Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff (know what small stuff is)

February 15th, 2013 by Regan A. R. Gurung

When teaching, there is a diverse array of factors that an instructor has to be aware of. On a class to class basis you have to be sure that you have the right amount of content, will provide opportunities for active learning and build in factors to increase engagement. When it comes to more of the minutia of class management, an instructor also has to make a lot of decision in advance about what the norms for appropriate classroom behavior will be.  These can range from behaviors more directly to learning and attention such as the use of laptops and texting, and attendance, to factors such as eating and talking to neighbors which may not be as directly tied to attention.

Whether to require attendance or not has been long debated and studied and for the most part, evidence suggests that requiring attendance is a good thing (makes students less likely to skip and consequently more likely to learn more). The best practice is rewarding good attendance versus penalizing absence. There are some studies that suggest that the attendance requirement is not a significant factor in learning. Whether or not to require attendance provides a good example of where one needs to draw the line between student responsibility and accountability, and faculty responsibility.  Essentially, one can argue that given the student is paying tuition, they have the right to decide whether or not they want to come to class. Not only is it commonsense that missing class results in missing information and hence could result in lower grades, this association is also well supported empirically. Given the evidence an instructor would be remiss to not stress attendance.  Should it required is a judgment call but it is exactly the type of call that resides on the edge of a large grey area.

What should students be entitled to do by virtue of paying tuition? What are they entitled to?  Are public school students entitled to less ‘behavioral say’ as they are paying a much smaller fraction of ‘actual tuition and college costs’ versus private school students? If there is evidence that a certain behavior (e.g., attending class) is tied to exam scores and learning does this suspend the student choice to attend when they feel like it?

Whereas the discussion of attendance may seem more straightforward, what about some other classroom behaviors? Students leaving class early, coming late, or exiting class midway to visit the bathroom or take a phone call can be disrupting to the classroom environment. But again, like attendance one could rightly argue they are all within the students’ range of free choice both as adults and as tuition payers.  Is there evidence that a classroom with more of this set of disruptions is more distracting and hurts learning? To what length should an instructor go to minimize such disruptions beyond general reminders to students to be courteous?

In many ways, this second set of behaviors seem to not be as consequential. In many ways, and similar to what a student skipping class could be taken to imply, behaviors such as leaving early can be simple seen to result from a student not giving education enough importance, not respecting the classroom environment, instructor effort, or their classmates, or just not being aware of the implications and potential consequences of their behaviors.  In the ‘real world’ there are situational protocols and courtesies and sometimes students may not be aware of those for the classroom.  Protocol violation in an office or work setting results in censure and one could argue that college is a good training ground for good behavior beyond.  Then of course there is the reality of multiple demands. Sometimes people DO have to leave early, DO have to visit the facilities.  If in every setting 1% of the sample have a pressing (no pun intended) need to leave, when you have 250 people, this means that ever class 2-3 people will Have to go.

COuld just be small stuff, and although it is good to consider these minor disturbances and weigh options and possibilities, there are enough other things to worry about and focus on.


Teaching and Health

February 13th, 2013 by Regan A. R. Gurung

Take a look at most books on teaching.  Whether it is Teaching Tips or  Teaching Tools type books (Davis, 2009; Svinciki & McKeachie, 2013) there is no mention (that I can recall) of anything beyond pragmatic issues related to pedagogy.  Of course it is important to know how design lectures, write a syllabus, select a book, engage students, utilize active learning, foster discussion, and so on, but what else can influence how a teacher teaches?

I have been intrigued by the role played by physical activity and wellness in general. This current distraction was fostered by three separate incidents with some common themes. For the longest time I have been teaching on a Tuesday/Thursday only schedule regardless of how many courses I am teaching.  Sometimes this makes for a very difficult semester. This spring for example, I teach 4  classes essentially back to back.  Thankfully, one is a lab and so a little shorter, but I am still teaching from about 9.30 to 3.30. Given next to no time for lunch, and also to cut down on the mental drain of deciding what to have for lunch, I long adopted a simple strategy.  On teaching days, I eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Although some nutritionists may scoff at the sugar, fat, and carbs packed into this very American meal, it is actually easy to put together, a little bit of a guilty pleasure, and most importantly delivers a good shot of energy that I find easily powers me through the tough afternoon sections.  To be fair, on some days I complement this meal with a cup of coffee though not always and never more than one.  THough anecdotal, the peanut energy works well.

I noticed something else over the last year.  A number of good friends of mine who are productive scholars and energetic passionate teachers, are avid runners.  This signifies not only discipline, but also comes with their being physically fit.  As a social psychologist I will not fall prey to a confirmation bias, I do know some very productive and very passionate teachers who are not runners or who are not fit (hey, behavior is complex), BUT being fit and active must contribute to productivity right?  Now there is a large literature on this last point- I know this as a health psychologist- and the book, SPARK, nicely summarizes how efforts to make kids healthy are associated with their paying more attention and doing better at school.  So how does this influence teaching?  Does it?

Some clearly do not think so.  I gave a talk at a teaching conference recently and I spent ten minutes on how physical activity and eating well contribute to health.  I discussed Spark and also overviewed the self-regulation literature. The latter is work that shows that when our attention flags or we feel drained, a glucose drink can improve mood and cognition.  Students seem to be self-medicated before some classes, consciously or not.  Faculty in general drink a fair amount of caffeinated beverages and some pop candy or a chocolate for a little boost now and then.  It seemed like a good thing to mention as a likely factor influencing teaching.  Interestingly enough, one conference attendee commented that the physical activity and food information had no relevance to teaching (on an anonymous evaluation) and he/she wished I had stuck to direct teaching tips.  Which is why i started this piece with tips and tools.  Apart from a mild bit of defensiveness, I mean they missed the point that wellness is NOT talked about in context of teaching but probably SHOULD.  That said, does physical activity and nutrition influence teaching quality is an empirical question.

Perhaps it is time to find the empirical answer.

Tackling Engagement

February 12th, 2013 by Regan A. R. Gurung

By the time you get to the third week of the class you should have the ball rolling, set the stage, and now start relying on the environment that is built.  One of the most critical challenges is to make sure that time is well spent to connect students to the classroom.  When you have a large room and near 250 students, it is easy for individuals to sit back and tune out.  I specifically engineer the first few days to combat this possibility.

A lot has been said about the importance of the first day and it cannot be understated.  Keeping the syllabus to the end, being upbeat, presenting the exciting and applicable bits of psychology and pushing for as much conversation as possible goes a long way to creating a good environment.  Even on the second day there were some critical components in play– actually responding to comments made on cards the first day nicely shows that the student input when asked for, is taken seriously.  This year, I did a little piece on how even shy folk need not fear being called on as the class was a conversation and that ‘wrong’ answers were not problematic.  Sure, a really shy student may still baulk at speaking up in class, but the key is to show by example that no harm can come from responding.  I already see the shock of students who are called on by name seemingly unbelieving that they have indeed been called on by name.  Even after the first week, I was very happy with the level of contributions in class.

There are many more elements put into lecture design. I work hard to make sure I refer to the textbook to reinforce those who do read the book.  This also shows that lectures are not canned and repeated semester after semester.  Every single day has some new material from the time I taught it before.  I try to at least refer to related parts of the book and still try to use different examples to give students more to use as models.  It is also important to go beyond just going from chapter to chapter.  This week I took my furthest step ever to design lectures focused around two critical everyday topics–eating and attraction.  Using the 7 current perspectives to discuss each of these two topics nicely walks the walk of showing that psych IS life.

Also had a neat moment today when a student came up after class and thanked me for ‘Taking the time to care to make class applicable”.  He said he appreciated the work i put in. Very nice.  Brown nosing?  Did not seem to be.  A nice bonus.


And so it begins again

January 29th, 2013 by Regan A. R. Gurung

The start of every semester brings with it a sense of excitement and of course the anticipation of exhaustion. The reality is that if we as teachers really care about doing a good job in that our students get engaged and learn, then there is no way around the constant preoccupation with course preparation.

I have noticed that even though I have a pretty good sense of how the class will/should go, there are always new twists and surprises. In some ways the days leading up to teaching are less filled with fixating on the class, but there is still fixation. Since I only teach intro once a year and given I always change the book (mostly to try out different online resources and new authors) there is always a time investment in setting up.  New course materials to review and set up.  New programs to get the hang off.  New material to add and update.

This semester there were two additional differences. First off I was also teaching Experimental Methods, a new prep (for all practical purposes), and second I taught intro after two sections of methods and a lab. By the time I get to Intro at 2.00 I am already pretty knackered. Given that intro is the biggest class, I feared this would lead to a lack of energy to propel me through the 80 minutes.  I found this not to be the case.  Being in front of the 250 seats was a boost of energy.  It was fun.  Sure some things had to be changed – i did not have time to stage a false conformity study (advising students to lie about which line matched) and I did not go over reasons for conforming in great detail.  I think they’ll live.

I am eager to read TA blogs on this first day as it is always intriguing to hear what is said and seen from another perspective.

Trust Vs. Accountability

February 20th, 2011 by Regan A. R. Gurung

When faced with preparing two 80 minute lectures a week to 240+ students, it is easy to feel exhausted. Even after one has done a class many times, there is a still a lot of tweaking, updating, adding, subtracting, and improving, going on. As discussed in the first few chapters of teaching tips, it is critical to both cover material, but also go into depth where needed. How does one strike a good balance between covering what is in the book and still making things interesting and providing more for coming to class and current life?

When I look at a lecture, I first look at what the book covers, then think about what I may know is important that may not be highlighted in the chapter, and then I look around for ways to bring it to life. To do this i first look at different textbooks. For each lecture or chapter, i actually compare the material with that found in at least 2 other textbooks. This gives me ideas for how to discuss difficulty material (different authors do it differently) and also shows me what is common across books.

Of course a class period or two is NOT enough to cover everything in the chapter. That is why i have to make a tough call on what to include and what to just mention and what not to mention.

The brain chapter provides a great example. There are many structures that can seem confusing but at the core, it is a name and a stated function. This is where I urge students to cover it on their own. I DO make reference to it in the class so they know where to look but students must take some learning in their own hands. I would rather spend more time on real tricky stuff (experiments vs. correlation) than spend time having students write down what is on my powerpoint that is ALSO in the textbook.

Do i trust that they will read and study? To some extent they will have to , to do well on the exam and if they do not do it, they will find the exam tough. Then they will do it the next time. This also highlits a key part of this issue— whe I make a decision to include something in class and not discuss something from the book, I only test on that book item if indeed it was straightforward and something that could be easily learned with some modicum of effort. I do not test on stuff buried in the book that I did not even refer to and that is actually a difficult concept. I do test on a lot of the material covered in class. The way i see it, the material covered in class that is also covered in the book is the most important stuff. Then the stuff from class not in the book is important (i made the call to discuss it) and then in last place is the stuff also in the book.

So i really want students to take responsibility for learning. To do well the student needs to work as well. I am going to work very hard, but the student must not ONLY study what I talk about. They must also spend some time with the book. If i do the right job of drawing their attention to it then I trust they will recognize that it is important. I figure if i show i care and am working hard, i can trust they will try to work hard to. At least the bulk of them. Those 20 or so …….

On Attendance, On Fire

February 14th, 2011 by Regan A. R. Gurung

Last week was bittersweet, but mostly sweet. I absolutely loved how Tuesday’s lecture came together. When I talk about physiology i know a lot of students are not very fond of it and even are afraid. I worked hard this time to find a lot of everyday examples that would relate to the brain and physiology to make the class more excited for it. This took two main forms:
1. Find recent research that is cool and current and applicable.
2. Discuss more that the book.
I dug for news stories that fit and of course tapped into the SuperBowl victory. This part was somewhat fueled that I was also caught up in the victory but i loved the way i manged to make connections between various aspects and class. The mirror neurons one and Rodgers quote worked real well for me and I hope it stuck more for them. The gene research, going beyond just twin research (ho hum and boring by now) to the selective breeding and alcohol and rats made for a nice change.

I have also reached a level of disclosure I am comfortable with. I told the students I was going to Lambeau because I was excited and it was fun. I kept it short because I hate it when people go on about themselves. I mentioned it briefly again on thursday as I think the tie is ensured continuity.

Thursday was different in many ways. In the past I am not even in town and the TAs set up the DVD and play it and collect stuff. This time i could set it up, finish material and then go. I played with whether I should say I would not be there at the end (my flight left at 1.00) and decided to . I DID not say I was flying out of town to a meeting but still said I was leaving. Why? I trusted them. They could have all left and blown it off. I take it that did not happen. That is a sign of muttual trust and I think that is a great sign of a good relationship. Fact is I knew I could not be there till the the end. Fact is there were sound pedagogical reasons for shoing the movie (well related). Key is to set up the relationship to allow that to work well.

I too have noticed the attendance numbers drop. Once i have group work on tuesdays (this week), it may get a few more to come. But it is warmer this week too. Still I feel like it is their call. Some of those not there have valid reasons. OThers will see their scores on the exam and think otherwise. More on this as we pull together a study on it.

Week One

January 30th, 2011 by Regan A. R. Gurung

The first week of class went by with less pomp and circumstance and stress than times before. I liked the nice bright new room (renovated Rose hall) and was glad to have got all the TAs together at the end of the previous semester so I felt good about them (of course I wish we had met again just before class but that’s for next time). Life events around kick-off went well (kids were very cooperative at dro-off ensuring i got to school with enough time to get mentally int he zone).

I always enjoy the dressing up of the first day. Then the running through in my head of all the small things that have to happen just right. Music cued. Slides updates and edited. Note to create confederates written (when I tell students to actually say the wrong line in the Asch study to demonstrate possible conformity), attendance row sheets, camera, and on and on. Some changes— decided to shoot with my iphone so no extra camera needed. Decided to ONLY use online syllabi so no stack of 250 syllabi needed. THis I liked.

The room had some good energy and I liked the fact all TAs were there with time to spare. Of course we were all nervous. I love that nervous feel in myself although I need to take more time to assuage the fears of others. Wish the music played louder–helps calm me and gets the beat going. Still the G-team looked great and ready for action and even with my ambuigity on card handing out, did a great job to lead.

One biggest self-criticism is that I spent too much time on showing psych is part of life. I really liked asking TAs for what’s hot in lives and adding slides to show those things (current movies music, etc.) but then I should taken off some of the more general stuff I had before. All together I felt it was somewhat tedious. It also made go longer so I made the ‘lets be psychologists’ think aloud a take home which actually worked well on the second day.

On the second day i was actually more confident of my memory abilities and it worked like a charm. I felt in the zone with getting names right and could see the effect. People did notice i used names ALL the name and correctly. I hope to make this even stronger.

Also glad about the two short set pieces (marker and candy) to demonstrate things. The change in pace and the visual demo part pays dividends. Now to find more neat stuff. Wish I could bring in a portable brain scanner…

The group exercise was even more relevant given the Packers being in the Super Bowl which was nice. Continue to think about better ways to form that first group—just take more time???

All told a very satisfying first week. I hope student sare logging in and getting time in on Portal…to remind or not remind, that is the question.

And so it begins again…

January 29th, 2011 by Regan A. R. Gurung

As the new year rolled around it was nice to know there was a buffer before the new school year started. I like that gap between the holidays- Christmas and New Year, and the school year. It is nice to get solid blocks for family and writing before the routine of the week is broken into days of teaching and school. The good news is that I always enjoy the itch of missing the classroom and moving towards the end of January makes one look forward to that first day even more. All this with the knowledge that the first week of school is perhaps the most tiring one there is.

THis year was different in that I knew it was my last semester before I take a year on sabbatical. In addition, I am major responsibilities (Soceity for Teaching Pres) that would make the school semester a little tougher. But a new book and new software to try for Intro, six eager TAs, and 250 plus students to engage. That is energizing stuff.

I was perhaps a little less nervous than before and had more time to plan for the first day which helped. I look forward to this semester and seeing if I can keep up the good work of previous years.


May 6th, 2010 by Regan A. R. Gurung

And another semester has come to an end. This ending was different in many ways. For some reason I felt more confident that I have in recent years. I tried new things — the evaluations near the front for example. I started with a lot more music, one a song reccomended by students in class (and contemporary versus some of my other 80s stuff). There was also a good energy in the air and it was nice to see a pretty full class especially after being told that the previous class had a record number of absences just before my class.

To be fair there was a lot to squeeze in but I made sure to cut some things out. Did fewer clips (even after the vid was in the wrong place). Did not play out the battacca bat too long. Kept the examples concise. The review session and the classroom exercise all gave the students a sense of what to expect and not enough time to obsess but enough to see if they knew it or not.

Last days in my book have to be as orchestrated as the first day. You should be clear about what you want to accomplish and one should be sure to have closing statements. I have a clear cut end. I have a short set of key things for people to remember. There was humor, there was upbeatness, there was optimism. There were also the usual gambles—fun to pick on a student with free association and the one today, Ted, was a good sport and served the purpose well. Good contributions from all.

Coolest for me was the photo opp at the end. Yes, the minor clapping was nice too, but having a group want to take a pic was nice. Good pics. Exhausting day though. All in all i feel good about it all. Really appreciated the comradrie I felt from the TAs–you guys did a great job. Now to close down this class and get some grading done.

If You Build it, Will they Come: On Attendance

April 8th, 2010 by Regan A. R. Gurung

So if you look out at your class and see a number of empty seats that you know should be filled, how should you take it? Well, it is hard to not be a little bummed. I mean, you work hard to help students learn, you read up on new research to keep lectures fresh, spend hours on powerpoints so they are engaging, you use pedagogical best practices in speech delivery and movement and pitch and tone, you focus on students and monitor reactions…(I can go on) and after all that some decide not to show.  Sure, a good chunk do show.  But I cannot stop thinking about why some do NOT. I guess today was a higher no show than normal. So let’s not get too emotion. Let’s wipe the rhetorical tears and unpack this.

First off.  What is normal? As best as i can tell from anecdote and some publications, attendance in big classes varies anywhere from the low 40% to the mid 90’s. The average appears to be in the low 70s. We do above average on most days so that is good.  I am curious as to what avereage attendence is on campus…

Second, why SHOULD they attend? Beyond duh! Attendance should improve learning and retention.  The data is clear here. There is a significant correlation between attendance and score on exam. Of course, there is also a correlation between GPA and exam score and GPA and attendance so it could be that the smarter students tend to come more. At least it is clear that coming to class  higher scores though here we have to factor in how much people miss.  Some miss a lot.  Some miss just a class here and there.

Now here is where a faculty member can use class design. You can make attendance count for a grade (but this is punishment for absence and not a good idea for the most part although studies suggest that requiring attendance for a grade does lead to higher attendance—but is THAT how you want higher attendance?  Come or i dock your points?). The higher you make it count the more likely you are to get higher attendance.  You can not count it but give group work that counts for grade (my strategy) or have them turn in assignments in class for a class (essentially rewarding attendance). So course design strategies.

Then you can make it exam questions come from class so someone Has to be there (or at least make sure to get good notes).

Finally, you can make it so engaging a learning environment that people want to come. This is where I feel myself reflecting on a low attendance day and saying, darn I am not making learing engaging enough. Sure sure sure many say that class is fun, etc. (and I am not fishing for compliments or reassurances here) but is it not engaging enough to have everyone (near everyone) come all the time?

So why do some students not come to class?  My list:


-subject matter

-instructor and/or presentation


-life stress

-peer/family distractions

-easy to do well on exams with coming (all in book anyway, etc.)

Am I missing anything? Is it really a problem? Any solutions? Is it just their (a student problem and their call ((and their responsibility to take the fallout))?

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