Graduate Spotlight: Nicole Betz


Nicole Betz
Doctoral Candidate, Sociology
Northeastern University

What made you interested in studying psychology at Northeastern?
I’ve been at Northeastern for over a decade. Originally I was thinking of being pre-med and going into psychiatry. Obviously, I’ve completely switched directions. I realized that I didn’t actually want to do pre-med and I was really interested in just continuing to study psychology and the experimental side rather than the clinical side.

Can you tell me about your research?
A lot of my work is centered on science education. How does the way we think about concepts and categories influence the way we learn science and is there any friction there? For example, people tend to think that there are goals to our actions but where this thinking goes awry is when we apply it to other domains, such as science.

If I think in this goal-oriented way, I might incorrectly think that evolution has a goal, maybe even that humans are that goal. Those are the types of questions that I’ve been investigating. I also use my work to inform my own teaching. For example, knowing that people like to focus on goals, it is really important to emphasize goals in the classroom. When you introduce a new project you can say, “The goal of this project is to get you to understand this specific concept.” I also try to teach my students to do this in their writing. I tell my students it’s important to use this goal-oriented language since they end up with clearer arguments and stronger papers.

How has CATLR helped you in the development of the courses you’ve taught?
I’ve only taught one psychology course myself, which was the Laboratory in Cognition course this past summer. That class is designed to help students get hands-on experience doing research in a classroom setting and learn how to write up the results. CATLR has helped me a lot throughout the whole development of that class.

When I was designing the syllabus I went to a workshop where I reworked my syllabus. I also met with Alexia [Ferracuti], an Associate Director at CATLR, to go over my syllabus individually, which was really helpful. Afterwards, I had a much stronger syllabus and better plan for my course.

I’ve been going to CATLR workshops for years and I’ve learned so much throughout all of them, which I then apply to my classes. I do a lot active learning and “think-pair-share” activities to break up the lecture content and get students to engage with the material in different ways. I also try to think about diversity a lot in the classroom, to make sure students feel comfortable and that my classroom environment is inclusive.

I’ve done a couple of workshops on how to grade papers from non-native English speakers and found those immensely helpful. We learned to figure out what levels of feedback make the most sense in a certain context, how to prioritize feedback, and the importance of asking students themselves about the type of feedback they are looking for. For example, some non-native students appreciate grammar-level feedback, while others don’t.

Can you talk about your role in the “Fostering Belonging” series CATLR co-developed with OIDI, CIE, and the LGBTQA Resource Center?
I helped organize the session “Calling Each Other by Name: How Names and Pronouns Affect Sense of Belonging,” offered by the LGBTQA Resource Center, as part of the series. The goal of the session was to focus on how seemingly small gestures can really help people feel more included in the classroom. We taught about what personal pronouns are and why it’s important to call people by their preferred pronouns, and then practiced using them.

The other part of the workshop was about pronouncing people’s names correctly. Some professors struggle with some names—particularly names of international students–and may even create a new name to call somebody. We’re trying to discourage people from behavior like that. Instead, we emphasized the importance of letting the students choose their preferred names as well as their preferred pronouns. Since professors are in a position of power, they can make the students feel like they belong in a class if they take the time to learn how to properly pronounce names and practicing using unfamiliar pronouns. We shared resources on the pronunciations of names and gave them ideas about what to do if they, for example, use the wrong pronoun or use the wrong name.

Can you talk about your experience in the Future Faculty Program?
I’ve really enjoyed the Future Faculty Program because it pushes me to make sure that I’m going to different types of workshops and therefore gives me a more well-rounded experience with CATLR. The Future Faculty Program has an experiential education module that you have to complete, which inspired me to participate in the “Fostering Belonging” series.

What is your experience as a Graduate Student Liaison?
As a Graduate Student Liaison I try to talk to individual graduate students, particularly anybody who’s teaching their own class, and recommend CATLR. I explain how CATLR has helped me with my syllabus through consultations and workshops. I also tell them if they’re applying to new jobs they can go to the teaching statements workshop or the diversity statement workshop to prepare materials for job applications. Generally, I try to bring up CATLR whenever possible and encourage people from my department to use their resources. Mostly I’ve been sharing the newsletters and whenever I’m in a setting with a large number of graduate students I try to put in a plug for CATLR.

We (GSLs) have lunches twice a year to talk about how CATLR can support the members of our department and provide meaningful feedback for CATLR. So, any students that have ideas on how CATLR can help them can reach out to their departments’ GSLs if they don’t want to directly reach out to CATLR.

What are the benefits of the teaching observation process?
Alexia [Ferracuti] came into my classroom during one of the more lecture-heavy days and she observed my teaching, observed how the students were engaging in the class. Afterwards, we had a meeting to discuss what she observed and offered different ideas for how I could improve future classes, which was really helpful. I was thankful that the students didn’t seem bothered by her. I made it very clear to them that she was there to observe me, not to observe them, so they could behave as normal—and they did so.

Alexia noted how many students participated at different points in the class, and the relationship that I seem to have with the students. She provided a lot of input on aspects of the class that I hadn’t really noticed because I was in teaching mode. She also identified different areas where I could have broken up my lecture, and gave suggestions for activities to do so. I realized that a lot of that class had a similar format: me lecturing for a bit, asking a question, and having them respond. Although they seemed pretty engaged throughout, I realized that I could still improve on the class structure. Because of this positive experience, I encourage my graduate student friends who are teaching to do a classroom observation earlier in the semester so that they can incorporate and implement that feedback for the remainder of the semester.

What does it mean to you to be both an educator and a learner?
I don’t see them as separate. I think that I learn more through educating. Anytime that I have to explain something, it helps me think about that idea at a deeper level and think about how others might struggle with these concepts. Trying to think about ideas from others’ perspectives then helps to break down the idea and explain it in a clear way. Educating in and of itself is a learning process. It is something that I try to improve upon.