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Jenny Baker
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Max. Classroom Capacity: An Interview With Dr. David Costanza

Loren J. Naidoo, California State University, Northridge

Dear readers,

Welcome! I am thrilled to spend this column talking about teaching with SIOP’s 2021 Distinguished Teaching Contributions Award winner, David P. Costanza. Dr. Costanza is an associate professor of Organizational Sciences and of Psychology at The George Washington University and has served as department chair and program director. He is also a Senior Consortium Fellow for the U.S. Army Research Institute. His research, teaching, and consulting are in the areas of generational differences; leadership; culture; organizational performance, decline, and death; as well as statistics and research methods. Dr. Costanza’s work has been published in journals including the Journal of Business and Psychology, Personnel Psychology, and Work, Aging and Retirement. He has authored work for Slate as well as numerous book chapters and conference presentations, and has been interviewed by the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, TIME magazine, VOX, and Yahoo! Finance. He is a member of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology and the Academy of Management and serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Business and Psychology and Work, Aging and Retirement. In 2009, Dr. Costanza was given the Distinguished Alumni Award in I/O Psychology by George Mason University and was awarded the 2020 Robert W. Kenny Prize for Innovation in Teaching of Introductory Courses by the Columbian College at GWU.

Loren Naidoo: David, welcome to Max. Classroom Capacity! Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, and congratulations on receiving SIOP’s Distinguished Teaching Contributions Award! Let me begin by asking you, how did you get your start as an I-O psychology academic?

David Costanza: Thanks for inviting me. As for my start in I-O, in undergrad, I tried economics, sociology, government, and business before happening upon an Intro to I-O Psychology course. It was that simple—I was hooked on I-O. After taking Intro, I cobbled together a concentration with courses from different departments since the psychology department only offered the one course. After that, I knew I’d be headed to grad school sooner or later.

As for where, I seemingly cannot get away from the DC area. I did my undergrad at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville (Wahoo-wa!), did a national job search, and ended up accepting a position at Contel (a local telephone company that was acquired by Verizon) in Northern Virginia. I did my master’s at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, and then applied at schools all over the country, but ended up staying at Mason for my PhD. I then did a national job search, eventually accepting a position at The George Washington University in DC. So, from undergrad to now, I've made three major changes but never moved more than 25 miles or so.

LN: DC is a great place to live! What made you choose to pursue a career in academia rather than industry? 

DC: Both my parents were teachers, my mom for preschool/kindergarten, and my dad was a professor at Ohio State. As such, I am pretty sure that I was destined for teaching. After undergrad, I did work in the corporate world in operations and office management. Although I enjoyed the experience and learned a lot about business, management, and organizations, I also learned that an 8–5 job where I had to wear a suit, tie, and wingtips every day was not for me. Getting my master’s and then PhD and working with some terrific professors at George Mason solidified my choice to become an academic. That and not having to wear a tie.

LN: That sounds very familiar. I am also the child of teachers and was attracted to academia partly due to realizing at a young age how difficult a regular 9–5 job can be. Receiving the Distinguished Teaching Contributions Award this year, of all years, is interesting because the timing coincided with arguably the biggest and fastest set of changes to teaching practice in modern history. Like the 2019–2020 NBA championship (go Lakers!), I would argue that the achievement is even more significant given the unique challenges that we faced this year. How would you describe the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on your teaching? What adjustments (if any) did you have to make to your approach?

DC: The most immediate impact was that I had to re-prep all my courses. I have never used or liked using PowerPoint slides in class. I'm an old school, draw-on-the-board type. Beyond developing slides, I had to reimagine a lot of what I do. When teaching, I rely on connecting with the students, real-time reactions and responses, and building off what happens in class to make points, bring up examples, or raise questions. Because of the pandemic, I, and all my colleagues, had to figure out how to engage the students over video, keep track of how they were doing, create online assessments, and manage the tech, all while taking care of ourselves, families, and everything else that was happening in the world. Honestly, at times, it was exhausting.

As with every course and teaching technique, some worked, some didn’t. I tried to elicit as much feedback and reactions from the students as I could, using it to gauge how things were going. I also quizzed my own two college-aged daughters, Zoe and Thalia, who themselves were transitioning to taking online courses. They were terrific SMEs for me.

LN: Did you notice any pattern to what worked and what didn’t? In other words, would you say that there are any fundamental principles that determine success in online teaching?

DC: Not really in terms of teaching techniques per se. What worked in some classes didn’t work in others. What did seem to make a difference was focusing on being available, supportive, and offering the students options. Being available was pretty easy because rather than just fixed office hours, which I still held, I could meet with them at other times. I also shared my cell number with them in case of emergency. I was a little hesitant, but no one abused it, and it did allow a couple of kids with last minute emergencies to connect with me. Being supportive was just that. Coming to class early, staying late, offering extensions when appropriate and not when it wasn’t. All this took a lot of emotional labor, but it was worth it.

As for offering the students options, I took aspects like class participation, which had been based on, well, class participation in class, and broke it down into smaller pieces. Students could earn participation credit by coming to office hours, attending scheduled individual meetings, presenting in class, and participating during synchronous sessions. I offered fewer major exams and more quizzes, small weekly assignments, and regular short assessments—things like weekly learning checks. Doing so allowed them to spread out their assignments and demonstrate incremental progress and made it a little bit harder for them to fall behind because I could keep track of how everyone was doing on a more regular basis.

LN: That’s a very interesting idea to break up your assessments into smaller pieces—more feedback and fewer high-stakes, high-pressure exams (I will take this opportunity to plug a past Max. Classroom Capacity column on the topic of quizzes). I completely agree with you about the importance of being supportive, in regular times, yes, but especially now.

At the moment (Mid-April, 2021), we seem to be in a strange place when it comes to COVID. Vaccinations are in full spring, with about 40% of the U.S. population having received at least one dose, but the number of cases seems to be creeping up in several states. Many universities are anticipating at least a partial return to in-person instruction in the fall of 2021. For the year+ we’ve been on this great adventure (glass half full!), we have had to rapidly modify our teaching while dealing with a number of new personal and professional stressors. Now we are, perhaps, at long last seeing the beginning of the end and contemplating a return to normalcy. What, if anything, will you change about your approach to in-person teaching based on your experiences of the last year? Are there any technologies, techniques, or practices that you learned during COVID that you think you will continue to use once we are back in the classroom?

DC: There are a few things I can see continuing for sure. I really thought that online testing worked well and makes grading a lot easier. Offering a 24-hour window when students can take a quiz or exam, and a time limit within that once they start, offers flexibility and options. The grade distributions for online assessments were pretty much the same as in-person and paper and pencil, and the students seemed to like it. I had to modify the questions so that they were less Google-able, but that's done so I will probably continue with online exams.

Weekly learning checks and feedback also worked well, and they kept me in touch with how things were going for the students in almost real time. I was also able to have guest speakers come into my courses from all over, not just those folks in DC whom I could get to come to campus. That is a huge plus, and I'll keep doing that. Recording class so the students can review later makes sense too.

As for what I won't do? Trying to monitor chat, watch students, and teach all at once is too much. I am not sure if GW will allow synchronous distance students, and I hope everyone is in person. By the way, GW just joined the parade of schools requiring vaccinations for on-campus students and has vowed to be in person to the greatest extent possible (yay!). Not sure what that means for in-person versus online preferences, but I won't miss a lot of the online overhead.

I'm torn on using slides. They seem less organic and flexible than writing on the board and less fun. I like to use lots of different colors of markers, drawing diagrams and underlining important points. That said, my handwriting is not great, the pens dry up, and the students do like the structure that slides offer. So, not sure on that. Check back with me in October.

LN: Earlier you touched on some very interesting issues that pertain to potential changes that are larger and more systemic in nature, such as how universities should handle students who would like to continue taking classes in a fully online format. I have heard concerns expressed about the possibility that traditional brick-and-mortar universities may be increasingly replaced by online ones. I’m not sure this is something you’ve thought a lot about, and maybe it’s premature to discuss given that we are still in the midst of the crisis, but I wonder whether you anticipate any larger changes happening in higher education in general, or psychology and management departments specifically, resulting from COVID?

DC: There has certainly been a lot of talk about the future of higher education but, because we're still in the pandemic, it has been mostly talk. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that the pandemic has demonstrated how important and in demand the residential college experience is. Sure, there may be some smaller, less financially secure colleges and universities that do not survive or transition to online education. However, I am more sure than I was before the pandemic that in-person, residential colleges and universities will be around for quite some time. The students want them, the parents want them, and the faculty and staff want them.

As for psychology and management departments, my prediction is that they will all morph into interdisciplinary organizational sciences departments! Just kidding (sort of). I do think that more cross-collaborations and interdisciplinary efforts among I-Os, management, education, and other organization-related disciplines are in the cards. Today’s organizations and the kinds of questions that need answering are more amenable to being addressed by cross-disciplinary efforts. Plus, not every school can offer every discipline to every student, so there is bound to be some consolidation and focusing in the academy. I-O should be leading the way on that.

LN: I know we’ve covered a lot of ground so far, but I want to try to distill for the readers the main aspects of your philosophy of and approach to teaching. From what we’ve discussed so far, it seems like you consider forming relationships with students as critical to teaching/learning—making connections with students in real time, offering support, and providing flexibility. Is there anything else that we haven’t talked about yet that you consider a core part of your teaching philosophy/practice?

DC: As noted, there is no one trick, tip, or technique for teaching across levels, across areas, across topics. Instead, I focus on a goal rather than a technique. What I have concluded is that what matters to most students is relevancy. Across courses, topics, or student levels. It could be the relevance to becoming educated adults, to advancing careers, to developing programs of research, or getting a job after college. I believe that if I put forth the effort to make connections, to prepare and be involved, students will find the material engaging, interesting, and yes, relevant.

LN: David, thanks so much for a great conversation about teaching!

Readers, as always, please send me your comments, questions, and feedback: Loren.Naidoo@CSUN.edu. Stay safe and be well!

 

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