Over the next two weeks, The Novice Professor is teaming up with several wonderful guest posters who are sharing their takes on teaching the general survey course in psychology. Even if you don't teach this course, there are lots of great ideas you can modify for your classroom. Join us as we get into the nitty gritty from textbook selection to favorite assignments to assessment strategies!
In our second installment, Leslie Berntsen (@leslie_bern) discusses her take on Intro to Psych at University of Southern California.
I’m currently a Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Southern California, where I also completed my Ph.D. in 2018. Every summer during grad school, I taught an intensive pre-college class for high school students that I called “Psychological Science & Society,” which was a whirlwind tour of introductory psychology with a heavily applied social justice focus and has deeply influenced how I think about designing and executing my undergraduate classes.
Last fall, I taught two 30-student sections of Intro Psych at a small liberal arts college and this fall, I’ll be teaching my first 200-person lecture section of the class, which counts for natural science gen-ed credit at USC. Every student who takes the class is required to also register for a weekly lab section, but otherwise the course content and design will vary by instructor. My section did fill up pretty quickly (trying to keep myself as humble as I can about that!), so I will have a fair number of juniors and seniors, most of whom are non-majors.
My fall syllabus is still in progress, but syllabi for both the pre-college class and the undergraduate SLAC class are available on the Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s Project Syllabus.
For the summer pre-college class, we met for six hours a day, every weekday, for four weeks. (We got very close!) As a result, I had time to do everything I wanted (and more), so my general approach was to make my lecture slides based on the textbook material and then expand from there. To fill six hours, I’d intersperse current events, pop culture references, videos, and activities throughout, such that the textbook content was the common thread for each day, but students didn’t get more than 15-20 minutes of it at a time.
For my undergraduate classes, I take a similar approach, but it’s just a matter of distilling all the content I already have into around half the number of contact hours. (That was quite a challenge the first time around, but it was a good exercise in reflecting on how I can make my teaching as efficient but high-impact as possible.)
Textbook and Chapters:
I’ve always used David Myers’ books (particularly the versions with shorter modules) since he was the author of the textbook for my AP Psych class in high school, and I remember really enjoying that. But, thanks to what I’ve learned about open-educational resources on Twitter (h/t @amy_nusbaum in particular; thanks Amy!), I’m excited to try out OpenStax in my course this fall. As long as I have even one student who might be forced to choose between affording the textbook for my class or their next meal, that’s not something I can personally abide, and I aim to ultimately phase into open-access texts for all my classes.
I actually cover every single chapter in my intro classes! This was a decision I made when designing my pre-college class for the first time, and it just carried over into adapting the curriculum for a semester-long undergraduate course. Now that I’m much more involved in professional teaching circles, I’ve come to learn that some people seem to believe this kind of coverage isn’t something that can be done (much less done well), so now (of course) I’m more committed to this approach than ever.
But more seriously, I think it’s important to have a good breadth of coverage for non-majors who will only be exposed to these concepts in Intro Psych, for pre-med students taking the class for MCAT prep, and for majors who I’d personally like to have some baseline knowledge of a topic before taking an entire upper level class dedicated to it. If I left out certain topics of my Intro curriculum, I feel like I’d be putting all of those students at a disadvantage, albeit in different ways.
But at the same time, because I focus so much on application, students get depth too, but the kind of depth that I care about most: the ability to deeply think about the world around them like psychological scientists vs. memorizing with really minute details for detail’s sake.
In addition to making sure they retain the course content, I also want to help my students acquire transferable skills that will be useful for them no matter what kind of career they ultimately pursue. As a result, I make sure to craft assessments that reflect how students might actually engage with the material or demonstrate the skills they’ve learned well after my class has ended.
For multiple choice exam items, this means asking questions that require students to apply or synthesize material and think about why their chosen answer is correct vs. regurgitating information that they’ve crammed for the sole purpose of the exam. For the course’s writing assignments, I give students around 15 prompts (one per major topic area, ranging from reflective to application-based to argumentative) and ask them to choose three to complete over the course of the term. Here, they’re rewarded for relating material to their own experiences or the world around them and expressing their ideas clearly and cogently.
In my mind, the only people for whom an APA-style lit review or research report will be valuable will be those who choose to pursue a Ph.D. in Psychology, and they will get *much more* practice writing those in the courses they’ll go on to take. We can do other kinds of assessments that will be more valuable for the wide diversity of students we serve in our introductory classes.
When we discuss race and ethnicity, I always have students break into small groups and try their best at the face sorting activity that accompanies the (amazing) PBS series “Race: The Power of an Illusion.” I had played it several times in college (in anthropology classes and social justice education programs), but never in a psychology class, so I decided to change that.
Details on this particular activity, including how to effectively prepare, facilitate, and debrief, can be found right here.
In conjunction with the material on belonging and social exclusion, I invite students to participate in a personal Day of Silence (modeled after the national effort sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) and reflect on their experience in writing.
Details on this particular assignment, including the rationale, prompt, and student feedback, can be found right here.
Still Working On:
The two classes I’m teaching next semester are old preps that only require a few refinements, so I’m very excited to finally try out some visual syllabi. (I’ve started playing around on Piktochart in case anyone’s looking for a place to start.)
Of course, I expect my students to read the entire syllabus no matter what it looks like (and I always hide an easter egg in there to check who does), but a visual syllabus seems like a new fun thing to do that would match the overall tone I try to set for my classes.
I love talking to other people about teaching more than anything, so please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions or would just like to bounce ideas off another person.
Written by Leslie Berntsen
You can find Leslie at SPSSI later this week (June 21-23 in San Diego), ACT in October, and NITOP in January, and on Twitter (@leslie_bern) pretty much always.