Female professor in front of class

By Kari Alyse Leibowitz

When most people think of a professor, the first thing that comes to mind is the professor's role as a teacher: they imagine lecture halls, chalkboards, and students. And the vast majority of college students only interact with their professors in a classroom setting. Yet graduate training in psychology can send the message that teaching is an afterthought; it’s communicated implicitly and explicitly that it is secondary to research. When pedagogical training is treated as an afterthought, we overlook the immense value of training future personality and social psychologists in the practice of teaching.

“Very few people actually get explicitly trained in teaching,” says Dr. Bridgette Martin Hard, Associate Professor of Practice in Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University and lead investigator of the BRITE Lab (Behavioral Research Informing Teaching Excellence). “We owe it to our students, who make our jobs as researchers and faculty members possible, to give them the education they deserve to go off into the world and be better citizens and better people.”

There is good news, however: personality and social psychologists may have particular advantages when it comes to teaching. “As psychologists, we have a wealth of information relevant to everything that people care about—about how people think, work, love, and communicate. About what motivates them and makes them thrive, how groups operate, how negotiations work, how children become adults, and how adults become good adults,” explains Dr. Kody Manke, Assistant Professor of Teaching at Carnegie Mellon University and Director of Research on Diversity and Inclusion for Dietrich College.

Social interactions shape classrooms in powerful ways, and personality and social psychologists may be both more attuned to these forces in the classroom and better equipped to leverage psychological insights to improve class experience. For example, personality and social psychologists can take advantage of the power of social norms and their understanding of how cultures are created in shared environments to make their classrooms welcoming spaces that encourage participation. Group projects can be designed to reduce social loafing and diffusion of responsibility. And knowledge of how different personality types may emerge differently in the classroom can help instructors bring out the openness and conscientiousness in students. In this way, teaching becomes an exercise in reinforcing and applying foundational research from personality and social psychology, thereby strengthening graduate students’ grasp of these concepts and allowing trainees to witness these topics in action. (For additional examples, see Smith 2005 or Hammer 2005.)

Additionally, the belief that teaching merely takes time away from research overlooks the many ways teaching can strengthen research programs. “Sometimes teaching is treated as if it will always involve a trade off with or detract from research. But in my experience, I’ve found that teaching and research can productively go hand in hand,” says Dr. Lauren Howe, Postdoctoral Scholar in the University of Zurich’s Department of Business Administration. Investing in training graduate students in pedagogy can improve their research in direct and indirect ways.

Directly, skills acquired through pedagogical training are beneficial for research. As scientists, personality and social psychologists must also be good communicators, often translating complex research methods and theories for a wide range of audiences, including undergraduates, academic peers, conference attendees, and the general public. According to Manke, “Knowing how to teach and how to present information clearly and concisely is integral to teaching, but also to other pursuits. My biggest asset on the job market was being able to teach people my research, because clear presentations and teaching translate across all levels of knowledge.” Additionally, teaching requires the ability to help others reach learning goals and skill mastery. These skills are essential for running a research lab and mentoring graduate students as a faculty member. As Hard describes it, “The more you know how to strengthen other people, the stronger you become.”

Indirectly, when graduate students are given the skills to teach effectively, teaching can be a source of joy and inspiration during graduate school. In the midst of graduate programs, as personality and social psychology students are working to run studies, analyze data, and write papers, teaching can be an opportunity to reconnect with the aspects of psychology that drew them to the field in the first place: “I was the most energized about my research after spending time sharing insights from psychology in the classroom. Seeing students get excited about the field reminded me of why I love it and helped me persevere through some of the tougher moments of grad school,” said Howe.

Teaching is a chance to once more zoom out to the big picture, which can help balance the minutia of designing and running research studies. And, unlike research, teaching is a place where effort can be immediately rewarded: the work of designing a great lecture or section can manifest over days or weeks, rather than months or years. Furthermore, undergraduates who are new to psychology can provide fresh eyes. Students’ comments and questions can help researchers see their studies in new ways, or provide inspiration for future work.

To fully invest in future personality and social psychologists, graduate programs should devote resources for pedagogical training. Hard suggests that programs looking to strengthen their pedagogical training can look to exemplars for how to do so, such as Dr. Melissa Beers, who runs the Introduction to Psychology and Introduction to Social Psychology at The Ohio State University, or Stanford University’s Psychology One program. And future personality and social psychologists currently looking to improve their pedagogical training may wish to attend the Society for the Teaching of Psychology preconference at #SPSP2020 in New Orleans this February. Perhaps most importantly, however, is that we as a field recognize that pedagogy is not secondary to research. Instead, teaching is a vital part of what it means to be a personality and social psychologist. When we value teaching both for how it can improve research and for its own sake, we can then apply insights from the field to improving pedagogical training for future personality and social psychologists.


SPSP has resources available, including textbook recommendations, sample syllabi, PowerPoint lectures, class demonstrations, and assignments, to assist members preparing to teach psychology courses:  spsp.org/resources/teaching