Society for the Teaching of Psychology
Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

Ashley Waggoner Denton: I'm a Member of STP and This is How I Teach

15 Sep 2017 9:43 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

School name: University of Toronto

Type of school: Large research-intensive university

School locale: In the middle of the largest city in Canada (and one of the most diverse cities in the world!)

Classes you teach:

Introductory Psychology, Social Psychology, Statistics, Social Psychology Lab

Average class size:

My class sizes have ranged from 5 (summer lab course) to 1,500 (Intro Psych), so providing an “average” isn’t particularly useful!

What’s the best advice about teaching you’ve ever received?

I think probably just the idea that there isn’t a single prototype for being a “great teacher.” We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and the trick is to figure out what works best with your own personality and style.

What book or article has shaped your work as a psychology teacher? 

Two that come to mind are Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do and Carol Dweck’s Mindset, which I am now in the habit of recommending to my Intro Psych students. But there are many more!

Briefly tell us about your favorite lecture topic or course to teach.

I love teaching anything that really surprises the students and changes the way they understand or approach the world. Introductory Psychology is ripe for these kinds of discoveries, and because I know that this will be the only psychology course many of these students take, I do my best to try to instil in them a sense of humility regarding their own self-understanding. In a 12 week course I can't possibly teach them everything that psychologists have learned about the ways in which our minds work, but I can at least get them to realize that our minds are often far more faulty (e.g., biased and error prone) than we realize. For example, when we talk about false memories, I will have the students recall a memory from their childhood and ask them to reflect on all of the ways this memory may be incorrect or tainted by other sources, etc.

Briefly describe a favorite assignment or in-class activity.

I don’t think I could pick just a single favourite. But one thing that comes to mind as something I always look forward to is the ‘moment of meditation’ I do during one of my Intro Psych lectures. What makes it so great, is that this is a HUGE room, filled with over 1000 students, and for 1 solid minute, there is absolute silence as everyone (including me) sits in a moment of peaceful meditation. I am nervous about it every time, but not once has a student ever decided to blurt something out or ruin the experience. Everyone seems to take it seriously and it’s just this really great moment that refreshes and resets the whole class. Such a small thing, but I love it, and I should probably do it more often!

What’s your workspace like?

Because I have young kids (three year old twins) at home, the majority of my work gets done at my office. And despite my best intentions, my office workspace is usually a bit of a mess. Post-it notes everywhere, stacks of articles and folders and notebooks piled along my desk. On the plus side, I do have a couple of plants that I have miraculously managed to keep alive! And of course photos of my kids everywhere.

Three words that best describe your teaching style.

Engaging, Supportive, Conversational

What is your teaching philosophy in 8 words or fewer?

Teach with purpose.

Tell us about a teaching disaster (or embarrassment) you’ve had and how you dealt with the situation.

A few years ago, we had a mix-up where all of the rooms that had been booked for an Intro Psych test were actually booked for the wrong day. So 1,500 students showed up at a dozen or so rooms across campus, that we didn’t actually have booked. And because some of the rooms just happened to be available (including the room I was proctoring in) we didn’t realize right away what had happened. So some students started writing the test, while at other locations the test proctors were trying to figure out why something else was happening in the room. Eventually (after receiving enough phone calls to realize the problem wasn’t just localized to one or two rooms) I checked the room bookings and realized what had happened. We had to stop the students who were in the middle of the test and explain that it had to be cancelled, since about half of the class would be unable to write it that day. It was such a disaster! In the end, we got new rooms booked for the following week, and it all worked out okay, but you can bet that we really double-check those room bookings now!

What is something your students would be surprised to learn about you?

I am pretty much an open book with my students, so I feel that they typically know me fairly well by the end of the semester! However, they might be surprised to learn that I was so nervous on the morning of my qualifying exams in graduate school, that I threw up! And as less gross example, they might be surprised to learn that I know all of the lyrics to Super Bass by Nicki Minaj.

What are you currently reading for pleasure?

Right now I’m reading The Theory That Would Not Die by Sharon McGrayne, which was a recommendation from my husband (a diehard Bayesian). I’m also reading Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which is just one of those books that I have always meant to read but somehow never managed to do so (until now!).

What is your hallway chatter like? What do you talk to colleagues about most (whether or not it is related to teaching/school)?

So many people in our department have young kids/babies, it’s a little ridiculous (in the best possible way!). So it’s not unusual to find an actual baby chattering in the hallway. But it’s awesome, because we all have stories (not to mention clothing and stuff) to swap. Being in Canada, we also have a wonderful maternity/parental leave policy that helps make the transition into parenthood so much easier than it otherwise would be.

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