To show students it is OK to be vulnerable and make mistakes while learning, this professor lowers the stakes and raises the fun factor.
Adjunct Professor of Psychology, Diablo Valley College
Ordained interfaith minister, PhD in Psychology, MA in Psychology, BA in Psychology
To foster student engagement with learning, it helps to begin with a knockout attitude.
That is the philosophy of adjunct psychology professor Ray Faulkenberry, PhD, who has an infectiously positive personality, a penchant for building students’ confidence—and an eighth-degree black belt in both Taekwondo and Kenpo. This speaker, author, and adjunct professor of psychology has been a martial arts instructor for 30 years, but it was not until he became a professor that he understood the full force of the teachings provided by his own childhood mentor.
“He told me 10,000 times, ‘Ray, all there is is being together,’” says Faulkenberry. “As the years went by, I thought, ‘How together can we really be? How much support can we be for each other?’”
The importance of finding an answer became apparent to Faulkenberry while interviewing more than 300 college students for a book he is writing. He found that the majority of them felt a lack of engagement on the part of their educators—and when there was engagement, it was very much tied to the course content, not to a personal connection.
Fortunately, Faulkenberry’s martial arts training kicked in and helped him arrive at a way to bolster engagement and content mastery—but also serve students on a universal, lifelong level.
Challenge: Too much focus on content mastery
The importance of “being together” was always in the back of Faulkenberry’s mind, and it became a puzzle that he would frequently ponder as he thought about his life as well as his profession.
“It struck me that if we as teachers are trying to help shape students, the true nature of the instruction is about supporting your evolution as a human being to be successful personally and professionally,” Faulkenberry says. “That’s where some teachers get lost; they think the goal is strictly the content and to have the students regurgitate it, and to me, that is not the goal.”
Faulkenberry realized that part of the solution might lie in students and educators being in the learning moment—together.
Innovation: Put fun first, and content mastery will follow
The defining theme that underlies Faulkenberry’s pedagogy is one of encouragement and positivity as a way to drive content mastery and build character.
While he still works to help students engage with a course’s content, he is more actively working to promote a mindset based on self-confidence, curiosity, and continuously pushing the limits of learning.
“I advocate that, as a professor or teacher, [content mastery] is almost a secondary by-product,” he says. “I want students to have fun and feel passionate and engaged. I let them know up front: This is life and there are [educators] who truly want you to succeed beyond your grade.”
To prove this to his own students, Faulkenberry fell back on a message from his days in graduate school. “A teacher once told me, ‘Ray, if you want to make a good class, find activities you enjoy and tie them to the lesson.’”
Faulkenberry has done just that, beginning with a children’s game that opens the door to some very serious life lessons.
“This class teaches us how to deal with other people, and to understand and appreciate our own selves as well as others, so we can develop relationships that enhance us professionally and personally.”— Ray Faulkenberry, PhD
Frequency: Two 80-minute classes per week
Class size: 42–45 students
Course description: This course is a study of the major theories, methods, and concepts of modern psychology. The orientation of the course is the scientific study of behavior and mental processes, and covers such areas as: the history and systems of psychology, the biological foundations of behavior, perception, states of consciousness, learning, memory, motivation, emotion, human development, personality, stress and health, abnormal psychology, therapies, social psychology, research findings, and applied psychology.
PSYCH 101 Introduction to PsychologySee materials
Lesson: Simon Says, “Help your students grow as humans!”
One of the best examples of Faulkenberry’s dedication to students’ personal growth is a Simon Says activity that he performs in the first weeks of class. This fun and fast-paced display of behavior encourages interactions that he will later relate to a broader course (and life) lesson.
Here is how Faulkenberry helps students make this transformative leap:
Open their eyes to their own abilities
Faulkenberry’s pedagogy is based in encouragement and positivity; his foremost goal is to impart in his students a sense of personal equity and self-efficacy. At the start of the course, he says, “I want you to realize that you are brilliant, intelligent, compassionate, incredible; and the limited way in which we’ve done school may or may not have supported that theory of you.”
His purpose? To set the stage for the personal connection that follows—and let students know that their experience matters. “I am offering an honest and reflective experience of myself,” Faulkenberry tells his students, “and I’m going to give you guys a lot of opportunity to share in who you are and the magic of who you are, so you can see we are all part of this same connection.”
Start with child’s play, then raise the stakes
The Simon Says activity starts as you might expect: If “Simon Says” so, they are instructed to put up their right arm, wave their left hand, or scratch their faces, for example. If they fail to follow directions exactly, take too long, or even twitch, they are “out.”
Toward the end of the session, they play for what Faulkenberry calls the World Championships. “They start getting better, and we go faster—and they need to self-judge,” he says. “I remind them that if they twitch and don’t go down (meaning they’re not playing fairly), I will wait a few seconds for their integrity—doing something right when no one’s looking—to kick in. If they don’t heed it, that person’s whole row is eliminated.” This is where the game takes its first turn into the deeper realm of character and morality—though students may not yet realize it.
Engage when you have their attention
By the end of the game, when there are only two people left, everyone is engaged. “The class is just roaring and laughing, and then I’ll say, ‘Stop!’”
When Faulkenberry pauses the game, it is to strike while the iron is hot. He asks the class to shout out what they heard, sensed, and felt during the game, as well as their general perception of what was going on.
“In five minutes, the board will be filled with words like communication, confusion, concentration, teamwork, authority, fear, laughter, competition—the list goes on.” This allows students to develop a deeper understanding of the experience they were just having.
Tie the game to a broader lesson
As the class sees the full range of expression written on the board, Faulkenberry ties the lesson together by discussing perseverance and mindset as it relates to success. He explains, “If you each lost 10 times in the course of the game, and we have 45 people in the room, we can say you failed as a class 450 times.” He asks why they did not just quit the game if the failure rate was so high. Students respond by saying, “It was just a game” or “It was easy.” But if this was a job that they failed at 10 times, he asks, would they feel similarly? Usually his students say no. They would feel they are probably not good at it and should quit.
By tying the game to a situation where the stakes are higher, such as a job, Faulkenberry shows that the two are more similar than the students think. “We may not succeed at most things in the beginning,” he explains. “But if we’re willing to stay with it, we can start to improve.”
Broaden the scope even further
Faulkenberry then continues to review the list on the board, inviting students to draw their own connections. “It shows the good, the bad, the failure, the emotion, the anger, the judgment, the celebration, and the laughter,” he says. “I ask students, ‘Isn’t it true that you’re going to experience all of this in life?’” Of course, they can now see the implications more clearly, and the message truly sinks in.
Faulkenberry says that this activity fosters the connection necessary for engagement and self-empowerment, which is a great way to start a semester.
“After we complete the activity, break it down and talk about it, we get to the end, and they say, ‘Oh my God, we just witnessed [everything that happens in] life in just 10 or 15 minutes!’”
Books by Ray Faulkenberry, PhD
Faulkenberry has already published several books, several of which he uses in one of his classes. Others were based on pedagogical research done with students, and two reflect his deep personal interest in helping other teachers develop connections with their students. His own students can gain extra credit by reading his works.
The Answer, 2018
Bridging the Gap: How to Develop Equitable Student-Teacher Relationships (coauthored with Wesley Faulkenberry), 2018
Twice in a Lifetime, 2017
Faulkenberry says his Simon Says exercise is applicable to most any lesson, and his colleagues have proven it to him. “We took this exercise and had faculty break into small groups, then use the activity in their math, English, science, and social sciences settings,” he says. “They came up with potential lessons and ways that this activity can be tied to their course content. The results were better than anything I could have imagined!”
His students have responded with equal enthusiasm. “The most validating part is to have students come back and say how appreciative they are of [my teaching] style and the laughter and the connection they experience in my class.”
Faulkenberry believes this is tied to “emotional flashbulb moments” that ignite a strong moment of emotion or vulnerability, which becomes tied to what they remember of the class and the lessons they learn.
Faulkenberry regularly hears from his students about the tremendous impact his class has had on them. Recently he heard from a senior at UC Davis whom he always found to be on the quieter side. “As my class went on, he became a little more outgoing. And I just got an email from him that said, ‘The things I remember about your class are that you brought the material alive with stories, games, and discussions. You came in with such joy and such fun, and you cared about us. [There are] a lot of things I don’t remember about school, but there were so many activities and [so much] fun and joy in your class, and you reminded me of how much fun school can be.’”
Other verbatim assessments from students include the following:
“He makes learning so much fun and that’s a hard thing to do. Sounds cheesy, but if I had a choice to keep taking his class over and over, I would!”
“The way you taught was in a way that made me excited to come to every 8 a.m. lecture you offered. Having a professor like you, who threw passion and excitement into every lecture, is what made you stand out as my ultimate favorite professors to learn from. Also showing that you cared, is what always made us come back for more!”
“I loved your class for 2 reasons, the first being that you were open to conversation. For me, learning is understanding, and not just by reading or listening, but by talking about it, it helps me remember what I learned better than taking notes from lecture or just reading. The second reason being that you are 100% approachable. Your goofy, witty, fun loving attitude, and passion for psychology is what made me ultimately decide to go back to being a psychology major and pursue a career in it.”
In response to his students’ praise, Faulkenberry says, “It’s kind of selfish, but this is what I always wanted [when I was in college]. I wanted teachers who would make me laugh, who cared about me and were passionate about the material, and who got me doing things.”
Certainly, Faulkenberry has delivered these experiences to his own students. And that makes everyone in the class a winner.