Teacher on a Roll

With a teaching method that is constantly evolving, Professor Mark Costanzo advises, “Because you and your students change, you will never have teaching all figured out. Be open to new techniques and possibilities so that you can adapt to change. Teaching is a skill that needs to be cultivated and modified over time.” This ability to adapt to ever changing times has brought about a surge of distinction in the form of three national teaching and mentoring awards as well as a notable regional honorall within the last five years.
Robert S. Daniel Teaching Excellence Award (National Award, 2012) from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology – In recognition of effective teaching; mentoring of students’ professional development; advancing teaching and learning through scholarship and service; and for training college teachers.
Outstanding Teaching Award (Regional Award, 2011) from the Western Psychological Association (WPA). In recognition of demonstrated leadership and effectiveness in teaching and mentoring of students.
The Award for Outstanding Teaching and Mentoring in Psychology and Law (National Award, 2010) was given from the American Psychology-Law Society in recognition of teaching excellence in a variety of contexts.
The Award for Outstanding Teaching and Mentoring (National Award, 2008) from the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues was given in recognition of outstanding teaching and mentoring of undergraduates in areas related to the psychological study of social issues.
Costanzo earned his doctorate from the University of California, Santa Cruz. His teaching interests include social psychology, research methods, psychology and law, and mediation and dispute resolution. His research explores issues such as social influence, nonverbal behavior, police interrogation, false confessions, and the death penalty.
We had a chance to catch up with him following a presentation he gave at the Western Psychological Association Convention in San Francisco. His presentation, Teaching Psychology through its Applications, talked about engaging students by making explicit links between basic and applied psychological science.
CMC: How was your recent invited presentation in San Francisco at the Western Psychological Association Convention?
Costanzo: It went really well. Well attended and well received. Using my own research in areas such as energy conservation, nonverbal communication, the death penalty, and police interrogations, I showed how basic psychological research can be used to provide fresh insights into social issues. Teaching psychology through its applications can make abstract concepts come alive for students.
CMC: How would you describe your own teaching style?
Costanzo: My approach to teaching emphasizes active learning and creating an intellectually challenging (but supportive) learning environment. In addition to presenting content in psychology, my goal is to help students develop essential skillshow to think critically, how to express ideas clearly, how to work effectively with others, how to collect data, and how to act in ethically responsible ways.
My goal is to create a welcoming, informal atmosphere in my classes. A fun, relaxed atmosphere encourages students to explore new ideas. Learning can be a struggle at times, but most of the time learning should feel like fun. It should be pleasurable to gain insights and achieve mastery.
I try to use the full range of teaching techniques: group discussions, research projects, lectures, films, case studies, and simulations. I would argue that what makes the classroom experience uniquely valuable is face-to-face interaction with a knowledgeable scholar in a give-and-take group environment.
CMC: What motivated you to major in psychology and eventually become a psychology professor?
Costanzo: I tried out several majors before deciding on psychology. After taking courses in nearly every discipline, I realized that most of the interesting problems in the world were either partly or largely psychological. After all, what problem doesn’t involve motivation, perception, thinking, or social influence? I eventually decided to become a professor because I enjoy teaching, research, and writing.
CMC: What have been some of your favorite experiences as a teacher?
Costanzo: Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of teaching is being able to see students learn. Every semester, you can watch some students get excited by ideas. They start to ask interesting questions, their enthusiasm comes out during their presentations, they begin to make comments that demonstrate real insight, and their curiosity spurs them to delve deeply into an area of research.
CMC: If you were advising a group of new teachers, what would you emphasize the most?
Costanzo: I would emphasize that the real job of a teacher is to promote learning. The activity of teaching is a means to the end. If students do not learn, you have failed. Consequently, you need to pay close attention to what and how much your students are learning, and then you need to structure your class to advance that learning. When designing your course, it is also useful to consider what students will remember from your class 10 years from now.
I would also emphasize the importance of developing your own teaching style. Although there are some indispensable commonalities among great teachers (e.g., knowledge of and enthusiasm for one’s discipline), there is no single optimal teaching style. It is a great advantage to have a beautiful speaking voice or a great sense of humor, but whatever strengths you have should be enlisted in the service of teaching. Use your strengths and cultivate useful skills you don’t have yet.
CMC: You described psychology as practical science. Could you elaborate on it a bit more?
Costanzo: Psychology is a practical science because it is relevant to everyday life, controversial social issues, and a variety of settings such as law, medicine, education, and politics. In every context, people selectively perceive the world, rely on memory, feel emotions, make decisions, and attempt to influence others. To be effective, any practical solution to a human problem must be grounded in an understanding of human psychology. In my teaching, I attempt to show how psychological research can be used to provide fresh insights into personal and societal issues.