Instructor Evaluations of Introductory Psychology Teaching Techniques

Lee I. McCann, Baron Perlman, and Tanya L. De Both
University of Wisconsin Oshkosh



We asked experienced introductory psychology instructors to rate the perceived effectiveness of 22 teaching techniques to improve student performance. These teachers rated more in-class examples and activities, writing assignments, emphasizing core concepts in lectures and exams, and providing copies of lecture outlines as most effective. There was no significant correlation between a method's frequency of use and its perceived effect on student learning. Instructors can use perceived effectiveness information to assist in selecting methods to improve their teaching.


Instructor Evaluations of Introductory Psychology Teaching Techniques

Psychology faculty have a well-documented history of efforts to increase student interest and performance, and research on the effect of specific pedagogical techniques is common. Evaluation of such methods has typically compared a traditional class with another taught using a specific technique, usually reporting improved performance for the method in question (e.g., Connor-Greene, 2000; Davis & Hult, 1997, Graham, 1999; Junn, 1995; Radmacher & Latosi-Sawin, 1995). We have found no information on the relative frequencies with which these techniques are used, few comparisons of their effectiveness or perceived effectiveness (e.g., Roberts, Fulton, & Semb, 1988), and no information on the relationship between frequency of use and effectiveness, a correlation that ideally would be strongly positive. Such information should be helpful to instructors who wish to change their teaching to include techniques that might increase student interest, improve exam performance, and/or develop other skills such as writing and critical thinking.

We gathered data from introductory psychology teachers on frequency of use and perceived effectiveness of 22 methods used to improve student performance and studied the relationship between them. We focused on this course because it attracts numerous students, many of them freshmen; is frequently offered; and because the amount and difficulty of its content make poor student performance a common problem.



A total of 79 participants from approximately 400 faculty attending the 1999 National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology (n = 61) and 85 attending the 1999 Mid-America Conference for Teachers of Psychology (n = 18) responded. Only those who had taught introductory psychology for at least the previous 3 years could participate. We do not know if the distribution of respondents' institutional affiliation is the same as that of all conference attendees.


A two-page survey (5 min completion time) listed items based on methods found in the teaching literature (e.g., Davis, 1993; McKeachie, 1999) and the suggestions of several experienced introductory psychology instructors. Questions included type of institution where participants taught, how long they had taught introductory psychology, number of introductory students taught per year, and the extent to which they made changes in their teaching due to prior poor student performance. Participants evaluated any of 22 methods they had used to improve student performance in introductory classes on a 7-point scale (1 = no change or made it worse, 4 = better, 7 = much better). They could also add and evaluate techniques they had tried that we did not list.


Announcements informed conference attendees of the nature of the project and that questionnaires were available at, and could be returned to, conference registration desks. All information was confidential.

Results and Discussion

No one with fewer than 9 years experience teaching introductory psychology participated. We dropped three respondents who taught at high schools and 3 who did not identify their institutional type. Five percent (n = 4) of the remaining 73 respondents taught in Doctorate-granting institutions, 34% (n = 25) Master's, 33% (n = 24) Bachelor's, and 27% (n = 20) two-year colleges. Respondents had taught introductory psychology an average of 13.8 years (SD = 9.5) and were currently teaching an average of 182.5 students per year (SD = 146.3). Participants made teaching changes in part because of poor student performance (M = 4.0, SD = 1.7; 1 = not at all, 4 = partially, 7 = entirely due to poor performance).

Table 1 presents frequency totals and percentages for the 22 methods listed plus two "other" interventions faculty had used, and respondents' mean rating of each method's perceived effectiveness. A Pearson correlation between reported frequencies of use and rated effectiveness was negligible, r(24) = .02, p > .05.

Table 1 Frequency of Reported Techniques and Perceived Effectiveness

of Use



      n (%)      

      M (SD)      

Referred students to campus support services

48 (66)

3.7 (1.6)

Provided material on how to study

39 (53)

4.0 (1.8)

Used more overheads/videos/slides

38 (52)

4.3 (1.5)

Gave quizzes

34 (47)

4.2 (1.9)

Encouraged students to review exams

34 (47)

3.8 (1.9)

Provided material on how to take tests

30 (41)

3.9 (1.8)

Required student attendance

29 (40)

3.9 (2.0)

Provided material on how to read a textbook

29 (40)

3.8 (1.8)

Changed lectures to emphasize core concepts

28 (38)

4.6 (1.6)

Held test reviews

28 (38)

3.5 (1.7)

Used easier textbook

27 (37)

3.4 (1.6)

Changed exams to emphasize core concepts

25 (34)

4.6 (1.7)

Provided material on how to take better notes

24 (33)

3.4 (1.7)

Reduced amount of reading/content/topics

23 (32)

3.1 (1.6)

Put lecture outlines on board before class

21 (29)

3.8 (2.1)

Provided tutors

20 (27)

3.8 (1.6)

Required use of study guide

20 (27)

3.3 (1.4)

Provided copies of lecture outlines

19 (26)

4.4 (2.0)

Used Web to post syllabus/notes

19 (26)

3.2 (1.8)

Lowered grade cutoffs

14 (19)

3.0 (1.6)

Used Web for student discussion

11 (15)

2.5 (1.9)

Used Web for quizzes/sample tests

11 (15)

3.8 (2.3)

More writing assignments/projects/journalinga

9 (12)

4.7 (1.9)

More in-class examples/activities/discussionsa

8 (11)

5.4 (1.8)

a "Other" techniques added by participants

* 1 = no change or made it worse, 4 = better, 7 = much better


1. This article is based on a poster presented at the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology, January, 2000, St. Petersburg, FL.
2. We thank Douglas Bernstein, Chair of the Program Committee for the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology, and Joseph Palladino, Coordinator of the Mid-America Conference for Teachers of Psychology, for permission to collect data from conference participants.
3. Copies of the questionnaire and a table with items in teaching categories are available from L. I. McCann, Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, 800 Algoma, Oshkosh, WI 54901; e-mail:


None of the five highest-rated techniques was among the most frequently used (more in-class examples, activities, discussions; more writing assignments, projects, journaling; changed lectures to emphasize core concepts; changed exams to emphasize core concepts; and provided copies of lecture outlines). Participants rated three of the five most frequently used techniques as successful and two as not (referring students to campus support services, M = 3.7, SD = 1.6, and encouraging students to review exams, M = 3.8, SD = 1.9). Several other methods approached the scale's mid-point. Teachers perceived several other techniques as helping only minimally and no one rated a technique as causing no change or making performance worse.

The near zero correlation between frequency of use and perceived effectiveness indicates instructors are not using the approaches perceived most effective as often as they might. One reason may be that little data exist on the comparative success of these methods. Another is that the most frequently used methods may require less faculty effort, whereas the four changes rated most effective require more, and two require active learning by students. Table 1 contains information that could be especially useful to teachers early in their teaching careers who want to use strategies that faculty perceive to improve the performance of their students in introductory psychology and other courses.

Some of the teaching modifications in introductory psychology evaluated here may seem, at first glance, to make courses less challenging (reducing amount of required reading, adopting less demanding texts). However, instructors may be responding to the burgeoning information in introductory psychology texts by decreasing the number of topics covered to emphasize main points.

We do not know if participants have used or are using specific techniques because they believe they will work better than others, but can assume they may not still use those they rate ineffective. It is probable that a combination of several of these techniques would be rated as more effective than any one in isolation, but we did not evaluate this possibility. Future research also might evaluate such techniques as short writing assignments, group projects, presentations, and examples and illustrations of concepts applied to real-life situations.


      Connor-Greene, P. A. (2000). Making connections: Evaluating the effectiveness of journal writing in enhancing student learning. Teaching of Psychology, 27, 44-46.

      Davis, B. G. (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

      Davis, M., & Hult, R. E. (1997). Effects of writing summaries as a generative learning activity during note taking. Teaching of Psychology, 24, 47-49.

      Graham, R. B. (1999). Unannounced quizzes raise test scores selectively for mid-range students. Teaching of Psychology, 26, 271-273.

      Junn, E. N. (1995). Empowering the marginal student: A skills-based extra-credit assignment. Teaching of Psychology, 22, 189-192.

      McKeachie, W. J. (1999). Teaching tips: Strategies, research and theory for college and university teachers (10th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

      Radmacher, S. A., & Latosi-Sawin, E. (1995). Summary writing: A tool to improve student comprehension and writing in psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 22, 113-115.

      Roberts, M. S., Fulton, M., & Semb, G. (1988). Self-pacing in a personalized psychology course: Letting students set the deadlines. Teaching of Psychology, 15, 89-92.


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