I sit in my office on a drizzly Wednesday afternoon and listen to a supervisee describe a patient whose panic disorder is so severe that she has become housebound. Later, I work with other supervisees on cases ranging from the frightening (uncontrollable anger) to the heart-breaking (severe depression) to the bizarre (an irresistible compulsion to stand on manhole covers).
These are extraordinary cases, not only because of the symptoms described, but because they are based on carefully researched role plays, not on real patients. My supervisees are not graduate students. Instead, they are undergraduates in my clinical psychology course who, before the semester begins, study an autobiography of a person with a psychological disorder. Throughout the term, they meet weekly with another student, taking turns acting out the roles of patient and therapist, and applying empirically supported techniques learned in my class.
This is the world of inquiry-based learning, a truly transformative experience for both professor and student. I believe, for example, that therapeutic practice must be data-driven and supported by demonstrated progress toward clearly defined goals. An appreciation of this approach is best learned early, and research shows that learning it well is a complex process that requires "getting your hands dirty."
Still, my energies as a professor are not focused simply on students doing psychology. My goal-always-is to push active learning beyond mere repetition of lessons typically "fit" for undergraduates. Students must be pressed to discover new knowledge. For this, I challenge my students to investigate multifaceted, real-world puzzles, and in so doing, they become scholars and collaborators.
In my courses, students design and conduct experiments, participate in small group debates, and share new ideas with the broader academic community. For example, in community psychology, students work in teams to systematically investigate a problem they have identified on campus. They survey peers, interview professionals, write literature reviews and then design an intervention they later present to the campus community. A number of these projects have contributed to changes on campus. I recently received an e-mail from a graduate who wrote, "I heard there is now a 10-year plan to completely redo the student center. It's pretty much our community psych project coming to life, which makes me very excited."
Beyond the classroom, incorporating students in the design and dissemination of novel empirical research is central to my mission as an educator. Especially at a small liberal arts college, the distinction between teaching and research is blurred, and incorporating undergraduates into faculty research becomes an essential part of their education. I co-created the behavioral health and social psychology research lab in which three-person teams engage in every aspect of the research process, evolving from novices into accomplished researchers. Several of my students have gone directly to doctoral programs in psychology after graduation, but equally important, others apply their experiences as research practitioners, statisticians and educators.
I am deeply rewarded in watching my students do the extraordinary, from treating simulated patients to presenting research data. I believe psychology, like a foreign language, is best learned by immersion. Each day of my professional life is filled with new challenges, new knowledge and ongoing attempts to inspire my students to tackle complex problems by rolling up their sleeves and immersing themselves in the process of learning.
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