Beyond Academic Boundaries: Tips for Teaching Psychology to the Community

01 May 2018 6:10 PM | Anonymous

Karen Z. Naufel  (Georgia Southern University)

Psychology sometimes has a public relations problem. People are skeptical of its science (Lillienfeld, 2012) and usefulness (Halonen, 2011). It is important that we teach others about the practicality and ubiquity of psychology. Teaching about these values is not limited to only the classroom. Instead, if people are to learn about psychological science, we as instructors must extend our teaching beyond our academic borders. As others have said, we must teach to the community (e.g., Lilienfeld, 2012; Zimbardo, 2004).

Over the past several years, I have had this privilege of teaching psychology in the community. The process is different from teaching students. Community members have more freedom in choosing what they want to learn. The technology available in the classroom is not always available in community settings. The chance to correct a misunderstanding of information is limited. Simply put, effective teaching in the community often requires a different subset of skills than effective classroom teaching. In this essay, I present some tips for teaching the community that I've picked up along the way. Although there are many ways to teach in the community, I focus on how to give lectures (or “programs” as they are typically called).

Tips for Getting Started

Compared to students, community members have different incentives for learning material: They are not learning to ace tests or get good grades. Instead, they choose to learn when topics appeal to them. Therefore, it is crucial to identify topics that will appeal to a wide, non-academic audience. Identifying topics that will draw in such an audience can be tricky. If a program topic seems relevant and interesting, people come. If a program topic is too narrow, controversial, or academic, then community members may shy away from attending. Here are some tips for generating appealing program topics:

• Pick topics that meet community needs. If people stereotype psychology as a field that

only helps others with personal problems, then people are not likely to know how psychology could relate to them. Likewise, if psychology instructors aren’t connected with the community, then instructors also may not know what the community really needs.

Identifying community needs comes from submersing oneself in the community. It can come from looking at local organizations’ webpages, daily conversations with people at the coffee shop, or a chat with a worker while in the grocery store checkout line. Think about how psychology is connected to the issues that others bring up in these situations. Then, brainstorm program ideas that relate.

• Teach only what you know. As you generate program ideas, remember the ethicality of teaching only what you know. The American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct has specific provisions regarding making public statements [see Sections 2.01(a & c); 5 & 7]. Additionally, academic freedom does provide some license to talk freely. However, this freedom also comes with the responsibility of providing accurate information (Hunt, 2010). Sometimes, you may be invited (or tempted) to give a program on a topic outside of your area of expertise. In such instances, it is best to decline and instead refer the program to a knowledgeable colleague.

• Reframe program titles so they don’t create reactance. As we know from our long familiarity with the confirmation bias, people look for information that confirms rather than disconfirms their beliefs (Nickerson, 1998). Therefore, a talk entitled, “Spanking: Why It’s Not a Good Idea” will likely only draw in a crowd of people who already agree with the premise. Those who spank their children—arguably those who need this information more—may avoid the talk altogether. A talk title that is less direct (e.g., “Making the Terrible Twos Less Terrible: Strategies for Raising Healthy Toddlers, Preschoolers, and Children”) may elicit greater reception.

• Rapport matters. Even with a snazzy title, it can be difficult to get an audience. In tightknit or small communities, activities from newcomers or outsiders may be viewed suspiciously. Therefore, posting fliers about your program around town, creating a public Facebook event, or announcing it in a newspaper may work, but the resulting audiences may be embarrassingly minimal. (Can you imagine giving a talk to only one person? I can. It’s awkward.)

Personally, the best experiences I have had in getting program gigs have come from connecting with people from the community (see Tip 1). Go to Farmer’s Markets, spin classes, and community events. While waiting for your coffee at the local shop, chat with another frequent customer. Join locally-based Facebook groups or other groups, many of whom can recruit audiences for you. As you foster these friendships, it becomes easier for you to tell them what you do, and easier for them to ask for and value your expertise.

• Consider how your institution views these activities. Most likely, your institution will herald these activities as important service work. However, consider important policy and legal ramifications. Such service opportunities may also be considered consulting work in certain circumstances—even if your work is free. In these cases, institutions may limit the number of hours a faculty member can engage in consulting behaviors. Some institutions may require permission to use university’s supplies, such as a laptop or printer, for these events. Others may fully cover you should be injured while delivering a program, but the institution may require that formal paperwork be filed beforehand.

Tips for Developing a Program

Creating a lecture is not the same as developing a program. Beloved teaching strategies like think-pair-share may seem odd in a community setting, and assigning readings beforehand may not be possible. Instead, an instructor will likely get one brief shot to deliver the information clearly and succinctly. To increase the likelihood that a program goes well, consider these tips:

• Teach to the community, not to students. I remember a moment I was discussing research with a community member. I used the word “altruistic”— a word with which the community member was unfamiliar. She then said, “you professors like your big words, don’t you?” At that moment, I felt the rapport between us plummet. I had reinforced a stereotype that academics were not connected to the outside community.

Since then, I’ve aimed to be more mindful of my audience. Americans tend to read an eighth-grade level or less, and a substantial portion of the population lacks basic reading skills (Literacy Project Foundation, 2017). Therefore, lectures for a typical college-level psychology class may be too advanced for many community members, and it is important to adjust accordingly.

To make it more likely that a program appeals to wide audiences, it’s wise to have people with a variety of educational backgrounds offer feedback on your program’s recruitment materials, program, and activities. Although it is intended for creating health materials, the Center for Disease Control’s brochure Simply Put: A Guide for Creating Easy-to-Understand Materials has transferrable tips for delivering presentations to an audience with a wide range of literacy levels (Center for Disease Control, 2009). Additionally, reading-level calculation tools, such as the Flesch-Kincaid scale, can determine if text (or a transcription of what one plans to say) is at an acceptable level. Many word processing software systems, like MS Word, have such tools built in.

• Fair use rules for copyrighted material may be different. Do you have a favorite cartoon that you like to show to your classes? Is there a graph in a journal article that really illustrates a concept? The same principles for fair use in academic settings are not necessarily the same ones for use in community settings. To determine what media can be included in a program, consider how these media will be used. For instance, does the organization want to post your program's handouts on their webpage? Will the organization disseminate your program's materials to others? It is pertinent to review fair use policies to determine whether materials can be used.

Some websites have materials that are free for public use. For instance, has thousands of photographs available, and it does not require attribution or the creator’s permission to use. Other websites, such as the NOBA project (, have license agreements explaining how the material can be used and shared.

• Plan for no PowerPoint. If planning to use technology as part of the presentation, and your program is off campus, remember that not all organizations have equipment for you to use. BYOT (Bringing Your Own Technology) may be an option. If you choose to BYOT, ask about the room setup prior to coming. Rooms can be too small for a projector, outlets may not be available, or the room setup may not be conducive for using technology. On one occasion, I was told a monitor with an HDMI cable would be available to hookup to my laptop. It was, but the monitor size was much too small for everyone to see the graphics clearly. On another occasion, I was promised a projector. When I arrived, they had a projector, but no projector screen. Unfortunately, art occupied all wall space, which meant I couldn’t project on those surfaces. Luckily, I had brought handouts so I could improvise on the spot.

Although I love using technology in the classroom, I rarely use it anymore when giving programs to the community. Instead, I have found that giant Post-It® notes can be great for writing quick points or drawing quick visuals. Handouts, too, can provide a summary of key points without relying on the randomness of technology.

• Be prepared to give programs of varying lengths. Instructors may be used to having nearly an hour or more to give a program. However, community programs vary drastically in time allotment. Though sometimes I have an hour or more to speak, I am usually asked to give shorter (10-20 minute) programs.

Some programs take place during an organization’s regular meeting. Their regular meeting agenda may run long, which cuts into the program time. I have had to change the length of my program on the spot. Just as it is important to have an idea what to cut from a lecture, it is also a good to have an idea what to cut if giving a program.

If you find yourself with a tiny time limit, remember these rules: 1) Emphasize a single main point, and 2) Provide participants with specific steps for how to obtain more information upon completion. The last step is particularly important in preventing participants from internet searching pseudoscientific and inaccurate information.

Tips for Finishing up a Program

• Assess your work. Techniques that work in classrooms may not work as well in the community. Alternatively, a novel approach in the community may inspire a new teaching technique for your classroom. If at all at all possible, chat with attendees after you give your program. Such chats can provide insight to if and how they will use the information they learned. For longer programs and workshops, it is also acceptable to ask participants to complete a very brief survey about your talk. (You can for shorter programs as well, but it may impinge on your time limit). The assessment aspect, whether formal or informal, is vital for improving your techniques for future programs.

• Take experiences back to the classroom. Teaching community members can augment the quality of your own classes. Students often crave real-world application of material, and these experiences—unless proprietary—can provide examples to share with your students. Additionally, these experiences can foster the community relationships necessary to have successful and unique service learning opportunities. For instance, a program on creating customer satisfaction surveys for small business owners could transform into an indirect service learning project for students in a research methods course. To maintain a relationship with the community members following a program, the instructor could suggest having students work on the project as part of a course assignment.

Enjoy the reward. Though teaching students and the community may require different approaches, they do yield similar feelings of reward. When teaching either in the classroom or in the community, we are often providing the first glimpse of psychological science. In both cases, it is exciting to see those wide-eyed moments when people realize the extent to which psychology is valuable to them.


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Halonen, J. (2011). Are there too many psychology majors? White paper prepared for Staff of

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