This fall will be the start of my 22nd year of teaching psychology at Roosevelt University. It is summer as I write this essay, and I am preparing for classes, which this semester include Introductory Psychology for new students, a capstone internship course for students as they near graduation, and a seminar for doctoral students in which I supervise them as they teach our undergraduates.
I check the rosters to see how many students have enrolled, and see dozens of names of people whom I have yet to meet. Most are in Introductory Psychology, one of the first classes many students take upon arriving at Roosevelt. My goal, as the semester progresses, is to learn as much as I can about these newcomers, why they chose my class and what drew them to Roosevelt.
Most have dreams, like Dani, one of my students who constantly strove to make social change while she was at Roosevelt, and is now completing a doctoral degree in social work at the University of Chicago.
Many others have shared with me their hardships in getting through Roosevelt while caring for siblings, children and aging parents, or in overcoming medical illnesses. I have even taught students who were homeless, including a student whose plight shook me as a teacher, which I will describe a little later.
Grappling with some of these issues is not easy, but getting to know my students is important. I want to give each one I teach an experience that will lead to success at Roosevelt, in their careers and with their lives in general.
As I reflect on all of this, a recurring paradox occurs to me: Do I teach psychology or do I teach students? It is the kind of question that I believe teachers must ask if they are to prepare students for lives as socially conscious citizens.
“Teaching people means we must support and engage them. This involves not only finding out about them, but also…praising and encouraging students, and using teaching strategies that challenge them.”– Steven Meyers, Professor of Psychology
Many people are surprised when they learn how little preparation college faculty members generally receive about how to teach effectively. This stands in contrast to elementary and secondary education teachers who complete extensive coursework and receive supervision as they develop their skills. Future college professors tend to immerse themselves in their chosen field during graduate school, and mainly focus on research leading to publication while they pursue their doctoral studies.
When I started teaching shortly after receiving my PhD in Child and Family Psychology in 1995 from Michigan State University, I placed a premium on explaining theories and research in order to prepare students for additional classes. I focused a lot on the content of my lessons, making sure my presentations were thorough, the readings were comprehensive and timely, and the coverage was clear. I remain committed to these objectives today, for this is what it means to teach psychology well. Or is it?
In a revealing study, a team of professors at the University of Alabama administered a test to Introductory Psychology students about the knowledge they had gained four months after their class ended. For comparison, the team gave the same test to a group of new students who had never enrolled in the course. Scores between these two groups were a lot closer than any professor would hope.
This is instructive for college faculty, for it suggests our objective may need to be bigger than teaching facts and theories from our disciplines. Today, I take the greatest satisfaction in teaching people rather than in teaching psychology. Instead of thinking I will be teaching another section of Introductory Psychology, I now look at each semester as an opportunity to work with and get to know a new group of Roosevelt students. This subtle shift in focus has large implications.
Teaching people means that it is important to learn more about them as individuals. On the first day of class, I ask my students to share information about themselves. I then try to figure out how the class material can be useful and relevant in their lives. I also ask about their career aspirations and try to think of ways to connect to their interests and goals. Sometimes I learn their personal stories when they choose to share them, and this allows me to be more responsive to their situations.
Appreciating students’ individuality can be daunting; it is more straightforward just to focus on the subject matter. Like most of us, however, students at times struggle with self-doubt, anxiety and relationships. They sometimes need to share these struggles with someone they trust, which I believe can include me as an invested teacher.
I am a “fixer” by nature, but I have learned that not all problems are fixable. A case in point involves the student I referenced earlier. Stopping me after class one day, he told me his family disowned him after he disclosed his sexual orientation. He relied on friends for assistance, moving from the couch of one to the floor of another’s residence. This went on for a few months until he wore out his welcome and his money ran out, leading him to decide to withdraw from Roosevelt.
Raised in a household in New York where basics like food and shelter were always available and money was not a problem, I had never really considered the possibility that any of my students would not know where they would sleep at night. I wondered how many facts from class this student could possibly retain when these other life issues were so much more pressing.
While I assured him he could come back to my class any time, I also felt I had let him down because of his decision to step away from his education. These kinds of stories do not always end well. However, the student stopped me in the hall during his last week at Roosevelt to thank me. He told me he was grateful that one of his professors had cared enough to learn about his situation and to listen.
It re-emphasized for me that there is a need, beyond the material I teach, to be there for my students. Teaching people means we must support and engage them. This involves not only finding out about them, but also being available outside of class, expressing enthusiasm when teaching, praising and encouraging students, and using teaching strategies that challenge them.
For college education to produce enduring outcomes, students cannot just be interested or attentive observers in the classroom. Rather, people learn best when they manipulate information. This is why I prefer to use active and collaborative learning strategies such as case studies, role-playing, writing exercises, participatory demonstrations and problem-based learning. Ultimately, my students spend a lot of time working with each other on tasks that connect learning to life.
Teaching people means instructors need to counterbalance a focus on students as individuals with an emphasis on their responsibility to others. There is a story of a Chasidic rabbi who asked people to place slips of paper in their two pockets, each containing a different passage from the Jewish scriptures. The note for the left pocket stated, “I am but dust and ashes.” The one for the right pocket read, “For my sake the whole world was created.”
“[Roosevelt is] more ambitious than many colleges because of our social justice mission. Our students gain more than book knowledge. We provide a value-rich experience in which students become more aware of social inequalities and develop greater concern and empathy.”– Steven Meyers, Professor of Psychology
The first message was for people to read when they needed humility during times of excessive self-focus or self-importance. The latter was meant to reassure people when they felt discourage or insignificant. I want students to appreciate this duality as they see their own potential and learn in my classes how to be responsible members of their communities.
A college education can address students’ needs and aspirations, but it can also point them in the direction of helping others. This translates into another paradox in effective teaching. I believe students will remember learning experiences that occur outside of my classroom just as much as experiences that occur inside of it. Specifically, undergraduates in my courses put their knowledge into practice by working directly with at-risk people in Chicago and its suburbs. They have tutored teenagers, provided support for patients in hospice, assisted children who grieve the loss of a parent, cradled hospitalized infants, and closely listened to the stories of people in homeless shelters.
This instructional strategy is known as service learning, and it gives students the opportunity to give back, which in turn connects to what they are learning in the classroom. So far, my students have collectively contributed more than 20,000 hours to people in need.
One of the greatest sources of satisfaction for a professor is to watch students grow when they get the opportunity to use their skills to make a difference. My former student, Dani, whom I mentioned earlier, is a case in point. Leaving behind family living 1,000 miles away, Dani was a transfer student from South Dakota who chose Roosevelt because of its social justice mission. She wanted to make positive change in people’s lives, and I was fortunate enough to be there to help her along the way. Dani worked at a community-counseling center, helped lead a summer program for at-risk youths and completed a research internship at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.
After graduating in 2014, she became a clinical research coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania, and is now completing a doctoral degree in social work. I am confident she will make the world a better place for us all, and I am proud to have been one of her teachers. We still talk today and trust that we will stay in contact in the future.
Prospective students and their parents often ask me what makes an education at Roosevelt University distinctive. I explain that we are more ambitious than many colleges because of our social justice mission. Our students gain more than book knowledge. We provide a value-rich experience in which students become more aware of social inequalities and develop greater concern and empathy.
One of my ore popular service-learning classes, a pilot called Seminar in Youth Violence, focused on how to stop this epidemic in Chicago. My students not only spent hundreds of hours talking with dozens of people affected by youth violence. They looked for ways to combat the problem, held a community forum that raised awareness, wrote and published a letter to the editor in the Chicago Sun-Times, created a video on YouTube that has more than 10,000 views, and co-authored a photo documentary book, Youth Violence in Chicago: An Intimate Look. This work contributed to the selection of a student in the class, Emma, as Illinois Student Laureate of the Year.
Students taking my service learning courses have met with their state legislators to advocate for expanding early childhood education funding. They have voiced support for more community support services for teens, leading to an invitation from a local public official for one of my students, James, to join a panel studying the issue.
These are memorable experiences for Roosevelt students, who frequently are the first in their families to go to college. Many come from families with limited financial resources. Some have experienced racism or other forms of discrimination — yet here they are discovering they can have a voice on issues that matter!
It makes me wonder again about teaching psychology versus teaching people. What will ultimately matter more to them: what I want to teach or what they want to learn? Which will they be more likely to remember after they graduate: the psychology lessons I taught or my promise to do whatever I could to help them succeed? Did they benefit more from my structure and organization in the classroom or from an unplanned conversation that we had in the hallway about their lives? I know that both possibilities are important in each of these questions, but the relative and enduring impact is not always so clear. There definitely is no substitute for facts and rigor in coursework. It is necessary, but is it truly sufficient?
I have come to believe that my primary calling as a professor is to make a difference. When my course is over, I hope students will not only be more knowledgable, but also more curious, self-aware and sensitive to the plight of others. It is an outcome that motivates me to be enthusiastic, helpful and hopeful after 22 years of teaching.
Steven Meyers, professor of psychology at Roosevelt University, is winner of the 2017 Robert S. Daniel Teaching Excellence Award. One of psychology’s highest honors in teaching, this national award from the American Psychological Association’s Society for the Teaching of Psychology is given annually to one psychology faculty member from a four-year college or university. In 2007, Meyers was named Illinois Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. A clinical psychologist, Meyers is an expert in children’s well-being and family relationships. He is the associate chair of Roosevelt’s Department of Psychology, where he directs undergraduate programs and the Initiative for Child and Family Studies.