My approaches towards teaching and learning are conceptualized by five guiding principles. I aim to (1) encourage a healthy curiosity for exploration, (2) trust in students’ ability for growth, (3) utilize diverse learning materials that employ multi-sensory processing, (4) engage students to not just actively learn, but to be agile learners, and (5) ensure diversity and inclusion in classroom dialogue.
Encouraging a healthy curiosity
Humans are naturally curious creatures. As someone who has worked with students ranging from freshmen undergraduates to 50-year-old executive MBA corporate directors, I have found the common thread between these students to be a curiosity for learning. However, oftentimes in the school year, there comes a time when pure theory can take over in class discourse and learning becomes secondary to completion of non-applicable, but mandatory assignments. As a result, students become disengaged and lose that curiosity that originally drew them to the class.
Instructors can stave off much of this disengagement by letting the issues that truly interest students take center stage. For instance, I have often assigned NPR podcasts or utilized data-journalism to illustrate points that may be at first deemed ‘boring’ or uninteresting to students. In addition, as a final project, students can choose a topic that compels their interest while a) drawing in theoretical readings from class and b) exploring applications of those theories in current events. This open structure for a final paper allows for students to marry their personal interest with class materials and more importantly, apply it to the current climate. The result is maximal engagement and provides students the ability and choice to explore projects that they can either explore further in their degree or actually apply in research or as professionals.
Trusting in students’ ability for growth
The power of believing in growth can be astounding. Carol Dweck, a renowned developmental psychologist at Stanford found that students’ mindsets tended to fall in either a growth (believing that their intelligence could be developed) or fixed mindset (believing that their intelligence was set). Those who had a growth mindset outperformed their fixed mindset peers in measures of academic performance and tended to persist longer on difficult tasks. As a mentor to students, instructors must ensure that they not only endorse a growth mindset, but also genuinely trust that students have that ability for growth by following through with growth mindset practices in the classroom.
I recall my own experience as an undergraduate researcher, where I was entrusted with a surprising amount of independence and responsibility interacting with participants (e.g., 2-3 hour unaccompanied in-person interviewing). I took advantage of the opportunity, and it ultimately led me to my own research interests and graduate work. As such, in my own advising capacity, I have consistently encouraged a pathway to growth and trusted in students’ capacity for doing exemplary work. In my first meetings with research assistants, I stress that they will not be just “coding monkeys.” As a mentor, I believe it is my responsibility to help encourage them in their research exploration and to guide them in experiencing multiple components of the research process so that they can may gain insight to how they want to pursue their future career paths. Examples of this mentoring style has allowed for my students to pursue research projects on their own as well as apply to graduate research programs in clinical psychology.
Utilizing diverse learning materials that engage multi-sensory processing
The model of visual versus verbal learning is moot. Learning is instead optimized when there are multi-modal practices that engage the brain through various senses. As the brain acquires new neuronal connections and strengthens those pathways over time, memory and learning occurs. Thus, as instructors, immersion teaching is an influential instrument in the educational toolkit.
For myself, multimethod analysis is something I do within my own field of personality psychology, and I see the benefits of approaching subject matters from multiple angles and perspectives. For instance, in understanding individual personality, I utilize not only standard, Big-Five trait measures, but also structured questions about participants’ personal aspirations and autobiographical stories of their lives. In the classroom, multi-sensory learning may be done via: podcasts, film viewings, guest speaker panels, student debates, activities that use props as demonstrations, and gamification (i.e., clickers, text-in responses, live-tracking and visualization of student responses, jeopardy) to help students learn different concepts. In combination with a mixture of: small group discussions that allow for more intimate discourse, employing current events and findings in the field in analyzing theories and historical research, and immersion trips to other labs or environments, these multi-sensory learning activities are a useful way to maintain and promote student learning and engagement. Through diverse learning practices, students can effectively apply abstract or theoretical concepts to their real world settings.
Emboldening students to be agile learners
I mentor students by emboldening them to not just be active learners but also agile learners. Agile learning practices consider that students are not just in school to cram materials in their heads; rather, students are in school to gain processes for learning that will allow them to retain key information and to be agile learners in the future. The result is that they will be able to step into the workforce with a set of technical skills from their degree in addition to transferable skills for learning new materials. I aid in this effort by emboldening students to come to my office hours and discussing test-taking and writing strategies (versus coming by just to “get the answers”). By walking students through steps on methods to best prepare for exams and exam questions, students can then find out their tried-and-true methods for learning and completing evaluative exams and papers.
Ensuring diversity and inclusion in the classroom
This last point about diversity and inclusion is of utmost importance. Oftentimes, diverse discourse and safe-spaces for learning aren’t considered until it’s too late (i.e., something has happened where a student feels uncomfortable and brings it up to the TA, or even worse, upon reflection at the end of the course when the professor realizes that minority students have dropped out, disengaged from classroom discussions, or are doing poorly). Open, diverse dialogue can be encouraged by ensuring diversely distributed student dialogue and reaching out to students who I see are either struggling to speak out or have minority viewpoints. I have found that by setting the scene for a safe space, honest discourse about issues of race, gender, income, and status can be crucial in encouraging those of minority status to speak up.
Finally, it’s important for me as an instructor to assess and improve upon learning outcomes. Many teachers, especially after teaching the same class year after year, can become ‘stuck’ using the same materials for teaching. Formulating clear and effective learning objectives are key to successful teaching habits. Follow through by keeping a clear vision or a learning objective for students, reminding students about key points, and revisiting these goals are essential for learning. Engaging in these methods of best-practices and generally having a passion for teaching are what, in my mind, make for best teaching and learning approaches.