Learning to Teach

As an entering psychology graduate student at the University of Michigan in 1965, I was fortunate to get financial support as a “teaching fellow.” Some teaching fellows at Michigan served as assistants to faculty, but many of us were assigned several sections of Introductory Psychology to teach on our own. And by “on our own” I mean we were assigned a text book and supplementary readings and turned loose in a room full of undergraduate students expecting an excellent education.

I doubt that any of us had any formal training in how to teach. We had all grown up in an educational system focused on assigned reading, lectures, and occasional discussion groups. And tests: Usually mid-terms and finals, and sometimes pop quizzes. That’s the classroom we were familiar with as students, and that’s the classroom that we offered to our students. At first. Michigan was, after all, a place that fostered individual thought and experimentation.

By the second semester, the incoming teaching fellows had formed a few clusters of like-minded souls to discuss our common problems. The most pressing problem at that time was how to assign grades. The Viet Nam war was raging and many of the male students were in school with deferments that would go away if they had to drop out.

Michigan students and faculty were united in strongly opposing the war, so we really didn’t want to provide the Army with more bodies. Some TAs decided to eliminate all tests and give an “A” to each student that showed up for class. Others felt that we needed some way to ensure that we were actually increasing students’ knowledge of the subject matter. Most of us stuck with the “tried and true” methods we were used to, although with some degree of dissatisfaction.

The debate over grading gradually led to discussions of teaching techniques that went beyond lectures, and assessment methods that didn’t involve T-F, multiple choice, or short essays. After a couple of years of meandering thoughts, one of our discussion group members found a system that I have found extremely satisfying: The Personalized System of Instruction (PSI), developed by Fred S. Keller while teaching at the University of Brasilia in 1964.

Keller maintained that a typical “C” student retained about half of the material presented in the class, but didn’t have any idea about which half he (this was the 60’s, after all) knew correctly. Wouldn’t it be better if a “C” student knew precisely which half of the course content he had mastered? With this reasoning the PSI was born.

Keller established five elements of PSI:

  1. Instruction should be based on written materials.
  2. Subject matter should be divided into units of manageable size.
  3. Students advance through the course material at their own pace.
  4. Students must demonstrate mastery over each unit before proceeding to the next unit.
  5. “Proctors” with course knowledge determine when students have achieved mastery.

There is lots of room for variation within this system. For example, written materials could be supplemented with lectures, demonstrations, or discussions. Mastery might be established using written quizzes, oral exams, or verbal summaries of the material. In addition to the instructor, Teaching Assistants or students who have demonstrated a high level of understanding could also be proctors. What stays the same is that students’ grades are determined by how many course units they have mastered.

Have you ever been in a situation where you were faced with a specific need, and wished that there existed a tool that addressed that need? That’s how I felt when I discovered PSI. It’s a great tool that I used for a variety of courses I taught. Curiously, I never had any students stop half way through a course with a guaranteed “C.”

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About Jesse

My name is Jesse Blatt. My first name is actually “Ramon,” but I haven’t used that name, except for official purposes, since 1970. I have a high school diploma and a PhD…nothing in between. I’ll get around to explaining that in a post sometime. From time to time I will be posting true stories from my past, though not in any special order. I’ve been fortunate to have had a dozen or so different careers, most of them very satisfying, some fairly frustrating, and none that I wish had never happened. In my many former lives, I have been a mail clerk, radio and TV engineer, radio announcer, electronics engineer, college instructor, psychologist, research consultant, Federal employee, supervisor of research professionals, computer programmer, web designer, instructional designer, construction site handyman, and carpenter, not necessarily in that order.
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