The aspects that define me as a teacher are the same things that I enjoy most about teaching. First, I enjoy sharing the wonder that complements learning about psychology. Second, teaching psychology allows me to be creative and innovative. My students benefit from this creativity, and it keeps teaching both challenging and fresh for me.
I study psychology because the more I learn, the more I feel a sense of wonder. My approach to teaching is rooted in my desire to share that with students. I think this approach is best illustrated by a tour of a typical class period. First, I begin by instilling wonder with a fun class demonstration. One of my favorites is a simple card trick. I then relate the magic to the class topic, in this case, the principles and experimental study of visual attention. I show students how I duped them by directing their attention to the color of the cards, when the suit was the important dimension. Then I describe the relevant concepts in more detail. For the card trick, I explain that differences in visual primitives (such as color) are likely to “pop-out”, where as differences in combinations of these primitives (such as a suit of cards) often need effortful visual search to be detected. I begin by engaging wonder and curiosity, but as I explain the phenomena, my goal is not to satisfy the curiosity, but to deepen it. My goal for each class is that the students learn the science, but also keep wondering.
I find that students learn best by experiencing psychology, and I take great pleasure in designing creative and interactive activities. For example, in my introduction to perception lab, the class made a movie to recreate a famous experiment in visual perception (Dan Simon’s Gorillas in our Midst). While this article presents a fascinating finding, students are often amazed by the experiment without comprehending which elements of the stimulus led to the results. By designing their own video, students are confronted with their confusion, and must discover the relevant dimensions of the original experiment before they can move on.
I also try to be creative in the design of courses as a whole. One example is “The Science of Illusion”, a course I have now taught three times. This course’s innovative approach cuts across the fields of perception, memory, emotion, cognitive development and artificial intelligence, with the uniting theme of illusion. What can we discover about psychological processes by studying when they go wrong? In posing this question, I lead students to questions of adaptive behavior, and philosophical foundations of modern experimental psychology.
While of course there is more to me as a teacher than these themes, these are the elements of my own teaching that I value most. They are also the primary reasons I see teaching as a sustaining career for me in the long run. Citizenship, wonder, and creativity are not only qualities, but also lifelong goals to pursue.