As a graduate student at the University of Michigan, Associate Professor of Psychology Heather Coon thought she was headed for a research career in social and cultural psychology. Then she realized that classroom teaching at a small college was her destiny and ultimately landed at North Central College. She obviously found her true calling, winning the 2010 Dissinger Award for Senior Faculty thanks to student nominations.
“I wanted to teach at a place where students are the priority and the thought of 600 students in a lecture scared me,” she says. “I didn’t want a school that was so focused on research that the students were an afterthought.”
Students wanting to learn about psychology are certainly a priority and never an afterthought for Coon. Her introductory Science of Behavior students may never take another course in the department, yet they receive as much concern and attention as her upper-level courses.“This is the one chance you have to teach them the tools they need to evaluate media stories and other claims about research,” Coon says. Upper-level psychology majors in Coon’s Research Design course learn to draw conclusions about the validity of research methods. She’ll also teach a seminar called Persuasion, which will examine tactics used to persuade people to buy impulse items or to stop behaviors, like texting and driving.
As a teacher, Coon had an epiphany a few years ago when the psychology department was undergoing an assessment of its programs. “I realized it’s not so much what I’m teaching them as it is what they’re learning, which is more than just dumping information back on a test,” she says.“Everything changes when you start thinking in those terms.” She stays inspired by collaborating with her colleagues. “We talk about teaching all the time and we steal and share teaching tools,” says Coon.
The rewards of her efforts come when she sees former students who are now social psychology doctoral candidates, like Russ Webster ’03 and David Rast ’07, at a conference.“Dr. Coon’s teaching and mentorship are quite memorable, in fact, she’s one of the most important people in my academic and career success,” says Rast, now a doctoral candidate in social psychologyat Claremont Graduate University. “I hope North Central psychology students realize just how lucky they are to have Dr. Coon as a professor.” Another former student posted an insightful note on Facebook about a psychology issue and another replied, “Dr. C. would be so proud of you.”
Coon knows her job is done when students take her lessons into the real world. "That's what I want for them."