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

Leila Gastil - I'm a Member of STP and This is How I Teach

15 Apr 2018 11:16 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

School name: Hunter College, City University of New York

Type of college/university: Public University, 23,000 students including undergraduate and graduate students.

Classes I teach - Introduction to Research Methods, Learning Theory, Psychology 100, Evolution and Behavior, Ethology-Animal Behavior                                                

Average class size: 35-40 students

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

“Learn all your student’s names. Acknowledging their real presence in your classroom assists in building an environment of mutual respect and collaboration. Sometimes the simplest gestures can have the biggest impact.” From a presentation by Kathleen Cumiskey, Chair of the Psychology Department at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.

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

Not a book or an article, but an event, Pedagogy Day (2015) at the CUNY Graduate Center was where I found a community of like-minded professors. Professor Aaron S. Richmond (Educational Psychology and Human Development at Metropolitan State University of Denver) presented an evidence-based guide to university teaching which has served as a foundation for my growth as an educator.

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

My favorite course to teach is Learning Theories 350. There are usually about 35 students and for most of them it’s their last year and often their last class. I see this as an opportunity to make sure that students leave school knowing how learning has been studied, how to learn, and most importantly, loving to learn.  My not-so-secret goal is to create lifelong learners.

Since most students are very interested in how they can learn better, we start the term with a study skills exercise including a reading, creating their own PowerPoint on the reading, and presenting it. After all that talk about deep encoding, the bounce back to Aristotle’s “Laws of Association” makes sense and Pavlov’s cortical mosaic concept is more accessible. From there-on-in the class follows the association theme from anticipatory association, to associations between behaviors and outcomes, right through to Hebbian synapses and all bright lights in the brain.

The syllabus progresses from lecture/discussion to an experiential assignment for each learning theory. Supplementing these basic elements are frequent 10 question quizzes and opportunities for extra credit. The quizzes serve to keep everyone’s “head in the game”. As experienced students, they know that if quiz grades get wobbly they need to study more. They can also take advantage of extra credit opportunities that may include three paragraph responses to “thought questions” like; “How has learning changed your behavior?”; or respond to a posted NY Times editorial on lecturing vs active learning.

Learning is a topic that has strong personal connections for my students and in many cases for their children. Many of the students are the first in their families to go to college, often their parents have worked very hard to give them this chance. A student of mine once commented that I teach like there is something at stake. I replied, “There is” and we both knew what I meant.

Briefly describe a favorite assignment or in-class activity.

One of the challenges of this course is that a lot of the content has been covered in other classes. They already know about salivating dogs and Bobo dolls. This is where the experiential part of the lesson comes in.  In writing about this aspect of the course one student commented; “With every new lecture, followed a discussion or a group assignment that would demonstrate why a particular school of learning theory was beneficial and what importance it holds in terms of application to the real world, as well as how we as students can benefit from it.”

An example of these group assignments is, “Operant Conditioning for a Better World”. This team project asks students to identify an issue, (like recycling, or people standing front of the subway doors) and create a strategy to change behavior using stimulus, response, and outcome. Students love activism and this project brings out some great ideas. For instance: A proposal to place specially designed recycling bins outside the subway entrance that dispense a free 1-way subway pass to recyclers.  The subway pass was also suggested as a reinforcer at polling places to increase voting. (This is NYC we spend a lot of time on the subway.)

What teaching or learning techniques work best for you?

Early in the class I set a simple framework in place. I call roll for the first two weeks. There is so much power in connecting a name to a face and it’s a sign of respect. That shared smile of recognition is so comforting.

The second structural element, is establishing teams of four to five students. These teams are not self-selected; everyone starts as strangers and through the term they become friends and study partners. Many students don’t like teamwork, which I understand, but as someone who worked in the outside world, I know that learning how to collaborate is a skill that will be useful for the rest of their lives. I share this with the class and I’m met with a sea of “nobody’s messing with my grade” stares. Class discussions about team dynamics and learning are helpful and by the end of the term, we have a classroom full of vibrant ideas and just the right amount of competition between the teams. Team projects are a significant percentage of their grade.

With this framework we build a community, where everyone has a role and a path to success. I teach, they learn; we all understand that neither role is passive.

What’s your workspace like?  

Most of my class prep is done in my office at home. There is a window, a desk, my laptop, a view of the sky, and carefully managed piles of materials for each class. At my desk is an old-style metal office chair covered with this wonderful teal leatherette. Oh, and lots of books.

Three words that best describe your teaching style. 

Intense, Engaging, Responsive

What is your teaching philosophy in 8 words or fewer? 

Learning is a Life Skill.

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

No disasters really, and embarrassment is an everyday fact of my teaching life. It is unfortunately true that I do not know everything about everything.

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

My students are pretty unflappable, but this might interest them-When I was 6 months old I moved to Shiraz, Iran for a year.

What are you currently reading for pleasure?

I read a lot of everything both highbrow and low. Just finished “The Pyramid of Mud” a mafia mystery by Andrea Camilleri. Before that, Joan Didion’s amazing essays on California in the sixties: “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”

What tech tool could you not live without?

Blackboard and My iPhone make life so much easier. With mobile apps I can work wherever I am – a mixed blessing.

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

We often talk about how to get enough sleep.

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