Teaching Tips: William Hoyer's Words of Wisdom

Insight from William Hoyer, PhD, as he prepares for retirement after over 40 years in the field of adulthood and aging.

By Joseph Mikels

As William Hoyer, PhD, professor of psychology at Syracuse University, prepares for retirement after over 40 years in the field of adulthood and aging as a scholar, researcher, teacher, and textbook author, we invited him to share his wisdom with us. In this edition of Teaching Tips, Joseph Mikels conducted an interview with Bill regarding his experiences and thoughts about textbook writing and teaching in the field of adult development and aging.

How did you become interested in writing a textbook for courses in the area of adult development and aging?

My interest was teaching-driven, i.e., to describe and explain the main principles and key findings in our field in ways that would interest and be useful to undergraduates. I first became interested in trying to write a text in this area a long time ago — soon after arriving at Syracuse University in 1972 as a newly minted assistant professor. One of my teaching assignments was the large section of the adult development and aging course, about 80 students every semester. Honestly, I was quite unprepared to knowledgeably cover the full breadth of content for the course, even though I touted in the job search process having both research and teaching expertise in this area. I had previously taught sections of Introductory Psychology and Life-span Development (supervised by Warner Schaie) while a graduate student at West Virginia University.

Then, as now, it would not be possible or wise for a new, non-tenured PhD to single-handedly take on the preparation of a textbook in a broad and fast-evolving area such as aging. So, Margaret Huyck, then fresh from her training with Bernice Neugarten and others in the Committee on Human Development at the University of Chicago, and I teamed up to co-author Adult Development and Aging, published in 1982. Margaret Huyck was most familiar with the work on adult personality and generations, whereas I was most familiar with topics in cognitive and neurobiological aging. Together we worked hard to integrate our disparate interests, the available material, and our different writing styles. The feedback and comments at the time were largely favorable in regard to balance and comprehensiveness of coverage.

The decade of the 1970s was an interesting time for the field. Could you tell me a little about your view of the historical context and your graduate training?

I had completed my PhD at West Virginia University in 1972. I still think I was very lucky to have been a graduate student and new assistant professor in the early 1970s, and especially to have had the experience of a remarkable cohort of peer colleagues and the extraordinary mentorship and support of Paul Baltes and Warner Schaie. Looking back, it seems that the research outlets welcomed, maybe even begged for, the expansion of developmental psychology toward a more grounded and inclusive life-span science. I think the decade of the 1970s was formative for life-span psychology and adult development and aging. The journal doors seemed to be open, and there was clearly much work to do that could potentially advance theory, research, teaching, and application in the emergent field of adult development and aging. Developmental Psychology, largely child-centered then, was ripe for exploring the usefulness of expanded frameworks for thinking deeply about the nature of human development, but the data and findings were scant. In the United States, programs and centers at USC, Washington University at St. Louis, University of Chicago, West Virginia University, Georgia Tech, Penn State, Duke, Wayne State, Michigan and Syracuse University, to name a few, seemed to be the hot spots for new research and for innovative training in the study of human development. Of course, well before then, the life-span approach had roots and impact in Europe, especially Germany.

Can you comment on how the core coverage associated with the field has changed over the years?

Needless to say, there have been tremendous changes since the 1970s. One of the challenges has been and continues to be to understand and refine what holds the field together theoretically and conceptually, or core-wise, and to update accordingly the science and applications that create value for the field. The aging course and the texts for it that are in use today bear only slight resemblance to the 1982-ish context. The course continues to be a very popular one at SU and at many colleges nationally and internationally, but the bases for student interests in the field vary widely within the course and probably across campuses. To try to characterize the course in an inclusive way, I've come to the view that the aging course can serve three goals for students. First, some students are drawn to the personal growth implications of the material. That is, what can or should I do (or not do) to live a healthier, longer life? Second, some students use or apply the course content for professional or career preparation. About 30% of the students at SU who take the aging course are preparing for or considering a career that involves working directly with older adults or in settings that serve an older population (e.g., social work, nursing, nutrition, counseling, health administration). Third, some students are drawn to the science and academic aspects. These students are intrigued by fundamental questions about what aging is the aging of. Some are psychology majors considering graduate school in developmental, social, cognitive or clinical psychology or in an area in health science. I think my naïve goal is still to encourage as many students as possible to pursue research or applied careers in aging.

Since the Huyck and Hoyer (1982) text, I've co-authored six editions of Adult Development & Aging News with wonderful colleagues, John Rybash and Paul Roodin. In the sixth edition published in 2009, Paul Roodin and I aimed to include the best material we could find related to the overarching themes of personal or self-development, practical applications and basic science foundations.

The great news is that the topic of aging has grown and strengthened in terms of its significance for its parent field, psychological science, and for other interdisciplinary fields and professions including medicine and public health. The field of adult development and aging no longer has to justify itself merely as an extension of child development. Instead, teaching-wise and research-wise, it seems to me that the current and future status of our field has to do with the scientific and practical benefits that accrue from understanding the outcomes of the interactions among aspects of personality, cognition, culture, health and biology across time during the adult years and in late life. So, I think what holds our field together now are the scientific and practical benefits that come from understanding developmental phenomena across multiple, interactive dimensions (e.g., memory, cumulative stress and bio-genetic factors).

What in your opinion are some of the hot topics to be covered in a text or course in adult development and aging today?

This is a hard question to address because there are so many new and remarkable discoveries that have implications for the understanding of aging. Work that re-shapes thinking seems to be occurring at an unprecedented rate for many of the phenomena that comprise aging. For example, at a basic level, new work in epigenetics makes clear how environmental effects interact with genetic mechanisms to produce unique developmental outcomes. Even students who seem hard to reach in the classroom are struck by findings that demonstrate that genes can be turned on or turned off by particular environmental exposures and stressful contexts and that such epigenetic actions have consequences for unique, individual development. This work spells out a mechanism for the usefulness of the bio-cultural constructivism model.

Another hot research area that has broad implications for individual development through life is health behavior. Again, even hard to enthuse students in the classroom seem to appreciate the importance of work demonstrating the extent to which behavioral actions determine in large part the individual's health-span and life-span. We discuss in class the actual causes of the leading causes of morbidity in terms of health behavior. That is, heart disease and cancer are leading causes of morbidity and mortality in the United States and in the world, and un-healthy behavioral choices such as smoking, poor diet, and sedentary and stressful lifestyles are known to be actual causes of these "leading causes."

A third example is that matters related to cultural contexts and racial-ethnic diversity warrant coverage in a new light and not only as a chapter or section on descriptive demographics. Consideration of socio-cultural and racial-ethnic factors goes hand-in-hand with coverage of mental health, physical health, social networks, work and other topics. For example, research showing the reliable negative effects of stresses associated with racial inequality on mortality and morbidity indices often captures the attention of hard to enthuse students.

So, you have been teaching the aging course at Syracuse University for over 40 years. Can you mention particular pedagogic or organizational strategies that you have found effective for the course?

Let me mention two. One is that I begin every class by distributing a one-page "quiz" that has 5-10 questions about main points and specific findings to be covered in that class meeting. Students answer the questions during the class meeting. These pages are collected at the end of class, and I use them for attendance-taking, for gathering specific feedback about the effectiveness of coverage, and for actively engaging the students in the material as we cover it. Students' answers (and their doodles) are not graded and do not contribute to course grading.

Another device is that I distribute review questions 1-2 weeks before each of 5 unit tests. Students have the option of turning in answers to these review questions at the review class meeting before the test. These are graded and can add as much as 10 points to the student's unit test score. Most students opt to turn in answers to the review questions. Students say they actually enjoy the challenge of hunting down specific answers to specific questions in preparation for the test. I make sure that there is a close correspondence between the review questions and test coverage.

I carve the course into these five units

  1. Developmental theory, demographics and cultural and biological bases.
  2. Adaptation, mental health, physical heath, Alzheimer's and other diseases.
  3. Cognition, memory, senses, wisdom.
  4. Relationships (within and between generations), social networks and work.
  5. Life-span and health-span revisited, dying and death.

Note that having 5 tests and the two course structure devices I mentioned (turning in attendance quizzes and answers to review questions) exploit the idea that students learn best by testing. I show the students David Myers' YouTube link on how to make things memorable.

Do you plan to write another book for this course or come out with another edition of Hoyer and Roodin (2009)?

Paul Roodin and I have decided to not prepare a seventh edition. Part of our decision has to do with the fact that the book publishing business is in transition. The market for printed books in second-level or third-level courses in psychology is shrinking and no longer strongly supported by the leading publishers. Generally, printed texts are quite costly for students, and the texts go out of date quickly.

So, what do you see as the future for texts in our field?

It would be useful to have John Cavanaugh, Warner Schaie and Sherry Willis, Sue Whitbourne, and other text authors comment on this topic. To my knowledge, there have been no new editions of adult development and aging texts in the past 2 years or so, probably because of the marketing. I do not currently require a text for my course because the available texts are too dated and seem too costly for students. I assign key article readings and use sets of summary data tables, figures and examples that I've developed that I post to the course website.

For instructors to develop entirely their own content and materials for class meetings and course coverage is an extraordinary burden and a relatively unwise use of time and effort, especially for new (non-tenured) instructors. One alternative, that might be feasible market-wise, and useful for instructors, would be an e-published primer of sorts that concisely organizes main themes and principles by core topics that characterize the field, and that presents just some essential findings. Instructors could with that in the students' hands build on these overall themes and principles with additional selected findings and examples. I would like to know if instructors would find such a primer to be an aid. Just an idea. Also, Julie Boron's excellent suggestions (see Adult Development & Aging News, volume 40, issue 2, Summer 2012) about including electronic materials and more active course-sharing and material-sharing are valuable ones for instructors in our field.