Teaching Philosophy

I strive to incorporate a spirit of engaged learning into all of my interactions with students. I believe that teaching is a joint activity; students learn best when they are active participants in their education, and as a teacher it is my job to help them assume that role. Also informed by my research in learning and memory, I use evidence-based strategies that enhance learning and improve long-term memory. When teaching students, both in the classroom and in the laboratory, I strive to accomplish three aims: help students learn the foundational knowledge they need, teach them to think like psychologists, and help them become smart consumers of science.

Foundational Knowledge

In all classes, students should leave the course knowing certain basic concepts. I facilitate this objective by encouraging my students to become active learners and to think critically about the material, both of which facilitate understanding and long-term memory. I do this by making the material as interesting as possible by using demonstrations, examples, and discussions to show why the material is important and how it is relevant to their lives. For example, in my memory course, I created a demonstration to show students how easily they can misremember the source of their own memories. I presented related information in two different sources (pictures and a list of words) and later asked them which source an item came from. I then showed them videos about a real-life case in which the band Men at Work were sued for what they claimed was unintentional plagiarism; they believed they wrote a melody that may really have come from a popular children’s song (cryptomnesia). We then discussed how the reconstructive nature of memory leads to these kinds of errors, how cryptomnesia cases should be handled, and how they could fall victim to cryptomnesia themselves.

To facilitate learning and long-term memory of this foundational knowledge, I incorporate evidence-based strategies such as spaced practice and frequent low-stakes quizzing. For example, I gave daily quizzes in my Human Learning and Memory course because practicing retrieval reduces forgetting (McDermott, Arnold, & Nelson, 2013). It also has the secondary benefits of encouraging students to pay attention in class, ask questions, and spread out their studying (as opposed to cramming). I also discussed the answers right away so that students got immediate feedback. Unfortunately, students often have misconceptions about what is good for their own learning (Bjork, Dunlosky, & Kornell, 2013) because the best strategies are often the most difficult (Bjork, 1994). In the past when first told about the daily quizzes, my students have not been shy about expressing their disapproval. However, I have learned that explaining why I give the quizzes and showing them the research behind these assignments leads to a more positive classroom experience. By the end of the semester, students expressed their appreciation for the quizzes; they felt it helped their learning and their grades. They appreciated that I used research to design my course and that I took the time to explain the science.

Think like a Psychologist

Although an understanding of basic concepts is important, I believe that it is even more important for students to understand how to think like a psychologist. I want students to understand how psychologists discover the knowledge that becomes the basic concepts they are expected to learn. Rather than presenting psychology as a body of knowledge, I present it as a developing science. In the classroom, this means that I present research questions and then ask the students to generate ways to solve these questions. For example, when teaching prospective memory (memory for future intentions), I present two contrasting theories for how we retrieve these memories: (1) the Preparatory Attentional and Memory Processes (PAM) theory, which posits that successful retrieval requires constant monitoring of our environment for retrieval cues and (2) the Multiprocess theory, which argues that monitoring is just one of several mechanisms that supports prospective memory retrieval. I then have the students discuss experimental designs that could be used to contrast these theories before presenting the design of published experiments. Students then predict the results and discuss the significance of different possible outcomes before seeing the actual data.

Exercises like these encourage students to approach the material from the perspective of a scientist. They come to understand that science is an ever-evolving process and knowledge can be discovered through experimental means. Further, this approach enhances students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills. In the end, I feel that it is more important that my students leave with an improved understanding of the scientific method and with an enhanced ability to think critically to solve research questions than that they remember the precise details of every experiment.

Consumer of Science

I realize that not all of my students are going to go on to become psychologists. However, they are all going to be consumers of science. The more that they understand about the process of psychological science and how it is reported, the better they will be at interpreting science for the rest of their lives. One way I help students develop this skill is by having them read and critically discuss scientific articles. For example, I created a journal club for the undergraduates who were completing an independent study in my lab. I find that students often do not understand that they can be critical of published research, so I direct students to think critically about each section of the paper. In the journal club I had students find articles that interested them and lead the discussion. This made the discussions more interesting for the students, developed their presentation and leadership skills, and allowed me to more realistically judge how well they understand the science.

Whenever possible, I also bring in current events and “real-world” applications of science. For instance, when the media reported that news anchor Brian Williams exaggerated multiple stories, in my undergraduate journal club we discussed if it was possible that he was not consciously lying but rather had false memories. We watched videos of how his reporting changed over time and read an article about how false memories can develop. This led to a lively debate and discussion about the complexities of moving from the lab to the “real world.” In my upcoming Cognition in the Classroom seminar, I plan on having students evaluate how effectively particular textbooks incorporate findings from cognitive psychology and discuss ways they could be better designed to enhance learning. Exercises such as these help students to learn how to think critically about science reporting and the complexities of translating scientific findings to the “real-world,” which are skills that go beyond the classroom. I want my students to leave my class with better critical thinking skills that will serve them well in whatever path they choose.