School name: University of Massachusetts – Lowell
Type of school: Public University
School locale: urban
Classes you teach: Cognitive Psychology (200-level); Research Lab (300-level); Applying Cognitive Psychology to Education Seminar (400-level)
Average class size: 15-20 (300 or 400-level); 30-40 (200-level)
What’s the best advice about teaching you’ve ever received?
“Be better organized”…from student feedback. No-one likes a disorganized teacher.
What book or article has shaped your work as a psychology teacher?
When I started my faculty position, I read the first few chapters of James Lang’s On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching, and this greatly calmed my nerves. Then I got too busy and never got a chance to finish it.
Briefly tell us about your favorite lecture topic or course to teach.
I love teaching about memory. False memory used to be my favorite, but after 100 times of demonstrating bed-rest-awake-sleep?, I had to find a new favorite. So now, I really enjoy teaching about superior autobiographical memory. This is the phenomenon where a person remembers everything from their past – you give them a date, and they can recall exactly what they did that day! It is really fun teaching this, because students are so amazed (it’s such a rare phenomenon), and at the same time there are many teachable moments, too: no, it’s not photographic memory, which doesn't actually exist; and no, it’s not domain-general (working memory is no better in these individuals).
Briefly describe a favorite assignment or in-class activity.
My favorite thing to do is to describe the methods of a study, and get students to draw a graph predicting the results. It’s great because there are no right or wrong answers – the students just need to demonstrate that they understand the manipulation, and how to graph data. I then go around the room and ask each student to briefly justify why they predicted that pattern of data; this helps me make sure that they didn’t just plot random data points (I’m happy to say that this has actually never happened). The first time I have students do this activity, half the class totally freaks out. By the end of the semester, they are comfortable drawing predictions for two-way interactions. It is very satisfying!
What teaching and learning techniques work best for you?
My research is in applying cognitive psychology to education, so techniques that draw on that research are on the forefront of my mind when I plan teaching and learning activities for my students. For example, all my lectures include a quiz component – usually low-stakes questions distributed randomly throughout the lecture. I also make a lot of use of self and peer review so that students can learn how to critique writing. This also drastically reduces the amount of grading I do, which one might think is a good thing…but I’m actually a weirdo who loves grading!
What’s your workspace like?
I work everywhere: in my office (very rarely), at home in bed (much too often), and in cafes (my favorite!). But this semester, I’ve discovered a really amazing teaching space. It is a “maker space” that was entirely created by a colleague in my department, Dr. Sarah Kuhn. This space has all sorts of arts and crafts materials, Legos, and a coffee maker. I found that the atmosphere the room created was unlike any teaching experience I’ve ever had! Students come early and make themselves coffee, and seem much more open to discussing the material than my last semester class that met in a regular classroom (though of course, I fully recognize that this is a terribly confounded observation). I also found myself moving away from PowerPoint to more spontaneous drawings on the whiteboard, which has been really fun.
Three words that best describe your teaching style.
Animated, awkward, and engaging? I don’t know! This was hard.
What is your teaching philosophy in 8 words or fewer?
Engage students so they learn instead of sleeping.
Tell us about a teaching disaster (or embarrassment) you’ve had and how you dealt with the situation.
I recently made a really awkward joke that made it seem like I was making fun of a student when I wasn’t intending that AT ALL (obviously). I was trying to scaffold the student to help them remember something, but the hint I gave them inadvertently made it seem like I thought they didn’t care about the class. The student – clearly not getting the hint at all – glared at me like I had just killed their puppy. And the worst part? My Chair was observing the class. I dealt with it by protesting too much – “oh, no, of course, I KNOW you care A GREAT DEAL about this class!!!” which in the case of this particular student, luckily (ironically?), was quite true.
What is something your students would be surprised to learn about you?
In my spare time, I perform in a ladies Latin dance team!
Here's a photo – I’m the first lady from the right in the front row!
What are you currently reading for pleasure?
Elena Ferrante – I felt like I read about her novels every day in 2015, so it’s finally time to actually read her.
What tech tool could you not live without?
As of recently, I can’t live without Twitter. In January 2016, I started a community called the Learning Scientists (@AceThatTest on Twitter) where we discuss evidence-based practices in education. Although it started out as a small spontaneous idea (click here for the story) and mushroomed into a huge project with an extremely productive blog (learningscientists.org) and lively community! These days, I spend most of my spare moments on Twitter arguing about the role of cognitive psychology in education with teachers and other academics.
What is your hallway chatter like? What do you talk to colleagues about most (whether or not it is related to teaching/school)?
Feminism. I didn’t give being a woman a second thought until I got pregnant in my late 20s. Then – BAM! – suddenly life was all about being a woman, and it’s like a whole world of sexism and barriers opened up in front of me.