Teaching Tips

Teaching Outside the Classroom:
Sustaining a Vibrant Psi Chi Chapter or Psychology Club

By Peter J. Giordano, Elizabeth Yost Hammer, & Ashley E. Lovell

If you ask the average person-on-the-academic-street to free associate to the phrase "academic department," you are not likely to hear words like "vibrant," "energized," or "pulsating" in response. More typically, you might receive comebacks like "staid," "scholarly," or "restrained." Probably somewhere between these two extremes is where the truth lies. Like all institutions, academic departments vary widely in the climate of the departmental culture. Some research labs are highly visible and vibrant with the work of the faculty and students, and this energy pervades the department. In teaching oriented departments, the culture may pulse with lively conversation about teaching or with students "hanging out" before or after classes. It is our contention in this article that one way to contribute to the life and liveliness of your psychology department, regardless of your institutional type, is by empowering your Psi Chi chapter and/or Psychology Club to infuse additional energy into the departmental ethos. Such energy benefits anyone who connects with it.

Though Psi Chi chapters and Psychology Clubs might be seen as functioning outside the traditional arena of "teaching," we believe that significant teaching and learning occur in the context of the activities of these student groups. By participating in these organizations, students learn not only about the scholarship of psychology, but also acquire a number of professional skills that will enhance their intellectual, personal, and career development.

Further, the ideas and tips we discuss in this article are relevant for both sustaining an already active student group or for revitalizing a club or chapter that has lost its momentum. Sometimes, a group that was once thriving may have lost its energy. If your chapter or club is in this situation, we encourage you to experiment with the ideas we present, as a means to restore the vitality of the group.

If your department currently has a Psychology Club but not a Psi Chi chapter, you may wish to consider chartering a chapter of Psi Chi at your college or university. To do so, contact the Psi Chi National Office toll free at 877-774-2441 or go to their Web site at www.psichi.org for information on eligibility and the application process.

The role of the faculty advisor is central to the success of the student organization, whether it is a Psi Chi chapter or Psychology Club. Their energy, enthusiasm, dedication, and availability are the foundation on which all else rests. What may be less obvious, however, is that effective faculty advisors are not micro-managers of the student group. In contrast, advisors are intentional about the development of the chapter, but step out of the way to let students take charge, make things happen, and solve the problems that inevitably arise. Ultimately, students should take the credit for a successful chapter or club. One important first step toward a vibrant chapter or club is to help students develop leadership skills.

Any experienced faculty advisor will tell you that the oscillations in the chapter's effectiveness hinge on the quality of student leadership. When leaders are active and involved, the chapter thrives; when they are not, the group falters. To maximize the payoff of strong student leadership, we recommend five strategies for ensuring a strong student leadership presence. In a nutshell, it pays to be deliberate in mentoring student leaders.

Hold Elections Early and Nurture Younger Talent. To be effective, leaders need experience. It takes time for student leaders to get to know their faculty advisor, their student peers, and the history of the club or chapter they are leading. Therefore, it is important to give officers time to acclimate to their new responsibilities. We strongly recommend holding officer elections early in the semester or quarter when elections are held. The time of elections often is related to the timing of the induction of new members into the organization. In our experience, new student leaders can be recruited from those newly joining the group. Some lead-time is needed to give incoming officers time to observe their more experienced peers. It is a good idea to talk about leadership and the various elected offices at some point during the induction ceremony. For Psychology Clubs, which may not have formal inductions, find another venue to highlight the importance and benefits of these leadership positions. Ideally, the chapter or club should involve a sophomore or junior level student in an officer role. This practice bodes well for developing leadership talent at "lower" offices and ensures a better pool of leaders for key positions, such as president. If a student expresses an interest in holding an office, and there are currently no positions open, do not turn the student away! Find another opportunity (perhaps create a new office) to involve this student in a meaningful way.

Provide Transitions and Training. Keep in mind this truth of academe - when summer hits, most students (and some faculty) disappear into the ether. They reappear later, but during the summer they typically vaporize. Students connect with the next phase of their lives, and faculty cherish the time to focus on research or other scholarly activities. From year to year, if faculty advisors are not intentional about providing helpful transitions from one group of officers to the next, a great deal of momentum may be lost. It is imperative, therefore, to create time for some type of transition between officers. If you hold elections early, you have more time to transition and train new officers. Transition rituals promote open communication between the advisor and student leaders, establishing a productive pattern of relating. We have used an annual breakfast at the end of the spring term as a way to facilitate officer transitions. We use this time to plan the fall semester's meetings, while the new officers can still get help from the old ones. Another tactic that has worked for us is to have each officer maintain an officer notebook with a description of responsibilities and tips that can be passed down as officers change.

Coach Group Dynamics and Conflict Resolution Skills. Throw a few human beings together, add the need to accomplish something, toss in a time-frame within which it all needs to get done, and you have the recipe for some interpersonal lumps in the mix. Psychology Clubs and Psi Chi chapters are no exception to the time-honored tradition of interpersonal conflict. As full-grown adults, many of us have learned, through reading or the proverbial school of hard knocks, what it takes to work through interpersonal conflicts as they inevitably arise. However, most students are less experienced in these matters, and they can benefit from coaching.

Sometimes merely recognizing the reality of difficult group dynamics can be helpful for student leaders. Without knowing that everyone in positions of leadership experiences these challenges, student leaders may feel isolated and inadequate in the face of interpersonal troubles. However, at other times it is necessary to be more active in helping officers work through difficulties. The effective faculty advisor is typically not superwoman or superman flying in heroically to take care of business and make everyone get along. A more successful approach, in our view, is to serve as a guide or coach, to help student leaders work things out themselves. Ongoing, open communication among officers and the faculty advisor is critical in dealing with interpersonal difficulties. At all costs, encourage officers to avoid gossip and talk directly and constructively about problems that arise.

Teach Professional Behavior. It is also important to teach aspects of professional behavior to student leaders. Making contacts with community partners, writing thank you letters as follow ups to speakers, introducing speakers, making requests of department chairs (e.g., for financial support of an event), leading a meeting, serving as mentors to younger students - these are but a few examples of important professional behaviors that students must learn to master. Students may pick up aspects of these behaviors by observing their faculty behaving professionally, but again it is typically desirable to be intentional about teaching these skills. Also, be willing to let students falter and not do things perfectly. At a later point, you can carefully point out where students did well and where they need some work.

Teach the Joy of Delegation. New student leaders sometimes think they must take care of everything through their own effort. We have found it useful to be explicit in teaching officers the importance of delegation. Involving others in the work of the club or chapter not only allows for greater accomplishment but also helps student leaders learn the art of this important leadership skill. Delegation creates in others the feeling of being an integral part of the group, allows new members to become active in the organization, and ultimately builds the leadership pool for future officers.

Visibility within the department is one sign of a Psi Chi chapter or Psychology Club that is alive and well. The student group thrives, in part, by making itself useful and by supporting important departmental goals or initiatives. Here we highlight just a few ways to create essential services for your department.

Support Research. Research activities are central to many psychology departments, and a Psi Chi chapter or Psychology Club can make important contributions in this domain. Chapters or clubs often invite faculty from their own institution or nearby institutions to give research talks. This type of event provides a valuable connection for getting students placed into research labs. If students are going to present their research at local, regional, or national conferences, the chapter can host poster preparation or oral presentation practice "parties" and supply food for the students and faculty who attend. Chapters or clubs can also sponsor regular lab meetings where students discuss their current research and share ideas.

In addition, the chapter or club can raise money to contribute to travel expenses for students. Also important may be a service where advanced students serve as research mentors for beginning student researchers. Such mentoring relationships provide perks to both upper and lower level students. Finally, if your campus hosts any kind of research conference (departmental, local, or regional), members of the student organization can serve as hosts and can contribute in other important ways to the functioning of the event.

Publish a Newsletter. Newsletters need not be expensive or elaborate, and they can communicate a heap of important information to students or alumni. A Psi Chi chapter or Psychology Club can take the lead and make sure that a newsletter gets published at least once a semester, if not more frequently. Students can make important contributions to the newsletter by writing or editing the entire publication. A newsletter can include a wealth of valuable information including information on new course offerings, course schedule changes, faculty research and other professional activities, student research, alumni news, a schedule of departmental events (e.g., social events, speakers, visiting scholars), job opportunities for students, advising information, or new faculty hires. After a few semesters of a quality newsletter (produced at a reasonable cost), a department chair will be singing the praises of the chapter or club.

Provide a Tutoring Service. Because of their knowledge of psychology and their experience with the expectations of college courses, advanced students can serve as academic tutors for less experienced students. A Psi Chi chapter or Psychology Club can coordinate this type of service, thereby contributing both to the welfare of student peers and to the life of the department. To establish this type of service, a group of tutors needs to be identified by soliciting students who have some expertise and confidence in particular areas of psychology (e.g., research methods, physiological, social) and who are willing to volunteer a portion of their time to assist others. It may help that teaching to others is one of the best ways to really understand it yourself. Then, students who want help need to be identified and paired with the tutors. It is relatively easy to connect tutors with students by (a) giving student contact information to tutors and letting them arrange the tutoring session or (b) posting sign-up sheets for students to sign up at particular times with tutors in particular areas. We have used Psi Chi meetings to solicit names of both tutors and students who wish to be helped.

Engage in Community Service Activities. Institutions of higher education are increasingly recognizing the importance of moving outside the walls of the ivory tower to connect with the surrounding community. Psi Chi chapters and Psychology Clubs can support this emphasis by engaging in service projects that bring together the institution and the community. Although the community partner will benefit from these activities, the greatest compensation may be to the students who participate. When students link to the community, they broaden their perspectives and are able to put their classroom learning to use in applied settings. These group experiences also contribute significantly to chapter or club cohesion.

Traditions create a sense of history and continuity for chapters and clubs. By purposely creating such customs, the student organization fashions a legacy that is passed down from one student generation to the next. It is important to let the traditions evolve, however, so that they do not stagnate with time. There is a big difference between a meaningful tradition and an old, tired convention. Always allow students to reinvent and rethink traditions. Some of the most fruitful customs in our departments have come about from the insight and initiative of students.

Central to the success of traditions is effective communication regarding the organization's events. We have already highlighted the importance of ongoing and open communication between faculty advisors and student leaders. Communication also needs to flow from the student group to other students and to departmental faculty who are not advisors. Regarding faculty attendance, sometimes faculty do not understand that their involvement is very important to the life of the chapter or club. By attending the traditional events of the group, the faculty show their commitment to the students and to their intellectual and professional development that occurs in contexts other than classrooms. Faculty presence at these events is a clear symbol that they recognize these events as important. Clear, concise, and timely communication with faculty via e-mail or a note in a mailbox can be effective. For special occasions (e.g., student research presentations or inductions), the faculty advisor may wish to extend a special invitation to faculty, with a rationale for why their attendance is meaningful to students.

Hold an Induction Ceremony. Chief among traditions is the induction ceremony (most appropriate for Psi Chi chapters), which ideally should be held twice a year, although two inductions are sometimes not possible for chapters. Induction ceremony formats vary, but often include a speaker or meal, along with the actual induction of new members. The purpose of the ceremony is to convey to inductees the significance of their accomplishment by recognizing them in this important way. The induction is also an ideal time to mention leadership opportunities and to encourage members to get involved. Invite the entire psychology faculty to the inductions. It is a nice way to build group cohesiveness outside of the traditional classroom or departmental setting. Keep in mind as well that the focus of this ceremony is on the new members and existing members should go out of their way to welcome the inductees.

Travel To Professional Conferences. Another useful tradition is to enlist students to travel to regional or even national meetings to present their research or just to experience the conference environment. Such travel can be expensive but has multiple payoffs, including socializing students into the discipline, exposing them to leading scholars in the field, and providing opportunities to present papers and posters. These experiences prove invaluable to students interested in graduate school. Students make connections with faculty and students outside their institution, see professional behavior modeled, and learn about current research in their fields of interest. Often, trips to conferences will give students a sense of excitement to come back to their school and initiate independent research or further collaborations with student peers and faculty.

Engage in Social Activities. Although Psi Chi chapters and Psychology Clubs should provide more than a social outlet for students, such communal activities are significant in creating bonds among members, bonds that will facilitate the ability to work effectively on other projects. In a recent national survey of Psi Chi chapters initiated by the Psi Chi National Council, an important finding was that active chapters engaged in regular social activities when compared to nonactive chapters. Sometimes social activities can be combined with other important functions of the club or chapter. For example, fundraisers can take on an atmosphere of shared fun. A car wash in April when the weather is warmer, for instance, might raise a good deal of money while providing a break from the typical academic grind of the month.

Be Involved With Alumni Events. Once graduation occurs, it can be difficult to maintain contact with departmental alumni. Such connections are valuable to the department and to the university as a whole, however, and, by helping with this type of activity, a Psi Chi chapter or Psychology Club can provide another essential service to the department. Thus, the chapter or club can help coordinate or staff alumni events during homecoming or other similar functions on campus.

Keep a Scrapbook or Photo Archive. A good photo archive takes time to create and maintain. With the advent of electronic photos and scanned documents, however, this type of memorabilia has become somewhat less cumbersome. This kind of historical record connects with other points we have made in this article. For instance, it contributes to the sense of tradition in the club or chapter, and it connects with alumni tracking. The quality of the archive may ebb and flow over time, but the ongoing effort to maintain it is worth it in the long run. Just be sure to take photos of everything!

Show Me the Money. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that traditions and other chapter activities require funds to make them happen. For example, hosting an induction ceremony or traveling to professional meetings can be expensive. In addition to some of the traditional fund-raising activities like bake sales, car washes, or t-shirt sales, chapters or clubs do well to educate themselves about and take advantage of other sources of money. For example, many universities have funds that can be applied for through student government or student affairs offices. Department chairs may also reserve a certain amount of money to help fund important chapter events. It is good professional training for student leaders to apply for university funds or approach department chairs to request financial support. As another example, the national organization of Psi Chi has a grant program designed to help fund local undergraduate psychology research conferences, particularly conferences that are new. From the standpoint of having good programs for students, the value of raising money is clear. What may be less obvious, however, is the importance of including students in the process of financial planning. Experience with fundraising gives students a chance to experience directly this dimension of an organization and to develop this important leadership skill.

Undergraduates, in particular, may have never considered themselves capable of publishing an article or receiving grant funding to support their research. Faculty advisors know these accomplishments are possible, and they should do all they can to help students achieve in these domains. Psychology Clubs or Psi Chi chapters provide the perfect context for this encouragement to take place because they provide a supportive, peer-oriented environment within which risk-taking is safe. Psi Chi has numerous research grant programs (e.g., summer research grants, NSF/REU research grant partnerships, undergraduate research grants) and research award programs. We strongly encourage faculty advisors to connect students to these programs, because the professional development opportunities for students are so great. The Eye on Psi Chi, the magazine of the national organization, has details on all of these programs, as does the Psi Chi Web site (www.psichi.org).

Moreover, the Psi Chi Journal of Undergraduate Research is a professionally peer-reviewed journal that publishes quality undergraduate scholarship. There are other journals devoted to the publication of undergraduate research, and these journals are listed on the inside back cover of the Psi Chi journal.

We hope we have provided some useful tips for creating and sustaining a dynamic Psi Chi chapter or Psychology Club within your department. Success with these student organizations does not come without its share of blood, sweat, and tears. But the benefits are clear and can be a source of self-efficacy for students and professional renewal for faculty who are involved. Active student organizations can also energize the entire departmental culture, an assertion that brings us full circle to a point we made at the outset of this article.

We recognize that there is no perfect formula for how to make these organizations work successfully and fully appreciate that universities and psychology departments have their own unique heritage, culture, and personalities. We encourage you to experiment with the suggestions we have provided and see which ones fit best for your situation. Better yet, create your own strategies. Experiment, be flexible, and stay innovative. As you learn new and effective tactics, by all means share them with colleagues. Above all, listen carefully to students and work with their suggestions. They typically have the best ideas.

Regularly consult the Eye on Psi Chi, which is published quarterly by the Psi Chi National Office. It is full of ideas for chapter activities and initiatives, filled with useful articles regarding graduate school and professional issues, and contains information on all of Psi Chi's grant and award programs. If your institution does not have a Psi Chi chapter, you can still access the Eye online at www.psichi.org.

PETER J. GIORDANO is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Teaching Center at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee where he teaches general psychology, abnormal psychology and theories of personality. He was the National Past-President of Psi Chi in 2001-2002 and is co-advisor of Belmont's Psi Chi chapter.

ELIZABETH YOST HAMMER is Associate Professor of Psychology at Loyola University, New Orleans. She regularly teaches social psychology, research methods, and is actively involved in student research. She was National President of Psi Chi in 2002-2003.

ASHLEY E. LOVELL graduated as a psychology major at Belmont University and was President of Psi Chi and the Psychology Club at Belmont in 2002-2003. She has presented research projects at NCUR, SEPA, and APA. She is pursuing her PhD in health psychology.

TEACHING TIPS provides the latest in practical advice on the teaching of psychology and is aimed at current and future faculty of two- and four-year colleges and universities. Teaching Tips informs teachers about the content, methods, and profession of teaching. Send article ideas or draft submissions directly to Baron Perlman, Teaching Tips Editor, Dept. of Psychology, Univ. of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Oshkosh, WI 54901-8601; 920-424-2300; Fax:920-424-1204; or perlman@uwosh.edu.

Chief Editor
Baron Perlman
University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh
Lee McCann and Susan McFadden
University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh