For the Love of Content

18 Nov 2017 9:00 AM | Anonymous

By Dr. Beth Morling, Ph.D., University of Delaware

Here’s a tale from my graduate course on the teaching of psychology. It was the second half of the semester and students were engaged in microteaching, preparing short lessons for each other. On her chosen week, a 3rd year Ph.D. student delivered an intro psych lesson on learning theory. She started with a mini-lecture with illustrated slides, then performed a short demonstration of the phenomenon. She conveyed a warm personal presence, used student names, and delivered responsive feedback. Her demo involved every student in the room; the audience loved it. There was only one problem: Her slides had introduced classical conditioning terms, but her demonstration involved only operant conditioning. She didn’t realize she had muddled the difference between the two types of learning.

And here’s a tale from the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology (NITOP). During a keynote presentation, distinguished developmentalist Dr. Nora Newcombe (2016) described the weak scientific support for Piaget’s stage theory and presented alternatives such as Vygotskian and information processing approaches. She openly wondered why textbooks persist in their focus on Piaget, given how the field has moved on. She speculated that Piaget remains in textbooks because his stages are simple to teach. Testbank authors can easily write multiple choice questions about Piaget’s stages and students feel mastery easily. While many in the audience were inspired to modernize their lessons, others seemed to resist. Why are some teachers and textbooks content with outdated research?

It might seem obvious that we need both pedagogy and accurate, modern content to be effective psychology teachers. However, these two events illustrate how sometimes content can take a back seat. 

Faculty used to complain that “nobody ever teaches you how to teach in graduate school!” sometimes adding, “I only learned how to conduct research and read journal articles.” Graduate students didn’t get trained in pedagogy because they focused on developing expertise in the field.

Luckily, the pedagogical training of graduate students has been improving. More graduate students take courses on teaching, and psychology’s vibrant teaching culture engages both faculty and graduate students. Teaching pre-conferences are attached to APS, SPSP, and SRCD, and there are free-standing teaching events such as NITOP and ACT. We’re developing a body of knowledge about active learning, course design, feedback, and student engagement. It’s all good. But our new focus on pedagogy should never eclipse expertise. Teachers of psychology need to know their content deeply, they need to know where students struggle with it, and they need to constantly update their understanding.


There’s a saying that goes: “Good teachers can teach anything!”  Or perhaps you’ve heard, “those who can’t do, teach.” Although we don’t have much data at the college teaching level, the K-12 literature disagrees. Students learn more from teachers who have high levels of content knowledge in their specific discipline. For example, Willingham (2013) blogged about a study of middle school science teachers (Sadler et al., 2013). It found a main effect such that students learn more from teachers who know their stuff. The pattern was also moderated by student ability. When teachers were low in subject-matter knowledge, their high-ability students could still learn something—presumably from the textbook. But their low-ability students learned….. nothing.  At the college level, we might reason that if students just use think-pair-share, just-in-time-teaching, and writing-to-learn, they will be engaged enough that learning will just happen. But such techniques are empty pedagogical shells until they are filled with content.

We have to convey content to our students because critical thinking—the skill we all value highly—cannot take place in a content-free space.  Content knowledge enables better learning and thinking in our students (Willingham, 2006).

Ruth Ault raised a similar point in the context of the job market. In a chapter about teaching at a liberal arts college, she wrote:  

“When candidates boast that they can teach anything in the discipline, our suspicions are aroused that the person does not understand the rigor of our courses or the caliber of our students.” (Ault, 2014, p. 167)

I think Ault’s statement is exactly right. A teaching-focused academic career does not preclude being steeped in the nerdy details of one’s discipline.

Ideally, content knowledge includes knowing what students struggle with.  Shulman writes:
“content knowledge includes an understanding of what makes the learning of specific topics easy or difficult: the conceptions and preconceptions that students of different ages and backgrounds bring with them to the learning of those most frequently taught topics and lessons.” (1986, p. 9).

Indeed, the Sadler et al. study (2013) introduced above also measured teachers’ knowledge of student misconceptions. Teachers were best able to produce learning when they were content experts and when they knew what students struggled with.


Building and Sustaining Content Knowledge

How can you ensure your preparation for college teaching includes both pedagogy and content? First, as you develop expertise in graduate school, track metacognition as well. My microteaching student got into trouble because she didn’t know what she didn’t know. Metacognitive accuracy comes from feedback (and probably humility, too). Put yourself in situations that answer, “What do I still need to learn?” Chart the course of your own misconceptions and learning because it’s likely your students will get snagged in similar spots.

Second, let your excitement about mastering content as a graduate student transition into a sustainable career of learning new things. I estimate that up to 90% of what I use in the classroom is stuff I learned after graduate school. My graduate education never touched behavioral genetics, gene-culture coevolution, zero-acquaintance accuracy, learning science, or Bayesian statistics, but I’ve learned them (OK… the last one’s still a work in progress). A lifetime of learning is probably what attracted you to the professoriate, but it’s not always easy. I’ll admit that when there’s a body of knowledge I’ve needed to learn, I grumbled and tried to avoid it. It can be hard on the ego to be the amateur in the room (see: Bayesian statistics, above). Acknowledge your resistance, but then get yourself to the library.

You can keep your learning going by regularly attending academic conferences---and not only the sessions on pedagogy. Even at NITOP, we take care to make sure our program includes content updates by subject matter experts as well as pedagogical talks. We know that our attendees need both.

Although there are no shortcuts, an enjoyable approach is to read (or listen to) trade books written by psychologists. I follow a rule that my audiobooks have to be nonfiction, so I’ve  “read” 8 psychology-related titles this year (including this one,  this one, this one, and this one.) If you’re about to point out that such books are not peer-reviewed and don’t dig into the research details—you’re right. But when it comes to introducing research I should know about and providing excellent real-world examples, they are invaluable.



 Shulman (1986) noted that 100 years ago, U.S. qualifying exams tested teachers’ knowledge of mathematics, spelling, grammar, penmanship, history, and so on—with only a few questions about pedagogy. But now, K-12 teaching standards focus on pedagogical topics such as organization, classroom management, and cultural awareness; not content. Shulman asked, “Where did the subject matter go?  What happened to the content?”  (p. 5). In our own enthusiasm for the latest pedagogical techniques for psychology, let’s not let our content knowledge stagnate: Keep the balance between the two.

As a member of GSTA, you’re commended for supplementing your rigorous content training with pedagogical engagement. As you embark on your career, I hope you’ll also find sustainable ways to deepen your expertise so you can share the constantly-changing wonders of our field with your students.  


Ault, R. L. (2014). Four desirable qualities for teaching at a small liberal arts college. In J. N. Busler, B. C. Beins, & B. Buskist (Eds.) Preparing the New Psychology Professoriate: Helping Graduate Students Become Competent Teachers, 2nd ed. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site:

Newcombe, N. (2016, January 4). New Ways of Thinking about Cognitive Development: Implications for Teaching. Keynote presentation at NITOP, St. Petersburg Beach, FL.

Sadler, P. M., Sonnert, G., Coyle, H.P., Cook-Smith, N., & Miller, J.L. (2013) Student learning in middle school science classrooms. American Educational Research Journal, 50, 1020-1049.

Shulman, L.S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Research, 15, 4-14.

Willingham, D. (2006) How knowledge helps. It speeds and strengthens reading comprehension, learning—and thinking. American Educator (online edition).

Willingham, D. (2013). What science teachers need to know. Downloaded from

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