Like many college faculty, my first teaching experience was in graduate school. I was woefully unprepared to teach but blissfully ignorant of that fact. I had sat through three informal meetings on how to teach given by fellow graduate students who had taught a few times. I figured my 180 minutes of training had prepared me pretty well to teach my own course. The first course I taught was an evening introductory psychology course that met once per week for almost three hours. I was the second youngest person in the room, and I spent the entire time lecturing. I enjoyed teaching, and my evaluations were (surprisingly, in retrospect) positive. My teaching career had begun.
I went through a course of development that I believe is typical for most teachers. My two main goals in my first year of teaching were to avoid looking like an idiot and to make sure my fly was zipped. During my second year, I tried to decipher my hastily scribbled lecture notes (pre-PowerPoint times), which I had written out the previous year. My third time teaching, however, I began reflecting on my courses and thinking about how to improve my presentations. Although I enjoyed teaching greatly, I knew that I was still not the kind of teacher I wanted to be.
Early in my career, I had teaching experiences that taught me important lessons about how students learn. I call these experiences teachable moments about teaching. Sometimes they were mistakes I made, and sometimes they were successes, but in all cases the outcomes were different from what I was expecting. These teachable moments had a big impact on my development as a teacher, and I still reflect on them often. I think every faculty member has them, and it is important to share them. After all, the best mistakes to learn from are someone else’s, but when we make mistakes, we should share them in turn.
Here are some of my key teachable moments and what I learned from them.
In general psychology, I used to offer review sessions with practice exams (pre-LMS times). The idea was to provide formative assessment for students to identify their areas of weak understanding. The sessions were always lively and well attended. I created the practice exams from old exams, and sometimes there would be questions on topics not covered in the current class. When this first happened, I figured I would just explain the oversight when the students noticed that the questions didn’t belong. To my surprise and chagrin, only a few students (all of them top students) noticed these questions. The rest simply guessed at answers over material they had never been taught. I realized that most students were treating the practice exam as a guessing game, not a diagnostic tool. Often, they read the question and then looked up the answer without really trying to solve it. Through confirmation bias, they would decide that they could have answered the question correctly. Even when students took the practice exam seriously, they might do miserably on it but still be shocked when they did miserably on the real exam. I learned several lessons from this episode. First, I discovered the importance of metacognition for successful learning (e.g., Ehrlinger & Shain, 2014). The best students had a good understanding of what they did and did not know. They knew when they encountered questions about topics they had not studied. Not so for weaker students. They were overconfident in what they thought they knew. Second, I realized that students often engage in pseudo-study in place of actual study. Students believed that by treating the practice exam as a guessing game, they were actually studying for the exam. Third, it showed me the tenacious denial some students show to feedback that contradicts their beliefs or self-image (Chew, 2012). I stopped giving practice exams. Even though they were popular, they were having no effect or even a negative effect on most students’ learning.
During the pandemic, I returned to using optional practice exams, this time administering them through the LMS. Students could take them twice, and I warned students to study first and take them like actual exams, then use the results to diagnose their level of understanding. Struggling students tended not to take the exams at all. I asked to one such student why she had not taken the practice exam. She said she had taken the first practice exam but done poorly on it and so hadn’t taken any more. She wanted to avoid unpleasant experiences, even if they could help her. Making feedback available to students isn’t enough; we need to instruct them on how to use it.
In my cognitive psychology class, I use a demonstration in which I ask students trivia questions to create the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon. If any student gets tip of the tongue, they raise their hand and report what they can about the answer. The demonstration is always fun. One year, I saw a student several days after the demonstration. She told me how much she had enjoyed it. In talking with her, however, I realized that although she remembered the demonstration in detail, she had no recollection of the concept being demonstrated. It occurred to me that students may remember a fun and striking demonstration without remembering the point of the demonstration. I have also come to realize that demonstrations and activities can easily become too complex to be effective. Students concentrate so much on doing the activity that they have no cognitive resources left available to reflect on and learn the lesson of the activity. Students can successfully complete an activity and learn nothing from it. I’ve learned the importance of both carefully monitoring the cognitive load imposed by an activity and requiring students to reflect on the activity in a way that promotes schema development (Chew & Cerbin, 2020).
When I first started teaching, I strived to come up with clear, precise definitions of concepts. Often, though, I would have several ways of defining a concept that I liked. So, in class, I gave all the definitions, explaining a concept in several different ways. One year I got a comment on my evaluations that read, “Dr. Chew has trouble explaining concepts the first time, but he gets it right at about the third try.” This comment showed me the importance of explaining concepts in multiple, diverse ways and building some redundancy into presentations, because students learn and understand in different ways and at different rates.
Those are three of my teachable moments; I have experienced many more. These moments expanded my understanding of what it means to teach effectively (Chew, 2006; Chew & Cerbin, 2020). Specifically, they showed me the importance of student beliefs, expectations, and practices in learning and how optimizing those variables is a part of effective teaching (Chew, 2014). Teaching is much more than presenting information clearly and accurately; it is creating a learning environment that supports student learning. What are some of your teachable moments and what have you learned from them? There ought to be ways for teachers to regularly share and discuss teachable moments in teaching. It would benefit everyone’s teaching.
One’s development as a teacher is never finished. Like honing research skills, it is a lifetime process. We never feel that any research issue is thoroughly understood, nor do we feel we ever know all the research tools that we need. The same is true for teaching.
Author note: This essay was adapted and updated from Chew (2006).
Chew, S. L. (2006). Teaching as a problem in applied psychology.In W. Buskist et al. (Eds.), The teaching of psychology in autobiography: Perspectives from exemplary psychology teachers (Vol. 2, pp. 10–16). Society for the Teaching of Psychology. http://www.teachpsych.org/ebooks/tia2006/index.php
Chew. S. L. (2012). Challenging core student beliefs and values during teaching. In R. E. Landrum & M. A. McCarthy (Eds.), Teaching ethically: Addressing the ethical challenges facing undergraduate teachers of psychology (pp. 117–127). American Psychological Association.
Chew, S. L. (2014). Helping students to get the most out of studying. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.), Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum (pp. 215–223). Society for the Teaching of Psychology. http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php
Chew, S. L., & Cerbin, W.J. (2020). The cognitive challenges of effective teaching. The Journal of Economic Education, 52(1), 17–40. https://www.doi.org/10.1080/00220485.2020.1845266
Ehrlinger, J., & E. A. Shain. (2014). How accuracy in students’ self-perceptions relates to success in learning. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, and C. M. Hakala (Eds.), Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum (pp.142–151). Society for the Teaching of Psychology. http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php
Stephen L. Chew, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Samford University. Trained as a cognitive psychologist, he endeavors to translate cognitive research into forms that are useful for teachers and students. He is the recipient of multiple awards for his teaching and research. Author contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.