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December 6, 2001

ON TEACHING: Frank Colavita

Frank Colavita loves teaching, especially large introductory classes. A tenured associate professor and former chair of the psychology department, he could avoid the much-maligned huge lecture classes. But Colavita, a 1997 winner of the Chancellor's Distinguished Teaching Award, not only is willing to teach the "Introduction to Psychology" class, which typically enrolls hundreds of students, he insists on it.

"I'm an excitement junkie: I skydive and I ride motorcycles. I was a ranked runner in my age group and I still run marathons and other races," says Colavita, who turns 62 today, Dec. 6. "I like to challenge myself. And teaching these huge classes and trying to keep everybody awake, alert and interested is quite challenging."

The New Jersey native holds a B.A. in experimental psychology from the University of Maryland and a Ph.D. in psychology from Indiana University at Bloomington. His specialty is biological psychology, although he teaches a wide range of courses including this term's History of Psychology (40 students) and a graduate student seminar (7 students), in addition to intro to psych (416 students).

Colavita joined the Pitt faculty in 1966. He was named associate professor in 1970, and in 1983 he was appointed associate professor in educational psychology at Pitt's School of Education. He served as psychology department chair from 1980 to 1988.

Colavita defended the lecture method in a roundtable discussion at last month's Provost's Teaching Excellence Fair and in a subsequent interview with the University Times. He also offered advice for those confronted with large lecture courses.

q "It's unfortunate, but some students' first exposure to the discipline of psychology will be at the hands of some person who doesn't have much experience, who doesn't want to be there and who is perhaps not fully prepared because he or she is busy writing some grant proposal or dissertation," Colavita says.

"So I always wanted, to the extent possible, to take it upon myself to give them a good introduction to psychology. It's labor intensive, but the rewards are incredible."

Colavita ordinarily foregoes the weekly recitation sessions typically taught by graduate students, opting instead to give a third lecture himself. The time he spent communicating with graduate students in preparation for recitations was inefficient, he says.

Colavita offers tips for profs teaching large lecture classes. "Act enthusiastic, even if it's a bad day and you're not really fired up. Make a good first impression. Come early to class, and be available for students both before and after class. Mingle. Approach individuals or small groups and ask what they're studying, how they are, who they are, where they're from."

Colavita says that taking sufficient time to lay down the ground rules for a large class is especially important.

"Spell out on the first day exactly what your expectations are for them — regarding attendance, cheating, sharing notes, make-up tests, extra credit — and exactly what they can expect from you. Reinforce those expectations on the syllabus," he stresses.

Many students sign up for intro to psych because they're expecting Freud and sex, he says. "I give them B.F. Skinner and rats. 'Have sex on your own time,' I tell them.

"Seriously, I warn them very early: 'This is a broad discipline; there's going to be something here to interest everybody.' I say, 'It's okay to have a little fun.' Let's face it, good teaching is more fun than bad teaching. Saying something outrageous is sometimes necessary. It breaks the rhythm, so students can re-focus."

But Colavita repeatedly reminds his students that they're there to work. "Teaching is, afterall, a transmittal of information. I tell my students, 'You need to take detailed notes that you can remember for more than an hour after class.'"

Regarding grades, multiple choice tests are the only way to grade large groups, Colavita says. "I would never do that in a graduate course, and I don't even do that in my history class. I make them write. But with large classes I give four multiple-choice tests a semester. Two is not enough, because it's too risky for students who need extra chances to catch on to the material.

"One of the principles of good learning is rapid knowledge of results. I like to get the results up there by the next class period, so we can go over the exam question by question."

Colavita says lecturers must be firm in eliminating distractions. "I try not to show it if I am mad. But I will point out to students in private that I don't appreciate people chatting or reading the newspaper while I'm lecturing: They keep throwing me off. It's rude and disrespectful and they're wasting their time. I also give students permission to say something to a class member, if they're being distracted.

"But I never embarrass anyone. I had a colleague years ago who made the mistake of telling a student that his question was stupid. Not only did that student not ask any more questions, the other students stopped asking them. You can lose the whole class.

"To handle this many students would be somewhere between chaotic and impossible if you didn't have good cooperation and a good attitude on their part, and I seem to get that. Does that mean I've won them over? Yes, it does. But if you go in there with the preconceived notion that these are a bunch of losers who couldn't make it where you went to school, that's going to come across."

Colavita staunchly defends the caliber of Pitt students.

"When I hear my colleagues say something about the low quality of our students, I have to say something. That's not been my experience. I find that these young people are so smart and so respectful and so polite."

Reflecting on his early years of teaching, Colavita says he used to micro-manage himself. "I'd write everything out, and tape record and time my lectures as practice, and then critique them: 'I need a little humor here. I need to add an example there.'

"But about 20 years ago I gave up working from notes entirely. Instead, I spent a lot of time memorizing facts beforehand and becoming extremely familiar with the material. It's very labor-intensive preparation, but I found that lecturing without notes frees me up to make eye contact with the students, and to move around. I prowl. They expect that. I use a wireless mic. That's the only concession to technology I have. You get me, the blackboard and dustless chalk."

This extemporaneous lecturing style has other advantages, Colavita maintains, including spontaneity in his thought process. "Just [last week,] I was talking about a phenomenon, and I suddenly remembered a colloquium speaker that I heard years ago. I remembered this talk I heard, and I worked it right in. I don't feel like I ever get stale, because every lecture is different and you remember different things. Or I may read something in the newspaper and work that in. And with 50 divisions of psychology, there's always new material to cover."

Colavita says those early days of taping lectures for practice paid off in the long run. "It was almost like rehearsal, so that on future occasions a lot of the basics would stick with me and the preparation became easier. The expression, 'Fly now, pay later' — Well, I paid my dues first and flew later. That only really works on the basic stuff, like Pavlov, because you still have to learn the new stuff, but I never regretted all that early work, because for one thing it builds your confidence."

Colavita says his best lectures focus on fewer topics in greater depth with more examples.

"If you do a shotgun approach, they're going to forget 90 percent of it. However, if you pick your issues carefully, almost through overkill on the examples, they're much more likely to remember it.

"I go out of my way to use more and more dramatic examples. It's much more likely to be coded into their memory."

Colavita said he rarely fields questions during a lecture. "Once in a while if a hand goes up, I might ask, 'Is this going to be a question on what I'm talking about, and will the answer be useful to everyone in the class?' Usually, I tell them, 'This is not a democracy; when I want interaction, I'll ask for it.' But I always make myself available for students before and after class and as much as possible at other times."

Colavita came belatedly to the teaching profession.

"In graduate school, I was fairly sure that I was either going to work at a research institute or some NIH laboratory, and I was teaching only because it was required as part of our graduate program.

"The first course I taught, I felt so nervous and inadequate the whole time I swore I'd never go into teaching.

"And then I started doing it because, with three kids, I could use the extra money. And then I started doing what you call cognitive re-framing. Instead of calling what I was feeling 'anxiety,' I started to call it 'excitement.' "'I'm excited!' I'd lie to myself. Now, I truly get a lot of excitement out of teaching, especially my large classes. There's a phenomenon in the behavioral sciences called the self-fulfilling prophecy. Well, that's an illustration of it.

"I don't think there's any one personality that makes a good teacher. Different people are effective in different situations. In a graduate seminar they'll cut you some slack. To be confident, dynamic, energetic — these are much more important with a large group. I believe that I am effective in a seminar, a small class and a large class. But the one that excites me the most is the large one."

–Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 34 Issue 8

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