This summer I read a terrific book on teaching and learning. The book, entitled Teaching With Your Mouth Shut by the late Professor Donald Finkel of Evergreen State College, was an absorbing read. Finkel, a skilled writer, draws on the writing of Dewey, Piaget, and Rousseau to argue that students learn best through experiences that put them in direct contact with ideas and concepts. He does not criticize any particular method of teaching, though he is wary of an exclusive lecture approach. The chapters of the book include titles like "Let the Books Do the Talking," "Let the Students Do the Talking," and "Let Us Inquire Together." The book rests on the assumption that, as Dewey once said, "no thought, no idea, can possibly be conveyed as an idea from one person to another." Thus, the classroom (and beyond) becomes an environment where the teacher's task is to let activities and assignments do the talking. In other words, you, the students, learn best by direct experience, not by someone telling you about something.
As I read Finkel's book, I could not help but think about Psi Chi and the role it can play in your learning and personal development. It would be natural to add a chapter to Finkel's book called "Let Psi Chi Do the Talking." Psi Chi activities and opportunities are, I believe, at the heart of your growth and development, while your faculty advisor keeps his or her mouth shut. As you know, learning does not happen just within the walls of the classroom. You learn a lot when teachers are nowhere in sight, though hopefully your faculty play an important role in initiating and facilitating the process. Think about your own experiences as a student. Haven't some of your "aha" experiences, moments of intellectual connection, or personal development come when your teachers were not around?
Let me suggest five ways in which Psi Chi provides great opportunities for you to learn while we, your teachers and faculty advisors, keep our mouths shut. Of course, Psi Chi is not the only avenue for you to gain these experiences, but your Psi Chi chapter is certainly a good place to start.
First, Psi Chi underscores the value of an empirical approach to psychological knowledge. As a Psi Chi member, you understand that the subject matter of our discipline, even the most slippery constructs, can be studied scientifically. Because of Psi Chi's emphasis on science, it is no accident that the organization provides many opportunities to support your research activities. If you have not done so in a while, go to the Psi Chi website at www.psichi.org. At the site, you will read about research award and research grant opportunities for Psi Chi students. Eye on Psi Chi also has a wealth of information on these research opportunities. In addition, the Psi Chi Journal of Undergraduate Research is a publication outlet for undergraduate research projects. There is no better way for you to learn about the science of psychology than by doing it! Read this magazine carefully and take advantage of all the opportunities you read about.
Second, Psi Chi teaches leadership skills and supports professional growth. Last spring, at the 2001 Eastern Psychological Association meeting in Washington, D.C., I had the privilege of sitting in on a presentation by the Lehman College, City University of New York Chapter advised by Dr. Vincent Prohaska. The Lehman Chapter was the 2000-01 recipient of the Cousin's National Chapter Award. The energy and enthusiasm coming from the Lehman officers, who presented about chapter vitality, inspired me. These officers unmistakably exhibited the leadership skills necessary to run an organization. They had vision for their chapter, they planned and executed activities, they tweaked these activities to make them better, they raised money and spent money for students, they invited speakers, and they worked together to make it all happen. This type of experience is invaluable and will pay dividends in their careers and personal lives after they graduate. If you are a chapter officer, you know that you cannot make things happen on your own—you need other members to help! If you are a member and have not yet contributed to chapter functions, it is never too late to get started. You can begin next week! As you work for the benefit of your chapter, keep in mind that you will be learning skills that will last a lifetime.
Third, Psi Chi emphasizes teamwork and the value of group accomplishment. This aspect of Psi Chi is related to leadership, but it expands the idea to capture the group's synergy. Psi Chi officers create an environment for action, but ultimately the officers must step out of the way as the chapter's events unfold. Kelly Voss is the current Psi Chi chapter president at my institution. She is energetic and intelligent, and I am very enthusiastic about the year ahead with her at the helm. However, Kelly knows that, as president, she cannot do everything herself. Ultimately, the synergistic teamwork of officers and students is what leads to the accomplishments of the chapter. You do not learn these lessons by reading about them in books. You learn them by participating in the experiences of the group.
Fourth, Psi Chi teaches the importance of planning and preparation. If you have been a college student for a few years, then you have undoubtedly discovered that the best lessons are sometimes learned, if not from outright failures, then from less-than-perfect outcomes. I will never forget one of our Psi Chi members who attended a local psychology conference and presented his research in poster format. This student, let's call him Bob (not his real name), was bright and capable, a psychologist in the making. At the conference, Bob methodically put up his poster, and a few moments later, just before the start of the poster session, another faculty member and I walked by to take a look. Looking with a sense of satisfaction at the poster, we all had the same realization at about the same time: there was no Method section! We all looked at each other and started to laugh. There it was in all its empirical glory, a poster with an Introduction, Results, and Discussion section, but no Method. I think we all learned something from this situation, and the story has become part of the folklore in our department. "Don't forget the Method!" we tell students in preparation for poster sessions. Bob went on to earn his PhD in clinical psychology from an excellent program and is now Dr. Bob. But please note that Bob learned this lesson outside the classroom while participating in an important academic event.
Finally, Psi Chi teaches the value of effort and perseverance. Sometimes the things that mean the most to us are those that initially elude us. Over the years, I have seen students work extremely hard to become eligible for membership in Psi Chi. The goal of membership served as an impetus for their academic achievement. I hope I have communicated to these students how much I admire their effort. Some students have worked for several years to bring their GPAs up and have been inducted during their last semester in school. Truthfully, though, the greatest gain in this context is not their membership in Psi Chi. It is experiencing the value of sustained effort to reach a desired goal. Twenty years from now, I imagine they will forget the details of our Psi Chi chapter, its activities, and its members. However, they will not forget their accomplishment and the effort that led to it.
Psi Chi presents a number of opportunities for faculty to teach with their mouths shut and for you, the students, to learn outside the classroom (while your faculty advisor may be nowhere in sight). I am indebted to Professor Finkel for this excellent idea. With 402,000+ Psi Chi members and 990 chapters, the organization has nurtured many students over the years, and the future of our fine organization looks very bright! Psi Chi provides an ever-expanding (check the website!) range of opportunities for you to develop as students and budding professionals. Psi Chi weaves together the scientific and the professional, the individual and the group, the local and the national, the classroom and the department. In these contexts, your faculty advisors can keep their mouths shut and watch you grow both professionally and personally.
Finkel, D. L. (2000). Teaching with your mouth shut. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Note. A version of this article targeted to psychology faculty originally appeared in the monthly column "E-xcellence in Teaching" on the PsychTeacher electronic discussion list distributed to members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (Division Two of APA).