Welcome to the GSTA blog! 

In an effort to keep the Graduate Student Teaching Association (GSTA) blog current, we regularly welcome submissions from graduate students as well as full-time faculty. As a blog team, we advocate for and promote inclusion, equity, and anti-racism in pedagogy (see updated GSTA Position Statement from the Steering Committee). At this critical juncture in history, we have declared our solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter and are motivated to use this platform to feature voices for change in the following areas as outlined by the GSTA:

  • Suggestions relating to decolonizing syllabi by including the work of scholars and psychologists from diverse identities and backgrounds.

  • Tips on adopting anti-racist and culturally responsive teaching and assessment practices.

  • Recommendations on creating inclusive learning environments that celebrate diversity and do not tolerate discrimination.

  • Strategies on discussing how discrimination and inequity have shaped the field of psychology and the world around us  with students and colleagues.

  • Tips on engaging with students and colleagues across disciplines in activism to create change in classrooms, institutions, and communities.

  • Input on being compassionate and supportive to students, colleagues, and ourselves during these times.

We are also still committed to diversifying blog content to include submissions ranging from new research in the area of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), public interest topics related to teaching and psychology, occasional book reviews, as well as continuing our traditional aim by including posts about teaching tips. Example topic areas include:

  • Highlights of your current SoTL research

  • Issues related to teaching and psychology in the public interest

  • Reviews of recent books related to teaching and psychology

  • Teaching tips and best practices for today's classroom

  • Advice for successfully navigating research and teaching demands of graduate school

  • We would especially like activities that align with APA 2.0 Guidelines!

The blog posts are typically short, ranging from about 500-1000 words, not including references. As it is an online medium, in-text hyperlinks, graphics, and even links to videos are strongly encouraged!

As we focus the spotlight on inclusion and non-discrimination, we will continue to provide  graduate students and faculty an outlet to share their experiences, ideas, and opinions regarding graduate students’ teaching practices.

If you would like for any questions to be addressed, you can send them to and we will post them as a comment on your behalf. If you are interested in submitting a post, please email us at 

Thanks for checking us out,

The GSTA Blog Editorial Team:

Hallie Jordan, Sarah Frantz, Maya Rose, Raoul RobertsTashiya Hunter, Laura Mason and Megan Nadzan

Follow us on twitter @gradsteachpsych or join our Facebook Group.

  • 02 Jan 2020 1:54 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    By Dr. Guy A. Boysen, McKendree University

    My wife and I were recently on the market for a car. We had a list of “must have” features: four doors, a sunroof, heated seats, under 30,000 miles, and less than 4 years old. When a pushy salesperson tried to get us to drive cars without these features, my reaction was “Not interested, bye,” not “Yes, I would love to buy different car than I asked for!” Academic search committees can be choosy too.

    Faculty positions in psychology often yield dozens of qualified applicants. As such, search committees can be selective. Poor fit is a kiss of death that leads to automatic rejection (Boysen, Morton, & Neives, 2019). Getting on the short list of applicants to be interviewed requires nearly perfect fit with the qualifications listed in the job advertisement.

    Lots of great cars sit undriven on car lots, and lots of highly qualified candidates get rejected for faculty positions. No, I do not want an SUV, even if is top of the line. And, no, your amazing record of research or teaching will not get you a job unless it matches what the search committee is looking for.

    The importance of fit cannot be overstated. In fact, there are several different types of fit to consider when applying for faculty positions (Boysen, 2019).

    Specialty Area

    The first type of fit to consider is specialty area. Search committees want someone with training and experience that falls into a specific area (e.g., clinical, cognitive, social). Candidates from other areas will be rejected. Despite all the work some candidates put into writing application materials that make themselves seem qualified for positions outside of their specialty area, the first line of their CVs may be the only thing search committees read if it lists the wrong specialty.

    Research vs. Teaching

    The second type of fit is with an institution’s relative focus on research and teaching (see more on this topic here). For example, as illustrated by the figures, faculty at doctoral universities report that having few publications is very much a kiss of death that leads to automatic rejection, but they are only somewhat kisses of death at master’s universities and baccalaureate colleges (Boysen et al., 2019). Teaching experience is essential too, but it follow the opposite pattern of importance by university type. Of course, at community colleges, there are no scholarship requirements, so extreme research productivity in the absence of teaching experience is a sign of poor fit.

    Teaching and Research Topics

    Job advertisements often list specific courses that successful candidates will be able to teach and specific areas of scholarship that successful candidates will be able to publish in. Although a candidate’s teaching and research area often overlaps with their specialty area, the two are not synonymous. Two psychologists in the same specialty area can have nonoverlapping teaching and research experiences. It is best not to stretch the truth about who you are as a psychologist. Neither you nor your future employer will be satisfied if you are hired to teach or do research in an area that does not fit your interests or expertise.

    “Additional” Qualifications

    Job advertisements can include a host of additional qualifications. Just to name a few examples, search committees may want candidates who know advanced statistical methods, who are dedicated to liberal arts education, who have assessment experience, or who have a commitment to diversity. Although qualifications like these may be categorized as “preferred,” “ideal,” or “additional,” do not treat them as optional. You can apply for positions where your CV does not cover every additional qualification, but you should take care to explain why you still think you are good candidate even without some of the qualifications. Ignoring holes in your CV is yet another kiss of death.

    Conclusion: Your Final Checklist

    When my wife and I were looking for cars, we created a list of features that became our car-search guide. You can do the same during your job search. Use the qualifications listed in job advertisements as a checklist for your application materials. Ensure that your materials – especially your CV and cover letter – demonstrate fit with most everything on the checklist. The search committee is assessing fit, and you should too.


    Boysen, G. A. (2019). Becoming a psychology professor: Your guide to landing the right academic job. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    Boysen, G. A., Morton, J., & Nieves, T. (2019). Kisses of death in the psychology faculty hiring process. Teaching of Psychology, 46, 260-266.


    Guy A. Boysen, PhD, is a Professor of Psychology at McKendree University. He received his Bachelor’s degree from Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota and his PhD from Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. His scholarship emphasizes the teaching of psychology, professional development of teachers, and stigma toward mental illness. He is the author of Becoming a Psychology Professor: Your Guide to Landing the Right Academic Job and An Evidence-based Guide to College and University Teaching. Dr. Boysen is on the editorial staff at Teaching of Psychology and Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology. Visit

    Contact the Author

    Twitter: @guyboysen

  • 09 Dec 2019 7:25 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    By Karen Brakke, Ph.D., Spelman College

    One of my intellectual heroes is Jerome Bruner.  In graduate school – back in the last century – it was his writings on infant language acquisition and skill development that guided my thinking.  As my research interests drifted into early motor development, I stepped away from Bruner in favor of another hero, Esther Thelen.  Then, around 2010 I joined a faculty book club on my campus and read Acts of Meaning.  I fell for Bruner all over again; this time focusing on his arguments about the use of story and narrative to share meaning and create identity.  Since that time, I’ve had the good luck to engage in a number of collaborations that have convinced me that story and narrative are critical tools for psychology instructors, and that these tools can be used to advantage in many ways.

    Stories themselves are not new, of course, nor are the narratives or frames used to tell them.  In fact, the power of story lies in its timelessness.  Our ancestors have told stories since the dawn of recorded history, and probably for generations before that.  Indeed, in many ways our brains are built to create and learn through stories. Throughout the millennia and across all cultures, as Bruner argues, stories have been used as a way for people to share experiences, pass along knowledge and wisdom to others, and provide frames of meaning to our lives.  In short, stories have long been the tools of education.

    One of the goals of contemporary teaching, particularly in this age of staggering data proliferation, is to help students generate meaning about what they learn. Why not use stories to help do this?  As psychologists teaching about human behavior, many of us already use stories to support our work in the classroom. We may do so, however, with little thought other than wanting to provide an illustrative example here and there. Or we may write case studies without fully realizing the narrative devices that make some cases more effective than others.  We may not take advantage of all the ways that stories can be used in our classes to introduce or assess material, to reinforce and apply concepts, or even to help our students practice life-authorship as they prepare for adulthood.

    This blog doesn’t provide nearly enough space to discuss all the ways in which story can support teaching and learning.  Fortunately, there are many resources available that support the pedagogical use of story in higher education.  Several websites are devoted to the art and craft of storytelling. Among these is Tim Sheppard’s site (, which provides a clearinghouse of resources that you may find helpful. If you are interested in digital storytelling, the Creative Educator website  ( is a good place to start.  The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science ( provides a host of resources on case-study development and has several psychology-relevant case studies available for use as well. 

    Other resources not only provide practical ideas to use in the classroom, but also delve into the science behind storytelling.  For a quick overview of using story to teach psychology, I recommend three articles: Green and Brock (2000), Hazel (2008), and Landrum, Brakke, and McCarthy (2019).  One of my favorite sources of inspiration – and not just because I worked on it – is Telling Stories: The Art and Science of Storytelling as an Instructional Strategy, an STP ebook available for free download at Collins & Cooper’s The Power of Story: Teaching Through Storytelling is a handy book as well.  For a deeper dive into the role that stories play in human development and culture, I suggest (of course) Bruner’s Acts of Meaning and Actual Minds, Possible Worlds; Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories, or Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal.  Once you start looking, you’ll find a wealth of additional resources to support different uses of story in your teaching.  If you take the time to explore and let your creativity flow, I’m confident you’ll find a lot of engaging and effective ways to expand your teaching toolkit with story.


    Boyd, B. (2009). On the origin of stories: Evolution, cognition, and fiction. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

    Brakke, K. & Houska, J. A. (Eds.). (2015). Telling stories: The art and science of storytelling as an instructional strategy [ebook]. Retrieved from

    Bruner, J. S. (1990). Acts of meaning (Vol. 3). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

    Bruner, J. S. (2009). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

    Collins, R., & Cooper, P. J. (2005). The power of story: Teaching through storytelling (2nd ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

    Gottschall, J. (2012). The storytelling animal: How stories make us human. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

    Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2000). The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology79, 701-721.

    Hazel, P. (2008). Toward a narrative pedagogy for interactive learning environments. Interactive Learning Environments16, 199-213.

    Landrum, R. E., Brakke, K., & McCarthy, M. (2019). The pedagogical power of storytelling. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 5, 247-253. DOI: 10.1037/stl0000152 

    Karen Brakke is Associate Professor of Psychology at Spelman College in Atlanta GA, where she teaches a variety of courses and serves on several committees.  A developmental psychologist by training, she has published on early cognitive and motor development as well as teaching and learning.  Brakke is active in the Society for the Teaching of Psychology and has participated in many of the organization’s initiatives over the years. 

  • 09 Dec 2019 12:00 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    By David B. Strohmetz, Ph.D., University of West Florida and Natalie J. Ciarocco, Ph.D., Monmouth University

    Increasingly, faculty are being asked to incorporate “high impact practices” into their classes. This can be a confusing request as many of us may already believe we are making our courses “high impact.” At the same time, we are being asked to find opportunities for improving the career-readiness of our students. However, these two goals are not mutually exclusive. We can make our high impact practices even more impactful if we more intentionally integrate skill development into these experiences.

    The label of “high impact practices” (or HIPs) can be, in large part, attributed to the work of George Kuh and his colleagues (Kuh, 2008). They identified participation in certain educational experiences as related to important student outcomes such as improved academic performance, increased retention, and greater self-reported gains in learning. What makes HIPs “high impact” is that these educational activities require meaningful student investment of time and effort as well as substantive interactions with faculty and diverse others (Kuh & O’Donnell, 2013). HIPs provide students opportunities to engage in real world applications of their classroom learning and reflect upon their learning. Examples of HIPs include collaborative assignments and projects, undergraduate research, writing intensive courses, internships, and capstone courses and projects. Quality HIPs require students to engage in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and problem solving. We would argue that what makes HIPs particularly impactful is that they also provide opportunities for students to develop and practice the types of skills that employers desire in recent college graduates (Fabris, 2015; Hart Associates, 2018).

    Given that the majority of undergraduate psychology majors directly enter the workforce after graduation, increasing attention is being given to the skills students should be developing to facilitate their success in the workforce (Landrum & McCarthy, 2018). Appleby (2014) identified seven broad skills employers value in recent college graduates: communication skills, critical thinking and research skills, collaboration skills, self-management skills, professional skills, technological skills, and ethical skills. These skills reflect the types of activities which are characteristic of HIPs, meaning HIPs might serve multiple outcomes for our students, namely deeper learning and career preparation.

    HIPs which involve appropriately setting performance expectations; investment of significant time and effort; and frequent, timely, and constructive feedback can help students build their professional and self-management skills. Collaboration skills are also reinforced in HIPs that involve substantive interactions with others and experiences with diversity. For example, common HIP activities such as learning communities or collaborative assignments and projects require students to work together to achieve desired educational outcomes. Other notable HIPs such as writing intensive courses, undergraduate research, and capstone courses not only build communication skills, but are also likely to strengthen critical thinking skills. Internships, service learning, and community-based learning provide students with opportunities to develop and practice a number of employable skills.

    To learn if participating in HIPs might be related to one’s perceived skill efficacy, we examined data collected from 1,125 undergraduates through our website, This website provides students with the opportunity to engage in a self-assessment of their employable skills. Students complete the Employable Skills Self-Efficacy Scale (Ciarocco & Strohmetz, 2018) and then receive feedback on how their perceived confidence levels compare to other students. We also give students tips on how they might strengthen their employable skills. Among the demographic information we collected, we asked whether the respondent had completed an internship or participated in research, two common types of HIPs. We found a consistent pattern in self-efficacy differences between those who either did or did not participate in an internship and/or research-related experiences. Students who had completed an internship were more confident in their communication, analytical, collaboration, and professional development skills. Students who reported engaging in research reported more confidence in their analytical skills than those who had not. 

    Our data suggest that students who engage in these types of HIPs feel more confident in their employable skills, which is encouraging given that this type of skill development was probably not the focus of these activities and more likely a happy by-product.  To strengthen our students’ career preparation, we encourage faculty to be more intentional about skill development when incorporating HIPs in their courses. There are many ways to include skills development while engaging your students in HIPs (for more details, see Ciarocco & Strohmetz, 2020). Some ideas include highlighting skill development on your first and last days of class, as well as in your syllabus. You might also ask students to reflect on the skills they have developed through their high impact experiences and help them translate those skills to interviews and application materials. With a little re-tooling of your HIPs to intentionally include skill development, you have the opportunity to help your students become deeper learners and more confident about their skill sets at graduation.



    Appleby, D. C. (2014). A skills-based academic advising strategy for job-seeking psychology majors. In R. Miller & J. Irons (Eds.), Academic advising: A handbook for advisors and students, Vol. 1: Models, students, topics, and issues, pp. 143–156. Retrieved from

    Ciarocco, N. J., & Strohmetz, D. B. (2018). The Employable Skills Self-Efficacy Survey: An assessment of skill confidence for psychology undergraduates. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology4, 1-15. doi:10.1037/stl0000102

    Ciarocco, N. J., & Strohmetz, D. B. (2020). Psychology for the Workforce: Using the Classroom to Help Students Develop and Market Their Employable Skills? In T. Ober, E. Che, J. Brodsky, C. Raffaele, & P. J. Brooks (Eds.). How we teach now (Volume 2): The GSTA guide to transformative teaching.

    Fabris, C. (2015). College students think they’re ready for the work force. Employers aren’t so sure. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

    Hart Research Associates (2018). Fulfilling the American dream: Liberal education and the future of work. Washington, DC: Association of American College and Universities.

    Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. AAC&U, Washington, D.C.

    Kuh, G. D., & O'Donnell, K. (2013). Ensuring quality & taking high-impact practices to scale. Washington, DC: AAC&U.

    Landrum, R. E., & McCarthy, M. A. (2018). Measuring the benefits of a bachelor’s degree in psychology: Promises, challenges, and next steps. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology4(1), 55–63.

    Dr. David Strohmetz is Chair and Professor of Psychology at the University of West Florida.  Dr. Natalie Ciarocco is a Professor of Psychology at Monmouth University.  They frequently work together to promote undergraduate professional development and best practices in the teaching of research methods. Their collaborations include developing a self-administered assessment of employable skills (, authoring with another colleague the innovative textbook, Discovering the Scientist Within: Research Methods in Psychology, and creating the teaching resource

  • 09 Dec 2019 10:21 AM | Anonymous

    By Maureen A. Coyle, Ph.D. Student, The Graduate Center, CUNY

    One of the things I emphasize the most to my students is that our perceptions of our social world are influenced by our expectations. Thus, students should be mindful of how their background (e.g., family upbringing, previous education) and identities (e.g., ethnic identity, sexual orientation) shape their observations and responses. Students should also consider how their behaviors can influence how others respond to them. Sometimes our expectations lead us to act in such a way that our expectations become true. This is known as self-fulfilling prophecy. Self-fulfilling prophecies affect ourselves (like if I think I’m going to fail an exam and decide to not study, I will most likely fail that exam) and others (like if I think someone is rude, I may act abrasively to them which will lead that person to respond rudely, confirming my assumption).

    Self-fulfilling prophecy is often covered in introductory chapters of Social Psychology. However, I think that instructors across disciplines should also consider covering this concept in their early classes. This is because self-fulfilling prophecy can impact students’ motivation, engagement, and performance in whatever courses they’re in. Below I will discuss a role-playing activity I use to help students understand self-fulfilling prophecy.

    I present this to students as an “Expectations Activity” before defining self-fulfilling prophecy. I first ask for four volunteers who don’t mind wearing baseball caps. As students volunteer, I hand them a baseball cap. Each baseball cap has an index card pinned on the front side with a trait and another index card taped over it (this is so students are unaware of what trait they are labelled with). Once the students have the caps on their head, I remove the top index card taped down so that the rest of the volunteers and class can view the trait labels. The traits are smart, lazy, mean, and control freak.

    The volunteers are instructed to treat each other according to the traits, assuming the traits are the true characteristics of the students wearing them. I tell students that this activity is like an episode of the TV show The Office where the employees had labels of different races on their foreheads and had to treat each other according to the stereotypes about those races. The students are given five tasks to work on together in front of the class. They must reach consensus on the task before moving to the next one. I display the tasks one at a time on a PowerPoint slide, so they are unaware of what the next tasks are and can focus on the current one.

    The tasks are as follows:

    (1) Indicate 4 best reasons for being a Brooklyn College student

    (2) Decide on a new course to be offered at Brooklyn College

    (3) Settle if comprehensive exams should be required to graduate

    (4) Determine the #1 thing that must be changed at Brooklyn College

    (5) Line up in order from least to most likable

    I tell the volunteers that they cannot say the traits (or synonyms of the traits) in their interactions and can only respond to in ways they think are appropriate given the traits they’re labelled with. As they work together, the students typically turn to the ‘smart’ one and listen to whatever he/she says, which confirms that he/she is ‘smart.’ No one usually asks for the ‘lazy’ student’s opinion and this student usually speaks the least, which confirms his/her ‘laziness.’ The students are usually mean to the ‘mean’ one, which tends to make the ‘mean’ one respond in a mean way. Whatever the ‘control freak’ says is usually dismissed by the other students and he/she usually struggles to gain influence, which confirms that he/she is ‘controlling.’ After they finish the tasks, I ask them to guess their trait label. They often can figure out what trait they have based on the way the students treated them.

    Afterwards, I define self-fulfilling prophecy and identify instances where self-fulfilling prophecies occurred in the previous activity. I bring up how self-fulfilling prophecies can affect our experiences in group projects (this is especially important to acknowledge if group work is a component of your course) and ask students where else they see evidence of self-fulfilling prophecies (students usually bring up things like first dates and exams). I then give them a survey asking them how effective the activity was in demonstrating self-fulfilling prophecy and how much each person acted in accordance with the trait they were labelled with. This is not only an assessment tool but helps me in the following class on research methods when introducing correlations.

    In the following class, after defining positive correlation (when two variables covary in the same direction), I show students the correlation between how effective the activity was and how much students believed the volunteers acted in accordance with their label. Regardless of how effective students rated the activity, their effectiveness rating has a strong positive correlation with how much they believed the volunteers acted in accordance with their labels. Thus, this activity has a twofold benefit for teaching students social psychological concepts (self-fulfilling prophecy and positive correlation).

    This activity has a lot of flexibility in terms of appropriate trait labels and what activities to solve as a group. Occasionally students’ behaviors don’t match their traits. When this happens, I explain how our expectations are not always right and will not always lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. Regardless of how much self-fulfilling prophecies occur in the activity, I like to end with highlighting the importance of recognizing our own biases so that negative expectations don’t lead to negative outcomes for ourselves and for those that we are interacting with. If you use this activity or variations of it, please feel free to let me know how it goes at!

    Maureen A. Coyle is a PhD student in the Basic and Applied Social Psychology program at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is also an adjunct instructor and lab manager of the Health, Emotion, and Relationships Team (HEART) Lab at Brooklyn College. Her research focus is the influence of media and technology on impression formation and relationship development. Maureen emphasizes the Writing to Learn strategy in her classroom and is completing Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) certification at Kingsborough Community College during the 2019-2020 academic year.

  • 29 Oct 2019 4:00 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    By Jenel Cavazos, Ph.D., University of Oklahoma

    I first started teaching college courses at the age of 25. I was in my 2nd year of graduate school and had just finished my master’s degree, which was the requirement to be an “instructor of record” at my institution. I taught a summer class – Introduction to Personality – to a small and largely uninterested group of psychology students (including a few very large football players, but that’s another story). I vividly remember the advice that was given to me, a 5’2” female, before I began teaching. I was told I would have to work hard to make sure I was respected, and the way to do that was to distinguish myself from my students through attitude and dress. I shouldn’t be too friendly or too casual with the students or they would see me as “one of them” and I wouldn’t be respected. Along the same lines, I was told to always dress formally so that they would see me as the one who was in charge. I definitely got the message that authority was more about how you look than who you are.

    Now I’m not necessarily saying that this advice was incorrect because it works very well for some people (and women do generally have a harder time establishing authority in the classroom than men, which is a whole other topic). I will say that when I look back 15 years later, I realize I wasn’t the teacher I could have been in those first classes because I was overly concerned with making sure I had the “right” look and demeanor. We only have so much mental bandwidth, and mine was focused on living up to the image in my head of what a professor was “supposed” to look, sound, and act like. Through a lot of trial and error, I have learned that there are many other, much more effective ways to communicate authority in the classroom.

    I am thankful that in today’s world, dress seems to be less of a definitive marker of status than it was in the past. The students know who their professor is, and that person is in charge regardless of what they look like. With some unfortunate exceptions, most students afford their instructor some measure of authority just by virtue of being the instructor. So, if a suit or a dress makes you feel uncomfortable, don’t wear it. You won’t be as effective of a teacher if you are thinking more about your clothes than your class. Of course, I’m not suggesting that you wear sweats and a baggy t-shirt to teach – but as a general rule, students are going to respect you based on what you do, not what you wear.

    So if clothes don’t communicate authority, what does? The simple answer is confidence! Have you ever heard the phrase, “fake it ‘till you make it?” This is absolutely true of teaching, especially when it comes to your attitude when you’re first starting out. You may be nervous and unsure of yourself, and that’s completely understandable. But it’s your confidence in what you know and what you can do that communicates the most to the students. It tells them that you are in charge, and that you can be trusted. The best teachers aren’t those who know everything; the best teachers are the ones who aren’t afraid to make mistakes and admit what they don’t know. They are able to be human in front of their students and to learn alongside them. They don’t let their fear of imperfection get in the way of taking a risk and trying something new. If the students know you will always do your best for them, then the mistakes don’t matter – they trust you to fix them. So be confident in yourself and your abilities. You were put in your position for a reason, so go out there and make the most of it!

    Dr. Jenel Cavazos is an Associate Professor and Master Teacher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Oklahoma. As the Introductory Psychology Program Coordinator, she teaches an average of 1500 students per year, supervises sections of PSY1113 taught by graduate students, and conducts a graduate mentor program for teaching. Her emphasis areas include curriculum development, the implementation of technology in the classroom, and program assessment. Her research focuses on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Introductory Psychology. She has received several university teaching awards and was named a College of Teaching Excellence Faculty Fellow for 2017-18. 

    Twitter: @jenelcavazos

  • 21 Oct 2019 5:11 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    By Suzanne Wood, Ph.D., University of Toronto

    When David Epstein introduces us to Judy Swanson, a professor of political philosophy, in Chapter 8 of Range, she was at a conference about overspecialization in the social sciences. Epstein notes that, to him, Dr. Swanson seemed quite specialized. Of the forty-four articles and books listed on her webpage, each one had “Aristotle” in the title. Dr. Swanson, however, viewed her academic career quite differently. She is not specialized enough. Why? She teaches undergraduates. When she teaches undergraduates, she needs to think and talk and learn about more than Aristotle. “There is this feeling of frustration…that I should be doing something more specialized” Swanson explains (p. 181).

    Range is not a book about pedagogy, psychology, or graduate students, so it may seem like a strange fit as an entry in the Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s Graduate Student Teaching Association blog. However, this book could be one of the most important works you read in your graduate studies.

    Academic Success Is for the Hedgehogs

    In the odyssey of graduate school, you are either excitedly embarking upon this voyage, in the murky depths of it, or struggling to just finish the thing, doggy paddling ashore with a leathery sunburned face and a deflated volleyball as your companion. You succeeded as an undergraduate. You overcame the hurdles to gaining admission into grad school. Even if your plans are now to leave academia, you have spent enough time within its hallowed walls to absorb its culture. Academia tells us that narrowing in on one topic is the path to success.

    And this is true. To be a successful academic today, you must be a hedgehog. Using terms coined by Philip Tetlock, a psychologist and political scientist, Epstein divides us into hedgehogs, or those who burrow deep into one field, and foxes, who wander about, learning a little about a lot (p. 221). Hedgehogs are absolutely necessary for the progression of knowledge. In psychology, we need the “methods person”, who is able to show us how to properly use our eye-tracker in conjunction with the heart rate monitor and analyze the resultant data. We need our cingulate cortex expert. Our norepinephrine aficionado. We would be nowhere without these specialists.

    However, there is a danger in filling our universities and research institutions with nothing but specialists. The current incentive structure of academia does not allow room for foxes, even if, as Epstein argues throughout Range, they may be better equipped for handling problems that necessitate creative or divergent thinking. Using examples from as far afield as the development of the Nintendo Game Boy, the success of the Girl Scouts organization, the creation of Van Gogh’s lily pad series, and on, Epstein explores the making of the minds behind some of the biggest innovations of our time. Their stories share a common thread: a seemingly bizarre and unpredictable path to success. Epstein argues, though, that these stories are not at all bizarre. In fact, the longer the delay until settling upon a path in life, the more varied the initial life experiences, the greater the chance of finding a person with a true capacity for creativity and innovation.

    In academics, the immediate success of a paper (typically determined by factors such as the prestige of the journal of publication, citations within the first year, etc.) can inform everything from hiring decisions to pay raises. Successful papers tend to be written by hedgehogs. If considering long-term impact of work, though, foxes seem to come out ahead:

    “A separate, international team analyzed more than a half million research articles, and classified a paper as ‘novel’ if it cited two other journals that had never before appeared together. Just one in ten papers made a new combination, and only one in twenty made multiple new combinations. The group tracked the impact of research papers over time. They saw that papers with new knowledge combinations were more likely to be published in less prestigious journals, and also much more likely to be ignored upon publication. They got off to a slow start in the world, but after three years, the papers with new knowledge combos surpassed the conventional papers, and began accumulating more citations from other scientists. Fifteen years after publication, studies that made multiple new knowledge combinations were way more likely to be in the top 1 percent of most-cited papers.

    “To recap: work that builds bridges between disparate pieces of knowledge is less likely to be funded, less likely to appear in famous journals, more likely to be ignored upon publication, and then more likely in the long run to be a smash hit in the library of human knowledge.” (p. 281-2)

    Looking ahead in your career, if you want to make an impact outside of the realm of the handful of researchers in your specialization, you are better off being a fox. You just may not be a successful academic.

    Teach Like a Fox

    A few years back, colleagues and I discussed the content of each of the departmental core courses. We wanted our students to neither miss major concepts, nor learn the same less important concept three times over. A colleague of mine, concerned with academic freedom, did not want this type of curriculum in place. “Well, we should each just teach what we know.” On the surface, this makes great sense. In academia, the best teaching gig is a seminar in which you get to discuss original journal articles directly related to your own research. This is great for you; your students learn volumes from your expertise – everyone wins. Teach what you know.

    Now, before students enter this seminar, they need to learn some basic principles. Someone has to teach that. My dissertation was not about every aspect of behavioral neuroscience, but I can certainly teach basic behavioral neuroscientific findings that fall outside of the amygdala and hippocampus. Moreover, if all I taught was what I already knew, I would be missing out on the layers of cortex and the underlying nuclei that went unexplored in my niche graduate school and postdoctoral research. Even though my research has addressed addiction, without teaching a first-year seminar, I may remain ignorant of the history of drug laws and the strong relationship between systemic racism and today’s American drug policies. Teaching gave me the excuse to explore these topics, which fall outside of my specific research questions. What a privilege and a treat to be able to spend my time learning fascinating new domains of work (N.B.: I may not feel this way at 1:00 am when I’m still making Keynote slides about the different motor system pathways for lecture later today, but I stand by my previous statement). I’m not saying to send a psychologist in to teach how to program in LISP (a reference to a class I took as an undergraduate that used what was, even back then, a completely outdated computer language, but whose core, logical structure I have referred to time and again when learning new coding languages), but I am saying we can actively work against the silos of overspecialization, in part, through our teaching. When considering content to teach, do not fear being foxy.

    Range in Academia

    Let’s return to Dr. Swanson, the political philosophy professor. Reflecting upon her frustration with teaching undergraduates about topics outside of Aristotle, Epstein surmises that “[a]cademic departments no longer merely fracture naturally into subspecialties, they elevate narrowness as an ideal.” How does Epstein view this phenomenon? “That is counterproductive” (p.181).

    Have you ever wondered if there is a different way of doing things in academia, outside of what has “always” been done? Or whether what is currently being reinforced as the “best” model of an academic really is the best? Or why we have enormous mounds of research being produced, with very few paradigm-shifting findings? Range, a book neither about pedagogy nor academia, may be our spark for forging a new framework.


    Epstein, D. (2019). Range: Why Generalists Triumph in Specialized World. New York: Riverhead Books.

    Dr. Suzanne Wood is an Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream in University of Toronto’s Psychology department. She teaches courses focused on the brain, psychopharmacology and learning. She works with undergraduate researchers on projects ranging from study drug use to resiliency and anxiety at university. She had a circuitous path leading to academia, and would like to think those skills and experiences picked up along the way continue to inform her teaching today.

  • 10 Oct 2019 2:00 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    By Kristina Howansky, Ph.D., St. Mary's College of Maryland

    It’s Fall 2013. I am in my first semester as a Social Psychology PhD student. I stand in front of my class of 50 almost-as-anxious-as-I-am Psychological Statistics undergraduate students. They stare at me; I stare at them. My heart races. I ask myself, “Who the heck gave me the authority to do this?!”

    Being a graduate student teacher (GST) can be one of the most difficult and most rewarding experiences in graduate school. As I reflect back on my time as a GST, there are a few key pieces of advice I wish I could have told myself that first day in my statistics course. 

    You’re not an expert at everything and that’s a good thing.

    What if I tell my students incorrect information?! What if a student asks me a question that I don’t know the answer to?! My biggest anxiety as a GST centered around appearing incompetent. I believed that if my students thought I wasn’t knowledgeable about everything under the umbrella of the course topic I would lose their respect. Ironically, what I most feared that first day in my statistics course has developed into one of my favorite experiences in the classroom.

    You don’t know the answer to a student’s question? GOOD! As a classroom leader and role-model, not knowing the answer provides opportunities for both you and your students to learn. When you don’t know the answer, you have the chance to model a growth mindset for your students. You can highlight that no one knows everything and that everyone—yes even us! —has the ability to learn and change. You can model this by responding with excitement to questions you don’t know the answer to. Getting stumped by a student question also provides the chance for you to highlight that psychological science is ongoing. You can use this as an opportunity to teach students how to conduct a preliminary literature search. Still don’t have the answer? Even better! Now you can empower students to get involved in research and answer it themselves.

    At the end of the day we might be niche experts in our content areas but students themselves have diverse backgrounds and life experiences that can enrich classroom discussion. This is why…

    …you can learn as much from your students as they can learn from you.

    During a classroom discussion about sexism and gender stereotypes in my Social Psychology course, an older male student raised his hand and emphatically stated, “well if thinking men shouldn’t cry is sexist, then I’m sexist!” My gut reaction was anger. I wanted to immediately disparage this student for proudly identifying as a sexist. I am so glad I didn’t.

    Instead, I asked him to tell me more. He explained that as a father of young sons, he sees how the boys in his sons’ classes are bullied when they emote. As a working professional, he saw the way the men in his workplace were expected to behave. He wanted to prepare his sons for the harsh expectations that society has for men. From his perspective, it was more important to protect his children by teaching them to conform to gender expectancies than it was for him to tear down gender norms.

    I’m not a parent. I have never really worked in a business environment. I’m not a man. I never had the opportunity to consider sexism from these perspectives. Because I listened, I (and his fellow students!) were given the opportunity to look at a complex issue from a perspective we hadn’t before. This led to an extraordinarily rich and multifaceted class discussion about parenting and gender roles.

    As educators, we should encourage our students to recognize they will be more knowledgeable than we are on some topics and empower them to contribute their unique voices to classroom discussion. There are, of course, many important things to consider (e.g., not expecting minority students to be responsible for teaching their classmates about minority experiences, recognizing the importance of encouraging students to support their arguments with facts and not opinions) — but that’s a different blog post. At the end of the day, we should remain open to learning from our students.


    Who I am in the classroom today is vastly different than who I was just a few years ago. When I first started teaching, I thought I needed to be tough. Like, really tough. Absolutely no late work accepted, NO EXCEPTIONS! If your absence for an exam is unexcused, you’re not making up that exam, NO EXCEPTIONS! If you miss class, I will not send you the slides, NO EXCEPTIONS! In my mind, the more rigid my course policies and the more strongly I held onto them, the more students would prioritize the work in my course and respect me. I thought that my course should be their main focus and felt insulted when it wasn’t. I was wrong.

    As undergraduate students ourselves, did we not prioritize some classes above others? To quote the philosopher Ron Swanson from Parks & Recreation, “never half-a** two things. Whole-a** one thing.” We should recognize that sometimes, our students can’t “whole-a**” our courses. Students are often trying to balance work, families, and heavy course loads. We need to recognize that sometimes, your class is not the most important thing in their life and that’s okay.

    We can be strict about setting course policies, but should build flexibility into the policies themselves. For example, accepting late work with a penalty. Having one make-up day in the semester that any missed work or exams can be made up without a grade cut. There are numerous opportunities to incorporate compassion into our syllabi.

    Over time, I’ve learned that flexibility and empathy do not equal weakness. If you treat your students as full human beings deserving of respect and compassion, they will reciprocate. 

    Dr. Kristina Howansky is an assistant professor of psychology at St. Mary's College of Maryland where she teaches courses in Statistics, Research Methods, and Social Psychology. When she's not grading homework, she enjoys spending time outside with her adorable but terribly behaved dog, Bowser. 

  • 08 Oct 2019 10:00 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    By Mike Martynowicz, Ph.D., University of Saint Francis - Fort Wayne

    I have always believed that one of my most important duties as an educator is to help students learn to think critically. While my undergraduate teacher preparation experience provided me the knowledge and training to be an effective and engaging high school psychology teacher (which I did for seven years, and loved), it was not until I went to graduate school and then made the transition to teaching at the postsecondary level that I fully embraced psychological science in my pedagogical decision-making. I have always employed various teaching and assessment strategies in my classes, but I now choose to emphasize research consumption and academic writing via a scaffolded method. This method helps develop metacognitive and critical thinking skills in my students as both academics and citizens who need to be skeptical consumers of information.

    The main problem with this approach, of course, is that both the literature and anecdotal evidence indicate that many students enter college with insufficient experience in research-based academic writing. Also, in my nine years as a college professor, I have (unfortunately) learned that growth mindset is not commonplace amongst higher education faculty. So, I feel it is imperative to clearly state that students most certainly CAN (and should) acquire these skills after high school. The method used in my courses is a product of years of conversations with students as well as investigation of the literature, and it is shared by my departmental colleague, Dr. Monica Heller, in her courses. We have used this method, rooted in metacognitive research, to structure research-based academic writing in our undergraduate curriculum.

    The Method

    I do not believe in “surprising” students with unexpected assignments or changes in course structure during a semester. Therefore, roughly one week prior to the beginning of a course, students receive a syllabus that includes all assignments, due dates, directions, and rubrics/scoring criteria. While each course has different formative and summative assessments, they all contain assignments and activities (see below) to develop the research project and these vary depending on the course (e.g., sophomore versus senior-level). The final product is typically a research essay, although approved undergraduate students can take an independent study course in which they write a research proposal (literature review plus a methods section) and potentially even carry out their own study.

    Assignments/activities to support the research project:

    • Topic Proposal
    • Research Training (in a lab)
    • Article Summary or Article Critique
    • Literature Matrix
    • Outline
    • Draft

    Each assignment is uploaded to Canvas, our course management system. This allows for a running record of each assignment, and my feedback (both annotated on the document and in the comments box) is saved for posterity. This proves invaluable to the process, as it facilitates efficient, ongoing communication via Canvas, e-mail, and/or individual meetings in my office. Per the syllabus, students are required to submit each assignment, even if it is late (with a point reduction), or I will not read/grade their final product.

    Approximately three weeks into the semester, students submit a Topic Proposal. This requires students to formulate an initial research question. I tell them that they need to be able to say something like, “The impact of X (topic) on Y (outcome/s) in Z (population) is...” They are also required to provide a few sentences explaining why this research question is important and/or interesting to them. It is stressed that this proposal commits them to nothing; it merely “points them in a direction” as it pertains to their upcoming investigation of the literature.

    A couple of weeks later, students spend a class with me (and sometimes library staff) going through Research Training related to: the utilization of our university’s database and Google Scholar, as well as the most efficient methods for locating, processing, and storing research articles. They also complete an exercise on approaches to processing an article. The anticipated outcome of the training is that students will find at least one original study article (not simply a literature review) related to their topic and then use it to prepare the next assignment related to the research project, an Article Summary (sophomores) or Article Critique (juniors and seniors).

    Just after the midterm, students submit a Literature Matrix. This is essentially an annotated bibliography in chart form, and it is (in my opinion as well as my students’) much more effective in that it forces students to actually read the article carefully (students say that it is easy to skim an article to develop an annotation). This is because students have to place brief summary information (e.g., full APA citation, lit review and main research questions, methods, key findings, limitations, and areas for future research) into columns for each peer-reviewed article. This also forces students to locate and use studies versus literature reviews, and this seems to help them more clearly conceptualize the difference. Frankly, it also acts as a helpful tool as they craft their next assignment.

    With approximately a month to go in the semester, students submit an Outline of their essay, including citations and focusing on an integrated writing approach. I show them an example of an adequate outline, and I offer individual meeting time to students that want to process the assignment in person. Many of my students have typically viewed academic research and writing as a major stressor (at least the first time I have them in class), so I tell them that the anxiety/stress they are used to feeling (as they attempt to throw a research essay together at the last minute) is a thing of the past. This often results in many “aha!” moments throughout the semester, and it is amazing to watch them realize that they CAN do this type of work and then fully embrace the process.

    Last, but not least, they submit a Draft of the essay. Note that my feedback on this assignment is not that of a grammar, spelling, and writing style editor (it needs to be their essay, not mine), but rather suggestive as it pertains to how their argument is being constructed.

    Final Thoughts

    I want the audience to understand that my students receive feedback, on each of these assignments, within a week at the most (my goal is actually 48 hours). The literature and anecdotal evidence suggest that quick, detailed feedback is critical to the process. To ensure that this happens, I schedule feedback time on my calendar, and I am sure to leave time open on my calendar during the weeks in which the most taxing assignments (e.g., literature matrix, outline) are due because I know that students typically need it. So, of course, this entire process can be time-consuming and that would be considered a limitation by some. I do not see it that way, and, most importantly, neither do my students.

    I should note that a version of this method is also used in my graduate courses, the main difference being that Master’s-level students write a full Research Proposal (ideally leading to a thesis project) and Doctoral-level students will, of course, be working towards a dissertation. I say “will” because we are offering a brand new School Psychology program with our first Masters-level and specialist (M.S. and PsyS) cohorts starting this fall and our first doctoral (PsyD) cohort beginning in 2021. Applications for the PsyD program will be accepted starting next fall. Shameless plug!

    Finally, thank you to the GSTA editorial team for extending an invitation to write this piece. I appreciate the opportunity. Please feel free to contact me at with any questions or comments, and I would love to see you at my symposium entitled Building Student Research-Based Writing Competency through a Cognitive Self-Regulation Approach at the Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s 18th Annual Conference on Teaching in Denver, CO on October 18, 2019.

    Mike Martynowicz, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN) and an educational psychologist with an emphasis in human learning and development. He teaches multiple undergraduate (e.g., General Psychology, Educational Psychology, Research Methods and Statistics, Learning and Behavior, and Social Psychology) and graduate courses (e.g., Research Methods and Statistics, Advanced Human Growth and Development, Social Psychology, and Cognition and Learning). Additionally, Dr. Martynowicz is engaged in ongoing research projects related to college students’ achievement motivation, metacognitive self-regulation, selection and use of learning strategies, and the relationship between mental health issues and academic performance, behaviors, and relationships.

  • 07 Oct 2019 4:07 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    By Lisa Dierker, Ph.D., Wesleyan University

    I teach introductory statistics. Yes, I know what many are thinking. I know because when I attend parties and mention this in the course of conversation, people tend to force a smile and move away from me as quickly as possible. The rare party guest who doesn’t walk away regales me with the harrowing, dispiriting and/or mind-numbingly boring experience they had in their first (and usually last) statistics course. Those who actively avoided taking statistics tend to make self-disparaging comments about their math ability and suggest that I am doing something out of their reach. I say things like “no, it’s not like that” and “you would love this course”, but it’s a hard sell.

    Except that, the course is not like that and you would definitely love it. Passion-Driven Statistics is a project-based introductory curriculum that has been implemented as a statistics course, a research methods course, a data science course, a capstone experience, and a summer research boot camp with students from a wide variety of academic settings. Liberal arts colleges, large state universities, regional colleges/universities, medical schools, community colleges, and high schools have all successfully implemented the model. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the curriculum engages students in authentic projects with large, real-world data sets (e.g. National Household Survey on Drug use and Health, The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, and National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health) from the very first day! (Dierker et al, 2012). There are no canned exercises, and at the same time, no M&M’s or other entertaining maneuvers. Instead, the focus is on welcoming and empowering students to ask and answer questions they care about. Is exposure to a drug use prevention curriculum associated with lower rates of experimentation with diverse substances? Are religious adolescents less likely to be depressed? What factors predict ‘safe sex’ practices? As students engage in productive struggle in the context of their own original research, the instructor and peer mentors support each student individually through ample one-on-one mentoring. Together, we take students completely out of their comfort zone, and at the same time “love them through it” by creating an inviting classroom culture and an experience that gives them a safe and supportive space to “get it wrong before they get it right”, no matter their educational background or experience.

    Research evaluating the model has been exciting to see unfold. The curriculum attracts higher rates of under-represented minority (URM) students compared to a traditional statistics course and students enrolled in Passion-Driven Statistics are more likely to report increased confidence in working with data and increased interest in pursuing advanced statistics coursework (Dierker et al., 2018). In new research currently under review, the project-based curriculum promoted further training in statistics. Using causal inference techniques to achieve matched comparisons across three different statistics courses, students originally enrolled in Passion-Driven Statistics were significantly more likely to take at least one additional undergraduate course focused on statistical concepts, applied data analysis, and/or use of statistical software compared to students taking either a psychology statistics course or math statistics course. Further, Passion-Driven Statistics students took a larger number of one of these additional courses compared to students originally enrolled in either of the comparison courses.

    Many student reactions have supported the positive impact of the course. In anonymous post-course evaluations, one student wrote, “I have never felt so excited and motivated to be part of an academic environment as I have in this class. I am so proud of my work.” Another wrote, “Allowing students to pick from a study and data set to answer their own research question was effective because we became attached to our own projects, understood exactly why we were learning what we were learning, and wanted to know more.” Finally, “Though the structure of the class is unorthodox, the resulting education is priceless. Aside from teaching me the valuable process and application of statistical inquiry, this course taught me how to take initiative and start a scientific project that I can call my own.”

    Resources are available at Some that you might find most helpful include 1) a free e-book, with links to videos that allow you to “flip” the classroom and 2) translation code aimed at supporting the use of statistical software across all of the major platforms (i.e. SAS, R, python, Stata and SPSS).

    We are currently in the second year of a 5-year NSF grant aimed at nationwide dissemination of the model. If you are interested in learning more or attending one of several faculty workshops, I would encourage you to get in touch; email me at Because of the diversity of psychology majors nationwide, statistics instructors have great potential to break down long-standing disparities and contribute to opening the analytics economy to everyone. Along the way, we might even end up being less lonely at parties. J

    Dr. Lisa Dierker is the Walter Crowell University Professor of Social Sciences and Professor of Psychology at Wesleyan University. She received her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from the University of Connecticut and completed postdoctoral training in Epidemiology at the Yale School of Medicine. A researcher in addictive behaviors, her more recent work based on the NSF funded Passion-Driven Statistics Project centers on the dissemination of innovative pedagogical practices.

    Dierker, L., Kaparakis, E., Rose, J. & Selya, A. (2012). Strength in numbers: A multidisciplinary, project-based course in introductory statistics. Journal of Effective Teaching, 12(2): 4-14.

    Dierker, L., Woods, K., Singer-Freeman, K., Germano, K.,Cooper, J.L. & Rose, J. (2018). Evaluating Impact:  A  comparison  of  learning  experiences and outcomes  of  students  completing  a  traditional versus multidisciplinary, project-based introductory statistics course, International Journal of Education, Training and Learning, 2(1), 16-28.

  • 29 Sep 2019 10:08 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    By Crissa Levin, Ph.D., Utah State University

    Unmotivated, unhappy, and downright angry students can be difficult to help. One way to consider student management is to integrate what clinical psychologists know about helping individuals who suffer in clinical contexts, and map that onto classroom interactions. And these skills are entirely doable for individuals with any background – clinical or otherwise.

    Values are chosen ideals that can never be reached; desired qualities to bring to actions. It can be helpful to bring values into the classroom to help with motivation and engagement, and to help a student manage what they are unhappy about. To help someone evaluate their values, you would want to help them figure out what it is about the class that is meaningful to the individual student. Is it that the course is a steppingstone to the degree they want, a degree that is meaningful for helping them gain independence, or be with family, or move towards mastery in educational attainment? Is it that they value knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and this course may contribute to that knowledge? Once you know the student’s course values, you can help them tie this value to the problem or barrier. If we can figure out what the student really cares about, then when we are listening to their grievances, it’s much easier to understand what they find upsetting or difficult, what it is that matters about the course and what might be going wrong, and how we might get back on track, or even to help them realize that it’s okay to let things go. For example, if both of you can agree that the grade isn’t tied directly to the value, because it’s the knowledge that was always important or because ultimately it’s the degree for which this course is just one small steppingstone, then the student can become satisfied, maybe even happy, with what they’ve received and where to go next or how to get there.

    Goals are similar to values, but they can be checked off, they can be attained. So looking now at goals for the course, including grades and coursework, we tend to have this automatic assumption that students should want to do well in our courses. And yet, clinicians know better than to choose goals for  clients. Students are adults, with full lives, including falling in love or being heartbroken, making new friends, dealing with family emergencies – let’s face it, many of the things we remember most about college. Many students will want a high grade, but some students simply may not. It’s not wrong to choose to spend more time with family and friends, or catch up on sleep and health behaviors, or even simply to have fun or grieve a broken heart. In fact, you might have noticed – these things that students might be doing instead are things that we tend to value as a field. What we can learn from a clinical context is that there has to be readiness to engage. If a student does not want to engage in your material to the degree of, say, getting an A+, then maybe moving the goalpost to what they are ready to engage in, and how hard they are ready or able to work, given their own life contexts, is a better match to keep them learning, engaged, and in school. And if we meet them where they are at, and listen to what they need, then we can hear how to help with the students’ own goals instead of forcing our own. 

    Lastly, it is important to listen for emotion and validate it. The thing about a student who is unhappy is that they are right. They may not be right about what happened, but they are right that they are unhappy. And there is nothing that fuels that fire more than to literally dismiss that. If the student is angry, or if the student is scared, listen for that – because whatever the emotion is, the emotion is true. If the student feels something has been unfair – like that they are turning in similar work as others and it is being graded more harshly, or that the book is saying one thing and you are saying something else – the student’s perception is true, even if the actual reality of the matter doesn’t line up. And from the student’s eyes, that really isn’t fair, and it makes sense to be angry or frustrated. Students are also often scared that if they don’t do well enough in the class, something bad might happen – maybe they will lose a scholarship or financial aid; maybe they won’t be able to graduate in time and start a job that they have accepted. They might not mention the emotion, but listen for it, because that emotion is true. And when we express understanding of how difficult that spot must be, we can help that student to feel less angry or less scared just by hearing them, even if hearing is all we do.

    But when we listen, we also have to be willing to be wrong. We are human. Sometimes, we might grade unfairly by accident, or we might have misread the book or misremembered. So, we don’t want to start with the assumption that we are right and further fuel anger or fear. The student’s emotion is not what will make the difference as to whether we have already made a mistake, and it’s not what should make the difference as to whether we fix our mistakes, so we can listen regardless of the student’s emotion. We can have great empathy without budging the course rules. Because for education to have value, it also has to have standards. We don’t want grades to reflect assertiveness or sympathy instead of understanding and application of course material. So, we can have great empathy, and can even grieve the outcome with a student, without changing a grade or rule.

    In short, we can learn to respect students and treat them as autonomous individuals with autonomous values, goals, and experiences. We can hold all of these things to be valid and true, and can help guide our students towards what they want in education, even when it’s not what we want for them. This will likely help the way it does for clinical clients – to provide less suffering through helping those we are working with to stay on track and meet their goals – not ours.

    Dr. Crissa Levin is a lecturer at Utah State University, where for the past several years she has been teaching exclusively online, focusing her efforts on adapting technologies, experiences and communities into online environments. Dr. Levin is passionate about ensuring that distance students receive excellent education in the virtual classroom and educational opportunities outside of classes. Dr. Levin co-runs an undergraduate research lab primarily for distance students, which focuses on student learning and engagement above any particular topic within psychology. Dr. Levin is also interested and engaged in research on teaching and learning, especially as it applies to engagement or to best practices in online courses, or to using elements of therapy (such as values and mindfulness) to help students succeed.

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