Transformative Teaching

Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell, associate professor of psychology, garners a national teaching award for her creativity in the classroom and the research lab.

Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell, associate professor of psychology, garners a national teaching award for her creativity in the classroom and the research lab.

As one of the only upperclassmen in the room, I eagerly awaited the commencement of the magic. A few of us traded knowing looks as the unsuspecting sophomores and even-more-unsuspecting freshmen took their seats on the first day of Professor Detweiler-Bedell’s health psychology class. I smiled as I overheard one student, who had the fortune to have Professor Detweiler-Bedell lead his first-year core class, try to explain to a friend how “phenomenal” her classes were–after taking only one. His friend raised her eyebrow and looked unconvinced.

But then Professor Detweiler-Bedell walked in, and indeed, the magic began. Within 10 minutes, she had every student in the class relaxed, invested, engaged, and feeling like they’d learned more in the last 10 minutes than–they often did in entire courses. Immediately, she treated all students–even young first years–as colleagues in the discovery of the science and art of psychology, setting this egalitarian tone by exhorting students to call her what I have called her since the first day I met her: Jerusha.

That first class was filled with the hallmarks of a Jerusha lecture: carefully crafted and cohesive content, examples of real data and experiments, real-world connections and applications, and probing questions. As the first class period ended, the skeptical student from earlier turned to her friend and simply uttered, “Wow.”

 –Shannon Brady BA’06

The magic of Jerusha’s teaching style, which is well-known among her loyal following of students at Lewis & Clark, is now the focus of national acclaim. In November, she was named the Outstanding Baccalauereate Colleges Professor of the Year by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Lewis & Clark administrators nominated her for the honor, and colleagues and students added their support.

A member of the faculty since August 2001, Detweiler-Bedell has developed a program of research that brings together investigations of human decision making, health psychology, and clinical psychology. In particular, she is interested in promoting physical and mental health behaviors using message framing. Although people have many opportunities to adopt behaviors that increase their physical health and mental well-being, they often find it challenging to carry out these behaviors regularly. Detweiler-Bedell’s research objective is to tackle the problem of failing to do “what’s best” for one’s physical and mental health. She has coauthored a book, Treatment Planning in Psychotherapy, for mental health professionals, and has published numerous articles on her research and several papers on methods for effectively engaging undergraduate students in the research process.

In addition to this work, Detweiler-Bedell teaches a full load at Lewis & Clark. Her courses include Introduction to Psychology, Psychology of Gender, Community Psychology, Health Psychology, and Clinical Psychology.

“I believe that psychology, like a foreign language, is best learned by immersion,” says Detweiler-Bedell, “immersion in the context that leads the clinician, teacher, or researcher to ask questions about the human mind.”

From Student to Teacher

 From an early age, Detweiler-Bedell was immersed in learning. Her father, Richard Detweiler, was a psychology professor who later became president of Hartwick College in New York; her mother, Carol Detweiler, worked extensively with international students while she was raising her three children. At dinner, family members would haul out the World Book Encyclopedia for information on the topic at hand. “My parents modeled the process of discovery for me–the idea that when information is missing, you should seek it,” Detweiler-Bedell says. “That mindset informs my approach to teaching.”

As an undergraduate at Stanford University, Detweiler-Bedell planned to study journalism or international relations–she never imagined becoming a psychologist. Then she took Introduction to Psychology from psychologist Philip Zimbardo. Zimbardo was known for his 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which students adapted all too readily to their roles as guards and prisoners in a mock prison. A legendary teacher, Zimbardo employed unusual teaching methods, such as hypnotizing an entire class of 300 students. “Taking his course was life-changing,” Detweiler-Bedell recalls. “I learned what you can do as a teacher.” At her parents’ urging, she approached Zimbardo, and he became a mentor.

The budding psychologist took notes on her professors’ classroom styles in the margins of her notebooks. “If they told an anecdote, I made notes on their timing. If they told a story about a famous psychologist, I wrote it down.” She laughs. “I still pull out those notebooks from time to time.”

Detweiler-Bedell eventually became a teaching fellow for Introduction to Psychology and took graduate-level courses along with her undergraduate requirements. She completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in four years and went on to earn her doctorate at Yale University.

Classroom Creativity

One of Detweiler-Bedell’s central goals as an educator is to provide intensive hands-on learning experiences. This includes preparing some of her students for graduate work in psychology, but it also involves giving students research skills that they can use in other career fields such as law, business, and education.

A sampling of her courses reveals the creativity she brings to the classroom:

Introduction to Psychology–In this entry-level course, Detweiler-Bedell’s lectures include vivid examples, topic-specific demonstrations, and recent developments in the field. For example, she brings in an actual human brain for the students to handle; teaches how the heat-producing chemicals of chili peppers can be used to treat chronic pain; and conditions students to salivate when they hear the word “Pavlov.”

Clinical Psychology–Students in this 300-level course learn what it means to be a scientist-practitioner. Through the course’s “case study project,” students have the opportunity to try out clinical practice in a controlled setting. Before the semester begins, each student studies an autobiography of a person who has a psychological disorder and creates a persona based on the symptoms and life history of the character he or she has read about. Working in pairs, the students schedule weekly “therapy sessions” outside of class, trading off roles as the fictitious client and the therapist as they practice the therapeutic techniques they are learning.

Community Psychology–This 400-level course includes a “community lab” component in which students apply the concepts they learn to real-world settings. Detweiler-Bedell divides the class into lab groups, each of which investigates a problem relevant to Lewis & Clark students. Class members conduct literature reviews, interview stakeholders and professionals, collect data, and design an intervention to help solve the problem. Previous presentations have contributed to improved coordination of career planning services and changes to the design of Templeton Campus Center.

“Professor Detweiler-Bedell engages students in beautifully and strategically designed classes,” says Julio de Paula, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “She is a transformational teacher because of who she is, and also because of her strategic and scholarly approach to her craft.”

The BHS Lab

On a rainy November afternoon in the Biology-Psychology Building, a dozen students share coffee around a conference table. One student produces homemade cupcakes while they settle in, notepads ready.

Once everyone is served, Detweiler-Bedell announces the agenda: analyzing a presentation two students will make to Lewis & Clark’s Student Academic Affairs Board for travel funds to attend a psychology conference. Melanie Cohen CAS ’09 and Julie Robertson CAS ’09 describe their original research in a PowerPoint presentation while the others listen attentively. When the presenters finish, the listeners applaud, and then the group gets down to business. “What did you think?” Detweiler-Bedell asks. Students comment on the presenters’ pace, timing, and content. In addition to fine-tuning the substance of their talk, the student researchers are learning valuable skills–structuring a presentation, delivering it authoritatively, responding to critique–that will serve them well in graduate school or the work environment.

This is the Behavioral Health & Social Psychology (BHS) Lab, founded in 2001 by Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell and her husband, Brian Detweiler-Bedell, also an associate professor of psychology. Students may apply or be invited to join the lab, and they can stay for a semester or for their entire time at Lewis & Clark. The BHS Lab is a cocurricular activity; students agree to do 8 to 15 hours of research a week, on top of coursework and other activities.

At major research universities, lab members work together to investigate research questions, with graduate students learning from post-docs and faculty members. In Lewis & Clark’s BHS Lab, there are no graduate students or post-docs, so undergraduates are central participants in the research effort.

To teach undergraduates research skills, the Detweiler-Bedells organize the lab into what they call “laddered teams.” Participants work in groups of three: a senior psychology major as group leader, a sophomore or junior psychology major as associate researcher, and a student new to psychology as research assistant. Students develop research questions in the broad areas of social, clinical, and health psychology; gather data; and compile their findings in collaboration with other team members and the Detweiler-Bedells. As part of the Detweiler-Bedells’ community outreach, some researchers come from local community colleges.

This novel approach ensures every lab member, from assistants learning data gathering to leaders practicing mentoring, the chance to hone new skills. It makes the BHS Lab different from other labs that include undergraduates–and even some graduate school opportunities. As Richie LeDonne CAS ’11 puts it, “How often does a sophomore get to work with professors on their research, not just as a gofer, but as a driving force behind their studies?”

Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell concurs. “My students are not simply doing psychology, they are discovering new knowledge. I treat my students not as undergraduates, but as practitioners and researchers in their own right.”

The results are impressive. With the Detweiler-Bedells as collaborators, BHS Lab members attend regional and national psychology conferences and publish in scholarly journals–often alongside established professionals in the field. Certainly such experiences give students an edge in applying to graduate school, but there’s an intrinsic motivation as well: Abigail Hazlett BA ’05 says that working in the lab “gave me the confidence to pursue my own interests and take on projects I knew little about, trusting that I could make [them] work.” One of Hazlett’s projects, coauthored with Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell, appeared in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.

The Detweiler-Bedells’ unique approach will soon be accessible to more students and their professors. In 2008, the National Science Foundation awarded the lab a grant to support ongoing projects, including a summer research institute that will allow Lewis & Clark undergraduates to continue their research projects during the break and include opportunities for community college students. Even more importantly, NSF funds will help the Detweiler-Bedells share their undergraduate research model with other teachers. They are currently writing a book about the laddered teams approach for faculty at other colleges and universities.

A Fine Balance

Given her background in health psychology, one might expect Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell to lead a well-balanced life. Brian Detweiler-Bedell, whom Jerusha calls “the best collaborator I will ever have,” provides part of that balance as fellow researcher and coparent of 5-year-old Rory and 2-year-old Roan.

The two became friends as PhD candidates at Yale, and were married three years later by their dissertation advisor, Peter Salovey (now provost of Yale), who happened to be a justice of the peace. In the lab, their coteaching is seamless, one speaking when the other stops–but not before.

The family life that balances teaching and research can also include students. “We have lab members to dinner at least twice a year, and we see our students outside of class,” says Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell. “Rory and Roan love the students, so we bring work home in a fun way.” She also attends plays and sporting events, where she can watch her students excel in other areas outside her classroom.

Detweiler-Bedell was recently licensed to practice as a clinical psychologist in Oregon. “It’s a way of giving back, assisting people in ways I know are helpful,” she says. While she plans to practice just a few hours a week, working with clients helps her maintain a connection with the real-world needs she and her students investigate.

In some areas of academia, advisors encourage bright graduate students to pursue posts at major research universities, where teaching often takes a backseat to research. According to Detweiler-Bedell, however, Lewis & Clark is helping to transform this model. “We see research as a way to integrate undergraduates into the creative process of learning,” she says. “The best teachers can also be the best researchers.”

Her students would certainly agree.

Genevieve J. Long is a freelance writer and editor in Portland.