Teaching Psychology: a Step by Step Guide

We came to this book from very different backgrounds, but with a single purpose, namely to share with you what we have learned about teaching psychology, and what others have learned through their research on effective teaching.

Sandy always wanted to be a teacher, and fulfilled that dream by pursuing a teacher education program and earning a teaching certificate in Social Sciences. After completing student-teaching at a junior high school and an internship at a high school, she earned a master’s degree in Teaching Social Sciences, then spent the next 6 years teaching psychology at two different community colleges.

Married with two small children, her next step was to complete the PhD program in Educational Psychology (with an emphasis on teacher behavior) at Indiana University. Before being admitted to that program, she was told by members of the admissions committee to rewrite her goals statement that, in their view, placed too much emphasis on teaching and not enough on research. She did so, but throughout her graduate career she continued to find opportunities to teach.

Doug came to teaching through a much different route. His first course was introductory psychology, and he was assigned to teach it while he was still a graduate student at Northwestern University. Unlike Sandy, he had absolutely no preparation for teaching, and learned to teach as best he could, mainly through the school of hard knocks, as it were. After completing his doctorate in clinical psychology Doug joined the faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where, except for a couple of sabbaticals and short leaves, he spent 30 years teaching graduate and undergraduate psychology courses.

In 1984, after Doug was appointed as director of the department’s large, multisection introductory psychology program, he was looking for an assistant director, and Sandy applied for the job. Thus began a 20-year partnership that has evolved into a wonderful friendship.

This book is a greatly expanded discussion of the topics in that chapter, and more. It is based on our own teaching experiences, as well as on the research and experience of other psychology faculty whose work we have read and whose advice we have taken. We obviously share a general set of values about teaching psychology, but there are some details of policy and procedure on which we disagree.

These occasional disagreements gave us a chance to offer multiple options for dealing with various teaching situations. We wrote this book mainly with novice psychology teachers in mind, but we know, too, that seasoned teachers—including our-selves—can benefit from exposure to new teaching ideas and techniques, and from occasionally reevaluating their teaching and its effectiveness.

We think our own teaching has improved as a result of writing this book, so we hope the book will be valuable to all teachers of psychology, no matter how much teaching experience they have.

You will notice that our presentation focuses on the practical far more than the theoretical. There are already many good books about the educational and psychological theories underlying effective teaching at the postsecondary level, and much of the advice we offer is grounded in some of those theories.

But our main goal was to create a “how to” about the teaching of psychology that can be read from beginning to end, but can also serve as a quick reference and source of specific ideas for dealing with a wide range of teaching situations at a moment’s notice. It is the kind of book that Doug could have used back in 1966 to help make his first teaching experience easier, less stressful, and more effective.

In Chapter 1 we describe some basic principles of effective teaching, the characteristics of today’s students, and the expectations placed on today’s teachers. Chapter 2 deals with such topics as developing course goals, how to plan a course, write a syllabus, establish a grading system, and choose a textbook.

Chapter 3 presents a step by step guide to the first few days of class, from finding and exploring the classroom, to presenting a syllabus, to ending a class session. Chapter 4 focuses on the development of one’s teaching style, and on the many options psychology teachers have to express that style in the context of giving lectures, conducting demonstrations, asking and answering questions, leading discussions, and the like.

In Chapter 5, we offer advice and suggestions for evaluating student learning and performance via exams, quizzes, and a wide variety of writing assignments. We also provide guidelines for developing and grading each type of evaluation method, and we suggest ways of matching evaluation options—and one’s evaluation criteria—to course goals and objectives.

Chapter 6 takes up the vital topic of faculty-student relations, and how to manage them. Here you will find advice on how to create a comfortable and inclusive classroom climate, provide academic assistance, protect students’ privacy, improve their motivation to learn, write letters of recommendation, and assist students with special needs or problems, as well as how to prevent and manage students’ classroom misbehavior, deal with complaints, special requests, excuses, and academic dishonesty, all within the context of the highest standards of teaching ethics.

Chapter 7 deals with the technology of teaching psychology, and because our own expertise in this area is limited, it was written in collaboration with Elaine Cassel, our lead consultant, David Daniel, and Missa Eaton.

The chapter includes not only a description of the impressive high-tech equipment and methods now available, but also a discussion of how to use that equipment and those methods in the service of one’s teaching goals. We point out that technology can enhance or interfere with a classroom presentation and can promote or impair learning; we therefore urge teachers to think carefully about when, and whether high-tech teaching approaches will advance teaching goals.

In Chapter 8 we take up the topic of how to evaluate the quality and effectiveness of teaching. We emphasize the importance of establishing a continuing process of self-evaluation, and of relying on colleagues as well as students as sources of evaluative information. Finally, in Chapter 9, we close with a discussion of the need to integrate teaching into the rest of one’s academic life, including how to deal with the anxieties and stresses associated with teaching.

Teaching Psychology: a Step by Step Guide by Sandra Goss Lucas, Douglas A. Bernstein