- Cavalier Distinguished Teaching Professor
- All-University Outstanding Teaching Award, 1997
- Honorary Member of Phi Eta Sigma, 1993
(for excellence in teaching introductory courses)
Written in 1998 with the assistance of the University of Virginia Teaching Resource Center.
- Classroom Teaching
I have been a teacher for 23 years, 3 at Wesleyan University, and 20 at the
University of Virginia. I became comfortable with this role when I realized that
students really want their instructors to succeed. Students want their
professors to be engaging, humorous, wise, and informative. They will do
everything within their power to draw these qualities out of us if given some
indication that these qualities are there to be tapped. My approach to teaching
is to spend a good deal of effort prior to class in preparation and then to
attend to the students very carefully to determine what they want and need to
hear at any point in the lecture. For each class, I always prepare far more
material than I can present while bearing in mind which material must be
presented and which is optional. The dynamics of each class determine how the
optional material is employed. Student questions and facial expressions inform
me about what issues to delve into in more depth, what examples to give, and
what stories to tell. I attend to faces very carefully. I tell a lot of stories.
I like teaching large introductory classes. These are referred to as service
courses in my department and I am thought of as being a good colleague for
teaching more than my share. Although I do not attempt to dissuade my colleagues
-- especially my chair -- that I have altruistic motives, in fact, teaching
these classes is my preference. In introductory classes, every day I get to
present material that is absolutely new to the students. My approach is
essentially, "Did you know ...? Isnít that amazing?" Imagine
yourself teaching Psyc 230, Introduction to Perception. Perception -- the means
by which we experience the world and ourselves within it -- is to my mind the
most fundamental topic in all of psychology. Most students have thought very
little about perception and that is as it should be. Perceptions are to be
believed and not doubted. Seeing is believing. And yet, when we attempt to
explain how our perceptual systems function, we quickly realize that perceiving
is the most complicated thing that we are capable of doing. Although, we tend to
value those cognitive faculties that show evidence of individual differences
such as chess playing skill, these faculties are of trivial complexity relative
to basic visual skills such as those that inform us about the layout of the
surrounding terrain. It has become a cliche that, although computer systems have
been created that play chess at a grand master level (cognition), none has
achieved the wherewithal to drive a truck (visual guidance of action).
Perception is the most miraculous thing that we do and I get to teach hundreds
of students about this topic for the first time in their lives. As a teacher,
what could be more fun?
For me, the fun of teaching is being able to share with students the fun of
discovering something new and amazing for the first time. Did you know that people
release pheromones into the air through sweating and that these airborne
chemicalís influence sexual functions? I embed a half hour lecture on the
history of perfumes within a larger discussion of the role of smells in human
society. After coming to the realization that, like all other mammals, our
behavior is influenced by the smells given off by our mates and neighbors,
students become quite eager to learn about the anatomical pathways for smell,
which by the way, are quite distinct from the other senses and pass through
brain areas known to influence sexuality. As a mission of the course, students
need to know the anatomical pathways for each of the senses including smell;
stories about perfumery and pheromones provide a motivation to learn them.
Students often tell me that they talk to their friends about what they
learned in class. This is always gratifying to hear. I am sure that their own
understanding of the topic deepened through the telling. Mine always does.
Not long ago, I served as a mentor for a Lilly Teaching Fellow, Gabe Robbins.
Gabe sat in on my Psych 230 class one day, and afterwards, told me that he was
most impressed with the way that I engaged the class with questions. This aspect
of my teaching was something that I had never really thought about. I spend a
lot of time organizing my classroom presentations, developing in-class
demonstrations, and selecting examples that illustrate the concepts about which
I lecture. These are the sorts of things of which I am aware. Once Gabe brought
it up, I recognized that I do continually ask questions in class. Some are
rhetorical, by which I mean that they are meant to engage the students in the
issue at hand and are not intended to evoke answers. Other questions require an
answer and are designed to inform me as to whether the students are following
the lecture. If many students indicate that they cannot provide an answer, then
I know that I need to back up a bit in my presentation and perhaps try another
perspective on the topic.
I mention this incident as a way of demonstrating that I have only a limited
awareness of the techniques that I employ. What I am most aware of are those
techniques that require deliberate planning on my part. Given this limitation, I
will organize my techniques under three broad teaching imperatives: Be
entertaining, empathetic, and informative. These imperatives are principally
applicable to the classroom teaching context.
Be Entertaining. The lecture classroom is a theater. Teaching in a
theater requires a showmanship style compatible the temperament of the teacher.
My style continues to evolve but at its core is a reliance on three techniques:
humor, demonstrations, and stories.
Humor. I can be very funny. In small group settings, my humor tends to be
dry and since I almost never laugh at my own remarks, people often have a hard
time deciding whether I am joking. This style of humor does not work in a large
lecture. I developed my classroom style by observing other people who were
themselves entertaining in a manner that I could assimilate into my own
temperament. Johnny Carson was one of my early models. His brilliance stems from
an ability to crack himself up even though the material that he has may be
Demonstrations. I have a terrific collection of classroom demonstrations.
A few years ago, I made a 45 minute documentary that was funded by NASA in which
basic principles of perception are illustrated with NASA applications. For
example, the means by which people perceive their own velocity is illustrated by
explaining why peopleís perceptions of self velocity decrease with increasing
altitude. I have audio CDís that demonstrate a variety of auditory phenomena,
and since I relate auditory perception to music, I play a lot of classical and
jazz CDís. For example, using the musical CDís I am able to demonstrate and
explain why music sounds better when it is played loud.
Stories. People love to be told stories and whenever possible I tell
them. Studies can often be presented in story form, moreover often there is a
story behind scientific breakthroughs. Hereís one: Many students come to class
knowing that Newton studied color by passing sunlight through a prism, and
thereby, producing a rainbow-like spectrum. What they typically do not realize
is that this effect of prisms was known to everyone; prisms could be purchased
in toy stores then just as they can be today. What Newton did was show that the
cause of the spectral colors was not the imparting of color by something in the
glass as was presumed at the time. He showed this by projecting the spectrum
produced by one prism onto a second prism that re-collimated the light, and
thereby, restored it to white. The German poet, Goethe, was outraged by Newtonís
publication of this result, but thatís a different story.
Why Entertain? Class time should be a pleasure. On a given class day, I
wake up thinking, "Oh-boy, I get to do the lecture on loudness perception
today." Similarly, I want my students to wake up thinking, "Oh-boy, I
have Psych 230 today." The motivation for learning is not just to acquire
information any more than the motivation for eating is to build strong muscles
and bones. We lean and eat because we enjoy the consumptive activity itself.
Given that students are sufficiently motivated, they will acquire information
from boring lectures, but they will not develop a love of learning, itself.
Prior to entering college, I was myself a reluctant learner. I earned barely
average grades in high school and was never a candidate for an advanced
placement course. In college, I had some truly wonderful teachers who awakened
my curiosity and aroused my passion for learning. I was flabbergasted to
discover that I loved college and was equally surprised that I was, for the
first time, excelling in my course work Ė surprise, surprise. When I teach,
part of my lecture is directed to the eighteen year-old boy or girl seated in
the back of the room expecting to be bored. I want to surprise them.
Be Empathetic. Lecturing is a dialogue, by which I mean that the
lecturer and the audience are participating in a communicative exchange.
Admittedly, I do most of the talking but the classís behavior is an all
pervasive influence on what I have to say. I attend to the class very carefully
in an attempt to determine whether they are comprehending what is being
presented, are interested in its content, and are happy with how things are
In the Teaching Philosophy section, I discussed how I watch the class
carefully. This technique is critical for me. I have often heard people promote
the virtues of "making eye contact" when lecturing. It seems to me
that eye contact is a natural consequence of caring about oneís listeners. In
watching the class, I am allowing the students to communicate both their level
of understanding and their current affect. If I am uncertain about their current
state, then I will probe them.
Often I will get the sense that some number of students have lost the thread
of what we are covering. On such occasions I will ask everyone to indicate how
well they understand the current material on a five-finger scale, one being
clueless and five being total comprehension. Another scale that I use a lot is
the head nod. I simply ask the class to nod their heads, yes or no, to answer a
questions such as, "Should I go on? Do I need to go over this again? Are we
getting sleepy? Did this example work or do I need to provide another?"
By attending to the class, I have developed a set of techniques that I know
will work because they have always worked in the past. On such technique
involves the imaginary "Sweetie." In most classes, I describe some
wonderful fact or demonstration that they will want to share with Sweetie. I
assume that they all have a special someone Ė I hope that they do Ė and I
refer to this person as Sweetie. The Sweetie examples are used to change the
pace of the lecture and to get the students to join me as the presenter of a
demonstration, even if it is only as an imaginary presenter for an imaginary
Sweetie. Here is an example: Show Sweetie Color Plate 2 in the text and point
out that both the blue and red flowers pictured there appear equally bright.
Now, you take Sweetie into a closet with you, close the door, and wait for your
eyes to dark adapt. (Here, I insert some gratuitous humor about how to spend
10-15 minutes in a dark closet with Sweetie and crack myself up as if this
aspect of being in the closet had not occurred to me before.) Now notice that,
once the eyes have become dark adapted, the blue flower looks much brighter than
the red one. Students love these "Things to do with Sweetie" episodes
so I continue to make them up. They are fun, engaging, and help the students
remember the point of the demonstration.
Be Informative. I believe that I am teaching the most interesting
topic imaginable, that being perception. Perception is where Physics, Biology,
and Phenomenology come together. I want the students to gain a lasting benefit
from this material. To this end, I try to de-emphasize content that will never
survive in memory a few months past the final. Moreover, I attempt to structure
the course in a way that will make it obvious to the students what they need to
Lecture Organization. I spend a lot of time organizing my lectures. For
each class, I will have only two or three pages of outline notes to myself.
These notes are there as reminders of what I need to talk about and when. Prior
to each class, I look over the notes and remind myself of what I need to say.
The notes provide organization in a topic-comment form that is obvious to me and
that I attempt to make evident to the students.
During class, students are attempting to understand what is being presented
and at the same time they are trying to get some of the material into their
notes. People are not very good at doing two things at once when both tap the
same resources, and thus, understanding and note taking typically suffer through
their mutual interference. This does not have to happen. Whenever I am
presenting something that is new or conceptually difficult, I instruct the
students to stop their note taking. I then tell them that I will discuss this
material in a couple of different ways until they agree that it is clear, and
then I will describe it one more time for their notes. The intent here is
obvious. First, the students listen and ask questions until we agree that the
material is clear and understood and then they write it in their notes. When I
present material that I do not intend to test them on, I tell them that what
follows should be of interest given what we have just gone over but that they
need not put it into their notes. With a few absolutely essential concepts, I
tell them, "Write this down, underline it, and put stars around it. It will
be on the test." Having done this, I make sure that this material is on the
Tests. Some number of years ago, it finally dawned on me that the purpose
of tests is not to provide a means for distributing students along a grading
curve, but rather to structure their studying. Studying can be a terrific
learning exercise if students know what to study. I now believe that the best
way to engender effective studying is to provide a sample test and a review
session that discusses it. I always do this and the review sessions are one of
the most intensely informative and satisfying times for both the students and
I attempt to minimize the amount of memorization required to do well on my
exams and instead write questions that require students to apply what they know
to novel contexts. I write very few questions that ask for key terms and
definitions. Instead, I write questions like, "Sweetie has a sinus cold, is
congested, and as a result cannot taste his/her food very well. Why has Sweetie
lost most of his/her appreciation for flavors?" Since application questions
predominate the sample tests, students realize that they must relate what they
know to novel contexts and that they need to do this when they study. This
requires a more active form of studying than what is required to memorize terms
and definitions. Students will soon forget that the olfactory mucosa is the
receptor surface for smell, but they will not forget that smell is responsible
for most of our perceptions of flavor.
Much of my time is spent in mentoring activities with undergraduates working
on distinguished majors theses, with graduate students, and with postdocs. In
this role, I strive to build a learning environment in which these individuals
can learn, grow intellectually, and exercise their independence. Especially with
graduate students and postdocs, the hardest quality to nurture is independence.
All of these individuals are intellectually gifted, but many have risen to their
current position primarily by doing well in course work. Their initiative,
imagination, and independence have received little exercise.
To develop independence, one needs to be given the freedom to make choices. I
try not to assign research projects to my students, but rather provide them with
a smorgasbord of possibilities from which they can choose. I generate a lot of
research ideas which I continuously throw out into the lab environment. Students
are free to pick up one of these ideas or not. These ideas derive from my
ongoing research program, but when presented to the students, the ideas are not
so well developed that the student has little room to express their own
initiative. One of the biggest advantages of being a tenured Full Professor is
that I can allow my students to assume the first authorship role on projects
that originated from my ideas. Nurturing their careers is of greater concern to
me than is advancing my own.
As director of the Undergraduate Degree Program in Cognitive Science, I
discuss the major with interested students, help students fill out declaration
of major forms, advise students during enrollment periods, and provide general
advice on a variety of issues. When choosing a major and also when picking a
concentration within the major, students tend to believe that they must narrow
their interests in selecting a program of study. I attempt to help them see that
it is equally an opportunity to broaden their horizons. Rather than ask them
what they want to do with their degree when they graduate, I phrase the question
as, "What doors do you want to have open for yourself when you
graduate?" The advising exercise then becomes one of maximizing the number
of open doors.
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