaged is not engaging in its own right. I believe in my students and their potential, and I also believe in the field of psychology and its potential. In every psychology class, there should be something that grabs the attention and interest of each student.
Figuring out what is going to interest the students requires some inquisitiveness and flexibility on the part of the professor. At the start of each semester, I have my students fill out a “Getting to know you” index card, where they tell me a little bit about themselves, their career goals, and any interests they have in the field of psychology. This allows me to tailor certain materials and examples to the particular students I have in the course that semester. For example, if I have a student who is interested in business, I might choose to illustrate the concept of groupthink that may occur in a board meeting. Students will also have the opportunity, in such venues as discussions, exam questions, and analysis and response papers, to connect the concepts they are learning to their own field of interest. I also often discuss current events and their connection to psychology in the classroom, so no two semesters of a course are ever the same. Throughout the semester, students are encouraged to let me know what is working for them and what is not. I also often elicit anonymous feedback during the class period so that students are not uncomfortable offering constructive criticism.
I recognize that it is not only the content of the material in a course that affects learning, but also the style in which it is presented. I strive to integrate an assortment of teaching tools and classroom activities to appeal to students with a variety of learning preferences. Materials for my courses include textbooks, primary source readings (both from psychology and other disciplines, such as anthropology and sociology), novels and short stories, as well as videos. While I do believe that lectures are a necessary component of many classes, I believe they are best done interspersed with questions, both from the teacher to the students, and the students to the teacher and one another. In my sample video lecture (Appendix C), you can see that I strive to involve students from the start of the class onward, particularly by having them connect the course material to their own lives.
In addition to lectures, I regularly incorporate both large and small group discussions, video clips (see Appendix B, Element 3: In-Class Activity), and demonstrative class exercises into the class period (see Appendix C). In many classes, students will also complete periodic thought papers, outlining their reactions to the readings, as well as any questions they might have. These response papers will be used to check in on student progress, and will also be used to facilitate discussions. Assignments are also varied and include exams, quizzes, critical analysis papers, and group projects (see Appendices A, B, & D). I always give feedback as promptly as I am able so students know their standing in the course, get their questions answered, and can be encouraged to keep progressing. For many of the major assignments, students will receive feedback throughout the process, with the major evaluative points being awarded for the finished product, which they will have had time to revise (see, for example, the various stages of the group project in Appendix D). While I do believe grades are important for accountability, I do not want them to be the main motivator in the classroom.
Many people are unaware of their own beliefs and opinions about the social world. Throughout all of these course activities, one of my main aims is to encourage students to question the knowledge they believe they already have, and to examine possible misconceptions in the way they view the world. For example, many people commonly ascribe to old adages (such as “opposites attract” or “birds of a feather flock together”) and assume that these are obvious truths. By examining empirical evidence regarding “common sense knowledge”, and seeing where it is supported and where it is contradicted, students can begin to rethink their own “truths.” Additionally, one of the major assignments in the social psychology course, the fundamental attribution error paper (see Appendix B, Element 5), encourages students to examine the occurrence of this error in their own thinking. I advise my students to embrace both their realistic and idealistic sides and be skeptical about “common knowledge” and innovative in looking forward.
I hope that the set-up of my courses allows students to feel a personal investment in the material they are learning, and ignites a desire for continued education beyond their time in the classroom. Additionally, I hope that students embrace an interdisciplinary spirit. I encourage students in both lower and upper level courses to look to other disciplines to strengthen their understanding of psychology, and to think about the applications of psychology to other disciplines. Many of the discussions and lecture elements (see Appendix C, as well as Appendix B, Elements 1 and 2) will focus on encouraging this interdisciplinary spirit. Additionally, students will be encouraged to exercise independent thought about psychology’s application to other disciplines (see Appendix D.) As mentioned earlier, I will also include supplementary readings from other disciplines in my courses.
At some point, I would love to co-teach a course with a professor of another discipline, such as history, literature, or sociology. Knowledge learned in the confines of a classroom is a wonderful thing, but it becomes so much more when it is shared and applied. In East of Eden, one of John Steinbeck’s characters suggests that “Maybe a specialist is only a coward, afraid to look out of his little cage. And think what any specialist misses- the whole world over his fence.” While I want to help my students become educated about the field of psychology, I also hope to encourage them to be well-rounded individuals, capable of sharing the knowledge they obtain with those in other fields, and excited to do so.
In order to realize the high hopes I have for my students, I know I need to continue to grow as a teacher. During my time as a graduate student in social psychology, I have been a teaching assistant for a variety of courses, and taken this position very seriously. I have also been a consistent member of a teaching circle at Clark University, where we meet to discuss our teaching experiences and share ideas for the classroom. I recognize that ongoing communication with colleagues is a great way to ensure that I continue to question and expand my own methods in the classroom. I am also currently enrolled in the Seminar for College Teaching through the Worcester Consortium, and plan on continuing forward in this program to obtain my Certificate in College Teaching. As I continue on with my teaching career, I hope to stay up to date in the field of education by attending workshops and seminars related to teaching practices. I want to be a teacher and a psychologist, rather than a psychologist who happens to also teach.
I hope that my students will leave our time in the classroom together with the same love of psychology that sparked for me as an undergraduate. I hope they leave with a desire to keep learning, and to keep using what they learn to better understand their own lives and the world around them. Most importantly, I hope they move forward with a desire to share the knowledge and passion they have gained.