By Associate Professor Amanda LeCouteur MAPS, School of Psychology, The University of Adelaide
Professor Amanda LeCouteur is the winner of the 2006 APS Excellence in Teaching Award.
When I was asked to contribute a short piece on teaching to InPsych, I was casting around wondering what I could say that wouldn’t make me sound like I really thought I knew ‘how to be a good teacher’. As is the case for most people, I assume, I’m still trying to work that out after every lecture I give as I take the long walk back to my office, reflecting on what I could have/should have done better.
A couple of weeks ago, however, I found my inspiration. I attended a talk by a visiting academic on students’ evaluations of teaching performance – a topic that can generate feelings ranging from outright fear to weary disillusion among academics. As a good academic ‘citizen’, I’ve been to these sorts of talks many times before, but this time
I was particularly struck by one of the reported findings. The speaker revealed that, across all faculties in his institution, students gave the lowest ratings of all to a questionnaire item that concerned the extent to which their teachers stimulated their interest in learning.
This finding immediately made me recall a recent, intriguingly titled publication by a Doctoral student from Cambridge University, On Academic Boredom (Baghdadchi, 2005). In it, the student argued that a dominant mode of academic delivery – as instanced by the typical presentation of research findings at conferences, and honed through years of regular conference attendance – is one of ‘mutually assured boredom’. It’s as if, he claimed, there is an unspoken ‘pact’ to ensure the maintenance of relative peace and civility between potential research opponents. This pact operates along the lines of: “I get up and bore you, you get up and bore me, and, at the end of the day, we are all left standing”. Occasional spectacular instances of petulant jugular-going aside, this description seems nicely to sum up the standard institutional practice of academic conference information provision.
Of course, academics are also initiated into this often less-than-engaging way of communicating through the need to comply with conventions concerning the appropriate scholarly writing style for scientific publication. As Baghdadchi points out, however, such exposure to, and enculturation within, the required academic style can take a heavy toll on students: “I have seen my classmates begin their graduate work with great vivacity and curiosity, and I have seen them slowly ground down into duller, quieter, less omnivorously interested people. I have seen it in myself”.
These two sources of information about how students’ interest in learning may be affected by tertiary study – one from a British, and one from an Australian, university – are, admittedly, limited. However, when considered in the context of some largerscale research evidence concerning Australian university students’ reasons for enrolling in study, I think they should give us pause for thought. Three national surveys of the first-year experience in Australian universities, spanning a decade, have indicated that ‘interest in the field’ is most frequently mentioned by students as important in their decision to enrol in particular subjects in higher education (Krause et al, 2005). Students also say that jobrelated reasons, and opportunities to develop their talents and abilities, are important considerations in their subject choices. However, studying in a field that really interests them appears to be the primary reason behind students’ subject choices at tertiary level. These findings regarding students’ motivation for study appear relatively robust, having remained largely unchanged over the past decade.
In psychology, perhaps more so than in many other disciplines, we might assume that student interest is a primary driver of enrolment decisions. The question I’d like to address here in light of the evidence presented at the start of this article, is whether we, as teachers of psychology, are paying enough attention to engaging our students’ interest in the field.
Some might argue that it’s not our job to tailor classes to the interests of students. We’d all end up teaching Freud and forensic psychology; counselling and criminal profiling. And certainly, I’m aware of the view that in the current marketoriented, user-pays environment, there is too great an emphasis on consumer (student) ‘satisfaction’ at the expense of traditional considerations like intellectual content and the acquisition of skills and values. I have also often heard it said by disgruntled academics that students have neither the knowledge nor, in many cases, the necessary maturity, to evaluate their lecturers and the teaching they receive; that their opinions are based on irrelevant considerations such as a lecturer’s age or appearance, or that students are so over-surveyed that they no longer treat the evaluation process seriously.
I think, however, that this view confuses interesting one’s students with entertaining them. And I would certainly agree that our aim as academic teachers of psychology is not, primarily, to entertain our students. We do have to interest them, however, if we expect them to continue with their studies in psychology. Unless they remain interested and challenged by what we teach, students’ chances of success are likely to be compromised, and the depth of their learning, their persistence and satisfaction with what we offer will be similarly reduced.
It’s easy to get caught up, both in the planning of courses and in preparing individual lectures, with considerations of content. There always seems to be so much information to impart and so little time to do it in. And indeed, as experts in our chosen fields, it’s part of our job to know what students need to know in order to ensure that they are appropriately qualified for degrees and appropriately trained as professional practitioners. But what I find useful to remind myself – often as a direct result of feedback from students who, inexplicably, just don’t seem to be getting the point of what I have been so carefully spelling out to them – is that students also need to know why they need to know.
It’s easy to take this sort of thing for granted. This is our life’s work, after all. However, we can’t just assume that students will understand why the material we’re presenting is interesting – either to us, or why it should be to them. Likewise, we can’t just assume that they’ll understand why we consider it worthwhile information for them to know.
When we present information that is de-contextualised in this regard, we do ourselves and our students a disservice. If we don’t take the time to explain to them why they need to know something, why and how it has become important within our discipline, and how they might be able to use this knowledge in the world outside of the institution, then we run the risk that they will treat what we teach them only as information that is needed to pass the next exam. That’s likely to be as long as the material will be remembered, too. And the result is that we will all, students and lecturers alike, be disappointed with a course of study that promised so much in terms of human interest and, yet, turned into the mere transmission of content primarily for the purposes of examination.
By and large, and on the back of many years experience in the teaching of undergraduate psychology, I am pretty sure that students do not come to university hoping merely to be entertained. Indeed, my experience is, overwhelmingly, that they come interested and curious; willing and hoping to learn. And, as a result, they are very often inspired in life-changing ways by what they hear, and by the people who teach them. My own experience also leads me to believe that we can always do more to build on the foundation of student interest that exists in psychology. The challenge is to develop exciting courses that are not merely entertaining for students but constantly prompt them to make connections between their lives and the academic study of psychology even after they have left our institutions.