School name: University of Central Missouri
Type of school: Public four-year university with Master’s programs
School locale: Warrensburg, MO, about 50 miles southeast of Kansas City metro area
Classes you teach: General Psychology, Cognitive Psychology, Advanced Statistics (graduate)
Average class size: This is a case where reporting the mean would be misleading due to variability! General Psychology 30-60, Cognitive Psychology about 25, Advanced Statistics 8-12.
What’s the best advice about teaching you’ve ever received?
During my first year of full-time teaching, a couple of colleagues invited me to go to a workshop led by the author of our Intro textbook, a guy named Doug Bernstein. Doug suggested something that has stuck with me for the ensuing 30 years. He advised us to do something fun in every class meeting. He shared a number of activities as examples, some of which I have used, but the important thing to me was to make teaching a fun experience. I think about Doug’s advice every time I’m planning a class, whether face to face or online.
What book or article has shaped your work as a psychology teacher?
I can’t point to one particular book or article. I run across numerous cool ideas in journals such as Teaching of Psychology. Instead of one particular book, I’m going to say that Steven Pinker’s writing has been a big influence on me. Books including The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works made me think about how the topics in our discipline cut across textbook chapters. He presents ideas in an interesting, thoughtful, and sometimes provocative way. I’m no Steven Pinker, but the way he communicates makes me think that we can engage students and get them excited about our field.
Briefly tell us about your favorite lecture topic or course to teach.
My favorite course to teach is General Psychology (Intro Psych). I enjoy introducing students to the field. It’s fun to be able to pick a few interesting concepts from different areas and help students appreciate the relevance to their lives. I like the opportunity to change how students perceive the world.
Briefly describe a favorite assignment or in-class activity.
For online courses, I like to use SoftChalk Lessons. I think about what I want students to learn, then I create pages in SoftChalk that are a combination of text, video clips, links, and review or reflection questions. These lessons are available asynchronously. I give students multiple opportunities so that they can get more points if they don’t get them all the first time through. I want all students to have the opportunity to be successful…if they are willing to put in the effort.
My favorite FTF activity is a demonstration of a neural circuit. It involves three rows of students, who simulate the neurons, and some running around by me. The neural circuit is something I learned about from one of my graduate school professors, Dennis McFadden, who was an excellent teacher. It’s a circuit that localizes the direction of a sound, so the activity is appropriate for either for the Bio or Sensation & Perception chapters. I have run across examples of really cool activities in which students act out the process of neurons sending messages. But I want students to understand that neurons working together can actually do things, the kinds of things that we’re interested in understanding. If a circuit of 30 neurons can localize a sound, what can billions of them do? If anyone is interested, there’s an article in Teaching of Psychology about this activity.
Kreiner, D.S. (2012). An activity for demonstrating the concept of a neural circuit. Teaching of Psychology, 39, 209-212. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628312450438
What teaching and learning techniques work best for you?
This semester, after unexpectedly taking on a section of General Psychology, I decided to try something a little different. Instead of organizing the class by content area (basically chapter subheadings), I organized each class meeting around interesting phenomena and then connected to whatever concepts (for that chapter) were relevant. For example: let’s look at this illusion; now, what concepts about sensation and perception does that help us understand?
With the transition to all-online teaching due to the COVID-19 situation, I am using the same organizational style with online lessons. I had already been using SoftChalk for my online Cognitive Psychology course. So, for the last week or two I have been creating SoftChalk lessons for General Psychology, organizing them the same way I did for face to face meetings. It makes me enthusiastic about approaching each lesson. I hope that enthusiasm will come across to my newly online students.
I like to use face to face class time for activities and group work. Any of these types of activities could be done online. For Sensation & Perception, I moved to using class time mainly for small group activities followed by discussion. Students read and take a quiz before class so that they are prepared to apply what they learn. I later found out this was called a flipped classroom.
I did something similar when I started teaching our capstone course, History of Psychology. I didn’t want to validate the mistaken idea that history is boring, so I had students work together to apply what they had learned in various Psychology courses in the context of historical issues. For example: after watching video of the Little Albert study, apply your knowledge of Developmental Psychology to evaluate Albert’s behavior. Sadly, I haven’t been teaching History of Psychology or Sensation & Perception in recent years due to my administrative duties.
What’s your workspace like?
My situation is a bit unusual as I am chair of an academic unit (called a School) that includes several disciplines and is geographically separated across two campus buildings. I have an office in each building. Each office is set up with a monitor and docking station. I use electronic documents as much as possible to reduce the clutter. As I write this, I am now working from home due to the COVID-19 situation. My reliance on electronic documents has made this transition a little easier. I do not have a home office as I normally leave work at the office as much as possible.
Three words that best describe your teaching style.
I can hear my young son watching Dr. Seuss videos and as a result the three words that immediately come to mind are: “stink, stank, stunk.” I hope those are not the right ones.
These three words are more aspirational: focused, flexible, fun.
What is your teaching philosophy in 8 words or fewer?
It’s all about what the students learn.
Tell us about a teaching disaster (or embarrassment) you’ve had and how you dealt with the situation.
In the early days of using PowerPoint, when our classrooms did not yet have digital projectors, we had a cart set up with a projector and laptop. It was so cutting edge! I was all prepared for the first day of a summer statistics course. I rolled the cart into the classroom and plugged it in. Then it started smoking. I unplugged it and had a moment of panic about how I would teach. As the smoke cleared, I remembered that I had taught statistics for years without using a projector at all. It was a good reminder not to be too reliant on slides or any particular technology.
What is something your students would be surprised to learn about you?
That there is a ton of stuff I don’t know. I think there is a perception that I know how to do a lot of things. But that is an error of attribution. When I’m able to solve a problem or answer a question, it’s almost always because other people are helping me. I am not at all ashamed of that, as I think it’s just as good to know who to ask for help as it is to know how to do it myself.
What are you currently reading for pleasure?
I recently read Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run. I like stories about people, which is the same reason I was happy to teach History of Psychology. I just started reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers. I also read an essay every now and then from David Sedaris’s Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. It’s a nice stress reliever. I am not one of those people who is constantly reading something, but lately I am doing more leisure reading as a coping method for being cooped up at home.
What tech tool could you not live without?
Dropbox changed my life. I know pretty much everyone uses a cloud service now, but when I started using Dropbox everything changed for me in terms of what I could access and where. It doesn’t have to be Dropbox specifically, but if the cloud “evaporated,” it would be a big problem for me.
What is your hallway chatter like? What do you talk to colleagues about most (whether or not it is related to teaching/school)?
As we were leading up to the change to working remotely, much of the hallway talk (from six feet away) was speculation about what would happen and how we would deal with the changes.
Generally, I find that the type of conversation differs across different colleagues. It may be following up on something, such as asking how something turned out or whether we resolved a problem. Often, it’s mutual support and humor. It will be interesting to observe how informal communication changes now that we are handling everything remotely.