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Ben Gorvine

Spring 2024 Interview

Ben Gorvine is the Charles Deering McCormick Distinguished Professor of Instruction, Associate Chair, and Lead Adviser in the Psychology Department of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. He is also co-adviser to Northwestern's chapter of Psi Chi (the International Honor Society in Psychology). Gorvine lives on campus as a Faculty-in-Residence. Professor Gorvine is a 2023 recipient of the University Teaching Award and a Distinguished Fellow of the Searle Center.

Ben Gorvine
Charles Deering McCormick Distinguished Professor of Instruction
Associate Chair, Lead Adviser, Faculty-in-Residence
Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences

What about psychology first interested you?

I always have been interested in the study of people, so psychology was kind of a natural fit. Early on during my college career, I was taking a variety of courses, picking between psych and English majors. I had a couple of psych faculty who I just really liked. So I think it was also a little idiosyncratic that waythat I just connected with people who taught the material really well and it was already a general interest. Psychology also has lots of different directions you can go, but because there are so many topics that fall under the umbrella, it just it felt like a good area to pursue where I could look at lots of different interests and issues.

What sparked your interest in teaching psychology?

I come from a family of teachers. My dad was a high school teacher, and briefly, a college professor. My mother taught preschool for a certain stretch of her career. This wouldn't have been true when I started teaching, but my older daughter is a teacher. Now, my wife is a teacher, so I've always been surrounded by teachers. Part of me just always knew that was probably the route I was going to pursue, as well.

I really enjoy the content of psychology. I know students find it super interesting. So it's low-hanging fruit to be able to teach this stuff that I really enjoy and that students tend to love. 

Tell me about your research in approaches to teaching psychology. How might your research apply to other disciplines?

I'm more a teacher than a researcher, so the idea of researching teaching was a perfect for me. I've done some work with a couple of colleagues in psychology looking at different approaches that we can use to try to get students more engaged with and less anxious about quantitative topics, particularly statistical methods, which is a big requirement in the psych department.

I've taught statistics now for 16 years. The research has focused on things we can do in structuring classes to make them less intimidating. We've been interested in researching: Does that help students to feel less anxious? Does it help them to retain the material more? So some of the research is focused on the potential benefits of collaborative learning, both in terms of mastering the material and also anxiety about the material.

There's already pretty robust research literature that shows that collaborative learning has all sorts of benefits for people who don't understand the material as well. Working with a group of peers who can help explain material in a different way than your instructor actually has substantial benefits. Even if you're the person in a team who understood the material already, there are notable benefits for your own mastery of the material if you're tasked with explaining it to students who are less proficient.

For me, group work is really important in a big class. I would hate to just be lecturing every single day for 10 or 11 weeks. In that stats class, it’s about 50% lecture and 50% collaboration group work. So we'll cover a topic in lecture, and in the next class meeting, students will be in a group and working on a problem set applying that concept. It gives an opportunity for students not to feel like they don't know anybody in the class. It also allows me to circulate around the classroom and check in with teams. It’s a way to make it a little bit more of a connected learning experience rather than passively sitting back. Having variety in the class where it's not all focused on me just delivering information to you, I think often makes for a much better educational experience.

What are your main goals as an educator, related to student learning?

I want students to feel connected to the material in some meaningful way, where even if they're not going to become statisticians in their later life or they're not going to do psychology research, I want them to feel some sort of connection to and relevance around the material. In some classes, it's easier than others to do that.

In stats and research methods, I try to be really intentional about explicitly giving a rationale for "Here's why we make you take this class and this is why it matters." And even if you're not going to go to grad school, here are some ways in your life later on that you might find this material connects.

It's always a learning goal for me to get students to connect with one another in a class. In the big stats lecture, those groups are an opportunity for students to have some connection to each other and as well as the material. In smaller seminars, that's much easier to do, where you can make sure that people are connected to one another and that there's a learning community.

I've read some research literature over the years that suggests that if you go 10 years out of college, you are not going to remember all that much specific content from courses that you took. But you are going to remember how a course made you feel and how engaged you were. I certainly found that in my own learning. When I think back to my college years, I don't honestly remember tons of specific content that I learned in specific classes, but I definitely have a vibe that I remember about why a particular course was a course that I really liked. As an instructor, I try to create classes that, hopefully, people will look back on and might remember, "Oh, that class actually helped me to think about how statistics get used in the world. That was a really warm supportive environment!"

How can educators help maintain their students' mental health?

I'm sure I'm not perfect in this regard, but remembering and seeing your students as whole people. In the same way that if you're a student, it's easy to see your faculty member as the person in a particular role providing you with information education and evaluating you. It's easy to see things more transactionally. I think faculty need to be sure not to fall into that mentality, either. Sometimes we end up inadvertently viewing students as assignments to be graded, rather than individual people with complex lives and family commitments and interpersonal concerns. For me, fundamentally taking care of students’ mental health really just involves consistently reminding myself and remembering that everybody coming into my classroom is also dealing with all the things of life. And it doesn't mean that every time somebody asks for some sort of extra accommodation that the answer can be yes, but I try to default to say "yes" if there's any reasonable way to do so.


As a Faculty-in-Residence, are there any activities that you host that help the students around you with their mental health?

Those of us who are Faculty-in-Residence probably don't explicitly say, “This is for your well-being and health,” but I think almost all the stuff we do is underlying it. I host faculty dinners where we'll bring in a faculty member, or sometimes a dean or administrator, and a group of students come over and we give them a good meal and hopefully also some good conversation. On their surface, those events are about connecting residential and academic experiences, which I think is important. But I also feel like those events serve a wellness purpose because you’re getting good food and connecting in a way that's different than when you go to Allison, Sarge, or Plex. We also have a dog and two cats, so people get pet time. That's definitely good for mental health. Those events have that underlying mission of helping people just to have a home-style experience when you're away at college.

One of the other big events I do is a weekly big study break in Willard, and that's much more grab-and-go. That’s always on Sunday night, and the idea there honestly is to give people a little bit of a mental break from all the other stuff that you're grinding through academically. We actually structure it intentionally. There’s usually a line and that’s by design. The first time we did it years ago, it was set up in a way that people could come up really quickly, grab their food, and run off. And we want people to have it be a bit of a break, so hopefully, you come with a friend or you see someone you know in the line. Even the line is part of the deal, where you're hanging out for a few minutes, but you're talking with other people and I'm playing music. It can be a mental break as well.

How do you manage the balance between academic responsibilities and personal self-care?

It’s a work in progress, I would say. It's probably more challenging right now for me living on campus because I’m always here. Obviously, I signed up for it so I’m not complaining, but it is more of a challenge if the space that you call home is also attached to a dorm. Even within that, the five of us who are Faculty-in-Residence, all of our apartments are structured in a way that we can still have some privacy. They can be our homes, while they also sometimes are spaces where we host students. So I'm still able to use my home space as a refuge, even though when I look out the window I'm at Northwestern.

I think being really conscious about scheduling time for things that are separate from my work is an important part of self-care. Just doing things that are not directly about being a Northwestern professor. Most of the time I think I'm reasonably good about that. A lot of the things I do for work because I like them so much, they also end up secondarily being self-care as well. So I don't think doing the Faculty-in-Residence thing would work for me if I felt like it was extra burden. But I don't experience it that way. This weekend, we're taking a group of students to see one of the Wirtz Center plays, and we hope for a little reception before. Even though that's work because I'm doing it for my job, I enjoy that enough that I feel like it's also kind of refreshing. It's very different hosting that sort of event: going to a theater event, having a group of students over for dinner. That's not the same type of work as teaching a class and grading a stack of papers. So part of my work helps with that self-care balance.