Grant Benham

Teaching

 

Courses Taught

Introductory (General) Psychology
Physiological Psychology
Stress Management
Developmental Psychology: Lifespan
Mind-Body Interactions
Health Psychology
Statistics
Research Design (Graduate)
Research Methods (Undergraduate)
Advanced Research Seminar

 

Teaching/Mentoring Awards

2015 UTPA Excellence in Online Teaching Award
2015 UTPA College of Social & Behavioral Sciences Award for Mentoring

 

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

Teaching began for me, as I’m sure it did for many, with a primary focus on imparting information to students without making a fool of myself in the process. I relied on well-structured lecture presentations and an ineffectual “Any questions?” approach to soliciting student involvement. To the benefit of both students and myself, my teaching philosophy and methods have evolved considerably since then. While I consider teaching to be a lifelong learning experience, my current philosophy toward teaching can be briefly summarized in the lessons learned below.

Students need to feel connected to the material that is being presented. This seems obvious, but sometimes one has to think creatively about how to make material relevant. Thankfully, most textbooks today look for ways to connect material with contemporary events and use case studies to provide a human connection to what are often rather dry theories. I believe it is important to build upon this; to make sure students see the ideas as relevant to their own lives and those around them. When discussing the use of lobotomies in the history of mental illness, I play students a short NPR audio clip in which a lobotomy patient talks first-hand about his memories of having been taken to have a lobotomy at the age of 12. In an instant, the distant and abstract notion of a lobotomy is made very real and students are more readily able to accept that today’s approaches to mental illness are just the latest juncture along a timeline of mental illness treatment.

Learning is best achieved in classes where students feel that they are active participants in the process. I am an advocate for active learning; for finding ways for students to be participants in the classroom experience, rather than passive receptacles for the material that I present. My biggest personal hurdle in fully adopting this approach was the concern that I wouldn’t be able to cover enough material in the time allotted. There is no doubt that spending time discussing specific issues, having students involved in group activities to address a question, etc., reduces the quantity of material that can be covered in the classroom. I have had to accept that not all material will be covered in class and develop ways to compensate. When students can be effectively encouraged to read course material outside of class, the focus of class becomes a time to discuss and expand on those readings and a foundation is created on which active learning can be effectively integrated. I have participated in a number of intensive workshops on cooperative learning and active learning and have increasingly designed my courses around this approach. Part of any given class will involve my presenting information, but this will be peppered with activities in which students work in small groups to answer questions about assigned readings or engage in class-wide discussion.

Students benefit from being exposed to diversity of opinion, even if there is a danger that discussions will get “heated”. One of the benefits of creating a classroom of active participants is that it tends to be easier to get students to share their personal opinions. I don’t shy away from topics that are controversial. As one example, I have asked students what age children should be prescribed medication for ADHD. There are students who see drugs as a miracle cure that should be given out as soon as possible and others who see the drugs as a form of child abuse. Students are no longer interested in “will this be on the exam”; they are engaged in a complex debate fueled by science, pharmaceutical marketing, cultural/historical milieu, clinical opinion, and personal bias. When a mother reveals her own personal battle with the decision to put her child on medication, we are no longer simply dealing with the empirical question about “what are the physiological effects of Ritalin”. Whether or not such discussions ultimately translate into exam questions, these are educational experiences that students remember well beyond the classroom.

Instructional technologies can enhance a course, but new technologies are not always the best option. I like to keep abreast of new instructional technologies and have successfully integrated some technologies into my classroom. I use WebCT/Blackboard for most of my courses, sometimes simply as a repository for articles, sometimes as a more central part of the course (e.g., as a medium for submitting papers or taking open-textbook exams). I have been successfully using student response pads (“clickers”) in a number of my classes. The clickers provide a useful tool for students to take quizzes, answer anonymous survey questions (a great tool for stimulating discussions) and for checking, on-the-fly, general understanding of concepts that we cover. I was hesitant to introduce the technology, because of the added cost to students, but student feedback has been consistently positive. More recently, I have used Tegrity software to make classroom audio and synchronized PowerPoint slides available online. Although some professors have expressed concern that this technology will result in students not turning up to class, I have found that it only helps to increase active participation during class; students have time to think about what is being discussed rather than worrying about copying every statement down. I have mixed feelings about teaching wholly online. I have no doubt that it is becoming widely accepted, even demanded, and I have created a "Quality Matters" certified online version of my Physiological Psychology course. However, I still feel that online courses miss some of the subtleties found with face-to-face interaction in the physical classroom. I am also not convinced that sites such as Second Life, in which teachers and students are represented through individual avatars, can provide a solution to that weakness. I remain open to exploring distance learning and new instructional technologies, but cautious in simply adopting the newest technological contrivance unless it provides some meaningful benefit.

Being an active researcher is not antagonistic to being a dedicated teacher. While research can place added demands on one’s available time, students gain from seeing faculty actively engaged in the field; it brings the information to life. I have individually mentored numerous undergraduate students through practical research experiences, either via involvement in my own research studies or via independent student research projects. The students have had the opportunity to be involved in all aspects of research; including literature review, study design, IRB approval, recruitment and administration, data entry, data analysis, and write-up. Students are frequently authors on conference presentations, both at the regional and national level.

Teaching extends beyond the classroom and is a two-way street. In addition to advising individual students about academic issues and career goals, I have had the privilege to serve the past 12 years as faculty advisor for two psychology student organizations at my university: the Psychology Club and Psi Chi. We have held “Getting into Graduate School” workshops, had information sessions with psychology graduates who are now employed in the workforce, held fundraisers, and participated in both regional and national research conferences. I was honored to receive the 2010 UTPA Faculty Advisor of the Year award for my work with Psi Chi. I’ve learned a lot from my students; being genuinely interested in their experiences and their struggles is an important part of being a good teacher. Over twenty years has passed since I was last an undergraduate student. Being connected to students allows me to better tailor course material to their life experiences and also informs my research ideas and questions. One of my most recent studies has integrated questions about the use of online social media sites and texting; something only my students are intimately familiar with. With a student population that is almost 90% Hispanic, I have also learned a great deal about the Hispanic culture from talking with my students; from the folk-medicine practices of Curandismo to the cultural influences on diet, machismo, and familismo.

In summary, I’ve found that my role as a teacher can be best understood as a guide: assisting students in their journey through unfamiliar territory and explaining the meaning or significance of points of interest along the way. Students enter into this journey with different skill sets and, within reason, it is important to design classes that allow every individual, regardless of learning style, the opportunity to flourish. Ultimately, my goal is to foster students’ sense of curiosity and to provide them with the skill sets necessary to successfully venture out on their own.