Last fall, Princeton teaching assistant Mary Steffel led a particularly challenging undergraduate psychology class. Her students had read the classic psychology experiments showing that people will give up their subway seats to able-bodied passengers just because they ask. But the students didn't buy their textbook's interpretation of the finding: that these passengers stood up because they were unwilling to challenge others' definitions of the situation.
Rather than argue with the class, Steffel broke the students into small groups and asked them to come up with an alternative hypothesis and design a study to test it.
"From that point on," says Steffel, "that class was one of my most engaged."
Steffel's ability to draw in skeptical students is just one of the reasons that she won a Princeton Graduate Alumni Teaching Award, says Deborah Prentice, PhD, chair of the university's psychology department.
"Mary is comfortable and flexible in the classroom," says Prentice. "She can change course midstream if students are not getting it."
Steffel, a fifth-year psychology graduate student, draws in students who may not feel comfortable speaking in class by having them engage in small group discussions. She also asks students to comment on the week's reading through online discussion boards.
"In class, I try to read through people's comments and invite discussions," she says. "It's another way for me to involve everybody, and not just have one person dominate."
A passion for teaching runs in Steffel's family: Her mother, University of Indianapolis education professor Nancy Steffel, EdD, won the university's 2007 Teacher of the Year award.
"I find it rewarding to be a part of helping people think in a new way, discover a new area of interest or master a task that has previously been elusive," she says.