A Beginner’s Guide to Teaching Abnormal Psychology

What makes a great abnormal psychology instructor? When I imagine the ideal abnormal psychology instructor, I think of an individual who has had several experiences that have helped to inform his or her teaching.

Let’s call our hypothetical ideal instructor Dr. Venerable. Dr. Venerable has been teaching undergraduates and doing clinical work for 30 years. In addition to her teaching duties, she works in a general psychiatric clinic with a diverse population in terms of presenting problems, demographics, and socioeconomic status. Dr. Venerable participates in clinical case conferences and supervises students and less-experienced therapists. Finally, she attends various national conferences and makes it a priority to stay current regarding clinical psychology research. Dr. Venerable has a generation of clinical experience to draw on in her classroom as she explains the various disorders.

Now let’s take a look at the typical graduate student instructor of abnormal psychology. Ms. Greenhorn is a 24-year-old student in a clinical psychology program. She is currently taking graduate level classes and working on her dissertation. She has a therapy practicum in the campus counseling center where she sees 3 to 4 students per week. The students’ typical presenting problems range from homesickness, to roommate problems, to more severe psychopathology such as depression. Although Ms. Greenhorn has some experience conducting therapy, she has not treated or had direct contact with many of the disorders that are covered in an abnormal psychology class.

On the surface, Dr. Venerable appears to be a perfect instructor for abnormal psychology. She can supplement her required readings and lectures with a career’s worth of stories of her clinical work. There is no denying that, compared with this hypothetical experienced clinician, graduate student Ms. Greenhorn is at a disadvantage. However, when compared with this model instructor, the vast majority of faculty members would also be at a disadvantage! Due to the sheer time demands of teaching and research at many colleges and universities, it would be rare to find an instructor who balanced clinical work and teaching as Dr. Venerable did. Whether it is due to research, administrative, or consulting commitments, many faculty members in clinical psychology departments have not met with patients in years. Given that abnormal psychology is the most widely offered course in undergraduate psychology education after introductory courses (Pearlman & McCann, 1997), the teaching of a survey course in abnormal psychology will often fall on the broad shoulders of a graduate student, new faculty member, or faculty member that does not have extensive clinical training. This may be especially true in large psychology departments. In the search for funding and experience, this brave individual will do his or her best to instruct the next generation of therapists, counselors, and psychologists, even if he is not yet one himself!

As a graduate student in a doctoral level clinical psychology program, I found myself both excited and nervous to be teaching abnormal psychology to undergraduates. “How can I, with such limited clinical experience, possibly be billed as an expert in psychopathology?” I thought. Although I have not been teaching anywhere near as long as the experts that have written articles in previous editions of Teaching Tips, I believe that I have learned something about teaching at the graduate level in my four semesters instructing this class. Therefore, the purpose of this essay is to offer seven helpful tips for teaching abnormal psychology. Although several of the tips are written with a graduate student or new faculty in mind, the tips should be useful for instructors of any level, even Dr. Venerable. In addition, although some of the tips listed below are specific to instruction in psychopathology, several are relevant regardless of the class that one is teaching.

Tip 1: Be Comfortable with Admitting That You Don’t Know… and Try and Find Out!

With a few exceptions, undergraduates are excited about taking Abnormal Psychology. Additionally, many have family members or friends with a history of psychopathology. There will be questions! You will know the answers to many of them, but there will be other questions that you will have never even considered. In fact, I am told that even tenured professors receive questions every semester that they have never thought about before, even after a generation of teaching.

When I am presented with a question to which I do not know the answer, I do not hesitate to respond by saying “I do not know.” I find this to be a more honest answer then an attempt to link what you do know with the question at hand. If the question is intellectually stimulating, a second question continuing the discussion is often beneficial (e.g., “What do you think?”, “What if that were true?”). One strategy that I have adopted is keeping a blank sheet of paper nearby while giving lectures. This paper can be used for writing down any of the questions for which  I do not know the answers, and I can then proceed to gather information between classes. At the start of the next class I will restate the question and provide the information that I obtained. This technique is advantageous for several reasons; it communicates to the students that the instructor is listening to them and that their questions are thought-provoking and it facilitates further discussion.

I put this tip first because of my own experience as an undergraduate. I remember taking classes taught by graduate students, including abnormal psychology, in which thought-provoking questions were posed to the instructor and it was clear that he or she did not know the answer. That did not always prevent the instructor from attempting to make up the answer, often stumbling and stammering in the process. One of the biggest fears of a new graduate instructor is that they will be perceived as unknowledgeable. However, students are almost always willing to provide the instructor the benefit of the doubt. After all, the instructor has progressed to this point for a reason. Of course, if the instructor never knows the answers to the questions that the students pose, then it is likely that he or she has not prepared as extensively for the day’s topic as is necessary.

Tip 2: Use Amalgamations of Cases or Other People’s Cases

By and large students love to hear personal stories from their instructors. I have seen students with their eyes glazed over suddenly start paying attention again as soon as I mentioned “a patient that I saw.” Whenever you discuss a case, it is a tremendous teaching opportunity. Regardless of whether you had it before, you now have their attention. This is a prime opportunity for the lecture and the book to come alive. Talking about cases conveys the message that people with psychopathology are not just faceless statistics with identical features, as a book or lecture can sometimes lead the student to believe. It also helps to humanize the instructor (and reminds the students that, yes, indeed, the instructor is an expert). However, what is the instructor to do if he or she does not have much experience working in a therapy setting? There is nothing wrong with using amalgamations of cases or other people’s cases as examples. If you participate in group supervision, you have likely been presented with dozens of interesting and varied cases of psychopathology. Don’t be afraid to talk about those cases or to blend details of those cases and other cases that you may have read about into your presentation. Besides, even the most experienced clinicians may not have much personal experience with dissociative fugue, pica, or other rare disorders. Remember when discussing cases that it is absolutely imperative that you do not reveal any personal data that may be used to identify the individuals. Let the students know that you are using a fake name and that some of the details have been changed in order to protect the client’s right to confidentiality.

Tip 3: When Appropriate, Talk About Your Experiences as a Young Clinician

In addition to talking about my cases and cases that I have heard about from supervision or books, when appropriate I also discuss my experience as an early-career clinician. Many of the students in the class will want to become therapists, case workers, or counselors. Discussing common questions that youthful clinicians are likely to receive (e.g., “how long have you been doing this for?”, “do you have children?”, “how old are you?”) is a worthwhile diversion from the typical “disorder of the week” format, and again, humanizes the instructor. A brief conversation about graduate school, or a longer optional discussion if time permits, is also worthwhile. This discussion should include the differing degrees that one can pursue at the post-undergraduate level (PhD, PsyD, MSW, etc.).

Tip 4: Bring in at Least One Guest Lecturer a Semester

Regardless of degrees obtained, level of experience, and number of clients assessed, no abnormal psychology instructor can be an expert in every disorder. This is especially true for the graduate student instructor, who likely has limited experience in terms of types of clients seen and diversity of clinical experiences. Therefore, bringing in an outside individual that is working in a specialized clinical setting or a fellow student or faculty member that is an expert on a particular disorder is a valuable learning experience (Zakrajsek, 2004). An individual that researches or specializes in eating disorders, ADHD, or the chronically mentally ill can add a spark to the classroom routine. In addition to their expert status, a professional working in a clinical setting also provides undergraduate students a great opportunity to pick the brain of someone whose career they would like to emulate. If the guest agrees, set aside time to have a brief discussion of how the guest became interested in the field, what type of training they received, what previous jobs they held, etc. This can be an especially beneficial discussion for students in classes taught by graduate students or faculty members that are not practicing in the field.

Tip 5: Read Teaching of Psychology and “Teaching Tips”

APA Division 2: The Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP) publishes the Teaching of Psychology (TOP) journal four times per year. The journal is included with membership in STP. Membership is a real bargain for graduate students (only $15 as of this writing). In addition to providing empirical articles and faculty forums, TOP includes a section on classroom demonstrations. I have incorporated many of the demonstrations into my classroom. For example, when I discuss treatment of anxiety disorders, I demonstrate behavioral treatment by enlisting the help of a student with “eraser phobia” (Lawson & Reardon, 1997). Other techniques I have utilized include a demonstration of an individual with schizophrenia and a mock interview for assessing various psychopathologies (Osberg, 1992; Tomcho, Wolfe, & Foels, 2006). In addition, reading the Teaching Tips section of the APS Observer has provided me with interesting perspectives on such fundamental issues as attendance taking (Green, 2007), students missing exams (Pearlman & McCann, 2005), and structuring effective office hours (Barry, 2008).

Tip 6: Discuss Current Events in Psychopathology

Articles related to psychopathology appear almost daily in newspapers, magazines, and other popular press. These forms of media offer a great teaching opportunity to discuss current events in psychopathology. Articles often focus on potentially controversial topics, such as the (over)medication of individuals with disorders, legal issues, and the role of the insurance companies in treatment. Reading articles from popular press sources often generates thought-provoking discussion.  It also provides an opportunity for the development of critical thinking skills, as the students learn not to believe everything that they read. An abnormal psychology instructor should not be afraid to deviate from the scheduled plan if a major news story breaks that involves psychopathology. For example, in the past I have spent time assigning reading and discussing the Virginia Tech shootings, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and, yes, even the psychopathology and treatment of Brittany Spears. The field of abnormal psychology looks very different today than it did 50, 20, or even 10 years ago. Reading current articles allows students to stay up to date with this ever changing field.

Tip 7: Use Multimedia

For many students, movies may be the primary way that they have been exposed to various disorders. When teaching abnormal psychology, instructors should frequently show clips of movies and other media featuring psychopathology. Two excellent references for finding appropriate films are Movies and Mental Illness: Using Films to Understand Psychopathology (Wedding, Boyd, & Niemiec, 2005) and Psychiatry and the Cinema (Gabbard & Gabbard, 1999). In many cases, the media can be followed by a brief discussion of the inaccuracies related to psychopathology that are portrayed. In addition, short media (of varying qualities) are available on youtube.com. In the past I have used a grossly inaccurate and outdated portrayal of electroconvulsive shock therapy available on YouTube to start discussion of how ECT is currently used. Other YouTube clips that usually elicit strong student reactions are Rusty the Narcoleptic Dog and a clip from the Maury Povich show of a girl with a severe phobia of pickles.

Teaching is a lifelong learning process, and I have much to learn. It is my hope that instructors of abnormal psychology, from greenhorns to wise and venerable veterans, have learned something from the preceding eight tips. ♦


Barry, E. (2008). Using office hours effectively. APS Observer, 21, (6)37-40.

Gabbard, K., & Gabbard, G.O. (1999). Psychiatry and the Cinema. Arlington, VA:           American Psychiatric Press,.

Green, R.J. (2007). On taking attendance. In B. Perlman, L.I. McCann, & S.H. McFadden (Eds.), Lessons learned (Vol. 3, pp. 91-98).Washington, DC: Association for Psychological Science.

Lawson, T.J., & Reardon, M. (1997). A humorous demonstration of in vivo systematic desensitization: The case of eraser phobia. Teaching of Psychology, 24, 270-271.

Osberg, T.M. (1992). The disordered monologue: A classroom demonstration of the symptoms of schizophrenia. Teaching of Psychology, 19, 47-48.

Pearlman, B., & McCann, L.I. (1997). The most frequently listed courses in the undergraduate psychology curriculum. Teaching of Psychology, 26, 177-182.

Pearlman, B., & McCann, L.I. (2005). Dealing with students missing exams and in class graded assignments. In B. Perlman, L.I. McCann, & S.H. McFadden (Eds.), Lessons learned (Vol. 3, pp. 151-162).Washington, DC: Association for Psychological Science.

Tomcho, T.J., Wolfe, W.L., & Foels, R. (2006). Teaching about psychological    disorders: Using a group interviewing and diagnostic approach. Teaching of Psychology, 33, 184-188.

Wedding, D., Boyd, M.A., & Niemiec, R.M. (2005). Movies and mental illness: using films to understand psychopathology. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe & Huber.

Yorges, S. (2008). Providing “realistic course previews” to enhance learning and satisfaction. APS Observer, 21, 35-38.

Zakrajsek, T. (2004). Teaching a course you feel unprepared to teach. In B. Perlman, L.I. McCann, & S.H. McFadden (Eds.), Lessons learned (Vol. 2, pp. 39-50).Washington, DC: Association for Psychological Science.

Jeffrey H. Sieracki is a 5th year graduate in the clinical psychology program at Loyola University Chicago. He wishes to thank his teaching mentor, Joseph Durlak, for his guidance throughout his teaching career.

Observer Vol.22, No.1 January, 2009

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