Innovative Psychology One program celebrates 10 years of educating students, teaching fellows and faculty

With a dual mission of providing an exciting Introduction to Psychology course for undergraduates along with training for teaching fellows and faculty, Psychology One is a learning experience at all levels. The program is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a conference for psychology instructors around the country at Stanford today and Friday.

Ten years ago, Introduction to Psychology, or Psych 1, was simply a class. Now, it's an experience.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Psychology One, a program funded  by the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education (VPUE) that revolutionized the popular Pysch 1 course for both the undergraduates who take the course and the instructors who teach it.

Psychology One will mark the anniversary by hosting a conference of about 40 introductory psychology teachers from around the country at Stanford today and Friday to discuss the challenges of teaching the course and to share ideas.

James Gross, Psychology One program director and a professor of psychology, said Psychology One was born out of the need to overhaul the way the department's most introductory course was taught at Stanford.

The course, offered every quarter and taken by more than 800 students throughout the year, contained challenges common to large introductory classes. The course did not include discussion sections, so hands-on learning and personalized attention for students were nearly impossible to provide. In addition, different professors taught the course each quarter, and each would focus on different aspects of the vast subject matter. As a result, professors who taught second- and third-level courses were often unsure what their students already knew and were forced to repeat material to ensure everyone was on the same page.

In 2002, the department applied for and received a VPUE grant earmarked for improving large introductory courses. Gross said the first thing the course needed was infrastructure.

Streamlined lectures and engaging discussion

Now, professors teach to a single, standardized program each quarter, developed by the Psychology One staff.

"One of the things we've done is to build a clear core curriculum so the second- and third-level instructors really know what Psych 1 involves," Gross said. "Now it's a little unusual because it's close to the same class each of the three quarters."

Faculty, staff and teaching fellows (TFs) can share materials and lesson plans on a wiki page. They also get together as a group each week to grade tests and papers and collaborate on the course.

The VPUE grant also allowed Psychology One to include mandatory discussion sections in addition to lectures. Section sizes are small, with only about 12 students per section, and can provide more in-depth discussions and demonstrations. Gross said one of his favorite discussion activities is a hands-on examination of a real human brain.

"I can't tell you how different it is to see a human brain and hold it in your hands versus just reading about it in a textbook," Gross said. "We're trying to put together a package of experiences – some in the lecture hall, some in the section – that really brings psychology to life and makes it a fun class for people to take."

Psychology One's second mission focuses on pedagogical training.

A learning experience for teaching fellows

Each spring, the Psychology One staff hires eight graduate students and eight undergraduate students to serve as TFs for the following school year. In the fall, every TF teaches two discussion sections – one as a team, with each graduate paired with an undergraduate, and one alone. TFs then teach again in the winter or spring quarter.

Beginning that summer, the TFs receive mentoring and support from the faculty and staff to ensure they are confident and prepared in the classroom. The Psychology One program aims to educate not only the students taking the course, but also its TFs in how to be teachers.

Bridgette Hard, Psychology One program coordinator, who was a Psych 1 teaching assistant herself the year before Psychology One began, said TFs still have the freedom to be creative with their lesson plans, but now they have resources to help them succeed.

Hard regularly observes discussion sections in order to offer feedback to the TFs. She also advises them in weekly one-on-one meetings on activities to try in the classroom, issues that come up with students and teaching strategies.

"Leading a group of people is difficult," Hard said. "[For example], if they're banging their head against the wall trying to get students to participate, we can brainstorm ideas to trick the students into participating."

The graduate TFs are often pursuing careers as psychology professors themselves, but undergraduate TFs may come from a wide range of majors. The Psychology One staff looks for students who did well in Psych 1 and have a passion for learning and sharing the material with others. Demand for the position is high; the staff often receives three to four times as many applications as there are positions available.

"We look for contagious enthusiasm: people who make students walk away from section loving what they just learned," Hard said.

Lauren Szczurek, a fifth-year doctoral candidate in psychology, was a Psychology One TF during the 2009-10 school year. The course was her first experience as a TF, and she said the Psychology One staff gave her the confidence to see herself as a teacher.

"It's hard to take yourself seriously when you first start," Szczurek said. "But they work with you in the fall to build a skill set, and it's less scary than you think it is."

Szczurek said doing demonstrations for her students in section was particularly memorable.

"To see the light bulbs going off in their heads is really rewarding," she said.

Sam Saenz , a 2011 graduate in psychology, was a TF during the 2010-11 school year. He said he wanted to be a Psychology One TF ever since he took Psych 1 during his first quarter as a freshman at Stanford. He said Gross was the best professor he had at Stanford, and he was inspired by his own TF, who motivated even shy students like Saenz to participate.

"Anytime someone participated, he would reward them with candy – and it wasn't the cheap kind. I had never seen anything like that as a student, and it made me so happy and eager to participate more," Saenz said. "It really was the beginning of my fascination with teaching and particularly engaging others to share the same thrill I experienced when I saw psychology being put into action."

Saenz said Psychology's One's focus on tapping into and improving one's unique teaching style – at all levels, even the professors – allowed him to worry less about being perfect and instead to feel free to experiment in his sections.

For example, to teach his students about the "misinformation effect," which explains how memory can be affected by misleading information, he staged a fake robbery during class and then asked his students to recall details about the event as a co-conspirator in the class implanted false information.

Saenz is currently applying to medical school, and said his experience as a TF in Psychology One will inform his interactions with his patients and his passion for empowering people.

"The word 'doctor' is actually Latin for 'to teach,' and I see Psych One as an experience that helped me become the particular kind of teacher I would like to become," Saenz said.

Continued focus on teaching

At the conference, Phil Zimbardo, professor emeritus of psychology, will give a lecture titled "Making Psychology Come Alive." True to Psychology One's commitment to pedagogical development and stimulating instruction, Zimbardo said he will talk to conference attendees about how to make lectures engaging and memorable, even if the topic is not within a teacher's area of expertise.

"It's never just a lecture," Zimbardo said. "You mix personal examples, current events, original demonstrations and involve the class. You engage them instead of just talking at them."

Psychology One intends to continue reaching out to other academics at Stanford and beyond to learn best practices and further improve the course. In addition, Psychology One plans to conduct its own assessment of the program in order to determine its effectiveness, and will share its results with a larger audience.

Thanks to continued support from VPUE, Gross said, Psychology One can offer a learning experience for everyone involved.

"At the level of the faculty, all of us are able to learn from each other and teach each other best practices for how to become better teachers. The faculty are working hard to train the graduate students to be better teachers, and they'll go on to be professors themselves," Gross said. "The grad students and faculty are working with undergrad teaching fellows to help them realize their own interest and potential as teachers, and all of us are working to make the experience for the undergraduates in the class as exciting and engaging as it possibly can be. At every single level, it's everybody trying to make each other a better teacher."

Robin Migdol is a writing intern with the Stanford News Service.