Teaching Undergraduate Psychology: Some Tips for Success for the Novice

21 Mar 2020 10:06 PM | Anonymous

By Regan A. R. Gurung, Ph.D., Oregon State University

Note: Teaching during the next few months will not be business as usual for anyone. While preparing in the best of times takes effort and energy, remote teaching in Spring 2020 calls for extra resilience. Faculty and GTAs in particular need to not push themselves too hard. Keeping students' best interests in mind and respecting educational outcomes may still cause for modifications and changes. In some classes we may not be able to do all we would have normally. And that should be OK. 

Although some faculty and graduate students may see having to teach as a chore, the opportunity to teach undergraduates provides manifold benefits and arguably can do more to advance psychological science than getting a research article published. While these are fighting words, when you consider the millions of students who take psychology classes and the ability to apply psychology to life, the previous claim may not be too far off from the truth (and an empirical question I am tempted to try and answer). That said, teaching is hard work. In this short piece I provide some advice to graduate student instructors teaching undergraduates. I have taught for over 20 years, supervised over a hundred undergraduate teaching assistants, and am director of a general psychology program where I teach a course on teaching and the psychological science of teaching and learning. In my graduate courses, I prepare graduate students to teach (both online and in face-to-face classes). I have also had the good fortune to work with hundreds of teachers. Here are some key pieces of advice I share when I get the chance:

Get the fundamentals down. Teaching is not an impromptu act. There is an art and a science to it. The good news is that the critical elements are well known (Richmond, Boysen, & Gurung, 2016). Even if you do not have the opportunity to take a course in teaching, the basic elements to aim for include clearly defining your course goals and student learning outcomes (check what the department expects of the course), designing assessments to measure if the outcomes are met (e.g., exams, assignments), and planning how you will deliver the content and plan each class to engage students. The go-to resources to help you get these teaching fundamentals down include Tools for Teaching (Davis, 2009) and Teaching Tips (McKeachie & Svinicki, 2012).

Unshackle yourself from content delivery. One of the biggest challenges for the novice instructor is covering content. Here is something freeing: Don’t. Yes, the average instructor tries to shoehorn more content in a term or semester than is needed. Especially in introductory classes, the tendency is to teach all the chapters. The reality is that even APA guidelines do not suggest teaching all chapters in a book. There is sufficient justification to cut down on content (APA, 2014; Gurung et al., 2016). Cut down on content so you have more time to give students different ways to interact with the content.

Borrow unabashedly. It is completely acceptable to use material to teach from other sources. You may be given a syllabus and access to lecture slides. Your program may even set up the shells of your online classes and give you exams to use, essentially everything you need to teach. Even if they do not, there are great resources available. The Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP) website is packed with sample syllabi, assignments, and exercises. In particular see the complete guides to teaching introductory psychology published by the STP Early Career Psychology group (Leder-Elder, Good, Afful, Keeley, & Stiegler-Balfour, 2015) and from NOBAPsychology (https://nobaproject.com/resources/presentations).

Start strong and end stronger. The first day of class is critical (Henslee, Burgess, & Buskist, 2006). Students form an impression of you quickly and the tone you set in the first minutes can go a long way to set how the class will go. Have fun. Take time to talk about the exciting, counter-intuitive, provocative elements of the course. Keep the syllabus discussion for the end. Script out your entire first day and try to pack it with diverse activities and opportunities for students to participate. You get them talking on day one, they are likely to keep talking. Make sure you also spend time on the last day. Go beyond just finishing content. Plan a summary of the course with the highlights.

Remember you have a chance to reset. Even if one day does not go well, or worse, the entire class seems to have gone sour, remember that you get another chance. If Tuesday did not go well, rebook, reset, and hit Thursday out of the park. It is alright to tell students you were not happy with how a class went. They appreciate it and it serves in your favor.

Keep the student perspective in mind. Novice instructors are often so focused on establishing their credibility that they forget to take the student perspective. Remember that students are taking many classes and may work, together with having the same stressors that we do. Take the time to build rapport with them. When students see you as human and empathetic, they are likely to work harder and with you.

Ditch the Imposter syndrome. It is easy to feel like you do not belong in the classroom (or even in graduate school). We faculty work hard to select graduate students and instructors. We have checks and balances. If we gave you the job/position, you deserve it! Now get beyond that. Even if you went to graduate school right after your undergraduate degree, if you are selected to teach, you still know more than the students in your class. More importantly, students in your class think you know a LOT more than them.

Find a teaching mentor. Not all faculty are passionate about teaching. Some are downright antagonistic and see it as a distraction from research. If a graduate advisor does not see the benefits of teaching, it is easy to be disillusioned or see it as a chore. First remember that teaching can actually make you a better researcher – the Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman famously said “I DON'T believe I can really do without teaching. The reason is, I have to have something so that when I don't have any ideas and I'm not getting anywhere I can say to myself, "At least I'm living; at least I'm doing something; I'm making some contribution"—it's just psychological” (Feynman, 1985, pp. 165-166). There are many passionate teachers out there. Find one. Get coffee with them. Your whole take on teaching can change.

Consider yourself lucky that you get to interact with undergraduates and share psychology. I hope the list above makes it more enjoyable, effective, and efficient.



American Psychological Association. (2014). Strengthening the common core of the introductory psychology course. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, Board of Educational Affairs. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ed/governance/bea/intro-psych-report.pdf

Feynman, R. (1985). Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a curious character). Norton.

Gurung, R. A. R., Hackathorn, J., Enns, C., Frantz, S., Cacioppo, J. T., Loop, T., & Freeman, J. (2016). Strengthening introductory psychology: A new model for teaching intro psych. American Psychologist, 71(2), 112-124. doi:10.1037/a0040012

Henslee, A.M., Burgess, D.R., & Buskist, W. (2006) Student preferences for First Day class activities. Teaching of Psychology, 33, 189-191.

Leder-Elder, S., Good, J. J., Afful, S., Keeley, J. & Stiegler-Balfour, J. J. (2015). Introductory Psychology Teaching Primer: A Guide for New Teachers of Psych 101. 2nd Ed. http://www.teachpsych.org/ebooks/intropsychprimer2

McKeachie, W. J., & Svinicki, M. (2006). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (12th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Richmond, A. S., Boysen, G., & Gurung, R. A. R. (2016). An evidence-based guide to college and university teaching: Developing the model teacher. New York, NY: Routledge.

Regan A. R. Gurung is Professor of Psychological Sciences at Oregon State University, where he is also Director of the General Psychology Program, and Interim Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning.

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