Reflections Upon Teaching Our Students (and some tips!)
I have been fortunate enough to teach community-college students for the past seventeen years. As I complete my fifth year as an Assistant Professor at Hostos Community College, I would like to share my ideas about teaching and being the best faculty member I can be for our students. I have always been passionate about educating students, not just about psychology, but about being a successful college student and using knowledge gained to navigate life. Every semester I ask myself how I can improve. Here are some of my thoughts on being an effective teacher.
Limit prejudgments: First, as a social psychologist, I try very hard to get to know my students and not prejudge them. As human beings we have a tendency to categorize others, which leads to stereotypical beliefs. Most people hold onto stereotypes tightly, and, only when we finally pay attention to stereotype-busting information, we still maintain them by seeing this individual as an exception, which allows us to judge this person more accurately while holding onto the stereotypical belief. I have heard disparaging remarks about our students’ abilities and I refuse to believe these vast overgeneralizations. I have, and have always had, high expectations of my students and communicate that to them. I believe that any student who follows my structured course can be successful. I will not lower my standards because I teach at a community college in the South Bronx. Of course students vary in terms of preparedness for college, effort, and ability, but, if we work with our students, we can bring so many more of them along and foster success. Awareness is the key to avoiding relying on stereotypes.
Find your teaching style: I started teaching as a graduate student, first teaching a lab, filling in for the faculty I was working for as a TA, and ultimately my own classes once I received my master’s degree. I started out as an extremely shy college and graduate student. I was so shy I could not give presentations without intense anxiety. The only way I was able to be a better student and teacher was to stop allowing myself to avoid that which scared me. As an undergraduate I found many ways to avoid taking a public-speaking course. I did graduate with a BA without a speech course. But as I progressed in graduate school, I realized I must accept challenges in this arena, even small ones at first. It took me a long time to feel comfortable in the classroom and find my own style/voice (although I am still shy, mostly in my personal life). As a novice instructor I lectured all the time! Now I find myself seeking new ways — even after 17 years– to challenge and excite my students about psychology. Now I incorporate many in-class activities designed to have students see that they must read in order to be able to get past memorization and develop skills in analysis and application. I have many more written assignments than I used to and I have developed a capstone assignment that gives students an opportunity to see what it’s like to do research like a social psychologist does. The more comfortable you are in your skin as faculty, the more students will see that you care about their learning and them.
Be firm: Being wishy-washy helps no one (in my opinion). Students may take advantage of an instructor who is not consistent, does not have firm deadlines, and bends to the will of every student. While teaching in Seattle, we had a Human Relations course that many adjuncts tried to teach in a less than firm manner. This course was required for mainly culinary arts students who tended to band together as they took classes as a cohort throughout their program. None of the faculty ever wanted to teach that course twice. They asked me to do it, and I agreed, using the same approach in every class, firm and consistent. I had little to no problems in teaching this course. At the beginning of the semester I am very firm, maintain a consistent response based on what is in my syllabus, while still trying to draw students in and foster motivation to do the required work. I stick to my syllabus. I use a lot of structure, which I believe helps students stay focused and knowledgeable about how the course works. Great faculty can differ in their views about how much structure is needed just as students vary in the degree of structure they prefer. Firmness is helpful and it is not rigidity. This is different from being responsive to extraordinary circumstances; it makes sense to work with students whose lives are difficult and each of us has to decide what shape that responsiveness takes.
Share: One of the most important aspects of teaching and learning is to learn from others. Of utmost importance to me is the time and ability to share with my colleagues. What works in the classroom? What doesn’t work? Of course, these vary by faculty member. Once the semester gets going it may be hard to find the time and place for this but every time it happens I find it so beneficial. I find group work in the classroom in applying and discussing concepts to be very valuable. It also helps students’ memories work better, both discussing and applying knowledge are forms of elaborative rehearsal which helps students understand better and move information to long-term memory much more quickly than rote memorization. Sharing in the classroom is important. Students do not enter college as blank slates, their lives thus far inform their choices and their interpretation of events. Their prior learning can be effective when used to begin lessons or apply concepts. Life experiences matter to us all. We can and, at times, should share some of our life experiences with students to aid their understanding and help them dispel stereotypes they may have about you. I use one exercise early on in the semester in my social psychology where students have to guess personality characteristics about myself. I always reassure them I will not disapprove of any of their answers (an important step). Most of them would never say I am shy! They are often surprised that I do not fit neatly into their stereotype of most teachers. Who would think I have a tattoo or have done karaoke? Sharing is a helpful strategy for us and for our students to develop.
So these are a few ideas I have. I am happy to share specific exercises I use with anyone. Wherever we are in our careers, we can learn so much from our students and our colleagues. Let’s keep this in mind as we prepare to move into this new semester.
Behavioral & Social Sciences
Kate Wolfe is an Assistant Professor of Psychology in the Behavioral and Social Sciences Department at Hostos Community College, CUNY. Prof. Wolfe is a social psychologist currently pursuing research projects on quantitative literacy among urban community college students, student perceptions of online learning, using iPads in teaching, and urban college student attitudes toward sexual minorities. Prof. Wolfe teaches face-to-face, hybrid and online psychology courses.