Lessons learned from a changed research program applied to teaching

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In the October 1, 2021 issue of Science, Jennifer S. Chen shares with readers her experience switching from one research direction to another mid-graduate career. The four big lessons she learned from this experience apply to, well, life. But since this is a blog about teaching, let’s talk teaching.

“It’s OK to fail.”

In the context of doing research, failure is part of the game. Although, if a study didn’t go as I expected I don’t know that I thought of it as failure. In any case, I certainly don’t think that way now. Regardless of the results, we always know more after the completion of a study than we did before. Even if I managed to screw up the procedure in some way, I now know to be more careful next time. That’s progress.

In teaching, how often have I tried something new—assignment, discussion, activity—only to have it completely bomb? Raise your hand if you have ever passed out a test only to discover that the answers were copied onto the last page. Those instructors who are so fearful of failure are too paralyzed to try anything new.

Anyone else thinking of growth mindset? If we are going to get better—at teaching, at science, at life—we have to see failure as a learning opportunity, not as a comment on who we are as a teacher, a scientist, or a human being.

I have worked with faculty going through the tenure process, and I have served on the committee that recommends faculty for tenure. I was not looking for perfect teaching. I was looking for instructors who were willing to take risks. If that risk didn’t work out, what did the instructor learn from it? What are they going to try next?

“Value your transferable skills.”

All of the time Chen spent working within her first research area was not wasted time. Instead, she learned skills, such as how to quickly read a research paper, that will serve her well, no matter her research area.

The two biggest skills that I have learned through teaching that come immediately to mind are public speaking and translating science for a general audience. I am not saying, by any stretch of the imagination, that I am perfect at those, but I am sure a whole lot better than I was 30 years ago! While teaching a new course for the first time can be intimidating and we don’t feel like we know everything to be covered in the course, we have the basic skills: public speaking and science translation.

I see these in all of you, too. When I attend conference sessions, those who spend a lot of their time teaching are, on the whole, much better speakers than those who don’t. And because we have to communicate (sometimes complex) psychological findings to novices, we get pretty good at translating psychological science to the general public. I would love to see more psychology instructors writing blogs, writing editorials, or hosting podcasts geared toward a general audience.

Have you noticed that a lot of psychology instructors lead college and university teaching and learning centers? (See for example, Claudia Stanny at the University of West Florida, Elizabeth Yost Hammer at Xavier University of Louisiana, and Regan A. R. Gurung at Oregon State University.)  Given our knowledge of psychological science and our ability to communicate those scientific findings, instructors of psychology are easy choices for departments that help others become better instructors.

“Ask for help.”

In Chen’s new research area, there was one component of her research that she didn’t know how to do. Rather than take weeks to learn how to do it on her own, she solicited the help of another lab who had the experience and the expertise to do it for her.  

Teaching Intro Psych is hard. The word Intro is deceptive. “Introductions” to things should be easy. The Intro Psych course is not so much an “introduction” as it is “a tidal wave of information from every corner of the field.” But we don’t call it that because it exceeds the number of characters allowed by the course title field in our college catalogs.

If you have a colleague who is an expert in sensation and perception, then ask them to present that content to your Intro Psych students. Take notes! Now you can lecture on it for the next year or two. Then invite your colleague to do it again. Take notes on what’s changed, and you’re good to go for another year or two.

If you are having a tough time with a particular concept, ask. If you don’t work with someone who knows, put it out to the teaching of psychology community. At the time of this writing, the Society for the Teaching of Psychology Facebook group has over 16,000 members. Someone will know the answer to your question.

“Share your story.”

When Chen started talking about her experiences with failed research studies and switching research areas, she discovered others who had had the same experiences.

Talking with our teaching colleagues about our teaching failures helps us normalize the experience. This is especially important for our colleagues who are relatively new to teaching. Trying and failing are all part of the profession.



Chen, J. S. (2021). Embracing a change. Science, 374(6563), 114

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.