When Meaghan Altman entered the PhD program in Learning and Memory at Purdue University, she was interested in pursuing research focused on the impact of kinship in moral decision making. As part of a graduate instructor program, Altman was assigned a 450-student Introduction to Psychology class, which happened to be scheduled at 7:30 in the morning. Contrary to her own expectations, teaching this course, even to a massive lecture hall full of bleary-eyed freshmen, became the highlight of her week.
The reason Altman found teaching so enjoyable was because it provided a contrast to the research and dissertation-writing process. “You’re spending your dissertation searching for answers to questions that have no clear answers,” Altman said. In teaching, she was able to help students and answer their questions about topics she was passionate about. Teaching became satisfying, engaging and almost therapeutic for her. However, the one thing that struck Altman the most about her time teaching at Purdue was how little teaching tools and methods had progressed.
For example, the reliance on print materials in such a large lecture hall made participating in everyday classroom activities difficult for students. “Quizzes—even just a comprehension check quiz—required 450 Scantrons,” Altman said. It was an onerous process that required an immense amount of effort to conduct on a regular basis.
Once she completed her PhD in 2011, Altman was hired as a lecturer at the University of California, Merced, where her job consisted primarily of teaching undergraduate courses. It was around this time that she turned to Top Hat for help with streamlining her course delivery and encouraging student participation during class. Buoyed by the positive student feedback and successful student outcomes, she doubled down on Top Hat and became the lead author of an interactive, digital Top Hat textbook.
The Science of Learning
Why another Introduction to Psychology textbook? Altman teaches the science of learning and intimately understands that being able to retrieve information is more important than memorizing it. Memory and learning are two distinct physical processes in the brain and it’s essential to provide students with the opportunity to practice the skills they will use on future assessments with frequent comprehension checks and low-stakes assessments. Print textbooks built for rote memory always fell short on this front. By incorporating multimedia learning tools for students to interact, she created an active learning environment that supported significant grade improvements in her classes. This was just one of the reasons she chose to publish her work in the modern and flexible digital publishing industry, rather than the traditional print textbook publishing space.
Altman is the lead author for Top Hat’s interactive Introduction to Psychology textbook, created to teach the basic concepts of psychology, and deliver simulations of important course content in an engaging and effective way. Altman is a strong believer in the importance of information recall and encourages her students to practice answering the questions they might find on final exams throughout the duration of the semester. As such, when writing Introduction to Psychology, interspersing interactive exercises and simulations throughout the textbook was a natural step. These activities help students visualize complex psychological phenomena to encourage greater retention and understanding of the science of human behaviour.
Balancing Competing Priorities in the Classroom
In Altman’s Introduction to Psychology course, lecture content is delivered in 20-minute blocks, interspersed with interactive components, such as classroom response questions, videos, demonstrations and low-stakes assessments. This makes the content memorable and digestible for students, and enables her to manage large classes. “This method measures broadly how well students are taking in the information and what needs to be clarified before proceeding,” Altman says.
Altman maintains a lecture style that is both approachable and academic to keep her students engaged. Rather than simply relaying information to her students, Altman views teaching as an art where her role is to translate the lecture information in an engaging way. Making curriculum objectives more interesting and more memorable will, she believes, lead to more student engagement and more student involvement in their own learning process.
Altman continues to teach Introduction to Psychology at the University of California, Merced in the Department of Psychological Sciences. She also teaches courses in physiological psychology and perception and evolutionary psychology. Her research focuses on adaptive mediators of attention and learning in typically and atypically functioning individuals in the Consortium for Research on Atypical Development and Learning (CRADL) where she serves as Lab Director. Altman has taught Introduction to Psychology at Purdue University and received the Committee for the Education of Teaching Assistants Graduate Student Award for Excellence in Teaching and the David A. Santogrossi Graduate Instructor Award.