Teaching and Technology

John F. Kihlstrom


Invited presentation to the Academic Senate,
University of California, Berkeley
April 23, 2013


Note: See also "How Students Learn -- and How We Can Help Them", presentation to the GSI Teaching and Resource Center, University of California Berkeley. Link to written version.

I thank Chris Maslach and Andrea Green Rush for their invitation to present to the Academic Senate on the use of technology in pedagogy, but I wonder if they haven’t made a mistake!  I’m a stand-up lecturer of the old school.  The Socratic dialog has its place, but for my money, at least in the sciences (including the social sciences),  a thoughtfully prepared and decently delivered lecture, accompanied by comprehensive textbook, is the most efficient means for imparting knowledge to students, so they can start thinking for themselves. 

I have been teaching the introductory psychology course, with and without discussion sections, since 1980 (beginning at the University of Wisconsin, and everywhere else I’ve been since then).  It is my favorite course, not least because it keeps me connected to the whole of psychology.  I teach it as a liberal-arts course, aimed at least as much at non-majors as to majors, assuming that (1) this may be the only psychology course that nonmajors take; and (2) prospective majors should be adequately prepared for mid-level survey courses in the various subfields of psychology.  The emphasis of the course is on basic concepts and principles.  It is organized more or less historically, with an emphasis on cognitive and personality-social psychology.

Still, I’ve found bSpace (now re-invented as bCourses) to be very useful in my teaching, and I’m now engaged in mounting our introductory psychology course online for the systemwide UC Online Education project, so maybe some of my experience will be of use after all.

First, a word about online courses.  Not for everyone, and not for every course, but I do think online courses have their proper place on the instructional scheme of things.  It certainly expands access.  On campus, we teach Psych 1 once per semester, in a room that holds 735 students, but the exigencies of GSI staffing mean that we actually deliver the course to far fewer students than that – about 525 per semester this past year.  Most students come to college intending to take Intro Psych, which means that the course generates a rather long waiting list.  With online instruction, it ought to be possible for all students who want to take the course to do so.  As with most survey courses, the content changes slowly from year to year, creating a real pedagogical advantage – which is that the instructor can spend less time delivering lectures, and more time actually engaged with students individually and in small groups. 

I now teach Psych 1 exclusively online, but the course is not a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), nor is it intended to be.  This online version of Psych 1 was initiated by the UCB Extension Division, which wanted to offer a version of the course online during the Summer Session (SS).  That course was launched in 2010.  Subsequently, the UC Office of the President (UCOP) took an interest in offering a series of popular lower-division courses systemwide, as well as to non-matriculated students (NMSs) who, for whatever reason, wished to take courses for official UC credit through what became UC Online Education (UCOE).  However, this online course is not intended as a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) – not least because, at least for now (May 2013), I’m a MOOC skeptic.

Put bluntly, Psych W1 is not intended to be either massive or open.  It is primarily intended to increase access to the introductory course for matriculated students.  Virtually every freshman comes to college intending to take an introductory psychology course.  On the other hand, given present resources (i.e., interested tenure-track faculty, GSI availability, and classroom size), we are only able to offer the course to about 1,200 students per year.  If Psych W1 can play a role in UCB’s program of outreach beyond the campus (as it currently does through such vehicles as webcasting and iTunes University), that will be an extra benefit.

I'm willing to make arguments for online instruction, if not for MOOCs, but I suspect that most faculty here are not going to teach online anytime soon, so let me turn to bSpace, which I have found to be an excellent platform.  Here’s the bSpace website for my current course on “Scientific Approaches to Consciousness”. 


When I first started teaching I scrawled on a chalkboard.  Then I graduated to 2x2 slides (skipping the whiteboard stage), then overhead transparencies, and now PowerPoint – which, if I have to, I can revise up to a minute before class begins.  More important, I can use bSpace to deliver my illustrations to students in advance of lectures, so that they are able to preview them, and also use the printouts to take notes in class.  The best learning strategy available is known as PQ4R – and the “P” stands for “Preview” (the others are “Query”, “Read”, “Recite”, “Reflect”, and “Review” – to which I add a 5th R: “Repeat”).


I have also prepared Lecture Supplements that go far beyond what I can do in a couple of 50-minute lectures per week, going further into the various topics in breadth and depth.  Aside from intro, I teach courses where there aren’t good textbooks, so these supplements constitute a kind of alternative, somewhat idiosyncratic text for the students to refer to.


There’s an essay describing how I construct and grade exams, review materials, and all past exams in the course, along with answers and explanations – partly to diminish the advantage given to those with access to fraternity and sorority test files, but mostly as a study aid.  We psychologists never tire of saying that  “testing is for learning” (although that doesn’t mean that we don’t hate exam-grading as much as everyone else does!).


I also webcast my courses.  Webcasting does cut down a little on attendance at lectures, but not as much as you'd think.  But my lectures tend to fly low, and webcasting allows students a second shot at lecture material.  Moreover, the webcasts are available on the web, permitting the course to reach beyond the borders of the campus. 



Most important, there are the Discussion Forums – some for collecting writing assignments and giving feedback on them, others functioning really as a forum where students can post queries and comments about course material, and get a response from me, or one of the GSIs, in short order (we check the Queries and Comments board daily).  Some students won’t raise their hands in class, and sometimes there isn’t time to call on everyone.  But through the Discussion forums, every student can have contact with the course instructor to get his or her interests addressed, and this exchange can also be shared with the entire class, for their benefit as well.

Circling back to online education: At least as far as survey courses go, lectures don’t change much from year to year, because they focus on basic concepts and principles.  In principle, recording lectures in advance, and having students view them on their own time, would allow us to spend more class time in actual discussion – maybe in those Socratic dialogues we wish we could do more of.

This page last modified 04/25/2013.