“The way to learn to write is to write, and to write with feedback”

Christopher Peterson, Psychology (large photo)

Christopher Peterson is a Thurnau Professor of Psychology whose research deals with character strengths and how they relate to such outcomes as happiness, achievement, and physical well-being. He has won a number of awards for his teaching at the University of Michigan. Peterson believes that “If a student gets out of college and knows how to write, that’ll serve them for the rest of their life, regardless of their profession.”

For Peterson, “the way to learn to write is to write, and to write with feedback, and that means to me lots of little papers with lots of people”…. And Peterson stresses how crucial it is for instructors to return papers to students by the next class so that the feedback has some immediacy. He has also found that students need to create routines in which they make time for writing and revising. Additionally, he says, they have to “read good writing. And it doesn’t have to be from Psychology.”

Peterson says he wants Psychology students to learn how to write as psychologists, but that they should also be wary of jargon and passive voice constructions. Rather than saying, “A questionnaire was administered,” he prefers writing that more accurately represents the agent in the sentence, as in: “We handed a questionnaire to the person.”

He wants students to have fun and be creative when they are writing. He might ask them to write a play about what happens when “Freud meets Skinner” or to “analyze a [newspaper] story on the front page from the perspective of what we’re talking about.” A favorite assignment asks students to see the 1939 movie, the Wizard of Oz, and to write about character strengths, Peterson’s principal research interest.

Peterson says his teaching has improved over time. He uses humor to help students see some of the problems with writing according to disciplinary conventions. Peterson also says he has learned from his students just how helpful concrete examples can be.

Peterson has built opportunities for self-reflection into his teaching practice. He says, “when something works, makes them smile, at the end of every class—this is probably good advice for any teacher—I write down what worked, what didn’t work in the class. I don’t rely on my memory. So when I go back in a year, I go, ‘Oh yeah, that was a really bad example I gave’…. Or ‘that was a really great example.’ So I’ll be sure to have time for that or something like that….And I’ll go right into those lecture notes, and I’ll cross things out. So the next year, I’ll go –‘there’s a reason I crossed this out.’”

He emphasizes that good teaching, like good writing, involves multiple revisions: “draft after draft after draft after draft….Because you don’t recommend that somebody write one giant term paper at the end of the semester and cross off the writing requirement.”

His advice to instructors? “I really think it’s the practice, practice, practice. I’ve received every teaching award there is, but I am not an innovative teacher. I give lectures, I do power point, you know, I give assignments, multiple choice exams—there’s nothing innovative there, um, but what I’ve done well is to perfect it. And then the other thing is I really care….Students don’t want… the aloof, the indifferent, arrogant, cruel paper-chase type of teacher…. They want to be taught by someone who cares….”

Peterson says that some of his own research has demonstrated that “the teachers who were most effective were the ones who were excited about what they were teaching, and who were socially intelligent-- able to realize that you need something different than him and her, who individualized teaching—and acknowledged what the students were thinking and feeling. And then teachers who were playful; playful was real big—a real big predictor.” Peterson emphasizes that being playful and individualizing instruction are two things that all instructors can work on.

Peterson’s other activities include organizing the University’s theme semester, “What Makes Life Worth Living?” Peterson also blogs for audiences outside academia. To read his Positive Psychology blog for Psychology Today called “The Good Life.”