Psychologists unite in ‘good talk about good teaching’

The professors who walk into the introductory psychology classrooms at Carleton University face the largest number of undergraduate students of any course taught on campus. Introductory Psychology (PSYC 1001 and PSYC 1002) might have up to 3,000 students registered in the fall and winter semesters and 10 instructors tackling the 20 sections, each accommodating hundreds of students.

“As researchers, we cross-pollinate, we share ideas, we find out new things,” says Christopher Motz, who has been teaching introductory psychology for two years. “But in our teaching, we end up working alone.”

All that has changed for Motz and his colleagues in the psychology department since he and Matthew Sorley, a Carleton instructor since 1999, co-founded a faculty educational and resource community for introductory psychology (FERCIP) in the summer of 2006.

Sorley has been active in setting up faculty learning communities (FLCs) at Carleton to allow faculty to connect with each other and focus on their teaching. In 2005, he helped establish the ArtsOne FLC, which contributed to the successful launch of the ArtsOne program.

The more recently established FERCIP connects teachers whether they are sessional lecturers or tenured faculty and uses the power of community to achieve meaningful connections with other faculty, identify best practices, discuss the scholarship of teaching and learning, collaborate on teaching projects, problem solve and share experiences in a supportive environment. “We think this ‘good talk about good teaching’ makes us more effective as educators,” explains Sorley.

Members include individuals who have been teaching for more than 30 years as well as education specialists, such as Motz and Sorley. “There are different teaching philosophies, different personalities, different areas of expertise to draw on,” says Sorley. “The key is to use this diversity to improve our teaching and better engage our students.”

Sorley says the new group has “resonated powerfully” with its participants. Recently, the group developed an online forum to allow its participants to continue discussions that start at monthly or bi-monthly meetings and is also building an online resource library.

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Why does a faculty educational and resource community work?

Associate Professor Anne Bowker, psychology department chair, appreciates being part of a group of “like-minded” people. “These meetings have led me to think more of the importance of providing some structure for new faculty and contract instructors in particular.”

Alfonso Abizaid, an assistant professor in the department of psychology since 2006, believes the group has enriched his teaching abilities. “I have gained tremendous insight from the teaching experiences of our senior lecturers, learned fresh ideas and received great insight into the logistics of dealing with 440 students in a classroom.”

Associate Professor Tim Pychyl, a member of the psychology department since 1994, believes scholarship of teaching depends on a public process. “The group provides one context for (our) important work together. The benefit is that we don’t work in isolation because no real scholarship is done that way.”

Bruce Tsuji, a contract instructor and doctoral candidate in the Human Oriented Technology Lab at Carleton, has been teaching psychology since 1979. “The group helped me push the learning envelope . . . and taught me to take student feedback and deal with it ASAP in class.”

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Susan Hickman

By Susan Hickman

For nearly four decades, journalist Susan Hickman has written about every imaginable subject for sundry newspapers and magazines in Canada and abroad, as well as for CBC TV and CBC Radio. She has also managed various publications, including academic newspapers and technology magazines, and was recently commissioned to write a guide for foreign missions serving in Canada. Currently, she is working on a couple of personal memoirs.

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