School name: McKendree University
Type of college/university: McKendree is a small, liberal arts college with some specific graduate and online programs.
School locale: We are in a small town 20 minutes east of St. Louis.
Classes you teach: I primarily consider myself a generalist, so I teach Intro, Methods, and other courses that span the field. However, I have a background in counseling, so I also teach Abnormal, Theories of Psychotherapy, and Tests and Measures. In addition to regular classes, I provide individual mentorship of student research in the form of honors theses and independent studies.
Average class size: Our introductory courses tend to have about 30 students, and advanced courses are rarely above 20.
What’s the best advice about teaching you’ve ever received?
I have the distinct pleasure of being married to a wonderful woman with graduate training in both psychology and higher education. Like all romantic partners of academics, she gets to hear about my teaching triumphs and tragedies every night over dinner. Now and again, when I am particularly frustrated by something that didn’t go the way I wanted, she will point out that “It’s not about you. It’s about the students.” It is easy to fall into the trap of pedagogical narcissism – thinking in terms of my lessons, my classes, my students, my major (Even this blog is called How I Teach, not How Students Learn.). So, it is essential to be reminded now and again that students really are at the center of what we do.
What book or article has shaped your work as a psychology teacher?
My teaching mentor in graduate school gave me a copy of Learner-Centered Assessment on College Campuses: Shifting the Focus from Teaching to Learning by Huba and Freed (2000). Although the title makes the book sound like it is only about assessment, it actually provides a full outline of course design from writing objectives through evaluation of learning. I can only compare my experience with this book to that of reading Dan Wegner’s The Illusion of Conscious Will for the first time or hearing John Coltrane’s Giant Steps for the first time – it caused a complete shift in my perspective. Before reading Huba and Freed’s book, I taught by intuitively miming what my favorite teachers had done. After reading their book, I designed intentional experiences to foster student learning – and they even worked sometimes!
Briefly tell us about your favorite lecture topic or course to teach.
Abnormal Psychology is simply the best. It is the only course I teach that requires no extra effort to spark student interest – they are inherently fascinated from start to finish. Sometimes I think I should just hand them the DSM and get out of their way. It is also the only course in which I have to convince students that they should not go too wild in applying concepts to their own lives – “Students, please don’t try to diagnose your roommate, your aunt Sally, or your professor!”
Briefly describe a favorite assignment or in-class activity.
I have students in Research Methods and Tests and Measures design and attempt to validate a survey measuring a construct of their choosing. We take the data they collect into the lab and see if the alpha scores and correlations work out the way they predicted. This assignment is great fun because students are so motivated to demonstrate that they have created the best scale ever that it tricks them into being excited about running and interpreting statistical analyses. Inevitably, they also learn that writing a good survey is a lot harder than it seems.
What teaching or learning techniques work best for you?
I am a big fan of various forms of collaborative learning. I have used Johnson and Johnson’s collaborative learning methods and interteaching for many years. In general, my courses all have some form of written assignment that prepares students for in-class, team-based discussions of the learning objectives. Once teams understand the basic objectives, we move on to large-group discussions of case studies, problems, or other applications of the objectives.
What’s your workspace like?
My workspace requirements include, in order of importance, (1) a computer, (2) coffee, and (3) music. Without those three essential ingredients, the magic of psychology cannot occur.
Three words that best describe your teaching style.
Active, challenging, organized
What is your teaching philosophy in 8 words or fewer?
Engaging students in the science of psychology.
Tell us about a teaching disaster (or embarrassment) you’ve had and how you dealt with the situation.
In graduate school I was teaching a large section of Abnormal Psychology in a stadium-sized classroom. As part of a brief aside about serotonin and depression I decided to diagram action potential on the chalkboard. It being an oversized classroom, I had to make an oversized drawing. So, not paying much attention to the details, I drew two enormous, jutting neurons of what I thought was indistinct cylindrical shape. I was intently diagramming neurotransmitters spurting out of one neuron toward the other when the sniggers started and then outright laughter. I took a few steps back to get a broader sense of my diagram and realized with horror that I had unwittingly drawn a rather grotesque pornographic cartoon. Turning silently to face the students and then back to the board several times, I finally owned up to it and said “Yes, I realize that I just drew two enormous penises on the board.”
What is something your students would be surprised to learn about you?
I was once a 250 pound offensive lineman. Occasionally the fact that I played football will come up in class, and I ask students to guess what position I played. I can see the wheels turning as they think “This guy couldn’t knock over a small child,” which of course leads them to guess “Kicker!”
What are you currently reading for pleasure?
Ten Restaurants that Changed America is sitting on my bedside table right now. It combines two of my avocations: history and food. It is fascinating to learn about how much our culture has changed (It was scandalous for women to dine alone in the 1800s!) and how many popular delicacies of the recent past would be revolting to the modern palate (Anyone want to go out for calves’ head and pancreas?).
What’s your hallway chatter like? What do you talk to colleagues about most (whether or not it is related to teaching/school)?
I’m a nerd. I talk about psychology and assessment.