The Awards: 3

The Department of Psychology's Teaching Honour Roll just came out for Winter, 2010. I'm happy to say that I (*modestly*) was placed on the Honour Roll with Distinction for all three of my courses. Woot! I also have to mention that 75% of instructors who taught in that term also got on the Honour Roll. Nice going, Department of Psychology colleagues! (But why the pic of the FIFA World Cup Trophy? Because...well, because. The World Cup is on right now. That's why.)

I also had the honour of winning two (!) of the inaugural Tolman Undergraduate Teaching Awards, or TUTAs. (Just say that out loud: toot-ahs, toot-ahs. Fun!) The two I won were:

  • “The adoption of fake accents for educational purposes” (blimey!) and
  • “Assignment most likely to results in a missing-persons report” (because of this assignment--but I've never lost a student...yet)
Why are they named for Tolman? He never studied/taught/researched at the UofA. It was the choice of the Associate Chair of the Department--she's got this quote in her email sig:
"Since all the sciences, and especially psychology, are still immersed in such tremendous realms of the uncertain and the unknown, the best that any individual scientist, especially any psychologist, can do seems to be to follow his own gleam and his own bent, however inadequate they may be. In the end, the only sure criterion is to have fun." (E. C. Tolman, 1959)
So, yeah, the "TUTAs" are tongue-in-cheek awards. But I'm still gonna frame them and hang them up somewhere. Maybe in my Awards Room. That's a good place for them. As soon as I get an Awards Room.

Finally, by popular demand, here are some selected comments from my courses in the Winter, 2010 term, followed up by the every-popular snarky responses:

Intro psych:
"[I] pay to be taught, not to read a textbook"
"Textbook reading should NOT be mandatory for exams"
(Why no love for the textbook? You rated it 4.1/5, which is not spectacular, but not bad either. Like it or not, you're going to have to read in university.)
"exam...focuses too much on [lecture] notes"
"Exam questions need to be better constructed & peer-reviewed"
(OK, I admit I do have to work on my exam questions. But peer-review? And usually, I get criticized for having too few exam questions from my lectures.)
"notes are too straight forward, you can't understand"
(Er, what? I should make them less they are more understandable?)

"not very helpful out of class"
(That's right: I'm not going to explain some theory when you run into me at West Edmonton Mall.)
"Your blog was very interesting & insightful"
(Thank you. That's a very interesting and insightful comment.)
"I missed a day and could not get the notes from the missed class"
(Did you ask me? All you have to do is ask me.)
"kept the class interested and attentive"
"tedious...class was very boring"
"repetitive...maybe try new ways of presenting information"
(What if you three were all trapped in an elevator for 41 hours?)
"I had no time to read [the textbook] since other psych courses also require textbook readings"
(OK, so it's the fault of those other courses. Those darn profs, making you read textbooks. Egad.)

Advanced Perception:
"would be nice to have a real textbook"
"readings were well chosen and definitely preferable to a textbook"
(There are no appropriate textbooks for a 300-level perception course. But that's OK, because you like the readings I chose.)
"quizzes were annoying...but in the end, I was thankful for them--it engages me & forced me to read [the assigned readings]"
"[quizzes] helped solidify my understanding of the main topics &...ensured I stayed up to date with the readings! It also taught me a useful study habit."
(See? Toldja.)
"I often left the class feeling as though he was talking down to us"
"was difficult to approach and was very short with me. I find him extremely snobby and condescending"
(I don't know how I screwed that up. I apologize, and I will honestly try to adjust my tone in the future.)
"forced me to work harder and think longer about the subjects covered" [in a positive context]
(Yeah, sorry about all that work and thinking.)

Why aren't you studying?

Where are they now?

For students who have completed their degrees, it's a time of endings--and of new beginnings. It makes me think of former students who've entered the "real world". I don't hear from many, but I have kept in touch with a few. Here's what's going on with them...

Colin got his Master's degree in counseling psychology and is working toward his official accreditation (you have to do a few hundred hours of work under the supervision of an accredited counseling psychologist, then pass some tests--piece of cake, eh? :-). He didn't go into graduate school right after his undergrad, but ventured into the real world first. It can be tough to go back to school after being away, but Colin showed that it is possible. The picture here was taken at a psychology conference last year. (Yup, he's standing next to esteemed psychologist Philip Zimbardo. How cool is that?) I wrote Colin a letter of reference for graduate school. He seems to think that helped him get in, but really, it was his own abilities that did it. (I have a parallel--a person who was a graduate student at the time asked me to write some software to help her with her research. That led me into doing research as an undergraduate. Without that experience, I wouldn't have gotten into graduate school and I wouldn't be where I am today. Thanks again, Linda!)

I also keep in touch with Sherry. She was a student in the first course I taught all by myself. Despite that experience (ha!) she took more of my courses and even was even my teaching assistant for a few courses. I encouraged her to go to, and she did. She's got a Master's degree, during which she got to work with actual astronauts. Again: astronauts. How cool is that? Now she manages grants for a research group here at the UofA. She deals with budgets in the millions of dollars.

Stephanie was a standout student, from the first course of mine she suffered through (ha!). She then signed up to suffer through a few more, totally shredding the courses, and getting the top grade. (Doing that definitely gets my attention and helps me to remember you.) Later, she also worked as my TA a few times--one of the best ever! I was happy to write her a reference letter for graduate school. She also took counseling psychology--one of the most difficult academic programs to get into, period. After working outside the city for a while, she's back in Edmonton again. She gets to apply her knowledge of psychology to help actual people. How cool is that?

I hope you get to use your psychology education out in the real world someday, too. If you do, drop me a line!

Why aren't you studying?

Update 8/19/2010: Marc Roy, a former TA in Advanced Perception in the mid-90s, dropped me a line. I wrote him a letter of reference, too. He entered the Clinical Neuroscience program at Simon Fraser University, earning a Master's degree. He eventually returned to Alberta to work at the Halvar Johnson Centre for Brain Injury in Ponoka, and has recently started a private practice in Red Deer. He also taught an Environmental Psychology course at Canadian University College, which is spitting distance from where I used to live (Lacombe, Alberta). And he's got two kids. Wow, great, Marc!

The Moratorium

Perception (PSYCO 267) was the first course I ever taught all by myself. That was in Spring, 1995. I went back and dug up my lecture notes from that first course. (Word processor used: Ami Pro. Operating system used: Windows 3.1. I'm gettin' all teary-eyed. >snff<) Then I compared those numbers to the current version of my lecture notes for that course (Word processor used: Word 2007. Operating system used: Windows XP. Not teary-eyed there at all.)

Number of assigned readings:

  • 1995: 12 chapters
  • 2010: 14 chapters + 1 appendix
Number of words in lecture notes:
  • 1995: 11,958
  • 2010: 28,580
It's not easy to do a direct comparison between these numbers. For example, I'm using a different textbook now than I was back in '95. In fact, my current textbook has 459 pages, the old one had 747. But look at the difference in the amount of lecture material: it's more than doubled. How (and why) can that possibly be?

First, back in 1995, I presented my notes using an overhead projector. I remember fumbling a lot with transparencies, switching lecture notes with colour pictures and figures on separate sheets. Now, almost everything is contained in PowerPoint. That's the second reason. Using PowerPoint allows me to go a lot faster through material, partly because there's no more fumbling, just clicking. But there are two further reasons underlying my increase in speed. 1. The Internet. I distinctly remember having to pause frequently to allow students to write down my long, wordy, overly long, dense explanations and definitions--and everything else. I didn't start putting my lecture notes online until the next year. In 1995, few students had Internet access. (I also don't remember getting a single email from a student.)

2. I'm better now. Um, I mean I'm a better instructor now than I was back then--a grad.student teaching only my second course ever. I'm sure my explanations were relatively poor, and I do remember having to answer quite a few questions from students in class. I like to think that now--knowing what concepts are difficult to understand--I can provide much better and more efficient explanations.

Still, the bottom line is: There is more in my course now than ever before. You might think this is unfair, especially compared to those students who had less to learn in the 90s. Or, you might be happy that you're getting as much as possible out of a course that is loaded with lots of relevant, contemporary research and theory. I like to think it's the latter case.

There are hundreds (thousands?) of papers, posters, articles, and books published and presented on topics in psychology every year. (A $2 reward to the first person to give me a reliable estimate of how many articles were published on psychological topics in 2009). I would not be doing the best possible job if I didn't stay current in the areas I teach: human factors & ergonomics, perception, cognition, and, well, introductory psychology. Which, er, means almost all of psychology, except for personality/abnormal/clinical psychology. (I'm proud that I even have two sources from 2010 in my perception course. That's about as current as I can get.)

But here's the problem: More isn't better. I can't just keep adding and adding to each course every year. I'll just have to go keep going faster and faster to cover it all. That's not doing the best possible job either. It's stupid to include a cutting-edge study at the expense of spending time explaining some concept that is core to the course. That's why I've decided to impose a moratorium on myself. I want to improve what I've got, to make sure that what I'm trying to explain comes across clearly, to smoothly transition between topics, to simplify overly complex things and add complexity back to things I've oversimplified. I've already started doing it. If you've noticed me scribbling on my notes during class, I've discovered something that I could present better...

Why aren't you studying?

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