Learning through teaching

The Department of Psychology’s Kristin Shutts finds creative ways to connect with her students.


For Kristin Shutts, teaching is a real learning experience. At the end of every large lecture, the professor of psychology asks students to turn in response cards. She wants to know what was interesting and what was a little less so. What do they want to know more about? What questions do they have? This is knowledge only her students can provide. Shutts, winner of a 2019 William H. Kiekhofer Distinguished Teaching Award, has figured out how to establish strong connections with students, no matter the class size.

Shutts: I started collecting response cards because I thought it would be a good way to learn what students didn’t understand from my lectures. But what turned out to be the more interesting result, and what started changing my teaching, was that students tended to use the cards to say what they were most interested in and what they wanted to know more about. That’s something as an instructor that can be hard to gauge. To have real feedback every lecture about which things actually spoke to students is incredibly valuable.

I know how meaningful it can be to get to know a faculty member who cares about what you’re interested in and what your goals are. It’s important to have someone who is willing to put the time in to understand where you’ve been and where you’re going.

I went to Simon’s Rock College in western Massachusetts. There were just a few hundred undergraduate students. Class sizes were very small. We called professors by their first names and sat with them at lunch. That had a huge influence on how I thought about teaching and what connections between students and teachers could look like. The challenge — or you could think of it as an opportunity — is how to do that in larger classes.

My first class teaching was as a teaching assistant for introduction to psychology. I wrote out every- thing I wanted to say and said it in a very short period of time. I ended by saying, ‘I’m sure that was pretty clear. There are no questions, right?’ And I just left. It can be scary in that space, asking if people have questions, letting students move a class forward. What if they have questions and you don’t have the answers? What if the discussion goes in a direction you aren’t prepared for it to go? At the time, it seemed better to just leave before anything could go wrong.

I’ve learned to just admit to students when I don’t know something. I wouldn’t have been able to do that as a young teacher. It takes practice and figuring out how to have humility and admit you’re trying something out. I’ve also learned to be reflective. I take notes after class about what went well and what didn’t go so well and if I have ideas at the time about what I could do next time.

Most of the time students are very generous and forgiving in the classroom. If you are open about your goals and intentions, they can appreciate you’re trying to do something that, for them, is new, and that came from a thoughtful place. They’ll go on that journey with you. As an instructor, you just have to give up on that idea that it’s always going to be perfect.