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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2015

The Impact of Casual Remarks
With Peter Giordano, PhD

Bradley Cannon, Psi Chi Writer

Has a professor’s casual remark ever made a significant impact on your life? If so, it is possible that your professor does not even know! That’s what Dr. Peter Giordano has found in his research on critical moments, which are “specific, identifiable moments when a student’s selfconcept changes, or when he or she learns something so important that it is transformative” (Giordano, 2010, p. 5).
Dr. Giordano is a psychology professor at Belmont University (TN). For the past 25 years, he has focused on promoting active learning environments (see sidebar) and other ways to improve student thinking. He also believes that it is important for people to understand what critical moments are so that (a) students will be more likely to let their professors know when they experience a critical moment, and (b) professors can improve their awareness of these moments and potentially increase the number of critical moments they create for students. Today, he takes a few minutes away from his studies to elaborate on five characteristics of critical moments and more.
Critical Moments Are:
Infrequent. According to Dr. Giordano, “We used written narratives in our research, so it is possible that additional memories can be brought out with follow-up questions in a structured interview. However, most of our participants reported only one critical moment that stood out in their lives.” Personally, Dr. Giordano has cited experiencing three personal moments of his own.
Specific. For example, one of Dr. Giordano’s critical moments occurred when he learned from a professor that Koko, a great ape who communicated in American Sign Language, told a lie when asked who broke a sink. Learning that Koko was capable of this level of reasoning caused Dr. Giordano to reconsider himself and his place among other animals. Another time, a professor encouraged him to apply to a graduate program, which inspired him to continue his education. The third moment took place the instant he understood hypothesis testing and p values in an undergraduate statistics course (Giordano, 2004).
Slow to surface. “I think it takes time for these moments to come into focus,” Dr. Giordano explains, “because, initially, these moments are potentially disruptive. They often catch students off-guard or get them thinking in a new direction that they hadn’t thought about before. Then, it just takes a period of time for students to reorder some things in their mind such as their sense of personal identity. Once things settle out, they think, ‘Oh, now I see that what happened at that point was significant.’ ”
Significant. Critical moments are generally related to personal issues with emotional valence as evidenced above. For this reason, people can remember these brief moments many years later and can explain why each moment made such a difference in their lives.
Often unrecognized by others. Researchers have used the term, critical moments, in the past such as Palmer (1998). However, what makes Dr. Giordano’s definition unique is that the moments he works with are often memories held only by students. In other words, professors most likely do not even recognize the effect their casual remarks have had.
A Negative Critical Moment?
Among the discoveries in Dr. Giordano’s research, he is quick to add that not all critical moments are positive. “In fact, after I first gave a lecture on campus about this research, a former student came up to me who had been out of college for 10 or so years. She recalled that she had been right at the cusp of getting an A-, but that I had held my ground and said, ‘Your average was not an A-. It was a B+.’ She told me years later that what I said really bothered her, but at some point she realized that you really have to work hard to make sure you get what you want. Now she teaches elementary school, and she tries to teach her students this principle that you can’t just expect something to happen—you have to make sure that it happens in terms of achievement and that kind of thing. It was a friendly conversation. It made me feel a little bad, but at the same time, I felt good about it because she learned something that helped her in her future life.”
On the contrary, Dr. Giordano says that he has never encountered someone who recalled a positive critical moment that resulted in a negative experience. “You know, I’ve never heard about that happening before. Really, what struck me was how many of the negative experiences that people turned into a positive experience in the sense of, for example, working hard for something or wanting to prove a professor wrong.”
Tell Your Professors!
The data that Dr. Giordano has collected so far on critical moments have looked primarily at how these moments affected the students who recalled them. However, due to conversations with his colleagues, he would also be interested in researching faculty on how frequently they hear back from students about the critical moment they caused.
“I don’t think we know a great deal about this because my hunch is that, as faculty, we typically don’t know when these critical moments happen in the normal everyday course of things. There’s nothing momentous about these moments at the time because it takes a while for them to coalesce. For that reason, I think it would be interesting to know how many faculty hear back from students: either in a conversation with a student who stops by or maybe a note from a student who says, ‘Something specific happened X number of years ago, and I don’t know if you know this happened, but here is the effect it had on me in the future.’ ”
Dr. Giordano wants to encourage you to tell your professors whenever you recognize a critical moment in your life. As for the effect of this information on professors, he says, “I think most professors would say that this is really meaningful because we develop close relationships with a small number of students. However, to know that we are still having an impact on other students is important. It is really rewarding to hear about these moments.”
Mentorship and Learning
Eight years ago, Dr. Giordano asked Dr. Virginia A. Andreoli Mathie (James Madison University, VA; Psi Chi Executive Director 2004–08) in an interview to describe one or two teachers who helped shape her identity as a teacher (Giordano, 2007). Today, we asked Dr. Giordano the same question, and two answers immediately jumped to his mind.
“One: My departmental colleagues at Belmont have all been mentors to some degree or the other—both those who are younger than me and relatively new, as well as faculty who are farther along than me in their careers. The reason I think of them as a group is that we have a very collegial department, and we talk a lot together about teaching, which creates a sort of group mentoring experience.”
“Two: Dr. Jaan Valsiner, my major professor when I was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), was a remarkable teacher in the sense of getting me to think at a really deep level. I have always thought of him as a mentor in the sense of how to stimulate thinking. His way of framing a question or approaching the reading really helped me to engage in the material in a significant kind of way that I don’t know if I have ever experienced quite as much as I did with him.”
Dr. Giordano was originally a biology major, taking some psychology courses that he found interesting along the way. However, through the efforts of some gifted teachers when he was an undergraduate at UNC-CH, Dr. Giordano himself became a psychology major and ultimately a teacher dedicated to improving student learning. Of the courses he teaches now, he says, “I really enjoy them all, but my favorite is probably Personality Psychology. I am still drawn to the classic theories because I think they deal with really big questions about human personality and human existence. I think that students still respond to many of those ideas.”
New Interests
Dr. Giordano has more recently become interested in certain aspects of Asian cultures, particularly Chinese culture. “In studying more about Chinese culture, I’ve learned a fair amount about the Confucian tradition and the impact of Confucius on Chinese culture and Chinese people. Particularly in the early formulations of Confucianism (sometimes called the Classical Period of Confucianism) there are really interesting ideas about what people are like and how people turn into mature exemplary persons. There is a real connection with psychological health and well-being and what we now call positive psychology. So far, I’ve written some on this topic, trying to draw connections between these 2,000- to 2,500-year-old ideas and contemporary Western psychology. That’s actually where many of my interests are now.”
“I think this research is necessary because obviously globalization is happening so rapidly. China is becoming more and more important, not just economically, but culturally. I think it can be really transformative for students to engage in perspectives that are outside of their typical perspective. It’s been quite interesting for me.”
In Conclusion
Whether Dr. Giordano is working to better understand critical moments or the relationship between Confucianism and contemporary positive psychology, it is safe to say that his research has had a meaningful impact on the field of psychology. With his dedication to creating active learning experiences, many of his casual remarks have surely become critical moments for students and instructors alike. He welcomes you to visit him after you graduate to tell him about your own experiences with critical moments; he especially urges you tell your professors if something they said or did has played a significant part in shaping the person you are today.
Dr. Giordano’s Opinion of Active Learning
“The value of active learning is that this is how we all learn! We’ve got to be actively engaged, by exerting some sort of an effort, in order to better absorb new information. Thus, I think one of the common problems with first-year college students is that they may have some study habits that are a little too passive. Just reading or rereading notes usually isn’t enough to process information at a deeper level. Active learning gets people cognitively engaged with more effortful processing going on.”
An article about active learning without a quiz? No way!
1. Critical moments are . . .
always recognized by a professor
immediately recognized by everyone
not immediately recognized by students, and sometimes never recognized by professors
2. Can a critical moment be negative?
Sometimes in the beginning
3. Will you tell your professors about your critical moments?
Giordano, P. J. (2004). Teaching and learning when we least expect it: The role of critical moments in student development. In B. K. Saville, T. E. Zinn, & V. W. Hevern (Eds.), Essays from e-xcellence in teaching: Vol. 4. Retrieved from
Giordano, P. J. (2007). The evolution of a teacher and collaborator extraordinaire: An interview with Virginia A. Andreoli Mathie. Teaching of Psychology, 34, 64–71. doi:10.1080/00986280709336654
Giordano, P. J. (2010). Serendipity in teaching and learning: The importance of critical moments. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 21, 5–27.
Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Peter Giordano, PhD, is professor of psychology at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. His scholarly interests include how casual remarks by professors to students may have lasting effects on student development and how the philosophy of exemplary persons in Classical Confucianism can inform contemporary Western personality theory. He is past National President of Psi Chi (2001–02), has served as the editor of the Methods and Techniques section of Teaching of Psychology, is a consulting editor to College Teaching, and is a past recipient of the CASE/Carnegie Foundation Tennessee Professor of the Year.

Copyright 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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