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August 28, 2008

On Teaching: 6 award-winning psych profs share their thoughts

Teachers often talk about how gratifying teaching can be when it’s done well, said Pitt psychology professor Martin Greenberg in a recent University Times roundtable discussion.

“That’s the carrot. But I would not minimize the stick: the pride that we have in our teaching,” Greenberg said. “When you have a bad class, that stays with you. When you come back the next time, you really want to be good. It’s the worst thing in the world to screw up a class.”

“I take it you’ve never had kidney stones,” departmental colleague Frank Colavita quipped.

Greenberg and Colavita are part of what might be a departmental record here. Six psychology professors have won Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Awards, among a departmental faculty of about 40. The other winners are E. Bruce Goldstein, William Klein, Richard Moreland and Mark Strauss.

Four of the faculty members have contiguous offices on the third floor of Sennott Square, a veritable “hall of fame” for teachers.

The six award-winning psychology professors recently came together to share their thoughts on teaching, facilitated by University Times staff writer Peter Hart. Following is part 1 of that discussion; part 2 will be published in the Sept. 11 issue.

University Times: What makes a good teacher?

Dick Moreland: I think good teaching is partly a knack, a personality characteristic or a set of skills that you bring with you to the classroom. Some people have those things and some people don’t. Frank is a good example of somebody who has the knack for teaching.

University Times: So good teachers are born?

Dick Moreland: Partly, but a big part of it is hard work, deciding it’s a priority for you to run a good class and make things interesting for the students. Our faculty work hard at just about everything they do. That’s why they’re successful individually and why we’re a good department: They’re obsessive-compulsive, they pour themselves into whatever activity they’re doing, so they spend a lot of time and think hard about their research, but they also do that for their teaching.

For those who don’t have the knack, you can make up for that to a great extent by working at it, going the extra mile.

A lot of times when I’m teaching and I’m pressed for time, I say, “Do I want to take an extra hour to make the next class turn out well, or just kind of wing it and hope for the best?” I often force myself to put in the extra time.

Martin Greenberg: One of the unique features about psychology is that the subject matter is something that many students are interested in in terms of their own personal lives, and that certainly helps us in terms of how we lecture and in their involvement.

Involvement is a critical factor in any teaching, and critical to the students’ enjoyment, and they’re involved.

Dick Moreland: But that cuts both ways, Martin. Students in psych classes believe they already have some expertise in the topic. You know: They’ve lived life, they know these things.

We try to teach them that nothing is true unless it’s been proven through research. Even things that seem like common sense at first shouldn’t be taken at face value. We should investigate it. That’s a hard message to get across.

Bruce Goldstein: To me, what good teachers have in common is a passion for the subject and transferring that to the students. In fact, when you look at studies of good teaching, one of the major things is if students get a good feel that their professor is enthralled about the subject. It can be any subject, although, of course, psychology happens to be very interesting.

My favorite feedback on my teaching evaluations is what I’ve gotten in a course called Sensation and Perception, which has lots of stuff about neurons with a biological emphasis: “Made a boring subject interesting.”

I would also like to throw in something from my guru, Frank here, who said once at a meeting of graduate students, “You’re going to have to teach and so you might as well have fun.” I think that’s a pretty good lesson.

Frank Colavita: Good teaching is more fun than bad teaching.

Bruce Goldstein: Right. And what Dick said about putting in the extra hour. Well, if you don’t put in the extra hour and you go up there and just bomb out, it’s not fun.

Bill Klein: On the other hand, I think I’ve learned more about teaching from bad teachers than from good ones. I can remember times saying to myself, “I’m not going to do that when I teach.” I tell [graduate] students, “Don’t just go to Frank Colavita’s classes or Dick Moreland’s classes, go to some other courses with the professors that don’t have the same reputation, and you might find things you like and things you don’t like that you can incorporate into your own teaching.”

Dick Moreland: I agree. In terms of technique I think there are lots of ways to be a good teacher, and so that’s why it’s valuable to see different examples.

I always hated professors who would grade a paper, which is a subjective thing, and were totally closed to discussing the grade they gave. Sometimes I got a grade that I didn’t think was warranted, and I’d say to the professor, “Can we talk about this?” and hear back, “No, I don’t discuss grades.” That just pissed me off.

So I have a procedure where students can come and talk about grades they’re unhappy with, and I do change grades sometimes if I’m convinced that it’s justified. It’s a little like parenting: You remember things you hated about the way you were raised. The danger is going overboard too much in the other direction.

University Times: Why have so many of you in the psychology department won this award?

Dick Moreland: Just hearing that there is such an award, and that so few people win it, makes it seem very ambitious to even try for it, but if you know somebody who has succeeded, you think: “Maybe I can try for it, too.”

Martin helped me with advice, and Martin and I helped Bill in terms of preparing material.

Bill Klein: Dick’s right, it was very helpful to have people who’d done it before, to see their dossiers and how they approached applying. It’s a lot of work, actually, to prepare a big binder of stuff.

Mark Strauss: I can give two possibilities: One is, all of us have to teach large classes, which takes a lot of thought and effort, so I think that’s forced all of us into really thinking about how to teach.

Which isn’t to say that upper-level, smaller classes aren’t difficult, it’s just that in those classes you’ve got a “weeding out” of students, so that you’ve got a small motivated group usually. On the other hand, if you’re teaching introductory or developmental or the large social psychology course, it forces you to really think about how you make it interesting and how you do that when you have a class of 400.

The second thing: This is bragging a bit, but we’re a very high-quality department. If you look at percentage rankings of departments here, we are always within the top 15 percent and we compete against hundreds of departments.

We’re an extremely productive department, we have a lot of research going on — all of that translates into quality people who take that research and that enthusiasm and that knowledge of being at the cutting edge of their field into the classroom. That’s the part that I don’t think is accidental.

Bruce Goldstein: I think it works the other way. I think it’s surprising, given what a high-quality department that we have, which is totally true, that we do have so many people who are really committed to teaching. The reason it’s a high-quality department is not because we’re good teachers, it’s because we have a very good research record and grant record.

The pressures are to do your research and excel in that area. Nobody minds if you’re a good teacher, but you don’t really get rewarded for it in terms of getting promoted or anything like that. So to me it makes it even more amazing.

Frank Colavita: When I came in 1966, the chairman was a man named Bob Patton.

Bill Klein: I was born in 1966. (laughter)

Mark Strauss: Don’t worry, things haven’t changed much.

Frank Colavita: Anyway, Bob and I had a long talk and he said, “Good teaching will not be held against you. But what matters is what you do in the laboratory.”

What I think happens is that people who come here want to do a good job in all aspects of academia.

Plus, psychologists are very verbal and generally we like people — there are exceptions, no doubt — and we have a little of that caretaker thing and all that contributes to good teaching.

University Times: Is part of your responsibility to train students to be good teachers?

Bill Klein: Yes, very much so. In our department, we have a system in place to train graduate students to learn how to teach, and that’s not necessarily the case in other departments or other psychology departments.

Graduate students are required to take the Teaching Psychology that Frank developed or the University’s teaching course before they can teach their own course, and all of them are required to teach their own course in our department.

We have lots of other opportunities for the graduate students: They can come to seminars, panel discussions, they can come to our classes, we sit in on their classes and give feedback. So there is a value system here: If you’re going to teach graduate students how to teach and how to enjoy it, you have to give them the skills to do so, and expose them to models of good or bad teaching.

Now we’ve actually added a second course that will start next year. It will be a follow-up to this one. It’s more of a support course where students who are currently teaching can come to a group once a week where they can express their concerns.

Bruce Goldstein: What they have to do in my version of the [Teaching Psychology] course is give presentations and critique each other.

One of the things I harp on a lot is my philosophy on PowerPoint, for example, which is that less is more. The reason these people are coming to class is not to see the PowerPoint slides, but to see you. You’re a real person, you have something to tell them, you have your enthusiasm. But a lot of teachers get carried away and it’s just one big wall of PowerPoint slides.

Dick Moreland: I emphasize PowerPoint in my classes, but I don’t think Martin or Frank use it at all.

Frank Colavita: No, I don’t use any technology. My trick is to hook them with my enthusiasm. I don’t use notes. I haven’t used lecture notes in 30 years. I want to make eye contact. Sometimes I run my mouth a lot and that has consequences. I’ll be at a social gathering and someone will say: “I recognize you. My boyfriend was going to go med school until he took your course and now he’s a psych major, and it’s your fault!” (laughter)

Martin Greenberg: I paint word pictures. You can play upon students’ imagination. You can describe a scenario, whether it be real or hypothetical, and I know they’re following it when I can “see” there are little bubbles of interest floating above their heads.

Bruce Goldstein: I tried to figure out what is good teaching. When I first started here, I started a project where I was videotaping people who won teaching awards, to try to figure out what it was all about. And I just gave up the project, because there was such a wide variety that I couldn’t pinpoint anything.

Dick Moreland: I find that comforting.

Bruce Goldstein: Yes. You had people who stood behind the podium and gave a very formal lecture who were considered great and you had people who jumped around a lot.

But what Martin was talking about with word pictures — when I teach I try to tell a story. You can tell a story about neurons. Or a story about some of the people who worked on neurons and how they discovered stuff. You can tell a story about anything, really. And I think that makes it come alive for students when you do that. That fits in with my basic philosophy.

Dick Moreland: There’s research in cognitive psychology that says that people’s brains are set up to understand and process stories more readily than the same amount of information presented in some other format. I agree with the story idea. A bad lecture often is one where a whole sequence of semi-related facts is transmitted and the students don’t necessarily see what the relationship is among these things.

Martin Greenberg: Talking about the narrative and the story, the thing that stands out in evaluations of me that students like is examples. They love examples of a concept. You can give them the concept, the theory, the model, but until they can tie it down concretely, they’re not satisfied.

Dick Moreland: They like, especially, personal examples. It’s that voyeuristic quality. I often use my poor wife as an example when I teach Personality. Several times she’s run into somebody during her business career who took my class and they ask her semi-inappropriate questions, like, “Still wearing that nightgown?” “Still make a big stink when Dick wants to do this or that?” (laughter)

Mark Strauss: We’re talking as though we won this award only for our OMET (Office of Measurement and Evaluation of Teaching) scores. I’m sure we all have good scores or we wouldn’t get the award, but lots of people have good OMET scores — the award process looks at things more broadly.

The last several years I’ve been on the Bellet [Arts and Sciences teaching] award committee and so I’ve been looking at this process. First of all, part of our being active researchers, we typically have a lot of directed research study students working in our labs. I typically have five to seven. That’s a large part of what I talked about [in applying for the chancellor’s award], and I know that some of the students who’ve worked in my lab wrote in support of me, many of whom I’ve had continued contact with 20 years later.

When you teach the large classes it’s hard to get to know the students, and particularly the quality students. When you work with them in your lab, that’s where you have the personal experience. It really gives you the opportunity to have an impact on their lives. You have lab meetings with undergraduate students and graduate students, and they’re integrated in a completely different type of learning experience: It’s hands-on, the undergraduates have the role models of the graduate students, there’s more dialogue. It’s a very different experience. In a sense, it allows you to have a small-college atmosphere within the large university. For us, it’s part of the zeitgeist of what we do here. What could be more important than when you take students and really change the direction of their lives, the way they’re thinking, often what they end up doing as a career? This is where the real gratification is. It’s not the amorphous 400 students.

I think that also is why I didn’t get this award for over 25 years, because it took a maturity to feel comfortable doing that. You almost develop a sort of fatherly or, now for me, grandfatherly, attitude toward developing students.

Bruce Goldstein: I should say that I’m an example of a person who doesn’t do much research. I write textbooks, which is a facet of teaching and I think that — this goes back to what Martin was saying about how bad it feels to hold a bad class — there is certainly a very nice feeling that you get when you’ve done something to change students’ lives. You often don’t find out about that till years later.

But there’s also a certain performance component to teaching. They say good actors are the most insecure people because they have to make people love them by acting.

Dick Moreland: Teaching is a kind of acting. I think if you had acting experience when you were younger, it would be valuable.

University Times: The difference is it’s your own words you’re using, not an author’s.

Bill Klein: Well, yes and no. There’s another piece of this, which is we’re often teaching these big classes, and maybe one-half of one of the lectures covers our own research. And the rest of it is work done by our colleagues at the University and other places. I sometimes feel, in this context, that I am an actor: I’m taking this script that is given to me by the field or by my colleagues, and I’m working it out in a way that makes it interesting and that’s consistent with the way I see it.

So it’s somewhere in between.

Dick Moreland: Mark brought up the pleasure of working with the best students and I certainly agree with that. But many of us spend time outside of class with not-so-good students who are struggling with the material and trying to do better. I think there’s some pleasure to be found there, too. In some ways, I admire a student who struggles to learn something and succeeds more than a student who takes it in easily. It’s very gratifying to work with students who started out failing exams and get them up to speed, so that now they understand the material, maybe they changed their study habits, or whatever it is that you’ve done to help them. They’re not going to go on and be psychologists and have PhDs, but you’ve changed them in a way that may affect how they do in their other courses, or even in ways that change their everyday lives.

University Times: In large classes, isn’t there some pressure on the teacher to teach to both ends of aptitude?

Mark Strauss: That’s the hardest part.

Dick Moreland: That is difficult. The danger is watering down your course. The students who fail are angry and upset. One way to solve that problem is to make everything easier, but if you’re not careful you find yourself teaching a baby course.

You can’t save every student. That was a hard lesson for me to learn. You start out thinking, “If I just work hard enough, I can make every single one of these students learn the material and get an A.” I had to give up on that vision at some point and recognize that there are some students I just couldn’t reach. You try to salvage as many as you can of the ones who are having trouble.

University Times: How have students changed over the years?

Mark Strauss: When many of us came here, Pitt was still pretty much drawing local students. I remember one point early in my career the percentage of students coming here who were first-time college students in their families was very high. I actually found it quite enjoyable that we were taking these students who didn’t have parents who were professionals and college educated and so on, and opening up a whole new world for them. And they were very motivated.

At the time the University was pushing hard to up its research quality, when we were trying to think of how we could become the Harvard of western Pennsylvania. Many of us were thinking, you know, we have a really good mission here of taking these students and changing their worlds. Forget about the Harvard routine.

In the last 30 years that has changed. Now we’re getting a very different type of student.

Dick Moreland: Mark, are you saying also that the quality of students has improved? Because I think that’s the case.

Mark Strauss: The quality has improved, but we also have a lot of heterogeneity, which is what makes it difficult: We have a lot of these really good students, the ones I talked about earlier who are in the labs who can go on and compete with anyone, but we still have quite a bit of heterogeneity. So when you teach, particularly an intro class, that’s really a struggle. Almost by definition you’re failing 15-20 percent.

Martin Greenberg: Students in the early ’70s wanted to hear more not less. What I’ve seen of late, students are saying, “You go into too much depth, you talk too much about this topic.” What they’re really saying is they want more sound bites.

Mark Strauss: And they don’t want to have to read about it.

Bruce Goldstein: This is anecdotal, but I used to teach this course that was considered rather far out, called The Psychology of Art and Multimedia. It was like a film production course, although we talked about psychological principles, and the students had to create stuff in that course.

In the first few years — we’re talking about the ’70s — I had students who just totally knocked me out with some of the stuff they created. Some of them actually became filmmakers.

I think of it as a golden age — or maybe it’s because we were all younger and we turned the students on more. They were just so into creating and excited about stuff, and I don’t see that much any more.

Mark Strauss: That’s where I see the discord with the greater heterogeneity. The good students are creative, they do read, they’re intellectually motivated, but there’s a much larger group who have not read, and they don’t want to read.

It’s the TV, the web. When you give assignments it’s a struggle to get them to not just use a web site as their source of information. I gave one assignment where I hadn’t stressed that a whole lot and probably more than half the class all had the same web site because it was obviously the first or second site on Google. It turned out to be some little report that a first-year graduate student somewhere had gotten posted. And they’re all citing this, so I had to read them the riot act.

University Times: Do you find you’re communicating with students much more via email?

Mark Strauss: Yes, and there’s good and bad in that. The good is that it allows a lot of students who wouldn’t personally contact you to write to you. The negative is you get emails about things you never would be personally approached about.

Martin Greenberg: Stuff that’s on the syllabus. Or, “When is the final exam?” “What room is it in?”

Bruce Goldstein: I put something on my syllabus called email etiquette, which is exactly what you’re talking about. I’m happy to answer your legitimate questions, but do not send me an email about when the exam is. It seems to help a little bit.

Mark Strauss: I did something like that this year in my intro course. I tried to separate: important things, I’m always happy to see you, or have you email me. But I don’t want 400 emails asking what time’s the class. And I got a bunch of evaluations that said, “He’s pompous on the first day.”

Martin Greenberg: What I’ve noticed in the last couple of years, when it comes to exams, students want to know: What do I have to study for? They seem more obsessed with structure: Do I have to read everything? Do I have to know all of this? This was not the case in the ’70s or even the ’80s. This is in the last few years. They want to know more and more what are the key terms. I see it reflected in textbooks, too.

Bruce Goldstein: That’s an interesting point. When I was going to teach Cognitive Psychology for the first time, I sat in on a course of a colleague who was considered a good teacher, because I thought it would help.

Then I decided I am going to take the first exam. There was a review session, and I didn’t care at all about the topic, all I wanted to know was what was going to be on the exam, what should I study? — I became one of them! (laughter)

Dick Moreland: Some psychologists have argued that if we emphasize grades and deadlines and external factors, we weaken the intrinsic motivation students have to learn the material. They start out wanting to know something about what they’re studying, but then they get forced into this situation where they have to study and take exams and get grades and have things turned in by a certain time and they get confused about why they’re taking the course. Am I taking this course to meet the deadlines and get high grades, or am I taking the course because I’m really interested in this material?

University Times: How do you all feel about the importance of grades?

Dick Moreland: Well, I’m old-fashioned, so I don’t care. I emphasize the external, like tests. I’m sold on tests. When I teach graduate seminars I sometimes will just tell people on day one that I’m going to give everybody an A. The first time I did that, I was nervous. I thought, “Somebody’s going to stop coming to class or not put in any effort.” But it never has happened. Apparently, they’re interested enough anyway that the grades aren’t necessary.

Mark Strauss: I feel a little like that. In my upper-class courses, I only use take-home assignments and exams. They have the questions and they can talk to each other. In fact, I tell them that that’s part of the intellectual experience. I make sure that my questions are tough questions and require creative thinking. But I tell them: “If you want to talk to each other, and discuss the issues and try to figure out what I’m after, that’s fine. But I expect all of you to write your own individual answers.” That’s a hard line, and I read very closely to make sure I’m not reading duplicates.

I tell them, “I would love to give all of you A’s and I will if you write creatively.” And some terms I give out a lot of A’s.

Bill Klein: I agree with Mark that students should not think that they’re being forced into some kind of distribution, where a certain percentage are going to get C’s. There are some places that do that, and I think there are some reasonably good arguments for doing that. But I would rather foster a more collegial environment where students are working together. I don’t have take-home exams, but I do tell them they can study together and encourage them to do that and give them the resources to do it.

Otherwise what I’m asking my students to do is very similar to what Mark is asking: They learn together, they do projects together, sometimes I assign them to work together in small groups. That’s part of the learning experience.

I would say that one of the costs to this approach, which I have found very difficult to deal with, is that you come across then as really caring about their progress, and you’ve suggested that they can all earn A’s, that it’s quite possible, and then when you give them the first exam and half of them do get C’s and D’s, they’re completely shocked.

One of the negative comments I get on my course evaluations is, “Wow, he made us feel so comfortable in the classroom, and then — wham! — he hit us over the head with that first exam and I never saw it coming.”

I keep trying to refine my teaching methods so that I’m a little more hard line and I warn them it’s going to be hard, and I’ve not yet succeeded in figuring out how to do that.

Dick Moreland: I have the same problem. The first exam I give in my class, a lot of students find difficult and they’re surprised by it, especially if they form an impression of me from the lectures that I’m going to be easygoing about grading. I’ve tried everything to avoid this problem. I’ve tried warning them; I’ve tried showing them the grade distribution from a previous semester on the first exam; I’ve tried giving them a practice exam. They have this optimistic illusion that everything’s going to be easy.

Mark Strauss: Part of the answer is what was said before about giving them adequate feedback. So, for example, with a take-home, particularly for my midterm, I put comments on their papers, but I tell them if you really think the grade doesn’t reflect your knowledge, write a little note to that effect, give the paper back to me, I will read it again and give you more extensive feedback. A few students who are really concerned might do that. Sometimes I actually change my mind and decide I was too harsh. You have to give them that feedback.

The negative of teaching that way is, if you have a class of 50 students and you’re reading 15- to 20-page papers and having to give feedback, you just have to decide that this is important enough for you to do, because there certainly isn’t a reward system to do that. It’s much easier just to give multiple-choice exams.


Part 2 of the teachers’ roundtable will be published Sept. 11. The professors discuss Pitt’s commitment to undergraduate education, the interrelationship of teaching and research and the use of technology in the classroom.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 41 Issue 1

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