Guest post by Dr. Lynne Kennette of Durham College, Oshawa, Ontario, Canada
After completing my graduate studies, which were mostly funded with a graduate teaching assistantship, I began my full-time, permanent career as a college instructor at Durham College (Oshawa, Ontario, Canada). For more on my journey to academia, see my previous post on The Novice Professor Blog. As a graduate student, I was at a R1 school in Detroit, Michigan (Wayne State University) teaching introduction to psychology and senior, writing-intensive labs in cognition. The diverse student population in my courses were all majoring in psychology and most were in their final semester of their 4-year undergraduate degree. This is what I was used to. This is who I was trained to teach. This is what I was prepared for.
What I got, however, once I started teaching at Durham College was very different. I love my school. I love my job. And I love my students. But it did take me a bit of time to adjust my teaching from psych majors at an R1 school to non-majors at a college. Here is where some background might be useful because “college” in Canada (or at least in Ontario where I am), means something different than it does in the US. In Canada, there is a distinction between universities, who grant 4-year undergraduate degrees and colleges, who grant 1-year certificates, and 2—and 3-year diplomas. I believe Ontario colleges would be somewhat comparable to trade schools, technical schools, and 2-year schools (combined) in the US. At my college, we deliver programs in welding, early childhood education, social work, practical nursing, massage therapy, etc. There are also a number of programs that allow students to transfer to university (often with advanced standing). For example, I am the program coordinator for the General Arts and Science program, which has articulation agreements with 2 local universities allowing students to complete their 1-year certificate and then transfer into year 2 of a traditional 4-year degree program. That is, students are receiving a year worth of university credits after spending a year in college.
Now, back to the students. The fact that colleges are different from universities brought me some unique challenges as I transitioned from teaching university students to college students, but these challenges also brought me some amazing opportunities.
One challenge is the heterogeneity in every class. With majors, you can expect a little homogeneity, but imagine teaching the unit on the brain to a class of students which includes nursing students, welders, and computer programmers. Each of these groups of students brings with them a unique skillset and knowledge base where they may know very little about the brain (e.g., welders) or a lot (e.g., nurses) or somewhere in the middle (e.g., programmers). This challenge, however, is an amazing opportunity for group discussions and peer scaffolding; each student knows a lot of stuff that they can apply to the course content in a way that is completely different than my way to approach it.
Another challenge is that, as a general education course, psychology may take a back seat to the courses in their programs. However, it is also an opportunity for me to “hook” them and share with them all the cool stuff psychologists study. I force myself to include at least one “why do I care?” link or real-life example of an application that might be relevant to everyone, regardless of their program of study.
Having no research subject pool (and no faculty labs, because research is not expected) also makes it difficult to expose students to psychological research. This is my opportunity to bring the research to them in the classroom, either by having the class participate in replications of classic experiments or by conducting my own SoTL projects. This approach seems to match student expectations in college. In many of their other classes, they are doing hands-on, practical activities (programming, cleaning teeth, welding, cooking, etc). So, participating in experiments and “doing” real things in a psychology class doesn’t seem as foreign to them as it might to psych majors who may be more accustomed to having the talking head at the front of the room.
The greatest opportunity, for me, has been knowing that my class will likely be their only exposure to psychology as a discipline. As such, I have the power (and the responsibility) to show them the many facets of psychological science, and hopefully, as a result make them more critical consumers of information.
One lesson I learned early on was that no single approach, or assignment, will reach all students, but offering choice and varied opportunities for students to demonstrate their knowledge is beneficial to all (if you’re not familiar with the principles of Universal Design for Learning, check out the CAST website at cast.org). Not every approach will work for every student, faculty, subject. Even if the scientific “evidence” says it will work and students will learn (e.g., active learning, rehearsal, lecturing, etc). This was the message that David Daniel shared with NITOP attendees in his closing keynote this past January. And it is so true! Teaching really is a form of art and every challenge is an opportunity to improve your craft…as long as you approach it that way!
If you want to know more about Lynne's journey to academia, be sure to read her first post with us!