Instructor Spotlight: Meet Professor Stephanie Thomas

We are inspired by our Hawkes instructors and are eager to showcase their talent and compassion for their students. Recently, we had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Stephanie Thomas, a longtime Hawkes customer who currently teaches Introduction to Psychology at LaGrange College in LaGrange, GA. Read on to learn about her teaching style, technology recommendations and her current research:

*This interview has been lightly edited for content and clarity.

How long have you been teaching?

I’ve been at Lagrange College for 3 years, and in total I have been teaching for 7 years.

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned during your career as a teacher?

I have learned that a college instructor must “roll with the punches.” I’m a planner. I like to have everything lined up and planned out, but this past spring semester [with the rise of COVID-19] has taught me that you can’t plan for absolutely everything. There is always going to be something that comes up, or maybe a student approaches you with a situation you haven’t encountered before. Sometimes questions are asked in class that you’ve never thought about before, and it can derail the lecture. At first, I really didn’t like these situations, but I’ve learned to embrace it. If the question is somewhat relevant to the class discussion and the students are interested, I try to go with that and engage conversation. The subject of psychology is so much fun! I’m so involved in my field’s studies that sometimes I am surprised by students’ questions. Students are approaching psychology for the first time and have fresh minds full of wonderful questions! My freshman psychology class has brought up questions that have led to me expanding my course coverage to include new topics.

Regarding your classroom structure, what setups or styles have you tried? What worked, and what didn’t work out?

If we don’t include spring 2020 semester, my courses are typically set up [in a way that requires students to] read and work on their Hawkes assignments before they come to class. The goal is [to give them] a good understanding of the lesson’s basic objectives and definitions before coming into the classroom. I also think that it provides the opportunity for better questions…since the student has already interacted with the material. Class time involves examples and videos leading to class discussion. I try to incorporate a lot of activity so that the students will feel involved during class, and this is usually experienced within group work. 

How do you engage and motivate under-performing students?

Since I teach Introduction to Psychology, I rarely have any students who are Psychology majors. Usually students are taking my class for general education requirements. Since most of the class aren’t Psychology majors, many of them are not very motivated. [They don’t always see how the subject is] relevant to their career and are just there to get the necessary core credits. I aim to help them recognize how this course is relevant to their futures; at the end of the term, I have my students submit a paper explaining to a future student how the Intro to Psychology course is relevant to their future career. The Hawkes Certify assignments help keep the student engaged outside of the classroom. Hawkes’ reporting tools help me identify if there are students not participating in the homework. These reports were especially helpful whenever our spring 2020 semester shifted due to COVID-19. The reports helped me see if a student needed additional outreach and attention based upon their last login date and homework completion. Since the assignments are low-stakes, it helps me intervene and assist the student before exam time approaches. I also include small check-in assignments for the class that do not really contribute to the overall grade, but are instead there purely as a means to help the student engage with the course.

Is there a particular report in Hawkes you prefer to use?

Hawkes reports provide helpful information to guide conversations with students. I typically look at which particular assignments the students have done, since some are required and some are extra credit. {This information can be found in All Student Scores and Assignment Reviewer}. Whenever students come to me concerned about their grade, I always look at whether they’ve attempted the extra credit or not. After looking at the extra credit lessons, I look at how much time they’ve invested in the homework portion of Hawkes. I not only look at the homework time (Certify), but also whether they’ve spent time reading in the Learn mode. This information really helps guide our conversations. Sometimes I’ll see a student jump straight into the Certify portion of the lesson without reviewing in Learn and Practice, and then they are concerned about their exam grade. Whenever I see this pattern, I’ll start our conversation with the question, “How much time do you think you’ve spent in the homework lessons?” I follow this question by sharing the actual Hawkes data with them, explaining the reality versus their perception of homework time.

I feel we have covered this a bit so far, but if you had to describe your teaching style overall, how would you describe your unique style?

Firstly, I love to incorporate many methods of technology in the classroom. Hawkes was new in the social science area, and as far as I know, I’m the only one in my department who uses this type of approach (online homework and eBook) for the course. I also incorporate Twitter in my class. We tweet all the time in class to keep the students active. I’m very hands-on, so I aim to learn all my students’ names. This is a bit easier for me since I’m at a smaller school. If my student is not performing well, I will make sure to seek out the student to directly communicate and provide needed support. I love that since my school is smaller, I can have those personal connections with the students. I hope that my students understand that I truly care about their success—that I’m not here to punish them, but instead aim to help them. I always hope they know I’m approachable and have their back! I try my best to make sure no one is “falling through the cracks” in my classes.

I love the Twitter approach!

Yes! Whenever I was at a larger school, I tried to find a unique way to interact with my students despite the large class size. I used Twitter as a platform to take attendance, engage the students, and provide an avenue for students to share their thoughts and questions in class. When I moved to a smaller school, I loved using Twitter so much that I decided to keep this approach. I believe that it helps students feel freer to share their thoughts and questions in class. It’s not anonymity but interacting online can give the illusion of anonymity. I believe the Twitter environment really helps students who would otherwise not speak up in class feel they have a more comfortable platform to share their ideas and questions. I don’t want to miss what a student has to say just because they feel uncomfortable with voicing their opinion aloud to the entire class. I typically write a hashtag on the classroom board, and students will tweet using the hashtag during class. After class, I’ll review the tweets, interact with them, and sometimes retweet the tweets containing strong points. Sometimes I’ll connect students who have similar ideas and opinions to help them continue that conversation outside of the classroom.

How has Hawkes’ unique Mastery approach made a difference in your courses?

I like that students can keep trying until they understand the concepts. I know that first year college students can get frustrated as they adjust to college and as they are developing their study skills. Whenever they see their first homework assignment or are told to read their textbook, they may feel embarrassed to ask questions or share that they feel overwhelmed. Since Hawkes offers a Mastery approach, the student has unlimited opportunities to try again and truly learn the material. Hawkes fits each student’s needs and offers students their own personalized learning experience with minimal effort on my part! I think it’s also really helpful that [there are] Practice Tests available. Many of my students have mentioned that they utilize the Practice Test feature in their studies.

What led you to Hawkes Learning, and what keeps you coming back each year?

Ever since I have been teaching Intro to Psychology, I’ve been using an eBook. Cost is a huge factor for me, and Hawkes is significantly more cost-effective when compared to other materials. Hawkes’ lifetime access is also very attractive to me! We have a comprehensive exit exam for the seniors at our college. If a student simply rented their textbook or did not use a textbook at all, they’re not going to have those resources to review in preparation for this comprehensive exam. I am encouraged to know that my students will have their online study materials with Hawkes years down the road.

In what professional development activities have you been involved over the past few years?

I attend webinars as much as possible. My college offers a Professional Development group on campus, so I attend those meetings. I actually prepared a presentation for the group before Covid-19 struck, and the presentation was “How to Utilize Technology in the Classroom.” It was very timely! I did not anticipate what was going to happen next! I talked about utilizing an online eBook during my presentation.

Do you have any favorite conferences, blogs, speakers, etc. you follow?

Given that I use Twitter in the classroom, I follow the hashtag #AcademicTwitter to follow what is going on in academia. It’s a great way to stay connected on what’s going on. I am a member of my professional organizations: APA (American Psychological Association) and SPSP (Society for Personality and Social Psychology) since I am a Social Psychologist. I love going to any conferences that I can! Since most of my research is undergraduate-based, last year we traveled to NCURR (National Conference on Undergraduate Research). We had many students from LaGrange College present there and hope to attend again next year (pending 2021 travel situations)! We also attended GURP (Georgia Undergraduate Research Conference).

What is your absolute favorite thing about your campus or college?

I like that it’s small. I went to school at a big state school [for undergrad and my doctorate]. I started teaching at a large state school. When I first taught Intro to Psychology, I had anywhere between 100-150 students in a section, and I had multiple sections. I was also an academic advisor and was responsible for over 700 advisees. It was a lot, and I couldn’t really make connections with most students since there were so many! I love that my classes are smaller here at LaGrange College—it allows me to make those personal connections with the students. If a student is absent from class, I can actually keep them accountable. My relationships with my students at a smaller school are so much deeper and richer than at a bigger school. I love getting to keep up with my students and watch them grow in their college experience. I’m usually one of their first instructors in college, and they typically do not know their major when they’re in my class. I love when a student takes my class, enjoys it, and then I convert them to be a psychology major! When I have the seniors in their capstone class and take them to research conferences, it’s rewarding to see their journey come full circle.

What are you currently researching?

My research is based upon characters in narratives, so I am interested how people engage with the main character when they read a story. I focus on a process called “experience digging.” This is when you are reading a story and you become the main character. In this scenario, the reader is seeing themselves as the main character and as the story plays out, the boundary between the reader and the fictional character becomes blurred. It’s difficult for the reader to see where they stop and the character begins.  I study how this affects the reader’s thoughts, behaviors, and actions. I have a student in my senior class who is also researching this area, so I’m excited to see what she comes up with. This is what I did my dissertation on and my master’s thesis as well, so it’s my basic area of research. I’m a big reader-I really like books! It’s especially interesting to research characters in narratives since it ties together my hobby and profession!

Do you have a particular book that you’re currently reading?

Yes! I’m currently reading the Graphic Novel Series, March by John Lewis. It felt timely with our current events, so I bought the series at my local bookstore. I felt it was really important to educate myself about the civil rights movement, and I’m realizing there is much I didn’t know.

What adjectives would you use to describe your presence in the classroom?

I will pull these straight from my course evaluations! Students typically describe me as enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and approachable. Some students say I’m a little bit too peppy for an 8:30am class. 😊

Overall, what would you like your students to take from their learning experience with you?

If specifically referring to Intro to Psychology, I’d hope they take away a few things:

There is something related to psychology that they can use in their future career. I hope they can see that connection.

Psychology is a science, and I hope that my students would be better consumers of science after my class. We spend a lot of time talking about the scientific method. It’s truly a science class, although we are not in a typical lab setting.

What are one or two of your proudest professional accomplishments?

I’ll go broad with my answer and say anytime a student gets into grad school or gets a job. That’s wonderful! This time of the year is when we typically post on our social media pages about our students receiving their grad school acceptance letters. It makes me so excited and proud. It truly reconfirms what I’m doing. I had two students get into their dream schools this year, and they didn’t think it was going to happen. Watching them and helping them with the application processes was so rewarding, especially when I got to see them receive their acceptance letter! It was just a great reminder of why I do what I do.

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