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September 11, 2008

On Teaching (Part 2): Six psych profs share their thoughts

Teachers often talk about how gratifying teaching can be when it’s done well, and how frustrating it can be when there are disconnects in the learning process. Many also relish debate on the value placed on undergraduate teaching at a research institution and the relationship between research and teaching in academia.

In the Aug. 28 University Times, six psychology professors, all winners of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award, began a roundtable discussion on teaching, facilitated by University Times staff writer Peter Hart.

In this issue, the six professors — Frank Colavita, E. Bruce Goldstein, Martin Greenberg, William Klein, Richard Moreland and Mark Strauss — conclude their conversation.

University Times: It’s been said about today’s students that they are coddled by their parents and teachers, to the point they expect that average work and sometimes below-average work will be accepted or even rewarded. How do you deal with those kinds of expectations?

Bruce Goldstein: I actually heard someone proposing that Mister Rogers totally screwed up a whole generation by constantly saying, “You’re okay just the way you are.” And then they wonder if they’re okay, how come they screwed up the exam?

Dick Moreland: Part of the problem, too, is that a lot of students have a stereotype about psychology, that is: It can’t be very difficult. I teach a course called Personality, and you can imagine an 18-year-old taking a course like that saying, “How hard can that be? I have a personality, and I know someone else who has one, so I know a lot about personality.” They assume that they don’t have to put much effort into it.

Frank Colavita: Students in the intro course come in expecting Freud and sex. I give them B.F. Skinner and rats. “Have sex on your own time,” I tell them. Saying something outrageous is sometimes necessary. It breaks the rhythm, so students can re-focus.

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, but you’re going to have to work hard.” Teaching is, after all, 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.”

University Times: What kind of teaching aids are helpful in a classroom with hundreds of students?

Bruce Goldstein: Bill and I did a workshop for the psychology department on giving students feedback as the lecture is going on.

Some professors use devices where you can poll the class or give multiple choice questions, and the students have to answer on the spot.

I don’t use that technology. It’s too much trouble and it can break, and students have to buy the things, but I give them flashcards that say A, B, C and D on them. It’s the same idea.

That sounds pretty dorky, but it really works great. You ask questions along the way and they hold up their cards, and you can see this sea of cards going up. They can see where they stand and they’re responsible for their own answer because they’re holding it up. It’s not like they’re pushing a button anonymously. And they find out they don’t know much at times. In other words, they find out before the exam that they need to do some work. It also adds some fun to the class.

Frank Colavita: I use a wireless mic. That’s the only concession to technology I have. You get me, the blackboard and dustless chalk.

University Times: How would you characterize Pitt’s emphasis on teaching?

Mark Strauss: My feeling is these [chancellor’s teaching] awards are very nice, and it’s certainly important to honor faculty who teach well. But it’s almost a way of getting out of doing what I think are the important things the University should be doing to truly promote undergraduate education.

I think the University of Pittsburgh has changed and made undergraduate education much more important. In the past the University has been so maniacally set on just the research end of things. So, it certainly has gotten better. But I still think it’s quite limited in its seriousness of fostering quality education.

Bruce Goldstein: I’m really glad I got the teaching award. It elevated a big part of my life. But on the other hand, I don’t think it’s enough, just giving away five teaching awards every year and not buying enough technology for teaching for the classroom and not giving other kinds of awards for people who teach well other than the five teaching awards. There are lots of things they could do and they don’t.

Martin Greenberg: I disagree. In Arts and Sciences for the last couple years I’ve been dealing with teaching and undergraduate education and I dealt with the deans on an undergraduate curriculum reform committee. I’ve come to learn that there’s a lot going on to help foster teaching and there are concerns and an emphasis on curriculum for undergraduates.

We’ve met with all the chairs of the natural science departments, for example, to look at what is the common core of these courses in order to have some kind of uniformity, and there have been spirited discussions. People at CIDDE (the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education) will come and talk to us about what you can do to improve teaching. We have another committee where we give away other awards for innovations in teaching. Every year we’ve given maybe 10 such awards to people who came up with ideas on teaching.

We also have this teaching fair that comes out of the innovation prizes. So there’s a sharing of this information. In addition, they invite accomplished teachers to meet in the lounge informally and share their experiences and give advice. I recall Frank doing that with a group of young, eager assistant professors.

It’s easy to go after the University, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty, you see there are people who are very dedicated, who will fight to get money for teachers who want to do something innovative. You shouldn’t short-change those efforts.

Bruce Goldstein: But how many show up to these teaching fairs? It’s a very nice thing, but when you look at the percentage of the faculty that actually shows up it’s very minuscule. It’s not a bad thing, but the fact that it’s not something that is taken that seriously by the majority of the faculty says something.

Mark Strauss: Which is a problem with many of the teaching support things here. I think instructional support staff are very dedicated and they do a great job. But until you are rewarding teaching sufficiently, you’re just not getting a majority of the faculty participating in these things. The bottom line is what counts for your getting tenure or pay raises is your research and that’s taking tons of time. If you have two hours to finish writing that grant proposal or go talk about teaching, what are going to do with those two hours?

I guess what I’m talking about is the University at the broader level and whether they take that undergraduate teaching commitment as seriously as they do research.

For example, this University has a big divide between the academic side and the Student Affairs side. It’s always been almost two separate aspects. Lots of universities work at integrating those two sides so that it becomes an educational community. There are activities that happen outside the classroom. Good universities bring in scholars who live in residence halls for a month or a semester. They bring in experts as guest lecturers. They have computer labs in the residence halls.

I don’t see that integration here, because I don’t see the University has ever really taken the undergraduate role seriously enough.

It’s the same thing with rewards to faculty. Everyone is supposed to be primarily a researcher, then kind of do teaching and then do community service.

The reality is you can go through stages in your career where your research effort isn’t as strong and you want to put a lot of effort into teaching. You should be told that that’s fine and that if you do top-quality teaching you’ll be rewarded just as much as someone doing research that’s top quality. There are other people we have who are in research periods whose teaching loads need to be reduced and some who really just don’t teach well.

There is this notion that faculty during their entire career should be doing the exact same proportion, instead of saying, “Do a good job and let’s reward people who do a job well.”

Bruce Goldstein: Here’s the thing: Let’s say you have this world-class teacher, who is known to be a great teacher but doesn’t do all that much research, and then you have a great researcher who is getting all kinds of grants, and they both threaten to leave the University. They’ll let the teacher go in a second and they’ll be giving all kinds of stuff to the researcher to get him or her to stay. That’s the bottom line.

Dick Moreland: Not to be crass, but the researcher is bringing in money to the University that it needs.

Mark Strauss: But it’s not just the money. I can tell you that as someone who has brought in teaching training grants for 15 or 16 years continuously. They don’t count at all even though you’re bringing in money, because it is not research. It’s the same thing with the community service aspect. And there are plenty of researchers who don’t bring in grant money but they’re publishing a lot so they’re still being respected and rewarded.

Dick Moreland: Maybe it’s easier to prove that somebody’s a good researcher than a good teacher. It’s very hard sometimes to know if the students are really understanding what you’re saying. Several times I’ve had the experience of thinking I came across perfectly clearly only to find out later that I hadn’t.

University Times: What is the relationship between research and teaching?

Martin Greenberg: It’s a reasonable assumption that if a person is actively involved in research and has gotten funding for it, that this person is in a position to better train students to go on to graduate work. That’s one track that we have: To work in our labs, to work one-on-one, and some of our faculty are magnificent at that. So that’s part of the education process, of making available to a subset of students the undergraduate experiences that will prepare them to go on to graduate schools and become professionals like us, and you need money to do that.

Mark Strauss: I’m not arguing that there should be an education track and a research track. What I’m arguing is that there are natural changes in cycles and abilities. In this department, you teach two courses a semester and it never changes.

If I had my way, instead of a large intro course counting as one course, it would count as two courses, so I could take the extra time that’s needed. If that were the case, maybe I would think about taking the extra time doing special things. But the reality is it’s one course, I still have this other course to teach and everything else I have to do.

If you want to think monetarily, you’ve got 300 or 400 students who are paying tuition.

To have this flexibility is different from saying we should have educators and we should have researchers. But the important thing is that you reward quality in both, and that’s what’s missing, because quality in and of itself is not rewarded.

University Times: Can that be rectified at the department level?

Mark Strauss: Frank and I both have been department chairs. This was something, at least when I was chair, that I thought a lot about and wanted to do. But the problem is that as soon as you start hitting up against the dean’s level, there are barriers. And I’m sure at the dean’s level there are barriers at the provost’s level.

The bottom line is universities are very conservative. That came to me as the biggest surprise in the world, because when I became an academician I thought I’d be at this fast-changing, cutting-edge institution. It turns out we have had the same university structure for probably the last 200 years with basically the same departments, the same requirements and so on.

I remember when I was chair I once suggested that maybe tenure shouldn’t be in the sixth year anymore. Things have changed: Getting grants is a lot more competitive, a lot more is required. Maybe we should be looking at tenure over eight years. Or maybe in one department it should be eight years, but in another field it should be three.

I remember raising that at a chairs’ meeting, and chairs were saying: “Whoa! No, you can’t change!” This is the conservative nature of universities, and I happen to think Pitt is more conservative than a lot of universities.

Bill Klein: We’re falling back a little bit into talking about teaching as only undergraduate education.

I think a point that Mark made earlier is really important in this context, which is that part of what makes good teaching, part of what makes your contributions to a good department, is teaching in a whole variety of contexts.

I understand Mark’s concerns, but what I think he’s talking more about is teaching large courses, team-teaching undergraduate courses, but the bottom line is that teaching graduate courses, and working with directed research students and having graduate students in one’s lab — all of that actually promotes one’s research. There is a reward in teaching these classes if you’re able to identify students who you’re getting into your lab.

To the extent that you can navigate that pretty well and do a fair amount of mentoring, you get a lot back from that in terms of research. Not to undercut anything Mark was saying, but that’s part of the bigger picture of what teaching is.

Mark Strauss: Although, interestingly for us, none of that counts as teaching. I have five graduate students. I meet with every one of them at least two hours a week. I have typically five to seven undergraduates in my lab whom I meet with every week. None of that counts as teaching.

Dick Moreland: I do a fair amount of work at the business school, serving on dissertation committees and comprehensive exams, but that doesn’t count either.

Mark Strauss: That’s probably where the money does matter, because they’re saying we’re not making any money on your teaching five graduate students. But if you’re talking about quality and about an institution presumably not motivated just by money, there’s an imbalance there.

And to be honest, our department brings in so much money we should have some latitude on that anyway.

University Times: Are undergraduates exposed enough to senior faculty in the classroom?

Bill Klein: Yale University, for example, expects all of their students to take courses with their professors and not with graduate students, and they expect their faculty to teach all of the service courses.

Their faculty aren’t any more productive than we are or any other good department, but they have a different culture.

Frank Colavita: It’s unfortunate, but some students’ first exposure to 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.

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. 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.

Dick Moreland: I appreciate your point, but I think we have great, and have had great, Intro to Psych teachers. Even the people who have taught it in recent years who are non-tenure stream faculty, I admire them.

Bill Klein: The graduate students can use this as an opportunity to learn how to teach. I always ask them if they’d like to be a guest lecturer. They take me up on that maybe 10 percent of the time. I try to get them inculcated into the teaching culture and they then can go off and be really good teaching assistants, teaching fellows, teach their own courses, which will help the department.

Mark Strauss: I think there are graduate students teaching who do a wonderful job. But, on the other hand, I think most of us would agree it took us 10 to 15 years to become a good teacher. You need experience.

The difference for me is the type of thing that Bill is talking about. I did teach intro this year and I’ve taught it in other years. I take a major part of the course and talk about my autism research, because it’s okay to take three lectures and show how you can actually do research on an important issue. Out of that I’ve gotten freshmen who started working in my lab and stayed for four years.

The University also has this new thing of research for credit, so you do get these students who start working and stay for four years, which is wonderful. It’s one the best experiences I’ve had.

Dick Moreland: I sometimes lecture about my research, but I’m cautious about that because one of the things I didn’t like as a student years ago was an occasional professor who focused too much of the course on research, and I felt that was kind of a selfish thing.

Mark Strauss: Well, I did it on purpose, because it was intro, which is so surfacey and I figure if this is a research department, let them at least for one topic hear how you take an issue, what the research is like and how you follow through. I don’t know if that was successful or not, but part of the reason I did it is because you can identify these quality students to work with.

Martin Greenberg: I would add, and I’ve told this to graduate students, one of the hardest things to do is to talk about a subject you know a lot about. Because you’re on that slippery slope: You say something and there all these tangents and you want to qualify, and before you know it, you’ve gone too deep into the thing, and your students are agog. You get yourself into a deep hole trying to explain something. You start to qualify: “Well, it’s not really the main effect, it’s really a three-fold effect. Let me show you on the board."

Stick to sound bites and explanations that make sense.

It’s also consistent with what I said about today’s undergraduate students and how they’re different from the past: They want main effects; they don’t want to hear about interactions. They want to walk out with some simple understandings. You can’t do that when you know so much about something.

Bill Klein: And there’s a discipline issue here, too. We get students who are economists, engineers coming in with an attitude about the discipline they’re majoring in. And then they come to psychology and they hear all these qualifications: “This happens here, but not for these people under these conditions.” And they walk away thinking psychology is even softer or less credible than when they came in, and that’s a bad outcome for us.

University Times: Any final thoughts?

Dick Moreland: I was thinking about whether this prize actually promotes better teaching. Speaking for myself, in preparing for that prize dossier, which as Bill said is an extensive thing, I found it very difficult to do, but I forced myself. They ask a lot of questions, like: What’s your teaching philosophy? What’s your training philosophy? A lot of that stuff I had some implicit ideas about, but had never spelled out anywhere. I think that actually improved my teaching in subsequent years. Reflecting on my philosophy on grading: Do I still believe that or do I want to change that? I think that’s one indirect benefit.

But I’m not sure there are all these faculty lusting after the prize so they start improving their teaching in the hopes of winning it. I don’t think that’s happening.

Mark Strauss: I’m going to make a suggestion, because this was a very useful conversation for us. If the University wanted some good input to seriously do things, rather than just give the chancellor’s and Bellet [Arts and Sciences teaching] awards, maybe they should get the winners of the awards together once in awhile to talk about what constitutes good education and good teaching and maybe even to write a report and make recommendations with the proviso that the University would take the recommendations seriously.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 41 Issue 2

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