Teaching Corner

Teaching humans about development: What's change got to do with it?

Instilling students with enthusiasm for an exciting field.

By Katherine Conger

This fall, thousands of students will file into classrooms and sit down to learn about developmental psychology. When you look at the scope of what we cover, namely human development across the lifespan and in multiple contexts, it is a bit daunting to think about introducing this topic to students who are looking for a major, fulfilling a requirement, or simply sitting through what they hope is an easy class because they did not get into what they really wanted! But professors try, each term, to impart their enthusiasm for a topic that captured us when we went to college, attended graduate school and became an academic. Whether you teach an introductory course, an upper division course for interested majors, or teach a graduate seminar, our mission is to get students to absorb some of the information presented in class and to appreciate how we go about studying and understanding humans across domains and across time.

First, you have to provide structure for students, some of whom are negotiating college coursework and their own schedules for the first time. Although it is tempting to start this discussion by waxing poetically about theories of development and philosophies of teaching, I find one of the most useful tools is a detailed syllabus which is handed out and discussed on the first day as well as posted on the course website. My syllabus includes a description of the class, my expectations of them as students, what to read, dates for exams, details about class communication, university holidays, and so forth; the more detail, the better. I have found over the years that the syllabus serves as scaffolding for students and for teaching assistants who are usually only a few years older than the students in your class. From a developmental perspective, it is useful to keep in mind that undergraduate students are making the transition from adolescence to early adulthood, and providing structure and limited choices can be a good thing. Once this structure is in place, students can concentrate on the information regarding development that is the focus of the course.

In addition to providing structure, of course, teachers have to provide content. And this content needs to come in forms that students can take in and process, which usually requires a professor to juggle multiple roles such as entertainer, educator, and storyteller. When someone asks me what teaching college students is like, I say it is like doing a two hour stand - up routine twice a week with an audience, most of whom would rather be watching a TED talk! This has never been truer than today with students who are wired into social media 24/7 with multiple devices, and some would say short attention spans. Some people do not like the idea of entertainment as part of the educational process, however, before you can educate, you need to get their attention. Gaining the attention of students who want to be there is easy; it is the students sitting in the back with their tablet, smart - phone, or laptop and access to plenty of distractions who you need to reach.

Once we have their attention, how do we as psychologists, sociologists and educators inculcate a developmental perspective on a specific stage of the life span or a particular domain of development? Although written materials such as articles, reviews, and textbooks are useful, the professor is the linchpin in getting students to think from a developmental point of view. This brings me to the role of educator, and teaching from a developmental perspective.

And not just change as a general concept, but change across domains of development such as cognitive, biological, and social - emotional and types of change such as micro - macro, typical - atypical, normative - nonnormative. And as individuals change, the families, social relationships, community and societal contexts in which they are embedded also are changing. When you think about it, it is a lot of ideas and information for students to take in, especially if it is their first exposure to these ideas.

Here is where storytelling comes in – the professor has to make those connections in how they approach presenting materials in class, and how they guide discussions in class. For example, you tell stories or provide examples about how a particular prenatal insult will affect development over the life of an individual from childhood to adulthood. I frequently revise lectures to reflect current events, popular culture, and up-to-date research findings relevant to the course. I believe all of these activities and strategies combine to enhance the educational experience and learning opportunities for students.

Getting students to think about development – applying development to their own lives – is one way to get them engaged in the learning process. Most undergrads are focused on their own journey through development, or just surviving the next round of mid - terms, and one way to get their attention is to make development real – make it personal. To make it personal, I use a combination of topical reading assignments, in - class writing assignments, and directed class discussions to maintain students' interest as well as to promote class participation. There are two primary strategies I use to provoke participation and discussion; questions posed to the class as a whole, and questions posed in a format I call 4 by 4s. First, as a regular part of my lectures, I pose questions related to the day's topic to the whole class, usually 200 students, and then wait for someone to answer. Invariably, someone will break the silence and then a number of students will contribute examples from their life experiences which help to make development real. I start this early in the course so students acclimate to talking in class. Second, I ask students to break into groups of four and I pose four specific questions designed to provoke discussion. I call this activity 4 x 4s.

One part of storytelling includes occasional stories about my own development as a family member (first-born sister with two younger brothers), and as an academic (degrees in human development and sociology). Thus, I conclude with bit of storytelling about my journey towards a developmental perspective. My undergraduate training in human development required coursework in biology, chemistry, microbiology, physiology, and genetics along with the typical courses in development across the lifespan. However, it was exposure to Bronfenbrenner's ecological view of the developing individual early in my college career which indelibly altered my view of individual development in multiple, interconnected contexts. As I remind my students; it is nature and nurture! Courses often require that we disaggregate development into specific stages such as middle childhood or adolescence, or into domains such as cognitive, bio - psycho - social, and personality; we forget that students come into developmental psychology and human development classes without the background that we professors have built up over the years. What comes as second nature to many of us may seem like a foreign language to undergraduates. But this also offers great opportunities to make the study of humans from conception to death - or sperm to worm if you want to get their attention - a learning experience for students and for ourselves. My teaching and my research draws on both human development and sociology, and I feel context is an integral part of understanding, and teaching, development. As humans we play many roles, live in multiple environments, and have to negotiate the intersection of competing demands on our attention and our time. Students who take our classes because they want to, as opposed to have to, are the ones who seem to get it; that development happens. They are the ones with questions, who come to office hours, who participate in class; it is exciting to observe them developing as young adults before our very eyes.