One can sometimes hear that academic teaching has lost one of its original aims: enabling a fundamental understanding of how the world works (see, for example, Alain de Button’s book the consolations of philosophy). The rationale is that academic teaching is too specific, complex, and artificial, with the result that students cannot transfer learned contents into personal or practical insights. Or, put differently, it becomes more difficult to cultivate something formerly called “wisdom” (for an interesting post on wisdom, see the following article). Despite the obvious benefits of investigating specific phenomena in academic research, I agree with the aforementioned and rather embrace the idea of teaching mechanisms that are of a general nature. And by understanding general processes we can, of course, also better analyze questions that are specific.
By applying theories of communication science and psychology we can investigate a large number of phenomena that are relevant both from a personal and from a practical perspective. For example, why do people use certain media (e.g., Theory of Planned Behavior)? How can media contribute to fulfilled lives (e.g., Self-Determination Theory)? Do video games make people more aggressive (e.g., General Aggression Model)? The primary aim of my teaching is to enable students to answer such questions by using their own words—and not because they can simply reproduce memorized knowledge, but because they have understood the underlying theoretical concepts.
Four aspects appear to be particularly important for achieving this aim: intrinsic motivation, a positive and reinforcing learning atmosphere, repetition, and interaction. First of all, I try to create the intrinsic motivation to learn something new. Or as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry famously put it:
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
As illustration, I would not start a course on quantitative statistics with the mathematical details of a t-test—instead, I would rather let students brainstorm which scientific question they are curious to solve. For example, does drinking coffee help answer cognitive tests? Moreover, in order to raise intrinsic motivation, I try to implement several options to chose from whenever possible.
Second, I aim to create a positive learning atmosphere. In my view, this can be best realized by reinforcing positive behaviors and efforts, rather than by scolding failures. Learning can be fun, it might deepen social relationships, or can inspire to start something new. At the same time, I aim to foster individual responsibility by setting explicit minimum requirements my students are expected to meet.
Third, I believe that an understanding of complex theoretical ideas can be best supported through repetition. Oftentimes, students can recognize prior contents of teaching, but they cannot freely recall it. In order to create knowledge that is more profound, I advocate routinely repeating both basic and complex ideas by, for example, rereading introductory texts, having refresher sessions, or simply making short oral excursions.
Finally, I consider it important to use various interactive teaching methods. Above all, I encourage students to articulate their own thoughts. To this end, I ask many questions and encourage open classroom discussions. Moreover, I aim to use creative methods to convey ideas. During my time as a high school student, my history teacher once simulated the work of historians by making us inspect the school’s garbage cans—a great method to illustrate the theoretical concept of historical inferences. In order to be able to engage with the subject matter, some students might prefer to talk, others to read, some to play, and others to listen. As a result, I think that over the course of one semester, good teaching should involve multimodal methods.
People whose way of teaching I admire include, for example, Alain de Botton, John and Hank Green, or Tim Urban. In academic contexts, I especially look up to the teaching methods used by Noam Chomsky, Brian Nosek, Paul Watzlawick, or Daniel Kahnemann.
Content and courses
In terms of theoretical foci, I personally consider the following theories to be particularly important: theory of planned behavior, self-determination theory, social cognitive theory, the hyperpersonal model, and the general aggression model. In my teaching, I am therefore trying to continually refer to these theories.
In terms of methodological foci, I for example encourage students to use the statistical software R, or help conduct advanced statistical analyses such as structural equation modeling. At the same time, I also pursue the goal that students fully understand the basics of statistics, such as the difference between correlation and causation, the logic of scientific experiments, or the exact rationale behind the p-value.
I often hear academics complain about students or fret about teaching obligations. Although teaching can be challenging, I would still like to disagree. Teaching can be a rewarding experience and it can help to improve one’s own research. To illustrate this, I learned several valuable things about YouTube phenomena by supervising a respective bachelor thesis (e.g., self-disclosure on YouTube is positively related to number of views). It is my personal conviction that the overall quality of a course depends more on the contribution of the teacher than that of the students. Reflecting on my own experience as a student, I often realize that several specific attitudes and motivations of mine have been coined by teachers, for which I am thankful. In turn, I hope to inspire at least one or another of my students in a similar way.