This week we are focusing on providing tips to new instructors, just starting out!
We asked today's guest contributor, Jason Eggerman, to answer some questions about first time teachers.
Jason is a tenured psychology instructor at Spokane Community College and serves on STP's Membership Committee and the Steering Committee for the Northwest Conference on the Teaching of Introductory Psychology (see below for complete bio).
Q: What is the biggest struggle you see in new instructors/What was your biggest struggle when you started teaching?
Jason: I think that one of the biggest struggles new instructors face is that most are never specifically trained to be a teacher. This tends to result in gaps in their knowledge about how people learn, how to assess learning, and other teaching related topics. After all, knowing a lot about chemistry, psychology, accounting, nursing, or even auto repair doesn’t necessarily mean that one can teach it well. For me personally, my biggest struggle when I started teaching was the uncertainty of being an adjunct faculty member. You really don’t have any guarantees from one semester to the next regarding how many classes you are going to be offered, which makes it hard not to get at least a little stressed about how you will pay your bills. I completely understood that this uncertainty came with the territory and was part of the job, (and I accepted that), but it was definitely a struggle.
Q: What is one common mistake that new instructors make?
J: Speaking for myself, I think the biggest mistake I made when I was a new instructor was focusing way too much on “covering content” instead of focusing on creating meaningful learning experiences for students. My assumption was that if I didn’t say something in class, we hadn’t “covered” it. So, I spent a lot of time essentially transferring the information that was in the book onto PowerPoint slides. Then, I’d go to class and read those slides. I assumed that because I’d said something out loud in class that we had therefore “covered it.” I also think that like many new instructors, I vastly underestimated the importance of having multiple opportunities for formative assessment. Students need a way to check to see if they are learning what they are supposed to be learning before they take an exam. When I first started teaching, I looked at a lot of the formative assessments I saw some other teachers using as unnecessary “busy work.” My class basically consisted of three or four exams (and nothing else). Today, my classes contain a great deal of low-stakes assignments where the goal is to check one’s understanding before the exam.
Q: What are some of your go-to resources that you think new instructors would benefit from?
J: In my mind there is no better resource than other people. The key to successful teaching is to find experienced and supportive teachers who are willing to act as a sounding board or as mentors. I was fortunate early on in my adjunct teaching career to have amazing mentors who enjoyed talking about teaching. If that’s not available, then I’d suggest things like the STP Facebook group or even Twitter. Find some experienced teaching faculty on Twitter who are passionate about teaching and follow them. When you have a question or need guidance, those people are always quick to help out. If I could recommend two books for new teachers, they would be McKeachie’s Teaching Tips by McKeachie and Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide by Goss-Lucas and Bernstein. Lastly, I think all new instructors would benefit from attending a teaching-focused conference. National conferences can be tricky if funding is not available, so smaller, regional teaching conferences are a good place to start.
Q: How has your approach to teaching changed as you got more experienced?
J: I mentioned this previously, but my approach has definitely shifted away from feeling like I have to “cover” content (by saying everything in class). Today I focus more on trying to design meaningful assignments or create impactful experiences, rather than spending time repeating what the book says. I would also say that I have become much more empathetic and understanding as I have gotten more experienced. I used to be fairly strict about things like due dates, make-up exams, etc. I certainly still hold students accountable with deadlines, and they’d probably tell you that I have very high expectations for them. However, I’d say that I have shifted away from a view that fairness means “treating everyone the same” to a view that fairness often means “meeting students where they are at” (i.e. handling situations on a case-by-case basis, instead of applying some blanket policy to everyone).
Q: What is a common misconception that new instructors have about teaching or leading their own course?/What was a misconception you had when you first started teaching?
J: I don’t know if this is something that relates to all new faculty, but speaking for myself, one major misconception I had was that when students receive low grades it’s because they aren’t motivated or aren’t trying. I was an intrinsically motivated “A-student” who was fortunate enough that I didn’t have to worry about paying bills during my undergraduate education. I wasn’t married, didn’t have kids, and didn’t have to work during college. In my mind, college was my full-time job, and it got my undivided attention. Thus, when I started teaching my first classes at around the age of 24 or 25, I didn’t have much empathy for things like late work or failed exams. As a new teacher, I generally assumed that if students didn’t turn an assignment in, it was likely because they blew it off or were too disorganized to take care of business. As a new teacher, I generally assumed that if students failed an exam, it was likely because they didn’t work hard enough or just didn’t care enough about the class to study. As I have spent more and more time in the classroom (and as I have gotten older), I’ve learned much more about what life is like for many college students outside of the classroom. I’ve developed far more empathy than I had when I started teaching, and today, I have a much better grasp on how life outside the classroom can impact learning.
Q: What are your top three tips for new instructors?
Q: If you could go back to your first class, what would you do differently?
J: In a word, everything. I’m sure in my first class, I spent the first day going over the Syllabus. If I could go back, I’d instead spend the first day trying to “hook” students with why psychology is so fascinating. I’m also sure in my first class, I spent most days lecturing with PowerPoints that contained a lot of verbatim information out of the textbook. Finally, I’m sure in my first class there was no formative assessment. If I could go back, I’d provide students with ways to check and see if they were on track prior to the first exam. Bombing the first exam is a pretty high-stakes (and devastating) way to find out that you aren’t grasping what you are supposed to be grasping, so that would definitely need to change.
Q: It seems like there is always something else we could lecture on, or one more topic that we want to squeeze into the course. What recommendations do you have for new instructors for how to identify what material/concepts they should include, and which they could leave out?
The way I’ve started to think about this actually comes from Sue Frantz at Highline College, so I can’t take credit for the ideas I’m about to elaborate on here. Sue asked her audience in a recent talk to think about what we would want our neighbors to know about psychology. What do contractors, dentists, small business owners, elementary teachers, etc. really need to know from taking Intro Psych? That has gradually helped me make decisions about what content to keep, and what content to ditch. For example, I don’t think my neighbors need to learn about various theories of emotion. However, I do think learning about positive psychology and things like mindfulness would be fairly beneficial to their lives. I don’t think my neighbors need to understand how action potentials work. They might benefit, however, from learning about neurotransmitters and synapses in the context of a discussion of the opioid crisis. Focus on trying to get the most “bang for your buck” by including only content that is most meaningful and impactful on students’ lives once your class is over.
Written by Jason Eggerman
Jason Eggerman is a full-time, tenured instructor of psychology at Spokane Community College in Spokane, WA. Prior to starting at Spokane Community College in 2011, he taught as an adjunct instructor at multiple community colleges in San Diego County from 2007 to 2011. Jason grew up in Colorado and Wyoming before obtaining a bachelors in Psychology from Black Hills State University in South Dakota. From there, he obtained a masters in Psychology and a graduate certificate in Community College Teaching from San Diego State University in San Diego, CA. Jason currently serves as a member of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s Membership Committee as well as a member of the steering committee for the Northwest Conference on the Teaching of Introductory Psychology (TIP-NW). Jason has presented on teaching introductory psychology at national teaching conferences.