The value of critical thinking

July 5, 2019 | Science

Dr. Rodney Schmaltz, associate professor in psychology, has spent much of his teaching career trying to get students to examine their beliefs and think critically. In that time, his work has also inspired his colleagues and students who put his name forward to win a 2019 Distinguished Teaching Award.

We talked to Rodney about teaching confirmation bias, debunking pseudoscientific beliefs and inspiring the next generation of psychology undergraduate students.   

The Distinguished Teaching Awards recognize outstanding faculty members who have shown extraordinary commitment to teaching and have inspired their students and colleagues. Watch for the 2019 award winners' profiles throughout July: Jacqueline Baker, Dr. Ion Bica and Dr. Susan Mills.

Q. What inspired you to study psychology?

I was interested in psychology when I was an undergraduate student, but it wasn’t until I took an advanced experimental methods course that I knew that this was what I wanted to pursue as a career. The professor of this course inspired students to understand the value of psychological research and showed how fascinating the research process can be. This course changed my career path and also provided me with an understanding of the impact that a professor can have on their students.

I now teach a course that’s similar to that methods course. My goal is to inspire students and I hope to have the same impact on them that my professor had on me.

Q. What do you love about teaching in this discipline?

Understanding psychology gives people a better understanding of why they do the things they do, and there is a lot of direct application to everyday life. For example, one of the areas of research I’m interested in is productivity. In my classes, I discuss topics like procrastination and what we can do to avoid it. I love it when students have that a-ha moment when they realize how learning this material can have a real impact on their lives.

Q. If there is one thing you could teach someone who will never take a psych course in their life, what would it be?

Confirmation bias. It’s really important for people to understand that we tend to seek out information that confirms our beliefs and we often deny or distort information that doesn’t. Once you understand this concept, and really, psychology in general, you have a better ability to step back and say, “Okay, I feel really strongly about this, but I might be wrong.”

Q. What is your favourite course to teach?

I’m going to cheat and say two courses. The first focuses on scientific skepticism and pseudoscience. In this course, we talk about things like cryptozoology, ghosts and aliens — all with a focus on the psychology of why people believe. Students in this course go on a ghost hunt to a supposedly haunted location in the city and we debunk the methods used on ghost hunting TV shows.

My second favourite is my PSYC 400 senior seminar course. This is a course for students who are interested in graduate school, so we focus on research, productivity and the ability to effectively communicate complex ideas. The students host a mini-conference for junior high students from Spruce Avenue school. The goal is to introduce younger students to psychology, and to test the PSYC 400 students — if you are able to engage junior high students in a way that makes them excited about your research, it really shows that you know what you’re talking about.

Q. Looking back on your teaching career, is there a moment or achievement that stands out?

There are a bunch, but top of mind is doing the work with the kids at Spruce Avenue. I wasn’t sure if that was going to work — bringing 50 or 60 junior high kids into our class — but it turned out great. They were really engaged, and I even got some feedback that some of them are thinking MacEwan might be a place they would like to go after high school. It was incredibly rewarding to see that we were able to reach out to them and show them why psychology is important and interesting.



Dr. Rodney Schmaltz’s TEDx Talk

Rodney explains how using a critical eye to look at all pseudo-scientific claims — from UFO sightings to full moon madness — can make us better listeners, friends and employees.

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