This is week two of our series on teaching the general survey course in psychology. We've teamed up with several wonderful guests posters to share their take. 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!
For our third post, Keri Kytola (@DrKytola) discusses her take on Intro to Psych at Wilson College.
My name is Keri Kytola (pronouns: she/her/hers), and I am originally from southeast Louisiana. I completed my B.S. in Psychology with a minor in Sociology at Louisiana State University followed by my M.S. and Ph.D. in Psychology at Oklahoma State University so I’m very accustomed to being on larger campuses and working for research-focused institutions. However, when I went on the job market for a faculty position in academia, I knew I wanted a change. I grew to love teaching in graduate school so I aimed for a teaching-focused position at a small liberal arts college where I could personally get to know my students and colleagues. Luckily, I was successful in my job search, and I’m currently an Assistant Professor of Psychology at that exact type of institution in Pennsylvania called Wilson College. I’ve only been here for one year so far, but what a wonderful year it was – I’m looking forward to many more! My colleague, Steven Schmidt, and I are the only two full-time faculty in psychology at Wilson, but we have a good program that we continue to evolve and we really get to know and connect with our students. Although running the program can be a lot of work for just two people, it is also very rewarding and we have a lot of say in why, how, and when things get done. It also really helps that we’re both conscientious, self-sufficient, and hard-working so there’s very little social loafing taking place.
Facts about me:
Like many other institutions across the country, Intro. Psychology is one of the most popular courses for students to take at Wilson. While my other classes tend to be between 5 and 20 students, my intro. classes often have about 35 to 40 students depending on the semester. Given the size and breadth of this class, we don’t require a separate lab component. Similarly, because this course fulfills a general education requirement for all of our students, about 85 to 90% of them are non-majors with a broad array of backgrounds and interests. One adjunct instructor also teaches the course, and we use different textbooks, materials, etc. so our classes aren’t consistent with one another. But, we’re currently working on some team-teaching approaches and methods to implement in the future so that our students get a solid foundation in psychology no matter whose class they take. Here is my Spring 2019 Syllabus.
Historically speaking, the majority of my intro. classes have been taught face-to-face as most college courses are, and have been, for a long time. However, with the increased use of technology as well as the primarily student-driven demand for more accessible classes, I’ve previously taught two sections online and I’m strongly considering creating a hybrid version of the course at Wilson to vary my teaching methods and better serve students who don’t’ live near campus (e.g., commuters) or have tight schedules (e.g., non-traditional students, athletes, etc.). As with any new course design, I think finding the right balance between the optimum amount of content and hands-on activities for students with varying levels of motivation and competencies will be difficult and time-consuming, but definitely worth the work. With the help of colleagues at Wilson, colleagues in STP (Society for the Teaching of Psychology), and the new APA Intro. Psychology Initiative, I believe we’ll be able to make our intro. courses a lot better for our students moving forward.
Textbook and Chapters:
In my six years of teaching intro. psychology, I’ve used five different textbooks – some with supplemental materials and online assignments and some without – but I haven’t loved a single one! For this reason, I’ve tailored my intro. classes to my students as much as possible and hodge-podged the content together from multiple books, articles, and other sources over time. This year, I decided to adopt a new book that I discovered at my first NITOP (National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology) conference. It’s called Introduction to Psychology by Hawkes Learning and it implements many of the well-known and up-and-coming SoTL (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning) techniques that have been shown to benefit students’ understanding of psychology so I’m really excited to see how it goes. I chose this book in particular because I liked the chapter breakdown, the breadth/depth of content, and it’s both affordable and useful for students because it has the option of a physical or e-book as well as a physical “guided notebook” for additional note-taking and practice.
Generally and ambitiously speaking, I cover content from EVERY. SINGLE. CHAPTER. EVERY. SINGLE. SEMESTER. How do I do this? Well, I use what’s called the “General Content Commonality” approach put forth by APA in their Intro. Psychology teaching recommendations. Many teachers are probably familiar with this as being the “Five Pillars of Psychology” approach. The pillars include: Biological, Cognitive, Developmental, Social and Personality, and Mental and Physical Health. While most intro. textbooks have between 12 and 18 chapters making it realistically impossible to teach them all in any meaningful depth in a 16-week (not including breaks) semester, you can combine topics from several of the chapters that are similar in nature depending on what strengths/weaknesses your students have. For example, I teach a lot of nursing and biology majors so I often combine neuroscience, sensation/perception, and consciousness because they all focus heavily on the brain/neural networks and how they affect behavior. Of course, I don’t teach ALL of the information because it would be too much. I do, however, teach the basic premise of the concepts and pick salient examples/activities to convey the importance and relevance of these topics as they relate to each other. Looking back, even though I started using this approach before I recently heard the scientific term for it, I think I did so because as someone with multiple areas of expertise (Cognition, lifespan development, education) I had to learn a great deal of information that spanned across many subfields so I automatically started breaking chapters down by their common components when I started teaching. Overall, my students appear to enjoy this approach because it makes learning about so many jumbled up topics more manageable.
Favorite or Most Important Topic to Teach:
This is a super tough question, and I feel a bit nerdy for admitting this, but I LOVE teaching the history of psychology and research methods. Unfortunately, in my experience, students don’t seem to love learning about these topics because they feel that they’re irrelevant, dated, difficult, or all of the above. However, that is precisely why I think they’re so important to teach and to teach well and to teach multiple times...looking at the students who think I’m redundant in my 100, 200, 300, and 400 level courses :). Can anyone say retrieval, distributed, and interleaved practice??? By teaching about these unpopular topics, I believe that I can help my students understand where the discipline and field originated from and how it has evolved over time so that they can better appreciate the significance of the work we do today. Moreover, by providing my students with a fundamental understanding of how psychological research is conducted using the scientific method, it’s my hope that they will be better able to read about and make sound decisions regarding research findings as both students in the classroom and consumers in the real world.
Least Favorite Topic to Teach:
Believe it or not, my least favorite topic to teach is Social Psychology because it’s such a broad subfield. Going back to the textbook selection question – social psychology tends to be one of those chapters that is entirely packed with too much information. While I do enjoy many of the sub-topics in these chapters, I never feel like I can cover them in one fell swoop in a way that makes sense. Thus, instead of doing it that way, I opt to embed topics covered in the social psychology chapter as they apply to the 5 pillars (e.g., biology, cognition, development, etc.). That way, I can cover what I think is important and interesting without me or my students getting overwhelmed by the vast amount of information all at once.
Assignments such as papers and exams are all well and good, but my favorite activities are ones that are hands-on so that my students can practice and learn to further apply the topics that we discuss in class. Given my area of specialization (mostly cognition), I love to do all kinds of memory and learning activities such as the Deese–Roediger–McDermott task to demonstrate the implantation (or not) of false memories and the classical conditioning task that employs ready-made lemonade powder as the unconditioned stimulus and the word “Pavlov” as the conditioned stimulus. After several years of improving these activities, my students seem to enjoy them as they get to learn first-hand how their own memory and learning processes work. Oh, and because it’s not a lecture or discussion!
Out of all of my required coursework, my favorite assignment called an “informal reflection paper” is a formative one that involves having my students reflect on and write about their initial opinions about the content in a given chapter (e.g., the main idea or “take away message”). They then write about one thing that they already knew about a topic/concept in the chapter and how they have or could apply it to their everyday life (e.g., in their other classes, at home, at work, etc.) to connect with the content. Finally, my students write about the topics/concepts in the chapter that they found to be confusing or unclear (e.g., the ones they misunderstood or have additional questions about) so that we can discuss them in-depth during class to clear up these misunderstandings before summative assignments such as quizzes, exams, etc.
All in all, I absolutely love to teach Intro. Psychology because I get to cover a lot of interesting and fun topics, and it honestly keeps me on my toes to stay abreast of current work in the field when I prep each semester. Although I genuinely feel like this was the most difficult course I could’ve taught in graduate school due to the fine-tuned breadth of knowledge it required, I’m really glad I did because it made me a generalist as well as a specialist in the field. In fact, when I talk to others who have never taught or don’t want to teach intro., I explain it as being a sort of a rite of passage for me and my students because I get to teach them about something they know almost nothing about (their words, not mine J) while I’m still learning it all myself. To demonstrate to my students that I don’t know everything (spoiler alert: that’s really what getting my Ph.D. taught me!), my personal catchphrase in the classroom is “It depends…we’re not entirely sure. We need more research!”. That makes it exciting when one of my students says “Hey professor Kytola, I looked up X topic from our last class, and guess what the research shows?” because we’re learning together and those shared “a-ha” moments are what keep me passionate about teaching.