Q: What is the biggest struggle you see in new instructors/What was your biggest struggle when you started teaching
Melissa: The biggest struggle I see (and I remember this well!) is feeling like you have to cover all the content by lecturing so students will be prepared for the exam. I think new instructors feel a sense of obligation to say everything they want students to know, and this inevitably leads to a predominantly lecture-based course. Little did I know then that it would be better for the students to use class time to practice problems themselves, not just listen to me talk. I have come to believe it just takes new instructors time to figure this out. What helped me was feedback a student gave me at the end of the semester: “Just because you said it once doesn’t mean we learned it.” Whoever said that, thank you. I’ve never forgotten it!
Q: What is one common mistake that new instructors make?
M: Course stuffing! This is without a doubt the biggest rookie mistake. My first semester teaching I “covered” every single chapter in my intro stats book - descriptive statistics through factorial ANOVA - in 10 weeks! It was madness! Of course in hindsight I realize that this just prevented the students from learning anything. It’s always better to learn fewer, bigger concepts more deeply.
What are some of your go-to resources that you think new instructors would benefit from?
M: The STP website! There is a wealth of resources there – from syllabi to free e-books to class activities. And teaching people are some of the kindest, most generous people I know. The PsychTeacher listserv is a great place to ask questions.
I actually put together a big list of resources for a recent talk at APS – here are some of my favorites: http://go.osu.edu/TalkTeaching
How has your approach to teaching changed as you got more experienced?
M: My teaching today is guided by two philosophies. First, I strongly believe that the person who is doing the learning should be doing the work. Put your students to work in class! Give them more opportunities to stretch their thinking and solve problems. You provide the structure, let them uncover the answers for themselves. Second, when I’m planning a class I spend a lot more time thinking “what are my students going to do today” as opposed to “what am I going to do today.” I recommend teachers spend less time thinking about what they are going to say/explain and think more about how to create a way for students to experience the topic at hand.
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?
M: I think the biggest misunderstanding might be how to prep a course. When I first started teaching (as is the case for many others) I had pretty much no training or supervision. When I was assigned my first class, the faculty member told me I could use any book I wanted and could even make my own syllabus however I wanted it to be! I think he thought this was a good thing, but it was completely overwhelming. I had no idea where to start. So, I looked at the book and planned my course from the bottom up – chapter one, chapter two…and I put exams every few weeks, and looked back over the content to decide what to put on the tests. Little did I know that true course design starts at the END with the goal that you have for students – what is the most important thing students should know, do, think, or feel at the end of the course? That should guide every decision you make in planning the class. Focus on the big learning objectives FIRST and it makes it so much more clear what you need to do through the semester.
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?
M: The first time I taught I was actually terrified. I was deeply insecure and I was trying desperately to prove that I belonged there (and that I belonged in grad school, too). Out of self-protection I put as much distance as I could between me and the students – physically and psychologically. I didn’t want them to look too closely, they might see right through me. Looking back, I wish I had sought out more feedback from my fellow grad instructors, even professors in my program. My insecurity made me want to hide, but I would have been so much better off if I had invited more help and feedback! It took me years to figure that out. I hope anyone who reads this won’t wait so long.
Another change I would make would be to ask myself, “Why should students care about this?” I thought students should just learn the material, and they could figure out for themselves how to apply it. Now I see this is probably my biggest role as an instructor. It’s more important for me to frame the content in a way that is meaningful to students. I always ask myself, “why should a 19-year old college freshman care about this topic?” and that helps me find the angle that will make it relevant and interesting to students. Know your students and pitch the content to them in a way that will resonate.
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?
M: Yup! I have many conversations about this with instructors in my program. First, look at your learning objectives. Don’t be a slave to content. Focus on a few big ideas and make room for cross-cutting themes: research methods, social and cultural diversity, individual differences, application, critical thinking. Second, delve deeper into the most important, difficult, challenging topics. For example, if you know that students routinely struggle with certain topics on your exams, be sure to make those the focus for active learning. Use that assessment data! For me now, I ask myself, what do I want students to remember a year from the end of my course? If I really want something to stick I can’t just say it once and put a multiple choice question on the exam. I need to create space for students to interact with the ideas and give them the opportunity to try things for themselves. Find a couple big objectives and come back to them over and over as much as you can throughout the course. Make it impossible for students to leave your course without understanding them!
Melissa Beers is a member of the Psychology Department at Ohio State. She is the Program Director of Introduction to Psychology and Coordination of Introduction to Social Psychology which together annually enroll over 3, 000 students. She also mentors the graduate student instructors who teach these courses. Melissa is dedicated to improving teaching in psychology and has published several articles, chapters, and books on the topic. She also regularly presents at teaching conferences across the country.