Melanie Doyle

Teaching in the Discipline, Writing in the Discipline: The Evolution of New Approaches to Teaching Psychology

A colleague in another department once described the first few years of teaching at Dawson as ‘Trial by Fire.’  Often, we didn’t know till the last minute, what, or even if, we were teaching, sometimes only finding out the day before the course began. This meant we were only a week ahead of our students in planning and content. This was very true for me too. I began teaching as a very teacher-centered traditional lecturer; as a subject matter expert, it’s what I knew. However, once we get our feet under us, we start reflecting on what it means to ‘teach;’ if we are actually teaching students, and if we are doing it well.

I began researching how to teach psychology well, and what makes for the best learner. Enter WID.  I wanted students to learn content, but on what level? Why? And what would they do with it? How I think about teaching in psychology has moved beyond content – WID has helped shift my teaching philosophy to the bigger picture outside my classroom. Through WID, I learned strategies and techniques that I could incorporate into my courses to challenge students to be more involved/active/connected with psychology content on many levels. Not just from a theoretical perspective, but from a personal one as well. In addition, I learned more about how writing helps students learn and consolidate information in a more meaningful way.  In what follows, I explain a couple of examples of changes in the design of assessments and learning activities that have had a significant impact in my courses.

We hope that our course content and assessments will engage students in a rich and stimulating manner. So I have found a strategy like John Bean’s “RAFT” heuristic (Bean, 98, 2011) has been most useful in designing engaging writing assignments and exam questions for Human Development in Nursing & Social Service.  RAFT is an approach to assignment design where students learn to consider various rhetorical perspectives as they develop their thinking and writing:

  • Role of the Writer: Who are you as the writer, and what are your specific purposes?
  • Audience: What is the real world audience for whom are you writing? What are their needs, concerns, potential biases?
  • Format: In what disciplinary format or genre are you writing?
  • Task: What is the authentic problem are you writing about, and how can you best introduce and address it?

For my General Psychology course, I ask students to explain sexism by adopting the point of view of behaviourist John B. Watson.  Or I ask them to apply the Atkinson and Shiffrin memory model in a way that moves them past remembering content to understanding and applying it in communicating with real audiences, on real-world issues that affect them.

For in-class learning activities, I have found changing the traditional ‘think-pair-share’ to a ‘write-pair share’ has dramatically increased the quality of class discussions by having students write for 10 minutes before the ‘pairing.’ In addition, the depth of understanding and connections between concepts and disciplines becomes immediately evident once the larger class convenes. Allowing more time to write provides structure and opportunity to make connections that would otherwise be lost.  This also entails periodically asking student to reflect in writing on the value of what they are learning, past the course, grade and semester.  I prompt them to consider how what they are learning might help them to be engaged and contributing members of society.

In sum, the more students write, the more skillful their thinking and writing becomes!


Bean, John C.  Engaging Ideas:  The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom.  2nd edition.  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass, 2011.

Last Modified: April 30, 2019