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The Professor's Guide to Teaching: Psychological Principles and Practices

Donelson R. Forsyth
American Psychological Association
408 pages
ISBN: 1-55798-960-5
$39.95 (paper)

Reviewed by

Janet L. Kottke

Department of Psychology
CSU San Bernardino


"Contrary to what Don may believe, he is not God's gift to psychology" (p. vii).
--From a student's evaluation of the author early in his teaching career.

Forsyth's start in teaching, as the student's comment makes clear, was anything but easy. Many of us had a reality shock in our first teaching jobs when we left the safe, secure confines of our doctorate programs where research was the currency of value. As Forsyth and we discovered, our cozy doctoral programs hadn't adequately prepared us for the teaching we would need to do to succeed in a teaching institution such as the CSU. Fortunately, Forsyth was motivated to become a good teacher, despite the very negative feedback he received initially. The Professor's Guide to Teaching represents the lessons that Forsyth learned the hard way, and more.

The Professor's Guide to Teaching: Psychological Principles and Practices contains, in a nutshell, a crash course in preparing for and teaching a college course in psychology. Forsyth's plan for the book is to help both the experienced and novice instructor. The author assumes the reader is a psychologist, or at least familiar with the discipline's approach to theory and research. After reading the book, I agree with the author that this text will be most useful for psychologists who teach. The technical language or "psycho-babble," however, is not burdensome, and academics from other disciplines can benefit from reading this book as well. The author does not assume readers already know the psychological research he cites to support cogent points, and his use of tables of basic information is exhaustive.

The book unfolds along a sensible path from preparing to teach a college course to evaluating the outcomes. The chapters each have short "doing" headings (e.g., Prepping, Lecturing, Guiding, Testing). Chapter-by-chapter summaries do not typically make for the best book reviews, but because of the natural progression of the content, the following brief chapter overviews are useful in showing the value of the book.

In Chapter 1, which focuses on the planning stages, the author describes in detail the issues--posed here as questions--that must be confronted and resolved: What are the goals for the course? Do you have a sufficient command of the subject matter for the course? What is the size of the class? What kinds of students are enrolled in the course? What text will you use? Should you use readings? What kind of assessments? How should you handle the first day of class? The author provides thoughtful responses and, where available, research support to answer these questions. Even old hands will find inspiration or, barring new insights, reminders of things forgotten.

In the chapter "Lecturing," the author persuasively argues that the overriding objective is not the style to be chosen but the ability to communicate with the student audience. Therefore, Forsyth focuses on the kinds of behaviors that are effective in communicating--enthusiasm, clarity, and rapport building, to name a key few. He does not neglect the need to be knowledgeable about the topic or to organize the material for a lecture. And he reminds us not to forget to use humor, examples, and stories to leaven the lecture. Finally, the good lecturer gets to know the characteristics of his audience (learning styles, readiness to learn) so the message of the lecture is received.

Guiding or developing students in a format other than lecturing is the subject of the third chapter, the centerpiece of which is how to stage and manage classroom discussions. Lest the reader believe that discussion is the perfect solution to engaging students, Forsyth cautions there will be an inevitable backlash to extensive use of classroom discussion. Students like discussions at first, but if they are tested on content not addressed in discussion, and if there are outspoken participants who dominate the discussion, students ultimately object, even rebel. Also in this chapter, the author describes the use of activities, projects, field placements, and writing assignments. The benefits of using these methods rather than lecturing are significant: higher-order thinking, better comprehension of the current issues in the field, and greater student responsibility for his or her learning.

Next, the author tackles that all-time "groaner" for faculty and students alike: testing. Planning for the test is half the work, we find. Identifying the objectives, specifying the learning domain via Bloom's taxonomy (1956), and determining the type of items to use--these are the issues that need to be addressed before a single test item is constructed. Forsyth does a credible job of covering the psychometric basics of reliability, validity, and item statistics to evaluate tests. Not only does he give excellent tips for constructing multiple-choice items, but also he advises how best to use and evaluate essay items.

After tests come grades. Grades are well recognized as summaries of student performance. But how to grade? Forsyth compares criterion- and norm-referenced schemes for grading individual course elements (e.g., tests, papers) as well as the final class distribution. Grades, of course, are insufficient feedback about performance for students. About one half of the chapter is devoted to providing feedback to students about their performance and helping students prepare for assessments (e.g., how to take notes).

There are two themes in Chapter 6, "Managing." The first is protecting against cheating. The second is managing the classroom environment. For the first, Forsyth frames the discussion by referring to the relevant norms of college conduct. He gives an exhaustive list of ways in which students may cheat and then prescriptions for how best to prevent cheating-mostly by creating a climate of integrity and high expectations. He reminds readers that modeling integrity is a professor's responsibility. To that end, the teaching professor should be cognizant of relevant codes of ethics that may apply. Because the book is written by a teaching psychologist, Forsyth emphasizes the relevant elements of the American Psychological Association's "Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct" (APA, 2002). The second theme--managing the classroom environment, conflict, and diversity--focuses on setting norms for respectful attention and participation by students.

Chapter 7, "Innovating," overviews the myriad of technological aids the college teacher has available. As we know, technology can be used well, and it can be used very poorly. The author first provides a sampling of the technology available: multimedia, electronic documents, instructional computer software, the World Wide Web, email, distance learning, and digital databases. He then evaluates these aids, detailing the benefits relative to the costs (e.g., time for startup) to get wired. Finally he gives quick advice about how to get started with technology in the classroom.

Professors are among the most evaluated of employees, with perhaps the most controversial evaluations coming from students. In Chapter 8, "Evaluating," Forsyth gives a balanced view of student evaluations, covering their validity (yes, there is evidence for their validity) and typical use. He also offers guidance on how faculty can maximize the value of the officially sanctioned student evaluations and how faculty may wish to take advantage of other means to collect feedback from students. In either case, the goal is to improve instruction. In the final chapter, Forsyth makes a case for each professor documenting his or her teaching in a portfolio. Why? Because developing a portfolio requires a faculty member to self-assess, to reflect, and possibly even to improve. The development of a portfolio-Forsyth labels it the eruditio vita-also gives the faculty member an opportunity to articulate his or her mission, unique strengths, and style and approach to instruction, and most dramatically to answer the question "Who am I as a teacher?"

The book lives up to Forsyth's stated objectives of relying on existing theory and research to offer specific recommendations for teaching. Forsyth has provided an excellent overview of what psychologists know so far about the instructor's impact on student learning. That is, the book isn't just the advice of a wizened veteran of the classroom but a palatable compendium of the current, relevant research about teaching at the college level. Though the book targets teaching psychologists, I recommend it for any college instructor willing to evaluate his or her role in providing quality instruction.


American Psychological Association. (2002). Ethical principles of psychologists and codes of conduct. American Psychologist, 75 (12), 1060-1073. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ethics/code2002.html

Bloom, B. S. (Ed.). (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals: Handbook I, Cognitive Domain. New York: Longmans, Green.

Posted May 13, 2004

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2004 by Janet L. Kottke.

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