Megan Greeson is a professor in the College of Science and Health. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in the clinical and community psychology programs.
What’s the biggest challenge you encounter in teaching, and how do you respond to this challenge?
One of the biggest challenges I face is getting students engaged in my statistics course. Statistics is a requirement for psychology majors, but many (if not most) students dread taking statistics. The challenge is how to get them engaged with the material and see its relevance.
So, I try to help them connect what they will learn in my class to their own lives and the real world. On the first day, I tell students that statistics are powerful. Statistics are what transforms raw data from research into actual findings that enable us to draw conclusions about the world. Research is used to design and evaluate social programs, to inform public policy, and to develop and approve medical treatments. We even use research to inform our own individual behaviors.
Therefore, my primary course objectives, assessments, and instructional methods are about helping people understand to identify when statistics are and are not used correctly. Rather than focusing on the statistical terms and computations for their own sake, they get material and then practice applying their statistical knowledge in ways that are relevant to the real world.
Describe your process for developing a new course.
My process for developing a new course is one I learned from a teaching specialist and mentor, Steve Yellon. I start with the real world course learning objective. What should my students be able to DO with this knowledge? Critique a research study? Identify root causes of a social program? Evaluate the impact of a social program on its target population?
I work backward from there. If that’s the real-world objective for my students, how do I break it down into all the basic facts and skills they need to build towards that goal? The course is structured accordingly.
Here’s an analogy. If my students are going to be able to make an omelette by the end of my course (the real world objective), they need to know the steps in making an omelette and the ingredients of an omelet (basic facts), but they also need to be able to do things like crack an egg, whisk eggs, turn on a stove (basic skills), and so on. What can I expect them to already be able to do, and what do I need to teach them?
After breaking it down the course objectives into smaller pieces, I design my course schedule and instructional methods and select readings to make sure each of those pieces gets covered. Assessments (homework, exams, quizzes) examine students mastery of the real world applications, as well as the basic skills and facts that make those up. They know ahead of time exactly what facts and skills they should be learning and to expect those on the assessments.
Lectures are designed to help people put the skills they are learning in context and see how they connect to the real-world objective, and then demonstrate the skills they should be learning. This is followed by an activity in which students practice the skill themselves and then receive corrective feedback so that they can see whether they have mastered it, and if not, how to improve.
Of course that’s the vision, but the devil’s in the details. The problem is then figuring out how to systematically and effectively do this with diverse students with different needs all in one quarter.
Tell us about an innovative activity, assignment, or method that you tried out recently in your teaching. How did it turn out?
Students learned about a theory. After checking in on their understanding of the key ideas of the theory, I had six different stations for students to visit. At each station they responded to a prompt asking them for their opinions/reflections on the theory.
Prompts asked students to consider the strengths/advantages of the theory, how to critique the theory, and contents where using this theory would be either useful or inappropriate. They wrote their thoughts and then could add comments to others’ (e.g., I agree, smiley faces). After the students got to visit each station, we came back together as a group, discussed the themes behind what people had written, and then discussed them more in-depth.
The goal was to get people to engage in a more in-depth discussion of the theory, and to make sure that we covered each of the aspects of critiquing the theory and to structure the discussion a bit more rather than bouncing around to different topics.
As PhD students they need to be able to critique theories and decide which theory to use or not use in a particular situation, and this gave them practice doing so.
Generally the activity went pretty well. I think it encouraged everyone to reflect and participate, even those students that are quieter in our full group discussion. I think the physical movement from station to station also helped keep the students’ energy levels and attention levels up. I also think it helped us to structure the discussion more (e.g. cover advantages/disadvantages thoroughly) without the discussion jumping all over the place.
In the future, I would use a smaller number of stations and make them use a whiteboard or flip chart to record their responses in large handwriting so that everyone can see the responses (rather than taking the time to read them off). I’d also think about specific probing questions I could use to help them jump from the themes they recorded into deeper class-wide discussion without reiterating what they had already recorded.