Psychology Professor Scott Plous is an acclaimed teacher and scholar both within his field and in the broader academic world. This past August, he received the American Psychological Foundation’s Charles L. Brewer Award for Distinguished Teaching of Psychology. The award recognized his work as an advocate for “action teaching,” an educational method which has been celebrated by the psychology and pedagogy community alike.
Nearly a decade ago, Plous coined the term “action teaching” as the educational counterpart of “action research”—research that addresses societal problems such as prejudice and intergroup conflict. Action teaching involves connecting teaching with contemporary social issues. According to Plous, it encompasses all classroom activities, student assignments, and fieldwork that can benefit students as well as society.
“Action teaching” can be applied to any area of study. For example, a statistics professor might use climate change data while teaching about probability and regressions. Students, however, not only learn to understand statistics but also one of the great environmental challenges of the day—global warming.
“The reason many instructors teach in the first place is to contribute to society,” Plous said. “With action teaching, faculty can address social issues and teach effectively at the same time. In fact, when instructors connect their course material to contemporary social issues, students often respond even better than they would otherwise.”
Plous, who joined the Wesleyan faculty in 1990, first put action teaching into practice while teaching a course on the psychology of prejudice. Plous designed a role-playing exercise in which students used social psychology methodologies to counter a prejudiced comment made by another person. During the exercise, the students were asked to apply social-psychological principles to reduce the speaker’s prejudice, and received performance feedback from their classmates observing the interaction.
Plous credits his colleagues for inspiring the use of action teaching.
“Even though they might not use the term ‘action teaching,’ there are many wonderful examples of it here—not just in psychology but in other disciplines,” Plous said. “It’s a great strength of Wesleyan’s curriculum.”
This includes courses, activities, and assignments on environmental justice, gender bias, racism, and climate change, among others.
“Action teaching is possible in almost any course,” Plous said. “Almost any course relates either directly or indirectly to a challenge that society faces.”
In addition to drawing inspiration from colleagues, Plous cited University students as important contributors to the concept.
“Wesleyan students tend to be action oriented themselves, and they have terrific ideas,” Plous said. “Over the years they’ve dramatically improved my teaching and encouraged me to make my courses socially relevant.”
To promote action teaching beyond campus, Plous manages several web sites related to peace, social justice, and psychology, including SocialPsychology.org, a website for Plous’ Social Psychology Network; prisonexp.org, a website on the Stanford Prison Experiment; UnderstandingPrejudice.org and IraqtheVote.org.
Since its inception in 1996, the Social Psychology Network website and its partner sites have received over 150 million page views.
Plous also archives award-winning examples at ActionTeaching.org for other instructors to use or adapt to their own classes. So far, 14 action teaching entries have won the award or received honorable mentions.
“The idea is not only to honor innovative teaching, but to make these ideas and materials available free of charge, and to spur other instructors to develop their own action teaching lessons and material,” Plous said.
Since Social Psychology Network was first established, over 60 students have been hired to help develop it.
“Wesleyan students have been at the heart and soul of both the Network and action teaching,” Plous said. “They’ve been incredibly dedicated and generous with their time, and it’s been a real privilege working with them—I mean that quite sincerely.”