Teaching Portfolio


Peter C. Brunjes


Department of Psychology

University of Virginia

May 1997



Table of Contents


1.    Teaching Philosophy

2.    Teaching Responsibilities

3.    Teaching Style

4.    Teaching Strengths

5.     Organizational Strategies

6.    Documentation of Teaching Effectiveness


1. Teaching Philosophy. I enjoy teaching.  Of course one reason is that it allows me to help other people; to open the eyes of students to novel ways of understanding life and the human condition.  But there are selfish reasons as well.  When I graduated from college I mourned the fact that it appeared that the days were over where I could surround myself with interesting people and discuss important topics and theories.  Graduate school remedied that situation, and teaching is what does it for me now.  I think that even a casual perusal of my vitae would indicate that I could fit in well in a purely research-oriented department.  I chose not to follow this route simply because I would miss the broader and more conceptual sorts of exercises found in teaching.  It is important for any scholar to periodically reassess what he/she knows, to reformulate hypotheses, to re-examine theories and sacred cows.  Teaching does exactly this.  It helps me to stay intellectually active.


I teach a large number of classes at many different levels (See Section 2). The diversity necessitates many styles and approaches.  However, several common themes emerge. One is that I want my students to come to appreciate the fascinating complexities of the brain. The goal of the science of Psychology is to understand behavior. Since behavior is produced as a result of activity in the nervous system, we will need to understand the brain to thoroughly understand ourselves.


Second, I want students to appreciate the scientific approach to understanding life. I try to get my classes to see that scientists are merely people who ask questions of the physical world, not formidable, complex and God-like aliens.  I want students to see how experimental questions are formulated, and how one can tell good experiments from bad.  Furthermore, they should be taught how data can be interpreted, and what constitutes scientific or intellectual fraud. Students should appreciate how working at the frontier of science can be both exciting (discovery) and painstaking. Finally, they should consider how science interacts with society, the responsibilities of scientists and the reciprocal duties of the general public to be informed.


These goals are relatively easy when working with individual students in the lab where there is access to tools and equipment.  In high-level seminars it is more complicated, but can still be accomplished through the critical reading of current literature.  It is more complex in large lecture classes where demonstrations are difficult, individuals are reluctant to express themselves, and the level of discourse must remain at an introductory level.  However, it is not impossible. Active learning techniques can help to involve students. Lectures can be made more interesting through the use of intriguing examples, brief experiments and engaging visual displays. Information can be kept up-to-date through the constant perusal of the literature. Science can be humanized by constantly pointing out mistakes, serendipitous findings, fads in sciences, etc.


I take my teaching activities quite seriously, and feel that I make a substantial contribution through them. This feeling is based almost entirely on intangible evidence and the personal interactions that I have had with my students. While objective evidence does support my claim, the real rewards occur in the classroom, when one watches the looks of discovery in a student’s eyes, or feels the excitement as a class discussion becomes heated.  I am committed to being a better teacher as a means to stimulate both my thinking and that of my students. I am also committed to making my students become active learners, responsible for their own instruction and work. I believe that the only real way to come to understand a subject matter is to participate in learning it. This view has caused me to seriously revise my teaching style over the past 4-5 years.


2. Teaching Responsibilities

A.   During my tenure at the University of Virginia I have taught PSYC 220 (Introduction to Psychobiology) approximately thirty times.  The class now enrolls between 250-300 students/semester.   Much of my college career was spent in even larger classes, so I have never found the large numbers intimidating.   It is an introductory level class with no pre-requisites. In it we examine the structure and function of the brain, and then use this information to examine what is known about how the brain controls human behavior. As mentioned above, the purpose of the class is to demonstrate to students that if we are truly going to understand behavior (the goal of Psychology), then we will need to understand how the brain works. Nearly equal numbers of first to third years students and a smaller number of fourth years populate it.  About a third of the students are psychology majors, a third biology majors, and the rest are mixed from many different schools and majors.  Many students are premeds. While the class does satisfy a requirement for psychology majors, it is not mandatory.


Class evaluation. As the size of the class has increased I have made two changes. First, the tests have gone from mixed sets of fill-in the blanks, matching, short answer. etc, to machine-graded multiple choice tests.  This is the quite unfortunate consequence of the large number of students.  I would like to incorporate discussion sections, which would allow better assessment techniques, but have not been able to secure the resources for the needed TAs.  Second, students have requested that I give more exams during the course of a term, so that each covers a smaller segment of the class (Of course, they now point out that the exams are too detailed). As of now, I give quarterly in class exams and a comprehensive final. Students are required to take any four of these tests, or they may take all five and we will automatically drop their lowest scores.


B.   I have taught two sections of PSYC 220H, a small honors seminar at the same level as the large lecture class.  This class enrolls 20 students with the aim to have 10 first- and 10 second- years.  It is filled primarily with Echols Scholars, members of Virginia's elite Honors College.  The class is basically what the large section should be: small, interactive, with weekly labs, lots of relevant new outside readings, and 3-4 opportunities/semester for students to make small presentations. The students are a professor's dream: bright, inquisitive, motivated, interested and interesting.  These have been my absolutely best teaching experiences.  The students, through their own motivation and through the frequent labs and demonstrations, are much more involved in learning the information.  It is much easier to adjust the pace to correspond with their learning styles and abilities as the feedback is almost constant. It is apparent that the students come to appreciate both the approach and the subject matter. Many have continued to take other courses in the psychobiology curriculum, all the way through doing senior honors theses, independent research, etc. For a while I used this as a personal index of the success of my teaching. However, I now realize that it is just as important that future lawyers, diplomats, English teachers and parents appreciate the topics under investigation.


C.   PSYC 531 (Functional Neuroanatomy) is designed to give undergraduate students with over 10 credits in psychobiology as well as first and second year graduate students a fairly intensive look at mammalian brain organization. Typically it has between 10-20 participants. It has been a lecture course for years.  Anatomy is a pretty cut and dried thing, something either exists or it doesn't, so I was happy with this approach for a long time.  I appreciated the fact that the topic isn't exactly riveting, so I would try to lighten the course up with interesting anecdotes, student presentations of research topics, etc.


However, I have had major doubts about the efficiency of this teaching method. It is satisfying in that it gives an overview of the entire nervous system and does it in a rigorous way, but it produces a barrage of information that the students simply need to commit to memory. These memories seldom last long. The last semester I taught the course (Spring 95) I decided to employ the active learning techniques I have learned through workshops hosted by the TRC. I changed to a textbook that did not examine the whole nervous system, but intensively examine 10-15 regions from structural, chemical and physiological perspectives (Shepherd's The Synaptic Organization of the Brain). I spent hours trying to distill the most important concepts in each chapter into a series of questions and definitions. I would then randomly assign students to small groups and ask them to work on the answers.  Groups would then meet to share their to share their conclusions at the end of each class.  It worked better (students were more alert, seemed to enjoy the challenges and start to be able to put the ideas together), although I had a hard time keeping everyone's energy level up (many people tended to let just a few do all the work). Some complained that they would rather hear me talk about the regions and their function than discuss it with people that had little clue. I will revise my techniques the next time through, and will probably add more diversity to the weekly work and hopefully some more hands-on demonstrations.


D.   I have taught a class on behavioral development in animals and humans approximately 10 times. The class (PSYC 521 Developmental Psychobiology) is taken by upper division undergraduates and by graduate students from a very diverse set of backgrounds including people interested in child psychology all the way to others working on molecular aspects of neural development. The class has gone through a number of permutations.   My standard approach has been to lecture on several topics that I consider to be interesting and essential during the first part of the semester, and then to allow students to present in-depth seminars on a topic of their choice for the remainder.  They would also typically be subjected to several written exercises, perhaps a few book reports, etc.  I did this for several reasons. First, no textbook was available, so this was an easy way to cover the basic topics and then to tailor the remainder to the interests of the students. Second, I always enjoyed the opportunity of being encouraged to seriously examine a subject I found interesting, and I hoped that this would be true for at least the bulk of the students.


Several new textbooks have become available in the last few years, so the last two times the course was offered I tried them out. In both I used a strategy similar to that described for PSYC 531: active learning methods with small groups where we went through the chapters and gleaned the important and interesting information. In one class we examined each chapter in class and then students were asked to peruse the primary literature to find more recent articles. This strategy helped to bring our knowledge up-to-date and also got students comfortable with primary sources. We spent a lot of time analyzing the quality of the science they read. The second class (Spring 96) was focused on scrutinizing the ideas and form of a broad and theoretical text.  Once again, the point of the work was to analyze the ideas: where they came from, what they implied, if they held any predictive value, how or if they could be verified, etc. Unfortunately, both texts were flawed, so we will be employing some new strategies in the future.


E.   I have taught a number of small seminars that have only been offered once. These "experimental classes" include a recent foray into "Comparative Neuroanatomy" and ones where we take a single topic and try to look at it in depth over the course of the semester, for example a class entitled “The Cerebral Cortex ". Each class has been organized to involve a lot of student participation.  Readings or topics are assigned to individuals or small groups who then teach the class as a whole. Often the focus of the class changes during the course of the semester depending on what topics have been deemed to be more interesting or important than others. These classes are almost entirely based on the primary literature. As mentioned in section 1 above, it is important for students to see real science, to critically evaluate it and see how conclusions are drawn from experimental work


F.     During my first five years at UVa I taught a number of other lower level undergraduate courses including "Introduction to Animal Behavior" (PSYC 221) and the Laboratory in Psychobiology (PSYC 321). Others have picked up these courses as the Psychobiology faculty has expanded.


G.   As a member of the Graduate Program in Neuroscience, I have been involved in teaching in a number of the core courses in the first and second year curriculum.  Most of these classes are team-taught.  I have given many lectures in the Neuroanatomy class and have helped coordinate and teach Developmental Neurobiology  (NESC 715).


H.   Research-related teaching

Much of my teaching occurs on a one-to one basis in my laboratory. I have had a number of postdoctorals, graduate students and undergraduates working in my lab over the years. I thoroughly enjoy the "hands-on" approach that this allows, actually showing surgical techniques, looking through the microscope, dealing with computer problems, etc.  I have had undergrads finish 2-3 excellent and published research papers before moving on to Medical or Graduate school. I also run a weekly lab meeting where we all get together and discuss both our research and recent papers in a journal-club style format. It is here where it is easiest to show students the process of science. Students can immerse themselves in projects, feel the frustration with problems and satisfaction of success, and view the entire process from the formulation of a question to the writing of the final reports.


3. Teaching Style

The following general points can be made about my approach to teaching

A.   As mentioned in Section 1, one way to understand the human condition is to recognize that we are living animals, and to explore life at that level. In my classes, I try to show students that life is a physical process, and that approaching it from such a standpoint can yield useful perspectives. There are many ways to appreciate our existence: history can help us understand our mistakes and perhaps avoid them, and can suggest to us from where our biases emerge, poetry can help us formulate visions of beauty, religion can prompt us into asking questions about higher ideals. However, if we are to truly appreciate ourselves, we have also to realize that we are bags of water teeming with chemicals, calcium channels, bones and muscle. Understanding the physical aspects of human existence is as important as any other perspective.


B.   I try to be entertaining to keep the student's interest. I tend towards using self-deprecating humor, since I figure (sometimes wrongly) that it can't offend too many people.


C.   I foster an informal atmosphere, and seek or demand that students ask questions. People learn well when they are relaxed and engaged with the issues.


D.   I try to use a lot of practical examples, to increase the interest level and to help kids through their lives. In my classes you might learn why you see "floaters" when you look up into the blue sky, why your ears pop when you drive up Afton Mountain, why people with heart problems are often prescribed diuretics, what a stroke or a glioma is, etc… There are at least two reasons for such an approach. First, it lets the students see the relevance of the information.  Science is not something done by men in white coats in far away ivory towers. It is something done by normal people who simply ask questions about common, day-to-day events and their control.  Second, it helps the students own the knowledge; they can see with their own ears and eyes what the concepts mean for them.


E.   I try desperately to get across the excitement of science. It is relevant, it is important.  I want my student to see how, for example, someone can get excited enough about something like vision to decide to devote their life to it.  It is not important that students decide to follow a similar course, but it is important for them to see why the topics are intrinsically interesting.


F.    I hope to impart at least a small body of real facts and terms so that the concept of the brain is not so formidable. Students should leave the class with enough terminology understood that they can recognize the important ideas in general books and magazines and be able to think about them critically. While I don't expect them all to "speak neuroscience" after only one semester, I do want them to know the core concepts.


G.   I hesitantly subscribe to the theory that you can only expect students to remember 10% of what you teach over the long run…so I tend to try to teach a lot so that the 10% contains most of the important information.


4. Teaching Strengths

A.   I am an active, heavily funded scientist involved in state-of-the-art research, so I am capable of teaching students the most relevant and recent scientific theory.  The best way to teach science is to be intimately involved in it. The resulting personal expertise and experience yields an invaluable perspective.


B.   I am a read-a-holic, constantly looking for interesting articles and ideas to incorporate into my lectures and classes. The reading fuels both my research program and my teaching, as I am constantly exposed to new ideas, techniques and points of view.


C.   I am capable of getting people to relax and ask questions or discuss ideas in class


5.Organizational strategies.

I use many different approaches depending of the size and focus of the class. One common theme is that I try to remain as accessible as possible for discussion, direction etc. I even try to make my large lecture class accessible.  I have a home page for the class (http://cti.itc.virginia.edu/cgi-local/pmcgi/pm/class), and I have established Usenet newsgroups in which questions can be answered and issues can be explored (uva.psych.psyc220).  I am in the process of archiving all of the slides I use during the semester and putting them on the web (http://cti.itc.virginia.edu/~psyc220) so that students can access them at home. For study purposes, all of the exams ever given in the class are available through the university's electronic reserves (http://www.lib.virginia.edu/reserve). This site contains hundreds of pages of old exams.


6.Documentation of teaching effectiveness.


While I consider the personal student comments I have received the best indicator of my effectiveness, I have received a number of formal awards for my teaching. In 1990 I received both the Runner-Up, for the SCHEV Teacher of the Year and the UVa Outstanding Faculty Award.  I spent a year (1994-1995) as a Mentor for Dr. Robert Sellers when he was a Lillie Teaching Fellow. This year was quite important to me as it introduced me to the Teaching Resources Center at UVa, to the formal study of college teaching, and to the wealth of resources available to help people become better teachers.  I have availed myself of these opportunities ever since. I have been consistently mentioned as a good teacher in the yearly rankings of the Echols scholars. I am also mentioned almost annually in the Dean of Students annual exit interviews with graduating fourth year students. Finally, I have received reasonable rankings in the student evaluations made at the end of each semester by the Department of Psychology