Cover Story

When a professor asked third-year Argosy University/Atlanta clinical psychology student Marshall Bruner late last summer if he would teach a course on counseling theories for the fall 2005 semester, he gladly accepted the offer, always having dreamed of one day teaching a master's-level course.

Then, he panicked.

"It was only after I said I would do it and hung up the phone that I actually thought about what I was getting into," Bruner says. Indeed, he had only three weeks to prepare lectures, was beginning his therapy practicum that semester while taking two courses, and had a three-month-old daughter at home.

Many students experience such nervous feelings when they teach a class for the first time. That's why psychology organizations are offering students a prep in teaching before they get to the lectern and providing resources for beginning teachers (see "Students teaching"). Such preparation can help new teachers navigate grading (see "What's in a grade?"), use media (see "Lights, camera, action") and group work (see "Tapping teamwork") effectively in their classrooms and spur lively classroom discussions ("Conversation starters").

In Bruner's case, he received help from his professor, getting PowerPoint presentations and exam questions from past sections of the class to draw from.

One of his biggest challenges: Learning how to present the content to get it across effectively and keep students interested. To do that, he used videos of practitioners of the various counseling theories he covered and clips from popular movies. He also split students into groups to present material from their favorite theories. And sometimes he'd take a few pieces of candy with him to class to provide some extra reinforcement to students who contributed to class discussions.

Teachers need to take steps to engage students because it helps students become active participants in their own learning, says William Buskist, PhD, the Distinguished Professor in the Teaching of Psychology at Auburn University.

"Engaged students are interested in learning the material and expressing what they have learned-and even more importantly, what they don't yet understand-to the teacher and their fellow students," Buskist says. "The teacher's knowledge is a necessary part of the backdrop in this process, but it is not sufficient. The teacher must connect with students at their level, teach passionately and establish rapport with their students."

Cynthia Gray, a visiting assistant psychology professor at Beloit College in Beloit, Wis., advises novice teachers to be willing to try new techniques.

"Ask for and use student feedback on how well activities worked to make changes for the next time, ” she advises. And realize, Buskist adds, that even the best teachers make mistakes.

"One key to becoming a teacher-and a good one at that-is to accept this fact and use it to your advantage in terms of identifying weak spots in your teaching and then finding ways to put them right," he says.

Additional tips he and other teaching experts offer:

  • Come to class prepared and organized. That includes setting manageable goals, advises Margaret Matlin, PhD, a Distinguished Teaching Professor at The State University of New York at Geneseo.

"Beginning professors-including me-often believe that they must 'cover' every relevant topic," she explains. To combat this tendency, she presents the class an outline of a topic-such as "long-term memory in cognitive psychology"-and three to five subtopics. She indicates which of the subtopics she'll discuss and which topics students should learn on their own, such as from their textbooks or other resources she provides.

  • Engage students by using examples they can relate to. For example, after Matlin defines a concept, theory or methodological issue, she provides an anecdote based on her own experience or asks students to write their own example and then calls on several students to share their stories.

"This way everyone thinks about the concept-not just the eager contributors," she says. "It also lets me know whether students have grasped the concept, and it helps me gather additional examples."

  • Establish a rapport with students. Psychologist Jane Halonen, PhD, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of West Florida, does this by collecting data on the students' backgrounds and interests on the first day of class. The information helps her learn students' names more quickly and assists her in coming up with topics or project ideas.

In the end, success often hinges on making it a point to enjoy teaching, Buskist adds.

"If teaching is fun, you are more likely to take steps to become a better teacher," he says. "You will look forward to teaching, to being in the classroom and to finding new and better ways to get your points across."


Melissa Dittmann Tracey is a writer in Chicago.

"If teaching is fun, you are more likely to take steps to become a better teacher. You will look forward to teaching, to being in the classroom and to finding new and better ways to get your points across."

William Buskist
Auburn University