Class Act

Meet four psychology students who founded an organization to help themselves and fellow students become better teachers

In 2007, University of Georgia PhD student Michael Amlung experienced the most transformative moment in his graduate school career. He wasn't in a lab. He wasn't reading seminal literature. He was standing before 300 undergraduate Introduction to Psychology students giving a lecture on cognitive neuroscience.

"I just remember being so energized by that experience," Amlung says. "That, for me, was a signal that this was something that I wanted to do."

But Amlung's preparation for the lectern was surprisingly slight — he'd had just one teaching-related course, and it had focused more on university policies and procedures than the finer points of running a classroom, he says. As Amlung discussed the issue with other psychology students, he found he wasn't alone.

"A lot of incoming TAs feel very unsure of their basic responsibilities and skills," Amlung says. "They don't feel prepared, even for basic responsibilities like holding office hours and emailing students. There was a sense that they were being thrown in, without a lot of background or training."

Brian Stone, Melissa Dengler, Sarah Whitaker and Michael Amlung, all psychology grad students at the University of Georgia, founded the Psychology Educator Development Association (Credit: Laura Amlung)So, Amlung teamed with fellow UGA psychology grad students Melissa Dengler, Brian Stone and Sarah Whitaker to found the Psychology Educator Development Association (PEDA). The meetings began modestly, with a core group of half a dozen grad students, and expanded until about 20 people were attending each monthly session, eager to discuss using technology in the classroom, crafting a quality syllabus and other issues. Soon, non-tenure-track faculty and graduate students from other departments were asking to sit in as well.

The organization — which also runs workshops, hosts talks by veteran teachers and promotes peer mentoring — can serve as a model for students at other schools who feel their universities offer inadequate teacher training, the founders say. And their administrators agree. "PEDA has done a lot to elevate the status of teaching in our department," says Joan L. Jackson, PhD, the director of clinical training at UGA.

Teaching 101

Amlung's experience isn't unique. Both students and institutions are taking a close look at their teacher training, says Steven A. Meyers, PhD, a psychology professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago. In 1997, Meyers and a colleague surveyed 181 psychology departments to find out what sort of training was available. In 2008, they conducted a follow-up study of 155 departments, with 68 institutions responding to both surveys.

They found that 78 percent of departments required at least some training — up from 71 percent in 1997. They also found that TA training is becoming more substantive. For example, two-thirds of universities in 2008 offered a teacher training course (up from 43 percent in 1997) and assigned TAs a mentor or supervisor (up from 51 percent). Other training activities included offering readings, workshops and retreats.

Meyers says these trends reflect national realities: Universities increasingly rely on TAs, graduate students and non-tenured faculty to teach courses, especially general education requirements. At the same time, officials in many states want to make sure undergraduate students are getting their money's worth.

"There's increased oversight and skepticism about ... the quality of education that undergraduates receive, and that puts increased pressure on universities to train teaching assistants and have greater oversight of faculty," he says.

For Auburn University psychology professor William Buskist, PhD, increased oversight for graduate student instructors is a welcome trend. Buskist has dedicated his academic career to raising pedagogical standards in psychology. Because the TA training program he runs at Auburn includes a yearlong course for first-year graduate students and ongoing mentoring, the university's PhD program tends to attract students who plan on pursuing teaching careers.

But for students at schools that don't emphasize teaching, Buskist has several recommendations for grad students looking to improve their classroom leadership skills:

Join APA's Div. 2 (Society for the Teaching of Psychology). Membership gives you access to resources and opportunities to apply for scholarships, research grants and teaching awards. Members receive a quarterly subscription to Teaching of Psychology, a journal devoted to improving teaching and learning, as well as access to the PsychTeacher discussion board.

Tap on-campus resources. Many schools have an on-campus center for teaching excellence, which often provides workshops, courses and mentoring opportunities, he says.

Attend a teaching conference, such as the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology or the Association for Psychological Science – Society for the Teaching of Psychology Teaching Institute. These gatherings offer students the chance to hear from teaching experts and a forum for exchanging ideas and networking with other graduate students.

Amlung agrees with that advice, but has an item to add: If your school doesn't offer many resources for budding teachers, consider forming an organization like PEDA. Be sure to involve a diverse range of students, including beginning and advanced grad students, as well as health-services psychology students and students who are beginning research-focused careers.

In addition to attracting diverse student members, Amlung says that it's important to involve faculty. "Faculty not only can share their experience in college teaching, but they also have inside knowledge about the job market that can be very helpful to senior students," Amlung says.

For example, Amy M. Buddie, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta, gave a presentation on how to secure a faculty position at a teaching-focused institution. She's also reviewed students' cover letters, curriculum vitae and teaching statements.

Future psychology professors face a tough job market, but Amlung and fellow PEDA founders have a leg up, as they've shown an admirable willingness to seek additional professional development, Jackson says. They've also elevated graduate student teaching at the university, she says.

"The grad students feel more confident, and I'd like to think that [PEDA] has increased the quality of teaching in our department," she says.

Rebecca J. Ritzel is a Washington, D.C., based writer.