Teaching Philosophy

My quest to be an effective instructor stems from a long-standing desire to be a successful student, teacher, and researcher of memory and learning. As a psychologist, I am driven to understand the mechanisms that allow us to reflexively remember information, generate unique ideas, and understand ourselves; by comprehending the conditions under which learning is enhanced, I can help students learn material more efficiently and thoroughly. I think that using our cognitions to learn about our cognitions is one of the most astonishing activities that a student can engage in, and I hope to be a guide to my students both within the classroom and in the laboratory.

A diverse range of students will enter my classroom, from those who are immediately fascinated and have an insatiable desire to learn more, to those who may have less interest in psychology. Most students fall into the latter category, and I teach with enthusiasm so as to capture the attention of all students and help foster a love of psychology. I engage with all of my students by connecting course concepts to current events and topics in which the students have indicated interest.  In writing-intensive courses, students choose their own final paper topics to inspire them to think deeply about what concerns them, as well as demonstrate the intersection between the course and other disciplines. Past topics include the role of race and socioeconomic status in narrative, the effect of transracial adoption on identity, and self-concept changes in amnesiacs.

My teaching methods
Both in the classroom as an instructor of record and in the lab as a mentor, I develop key skills in my students so that they can go on to be successful students of psychology and also lifelong learners. I have four main objectives for my students that guide my teaching practices and course development: 1) To gain an understanding of the mechanisms underlying the psychological phenomenon being studied, and how the material fits into the “big picture” of psychology and the real world; 2) To develop critical thinking skills and skepticism that allow for in-depth discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of theories, research methods, and conclusions drawn; 3) To learn to communicate the ideas and information learned in class so that laypersons can understand; 4) To formulate pertinent questions to understand the research process, methods, and underlying principles, and to be comfortable posing such questions.

My teaching methods
To help students achieve these objectives, I adopted teaching methods, supported by research, that encourage these abilities. In Introduction to Psychology and Cognitive Psychology, students complete weekly low-stakes reading quizzes.  These opportunities to practice the retrieval of information (sometimes known as the “testing effect”1) improve later recall better than simply restudying the material. . Although students consider “quiz” to be a dirty word, I present this assessment method along with research on learning to emphasize the importance of research findings, such as the “testing effect,” for the wider world. Students then apply these methods to their efforts to remember in other contexts.

I also employ the use of interactive demonstrations that help students understand cognitive mechanisms in a different light. My Introduction to Psychology course includes frequent discussion of myths in popular psychology to challenge students’ misconceptions about psychology. Students also participate in demonstrations in most class sessions. For example, they learn about false memory through the DRM paradigm, implicit bias by completing the IAT, and behavior modification by performing a “self-experiment” and analyzing the results. In Identity and Remembering, students design a “thought experiment” to perform over a holiday break by generating key questions about the roles of identity and environmental context while remembering and then observing themselves while with their families. Upon returning, we discuss how social context affects one’s identity and the events one remembers at a given point in time. Students applied theories learned in class to better understand the differences between their remembering while at home and while at college. In Cognitive Psychology, I use experiential learning to highlight important concepts that the students should understand, as well as show them what happens when cognitions can lead them astray. For example, during the perception portion of the course, students were able to experience the experience the Muller-Lyer Illusion and the Pulfrich Illusion, and find their blind spots. When learning about memory, students watched videos of amnesiac Clive Wearing and heard the story of HM. They also complete experiments using CogLab, analyze the data, and write-up the results in an APA style research report.These interactive demonstrations allow the students to experience the material in a different framework, help them formulate richer representations of the course material, and link the concepts they are learning about directly to the real world.

Development of writing skills
Fun demonstrations of concepts help students to better master the material, but do not necessarily teach the formal presentation of ideas. The improvement of students’ writing skills will help them be successful, no matter the career they pursue after graduation. This goal was at the forefront when I designed Identity and Remembering, which I taught as a Bass Instructor of Record Fellow at Duke and will teach in the Foundations in the Liberal Arts program at Rollins College (in Spring 2017). Students investigate the intersection between identity and autobiographical memory and demonstrated their understanding and critical thinking by writing review papers. By receiving feedback from their peers and me, my students showed marked improvement in their abilities to critique theories and to generate their own hypotheses about the phenomena they had studied. They also learned about writing through the peer review process, where they focused on providing suggestions ranging from improvements in sentence structure to more global restructuring of essays. (See Paper 1: Draft and Final; Paper 2: Draft and Final; Paper 3: Draft and Final).

Formative assessment
Evaluation and improvement of a teaching program is important for maximizing student success, especially when teaching in a multi-ability classroom. Teaching methods that work for some students may not work for all, and I assess student learning often in order to adjust my teaching strategies accordingly. I assess the value and impact of individual lessons by implementing Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs). CATs are low-stakes formative assessments of students’ understanding of a lesson. I use a range of CATs in my classroom, including brief quizzes, Think-Pair-Share, misconception checks before a lesson, minute papers, and asking students about the “muddiest” points of a seminar, to identify aspects of a lesson that were unclear. I then implement new strategies to improve my teaching, often within the same period, in order to change my teaching strategies well in advance of graded assignments. 

Commitment to diversity
As a teacher, mentor, colleague, and community member, I strive to incorporate principles of inclusivity into my teaching and research practices. I continue to actively educate myself on the issues that may affect the students that enter my classroom and my laboratory. My teaching experiences allowed me to interact with various types of students, from first-generation students just entering college, to LGBTQIA students, to athletes balancing school work and training. As a Preparing Future Faculty Fellow, I talked to students at a community college, HBCU, and women’s college about the unique challenges that they face. As a faculty member at Rollins College, I have gained valuable insight into the diverse students that are served by liberal arts colleges. Depending upon their background, students have different needs, and I foster inclusivity by addressing my openness to these needs during the first session of every class. I try to make my students comfortable with me so that they will later address their concerns in the non-judgmental atmosphere of my private office hours.

In addition to addressing the needs of diverse students, I also facilitate communication about diverse topics within my classroom. In Identity and Remembering, students spend time exploring transgender and gay identities, and how these identities can influence and be influenced by memory. We also discuss collective memory within the framework of history and the erasure of minority groups’ identities. In Introduction to Psychology and Cognitive Psychology, my students learn about implicit biases and the automatic processing of information, which I in turn use to address racism and sexism. By framing the class discussion in terms of the existing theories that the students have learned about, I am also able to introduce them to terms and concepts (such as the correct usage of pronouns for genderqueer individuals) that they may not otherwise encounter or embrace. 

Teaching outside the classroom
Mentoring outside of the classroom is also a core component of my teaching and one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. At Duke, I served on several informational panels on applying to graduate school, navigating the early years of graduate school, and being an effective teaching assistant. I mentored research assistants, three students in the Vertical Integration Program, two independent study students and two Graduation with Distinction students. Instead of simply giving my mentees coding jobs, I explain the objectives of my research at each stage of project design: development of coding schemes, data collection, data analysis, and the preparation of publications. My engagement and enthusiasm about a project is often renewed by seeing it through my mentee's eyes – his or her excitement about significant and meaningful findings is contagious, and my students often frame their findings in ways that I had not fully considered before, which allows me to apply new theories and literature to my work.

My mentor-mentee relationships have resulted in numerous posters (Deffler, Scharf, & Rubin, 2015; Choi, Deffler, & Rubin, 2014; Fox, Deffler, Ogle, & Rubin, 2013), several papers in preparation related to my doctoral thesis, and a published paper (Deffler, Fox, Ogle, & Rubin, 2016) that has been covered by Scientific American and NPR; all are co-authored with undergraduate mentees. As a visiting assistant professor, I am continuing this work by involving my students in my on-going research projects. By involving students with my research, I foster their appreciation of both the process and the findings. I think that students benefit from mentoring because they are provided with examples of the day-to-day activities of a cognitive psychologist and are introduced to the joys and frustrations of research. As a mentor, the most valuable skill that I have learned is how to tailor my mentoring to the individual needs of the student. Some students need more guidance than others; I have been able to adjust the degree to which I supervise my mentees based on their needs. I have also learned how to better "read" my students; not everyone will overtly tell me that they do not understand an analysis, theory, or method. This skill is important because I want to guide my students to a full understanding of the research process 

Teaching matters to me because I can impact society through the success of my students. I hope to reach learners along the spectrum referred to earlier: from the ones truly passionate about psychology to the ones for whom psychology is not their “thing”. If I spark more interest in the passionate students and encourage them to pursue research opportunities outside of the classroom, then their own work will impact the community at large. As for the other students, gaining knowledge about how and why we think the way that we do is beneficial in its own right, but also encourages interdisciplinarity through connections to myriad other topics in which the student could be interested. Fostering this network of knowledge helps the student engage outside the classroom and apply principles of psychology, especially learning and memory, to material from all disciplines.

1. See Roediger, H. L., Agarwal, P. K., Kang, S. H. K, & Marsh, E. J. (2010) for a review