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Philosophy of Teaching
Szu-Hui Lee
Graduate Teaching Associate
Department of Psychology
Winner of the 2005 Graduate Associate Teaching Award

As an instructor of an introductory psychology course, the majority of my students are non-psychology major freshmen. Furthermore, for most of these students, this may be their first and perhaps the only psychology course they will take in college. With that in mind, I have three main objectives for their learning experiences: 1) to facilitate the appreciation for the science of psychology, 2) to provide fundamental knowledge and tools applicable to students’ pedagogical career, and 3) to enhance self-awareness and understanding of the world around them and the people in it. The way I actualize these objectives is by allowing the various aspects of who I am, professionally and personally, to synthesize as I take an active role in my students’ learning. My students not only see the teacher in me, they also see the counselor who is sensitive to the psycho-social-cultural context within which they learn, the researcher who is abreast of the current research and shares a healthy sense of skepticism by the need for scientific explorations, but most of all, they see a person who is simply passionate about what she is doing.

I believe that students do not come to class as blank slates and often bring with them preconceived notions about the field of psychology. These preconceived notions may consist of false assumptions, generalizations, and ideologies that manifest into a lack of appreciation and understanding for the science of psychology. As a teacher, a psychologist in-training, and a researcher, it is important for me to acknowledge that but to also provide students with a well-informed view of psychology. However, before I can challenge them to think differently, I must first help my students see the relevance of psychological concepts in their lives. I bring psychology to life by providing examples students can grasp based on what they know of the world. I take big theories down to possible answers to every-day life questions (i.e., why have you chosen the friends you have? why do we conform to societal norms?) to make the connection between the textbook and real life issues. Demonstrations and activities are used to help students “see, feel, and touch” what psychology is all about.

Because they are not blank slates, I invite students to utilize their life experiences when learning the course material. I involve students in activities, ask for examples from their lives, and allow time for reflection and reactions to the material. For example, to illustrate concepts of gender differences, gender roles, and societal influences, I engage my students in the “Are men really from Mars and women from Venus?” dialogue. As students arrive to class that particular day, all the men are given blue-colored paper and the women given pink-colored paper. Members of each sex are asked to sit on separate sides of the room. I then ask them to write on their paper answers to questions such as, “Which is the better sex? Which sex has it easier? How did the ‘color-coding’ make you feel?” and to provide rationale for their responses. Written comments are shared and each sex gets to respond to the answers of the opposite sex. I then bring in knowledge from research to contextualize the discussion and demonstrate how psychologists scientifically explore answers to such questions. If I can help students see the relevance and the value in what they learn in class, the desire to learn and to be challenged would not be something forced upon them. Rather, as I have found through my teaching experiences, once students are engaged and excited about the material, they will begin to proactively ask questions, think critically, and search for connections and relevance on their own. All the while they gained a better understanding and appreciation for psychology as a scientific study.

I believe that the learning process is best when it is collaborative between students and the instructor. It is my expectation that students not only learn from me and from each other, but that I learn from them as well. The connection and energy established between my students and me is a powerful teaching technique that I utilize in creating an optimal learning experience. By sharing with them my teaching objectives, students know that I am invested in them. My role as the instructor is not only a source of knowledge, but also a source of support and an avenue for other resources. Students can expect that I am approachable, available to answer questions, and genuinely invested in their academic success. I strive to be student-focused, competent, flexible, and aware of uniqueness amongst my students. I always arrive to class 15 minutes early to chat with my students and spend the first 5 minutes of class checking in on how they are doing. I get to know my students as people. I learn their names, the sports teams they play on, upcoming job interviews, and the list goes on. It is heartwarming when students come to class early simply to share exciting news with me and/or just to chat about their day. It is also an amazing feeling when a student in an attempt to articulate a particular thought says to me, “Well, you know what I mean, Miss Lee. You understand us.” and the fact is I think I just might.

As I have learned through my teaching experiences, my role as a teacher shifts throughout the learning process. I try to find that balance between having a more directive active lead and having a more facilitative observer role. Depending on the course material, class dynamics, and student needs, the shifting of roles continues throughout the course. There are certainly times to teach and times to let the learning take place on its own. With that in mind, I frequently use myself as a springboard for illustration of concepts and catalyst for difficult dialogues. When appropriate, I use my personal experiences to help students grasp the information, make the connection between the text and real life, and also to challenge my students to reflect on their thoughts and behaviors. More specifically, when we talk about stereotypes, I ask my student to share the stereotypes they thought of upon first meeting me. I ask if and how those judgments have changed based on our interactions. With the relationship that we’ve developed and the safe learning environment we’ve created as foundation, students are able to be honest in their responses. As they share the prejudgments and false assumptions they had made (i.e., my lack of fluency in English, my outstanding math ability), experiences of dissonance often result. I then take a step back to allow them to grapple with their discomfort as they self-reflect. These difficult dialogues and self-reflections, I believe, can teach my students in levels far beyond mere textbook explanations.

I challenge my students to broaden their minds by enhancing their awareness of culture, diversity, and individual differences. By asking students how applicable a concept is across different cultures, I challenge them to think critically. For example, in the “Are men really from Mars and women from Venus?” dialogue described above, students are asked to think about issues such as societal pressure faced by those who may not adhere to the traditional gender roles, gender role differences among cultures, and the social-cultural changes that can take place over time. When we talk about how stereotypes can positively and negatively impact how we treat and interact with one another, I challenge them to apply what they’ve learned to their future interactions with others. It is very rewarding when students tell me that they now think differently and how they have used a concept learned in class to explain a particular situation in their lives. These personal applications of the knowledge gained speak volumes to the learning that takes place in my classroom.

Furthermore, my positive energy and excitement exhibited while teaching help facilitate student learning within and beyond the classroom. I believe my presence in the classroom exudes my passion for what I am doing. I feel blessed to have a role where the various aspects of who I am can synthesize. As some students have shared with me, the passion they see that I posses serves as inspiration and motivation for them to find their passion. It pleases me to see that I have a positive impact upon my students, simply by being who I am.
In the past three years of teaching, I have come to find that the three objectives I have set as an instructor of an introductory psychology course are ultimately what I would set regardless of the course I teach. My ultimate goal as an instructor is to essentially create a rippling effect in the lives of my students. Not only do I want them to gain concrete knowledge in psychology, more importantly I want them to apply the knowledge they have gained from their participation in my course into their own personal and pedagogical endeavors. I hope that the learning experience would positively influence how they view themselves and the world. A lofty goal to some perhaps, but a goal I believe in wholeheartedly and one that will continue to motivate me. This has been an extremely rewarding journey and one which I plan to continue on indefinitely.

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