Smooth Graduate Student Teaching in Psychology: 4 Ways Active Learning Can Save You Time (No, Really!)

06 Mar 2018 3:00 PM | Anonymous
By Lauren A. J. Kirby, M.S., Auburn University

I recently co-authored a chapter with my colleagues Bill Buskist and Jessica Busler in Obeid, Schwartz, Shane-Simpson, and Brooks’s (2017) GSTA Guide to Student-centered Teaching available online called ‘Five Steps to Becoming a Student-centered Teacher.’ In that chapter we discuss ways that graduate student teachers can implement active learning strategies, as well as overcoming the barriers to those techniques. In this post I focus on one of those barriers: time. Graduate students may feel especially pressed for time and especially shy of using unorthodox teaching techniques. It may seem easier and time-saving to teach in ways we have been taught for most of our academic lives, and for many of us that involves mostly lecture. However, this rests on the assumption that active learning necessarily takes more time than passive approaches. I am currently a fifth-year graduate student and am teaching for the 6th consecutive semester, having prepared three different courses: Introduction to Psychology, Research Methods in Psychology, and Cognitive Psychology. I have taught sections with as few as 10 and as many as 175 students with the assistance of undergraduate teaching assistants, graduate teaching assistants, and sometimes no teaching assistants. All the while I have been working on graduate milestones such as my own coursework, my General Doctoral Examination, my dissertation, and a job search, which consisted of submitting over 50 applications and traveling to multiple campus interviews. How have I made it work? With plenty of active learning techniques, believe it or not! Following are four of the key strategies I have used to save time on my teaching (which I love to do!) while balancing all my other responsibilities.

  1. “A stitch in time saves nine.” “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” You get the idea. Most of my work is on the front end of the course. Create a detailed syllabus that anticipates as many student concerns as possible. You might even politely refuse to answer e-mails that would be answered by reading the syllabus. This approach requires much organization: you must decide before the first day of the semester exactly how many assignments you will give, point values, extra credit opportunities, and policies concerning late work, among other issues. For an example, check out sample materials at my teaching page of my ePortfolio at A well-organized syllabus can provide students with details about the front-end work they may need to do in a more active classroom, such as watching lectures on their own time and doing “homework” in class. By providing all due dates ahead of time and holding students responsible for them, I encourage students to manage their own reminders for assignments rather than relying on my announcements in class. Thus, they learn self-reliance while I save time.
  2. Consider your use of technology. I use classroom polling technology to ask students questions during lectures and class activities. I have personally used Top Hat, but my colleagues have used a variety of platforms such as iClicker or Poll Everywhere. Make sure to check with the IT department in your college as to which platforms are allowed or encouraged. Many can use secure attendance collection while providing a variety of question formats to use. Students can remain more alert during class, and you can assess their learning quickly with easy grading.
  3. Student autonomy (within bounds) can be your friend. I sometimes leave some flexibility for due dates in the syllabus. For example, in my Introduction to Psychology class (which is typically large), I give a writing assignment, but instead of having it due at the end of the semester, I have four possible due dates on the syllabus among which students can choose. This way, I only have a quarter of the class’s papers to grade at any given time. If given the opportunity, most students will choose the latest due date, and that won’t save you any time. Thus, I allow only a limited number of students to sign up for each due date, and if they do not sign up for one in a timely manner, I assign them myself. Another way I allow autonomy is by providing students with several writing prompts from which to choose. Too much structure (e.g., one or two topics only) tends to bore students, whereas too little (e.g., “Examine a psychological phenomenon of your choice through the lens of a theory discussed in this course.”) sows confusion. I also allow students in upper-level courses a degree of self-governance. For example, when I assign students to work in teams, I require that they create their own team policies and sign a contract that I approve and sign as well. They may include regulations for choosing roles in the group, operationally define minimum acceptable contributions, sanction means of intra-team communication, and even provide for means of removing team members. I borrowed this from my undergraduate Experimental Psychology professor Dr. Gabriela Carrasco at the University of North Alabama and it appears to work swimmingly. This allows students to resolve disputes amongst themselves and saves you many potential complaint emails.
    • Bonus tip: consider using peer review. In order for peer review to benefit students and not waste everyone’s time, you need to give them practice with giving and receiving actionable, specific, and kind (ASK) feedback. In my Cognitive Psychology course last semester, I asked groups of students to practice oral presentations in small groups and implement peer feedback. I gave them a rating scale the previous day in class and asked them to watch two 3-Minute Thesis presentations I selected from YouTube. I then polled the class with a show of hands (e.g., “Raise your hand if you gave this speaker a 3/5 or above on clarity.”). If the majority of the class agreed with each other and me on the presenter’s strengths, I only briefly explained the presenters’ techniques. When I found significant disagreement, I asked for students to share their answers: in this way, I opened class discussion about communication skills. Then, the next day in class, students rated each other’s presentations using the same scale and gave qualitative feedback as well. These two class days required very little preparation on my part. I merely set up the conditions for student discussions to flourish. During class, I walked around to listen and drop in on groups in the presentation and feedback process. I did not have to rehearse anything or even put together any PowerPoint slides like I might have done had I lectured that day instead. Another key to using peer feedback to save time, be it on speeches, writing assignments, or problem-based learning exercises, is providing students with a structured set of questions to answer about their peers’ work. Otherwise, peer feedback can be vague and unhelpful, and students may come to you in confusion about their performance, or worse—stay silent and perform poorly on future work. Thus, peer feedback can save you time not only on grading the assignment at hand, but on future ones as well.
  4. Effective early feedback goes a long way. In my experience, assignments with more mistakes take more time to grade. When I catch as many crucial mistakes as early as I can, later assignments are more pleasant to read and faster to grade. Clear rubrics aid in this process as well. For writing assignments, I break them up into at least four different pieces and give feedback at each smaller stage, ensuring that my later papers are in better shape and take less time to edit. In order to ensure this, I do not award any points for papers turned in without clear effort to incorporate my previous feedback. Thus, students cannot get credit for turning in an unchanged draft. I start with an outline and topic: they must give me a clear thesis with an approved topic at this stage and an idea of the topic for each paragraph. Next, I ask for an expanded outline (to flesh out each bullet point into a paragraph) or an annotated bibliography for more research-heavy papers. One trick I use to get better papers is to never use the term “rough draft” for an earlier submission: instead a “first submission” is due. Along each step of the way, I give completion credit as long as each section of the rubric is present, regardless of its quality. I do not deduct points for mistakes at these early stages, but rather give written feedback for areas that need improvement for the next draft. By the time final drafts or “revisions” make it to my desk, many mistakes have already been caught. Students have learned something about how to improve their writing and APA formatting, and they have generally gained some writing confidence as well. All the while, I have saved valuable grading time.
    • Bonus tip: Consider giving mass feedback when appropriate. For example, when I give writing assignments, I get the same APA style errors from multiple students and I don’t want to type the same comment 50 times. This semester, I made a screen recording with my voice-over of me creating an appropriate APA running head, title page, reference page and other formatting points in Microsoft Word and posted it on Canvas. I told students the video was necessary feedback and that I would not grade assignments that had clearly not benefitted from watching it. I created this recording using the native application Quicktime on a MacBook; there are similar native capabilities in Windows 10. You may also create documents, PowerPoint presentations, or templates for similar purposes. Students are less likely at first to engage with and incorporate mass feedback, but sticking to hardline policies about feedback like I described above ensures that they quickly learn to pay attention. In this way, students can also have a bit more direction in difficult open-ended tasks like writing assignments because they have positive examples rather than simply deductions.

Thus, I have been able to balance teaching duties with the other hats I wear as a graduate student. I organize courses early and carefully, use technology in time-saving ways, encourage student autonomy, and give feedback early and often. All of these strategies are aimed at helping students develop skills of self-reliance, self-governance, self-reflection, and written and oral communication, among others. Don’t let anyone tell you that active learning is more work. Just remember not to make too many changes at once and stick to what feels natural to you at first. The bottom line is to work smart, not hard: consider these active learning techniques or others that fit your teaching style and personality.


Lauren is a PhD candidate at Auburn University in the Cognitive and Behavioral Sciences Program, working with Dr. Robinson in the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory. Upon graduation in August 2018, she will begin a position as an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Tyler. 

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