• Human Teaching and Theory of Mind

Teaching among humans (for e.g., teachers to students, teachers to teachers, parents to kids, students to students, children to children, etc.) develops and takes place at multiple levels such as cultural and skills transmission, educational training, logic explanations, knowledge transference, etc. According to Strauss & Ziv (2012), human teaching is one of the natural cognitive abilities. Based on the specific criteria of the natural cognitive abilities, proposed by Cosmides and Tooby (2013), Strauss & Ziv (2012) argued that human teaching (1) provides solutions for specific adaptive problem, (2) develops naturally without any formal conscious efforts, (3) involves applying without conscious awareness of underlying mechanism, (4) is distinct ability, compared to general processing abilities, (5) is reliably developed in all normal humans, (6) is species-typical (i.e. universal), and (7) is species-unique (unique cognitive ability in humans, compared to other species).

The last two criteria of the teaching imply that teaching is universal in humans (i.e. the ability found in all human cultures) and a unique human cognition (i.e. the ability restricted to humans) because the core mechanism of human teaching involves theory of mind (ToM), understanding others’ mental states, perspectives and desires that are different from one’s own, and intentionality (Olson & Bruner, 1996; Strauss, 1993; Strauss & Shilony, 1994, Strauss & Ziv, 2012). Teaching involves knowing mental states of the other agents who are being taught and the active attempt to cause changes and learning in others (for e.g., increasing knowledge, polishing thinking abilities, correcting false beliefs, expanding perspectives, and transferring skills in others).

Although human teaching can be seen as a natural, universal and unique human cognitive ability that takes place between various agents at multiple levels, not all teachings are equal and effortless. As a person whose future goal is to become not only a professor, but also a great professor, I see college teaching as an extremely challenging job. The fundamental challenges of college teaching and learning lie in the mismatched Paleolithic environment in which humans were evolved and motivated to learn and the modern college environment in which humans have to sit down for hours, learn and master complicated topics such as advanced calculus, physics, chemistry, statistics, etc. Our brains were not evolved to learn effortlessly in understanding these complicated topics (Geary, 2012). In such evolutionarily novel contexts, college professors teach these complex topics to majority of intrinsically unmotivated students as in the form of formal education. Despite all the challenges, Geary (2012) stressed that these formal educational skills are essential skills for the students to master and become successful adults in the modern environment. The core mechanism of teaching, TOM and intentionality, remains the same, however, challenges arise in motivating students’ learning.

  • The Allegory of the Cave

The challenges of learning and teaching can be better understood through Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave,” (Plato, 2000). In the dark cave lied many prisoners who were chained facing the back wall of a cave for life. All of these prisoners only saw shadows and reflections caused by a fire and the people who were carrying vases and statues, confusing the images with the reality. One day, a prisoner was unchained, turned around and looked for the true source where the shadows came from. This took him outside the cave, and to the trees, mountains and the sun, the true source of the shadow. Plato (2000) suggested that if an enlightened man, who used to be a prisoner, came back to the cave, he would see sunspots and could not see clearly in the darkness. If he tried to liberate the other chained prisoners, the enlightened man would also be beaten to death, for he disturbed the prisoners’ illusions. The story personally spoke to me as a person whose dream is to become a researcher and college professor. Unlike the enlightened person in the story, I see myself as a future college professor who is in the process of leaving the cave. At the same time, I would also be the college professor (the enlightened person) who is trying to convince, teach and cause learning in disinterested students (the chained prisoners), who are not evolved to learn complicated materials (leaving the cave). In contrast to the chained prisoners in the story, the students would practically suffer and would not do very well in modern society, had they stopped learning and applying formal education (leaving the cave). Therefore, the responsibility of the teacher lies in convincing the students that they, themselves, want to leave the cave. If the teacher forces the students to leave the cave, the efforts would be futile (the teacher would be beaten to death, just like in the story).

  • Motivating Students to Come out of the Cave

The next question, therefore, is how can the instructors help the students come out of the cave of ignorance? The key solution, I think, lies in autonomous motivation of the student in coming out of the cave. Autonomous motivation is defined as motivation that reflects self-agency i.e. doing tasks and behaviors out of a sense of personal choice and ownership (Hagger, Sultan, Hardcastle, and Chatzisarantis, 2015). Stefanou, Perencevich, DicCintio, and Turner (2004) proposed three distinct ways to promote autonomy of the student in classroom: organizational autonomy support, procedural autonomy support and cognitive autonomy support.

With regards to Self-awareness Class, the examples of organizational autonomy support would involve choosing classroom locations, taking responsibilities for assignments, choosing seating arrangements and doing group activities. The examples of procedural autonomy support includes providing opportunities to choose the materials they want to present along with the demonstrations, student-leading in classroom and answering questions from the audience. The examples of cognitive autonomy support includes justifying solutions to the problems, less participation from the teacher, receiving feedback from the teacher and the students, and discussing different solutions from multidisciplinary approaches.

  • The Importance of Autonomous Learning Opportunities for Students

Such autonomous learning opportunities provided by instructors are important because they allow students to exercise their free will, promoting the idea that the students are the ones who want to learn (and leave the cave). Researchers have shown that the instructors who provide opportunities for the students to exercise greater autonomous motivations in classroom context might lead to the student’s with intrinsic autonomous motivation and behaviors outside the classroom (Hagger et al., 2015). Based on trans-contextual model (Figure 1), Hagger et al. (2015) investigated whether the students’ intrinsic motivations to do mathematic homework and grades were related to the teachers’ autonomous forms of motivation towards the students. The study found that the students’ perception of receiving autonomous motivation from the teacher increased the student’s autonomous motivation, which in turn increased intentions to do homework. The intentions also predicted the frequency of doing homework and homework grades. Here, I am not arguing that grades and homework completion are most important pillars of education, but they do serve as signs that learning takes place beyond classroom. In fact, learning and solving problems beyond the classroom are foundations of true education whose purpose is to give greater insights, perspectives, actions and decisions that will lead to a more meaningful life and a better world in which we and our children will all live.

Going back to the cave allegory, the enlightened person must first create the autonomous conditions in which chained prisoners become unchained before they start leaving the cave. However, not all prisoners are equally motivated. Neither would they respond the same to the condition, paved by the enlightened person. The enlightened person must play an active role, treating prisoners differently. In, Hagger et al. (2015), the autonomous forms of motivation predicted intentions to do mathematics homework; however, the intention is mediated by several factors such as the students’ attitudes, subjective norms and perceived behavioral control. It’s obvious that not all students respond equally to the autonomous condition.

  • Flexible and Effective College Teaching Styles

Different communicative styles could be utilized in teaching. Based on students’ self-reports, Komarraju, (2013) found that students who lacked self-efficacy, the belief in one’s own capacity to accomplish the tasks, are strongly motivated by only “caring” trait in an ideal teacher while extrinsically motivated students prefer an ideal college teacher who is both “caring” (encouraging, kind and compassionate) and “professional” (knowledgeable and confident). Komarraju (2013) suggested that the instructor should reward extrinsically motivated students through acknowledgment reward and punishment for their performance. On the other hand, the instructor should motivate less-assured students through personal attention and encouragement.

Although Komarraju (2013) gave a great suggestion in treating different students differentially, this advice is not sufficient for the ideal teaching style because instructors must recognize the students who have neither high nor low self-efficacy. In teaching these students, I would frequently use verbal approval, especially positive reinforcement, conditioning the students’ “good” learning behaviors. In explaining how opportunities for recognition from teachers improve learning and performance, French, Henderson, Lavay, and Silliman-French (2013) used the examples of physical educators, who are assigned to teach large classes but saw the students only one or two times a week. These physical educators, the authors mentioned, are strangely paralleled to the life of college professors who may be usually busy with their own research, teaching and mentoring graduate students. In a bigger university classroom with hundreds of students, the “mindless” professors are too busy to know the students’ names or recognize the good learning behaviors, which include attending classes, completing assignments, taking exams, participating in classes, asking questions, etc. Another study by Goldman and Goodboy (2014) found that the teacher’s interactive confirmation behaviors, i.e. the communicative behaviors which endorse, recognize and acknowledge students as valuable, significant individuals, are linked to the students’ emotional interests, greater emotional support, a more positive classroom environment and fewer emotional complaints about doing class works.

Therefore, based on suggestions in (French et al., 2013; Goldman and Goodboy, 2014), I, as a professor, will remember all the names’ of the students in each and every class of mine (Hopefully I do not have to teach a class with more than a hundred students in the future), give as many positive and negative feedback on the students’ papers and learning behaviors as possible, plus providing feedback, exam results, extra credits, etc. in a timely and effective manner, keeping track of students’ performance and participation in every class and build emotional rapport with the students’ through interactive teaching style.

  • The Importance of Syllabus and First Days of Teaching

As another part of my teaching plan, I will also motivate the student, right from the beginning of the semester. A study conducted by Doménech-Betoret, Gómez-Artiga & Lloret-Segura (2014) pointed out that the student motivation at the beginning of the semester predicted the avoidance learning strategies used by the students in the Educational Psychology class. The implication from the study is that if the instructor failed to convince the students that the class materials are not that exciting or did not succeed in conveying the importance of learning materials in syllabus, the students would not be motivated and used avoidant strategies in learning class materials. Doménech-Betoret et al. (2014) also pointed out that assessing the prior knowledge of the student on the course materials would also be helpful in detecting students who are likely to fail in following the progress of the course, missing and dropping classes eventually. I will introduce the syllabus, providing some hints and examples about why students should care about the class. In the first few days of the class, I will also use magic tricks and gifts to promote student participation. I will also implement the online course evaluation in the beginning of first few weeks to better understand the student situation and needs.

  • Fun Learning Atmosphere

As I argued above, the importance of education lies not in attaining certain grades, but in solving practical issues, personal problems and critical issues we humans face in the world today. In equipping students with education and critical thinking, the instructor must motivate the student by nurturing the students’ curiosity and facilitate their learning processes through fun and enjoyable atmosphere. However, what is defined as fun could be different for every student. Yet, there are general approaches in creating fun and enjoyable classroom learning. A recent study by Tews, Jackson, Ramsay, and Michel (2015) reported that the instructor-focused fun delivery, which includes the use of humor, creative examples and story-telling, promoted student engagement and positive student-teacher relationship while fun activities, that include various hands-on exercises and interactive student activities were not related to positive student outcomes. The implication of the study is that the instructor has to play an active role in planning and delivering fun lectures in creative ways, which might involve humor. Since my plan is to become a professor in the Psychology field, my lecture will involve Psychology humor. On the website called The Lighter Side of Psychology (n.d.), I have found a few jokes, which I will often incorporate into my lecture slides. Here are a few examples of jokes mentioned: “Patient: Doctor, I get the feeling that people don’t give a hoot about anything I say. Psychiatrist: So?” “The psychiatrist tells the patient that has good and bad news. The patient wants to know the bad news first. The doctor says that he has Alzheimer’s disease. Then, the patient asks what the bad news is. The doctor says that he can go home and forget about it.” “Patient: Doctor, my wife thinks I’m crazy because I like sausages. Psychiatrist: Nonsense! I like sausages too. Patient: Good, you should come and see my collection. I’ve got hundreds of them.” Besides using jokes, the instructor should also display some fun personalities to the student.

  • Instructor’s Self-awareness

Mostly the plans I aimed to attain are pertinent to the theory of mind and how I intend to teach using different methods. The plans involve monitoring students, fun-teaching, operant conditioning methods, effective feedback, providing different learning opportunities and giving students autonomy in the learning process. Yet, the instructor also needs to know himself, his teaching style and how he is doing in the class. This process is achieved through self-awareness skills. Being a self-aware professor will facilitate the other-focused activities, discussed above. For instance, the case study reported by Farrell (2013) showed that an ESL college teacher in Canada who wrote about self-awareness as a teacher provided her positive and encouraging changes in the classroom. As an instructor, I will benefit by knowing how the students would react to my teaching. The students’ view and feelings about my teaching would enhance my teaching styles and preparation for classroom materials. This in-turn will sharpen my other-awareness skills. To better develop a sense of self-awareness in teaching, I planned to get feedback on teaching and course evaluation from the students, learn how others teach, observe myself through video and audio recordings, get some of my future colleagues to observe and get feedback on my teaching, keep a diary on my teaching and regularly self-evaluate on my teaching materials and styles.

Another way of sharpening self-awareness and envisioning what makes a great professor is to by asking myself, “Do you know any great professors when you are a student? If so, what makes them great?” To answer this question, I will give exemplars of my great college professors in Psychology Department (see Figure 2). They are all great mentors to me and many students. I think they all have unique teaching styles, which provides me enjoyable learning experiences. Dr. Couchman, for example, provides ample opportunities for students to engage through classroom activities and papers (autonomous learning), gives exam and paper feedback really fast (operant conditioning), challenges the students’ perspectives (promotes critical thinking in students) and gives fun exams (those that test the student’s learning and problem solving skills, rather than the correct responses). Although I only took one class, Biological Foundations of Behavior, with Dr. Feigenson, I have learned some teaching skills from him. He provided friendly classroom atmosphere, often gave students chocolates and candies (That makes him a sweet teacher), and facilitated autonomous learning behaviors via Science in the News (The students have to read the scientific discoveries and findings, which are related to the class and post them on Moodle) and promoted autonomous learning (for e.g., movie response paper and a paper on any biological disorder).

I also think of Dr. Heberle as a great role model and an extraordinary professor who is both “professional” and “caring.” From what I heard, all her students love her and her teaching style. The students also find her very helpful and easy to talk to and seek advice on either class materials or personal problems. Another favorite mentor in the department is Dr. Hughes. I love how her “Baby-step” teachings in all her classes provide me and other students a sense of self-efficacy in learning new complex psychological and statistical concepts. She also provides great opportunities for the student (She gave extra time and efforts with student poster presentations at conferences, Independent study opportunities, detailed and helpful feedbacks and teaching-assistant opportunity for her classes). I also only took one class with Dr. Seidman, but she helped me with writing a recommendation letter, that greatly contributed to my landing into Summer Internship. I also learned a few teaching styles from her. Her class assignments usually ask the students to complete practical assignments (e.g., field observations, group projects, presentations, movie response papers, blog posts, articles on Wikipedia, etc.). I am sure there are many other reasons why my professors are great, but these mentioned above are a few unique characteristics I came to think of them during my self-reflection exercises.

  • Teaching Evolutionary Psychology

I planned to become a professor and a researcher in evolutionary psychology field. Evolutionary psychology is not a branch of psychology such as social psychology or cognitive psychology; it is a meta-theory or an approach in investigating all kinds of psychological phenomenon (Buss, 2010). In the interview with Barker (2006), David Buss stressed that just as understanding of liver, hearts or kidneys, etc. would not be complete without understanding each anatomical function, understanding human psychology would not be complete without understanding evolved psychological mechanism. Evolutionary psychology is an important toolkit for all the psychology major students.

Evolutionary psychology also provides a theoretical framework in uniting observed phenomenon in different psychological sub-disciplines (Barker, 2006). In the interview, Buss provided how infants developed stranger anxiety roughly around 6 months of age implies adaptive design for fitness. The stranger anxiety in infant focuses on stranger males rather than stranger females because throughout evolutionary history, stranger males are more dangerous to infant’s health. Buss explained that stranger anxiety involves information processing and is related to cognitive psychology. It is also related to developmental psychology because the developments indicates predictable ontogenetic track. Individual differences in the intensity of stranger anxiety in children also fall within the personality and social psychology field. When such mechanism malfunctions, the anxiety becomes relevant to clinical psychology. At the same time, the working system of the brain, which causes stranger anxiety, belongs to neuroscience field.

Such capability of evolutionary psychology framework in unifying all of diverse topics within psychology is also one of the reasons why the students love taking the evolutionary psychology classes, (Buss, 2010). Based on Geary (2012), the mismatch gap between evolved motivations to learn and solve adaptive problems and the motivations to learn complicated boring classroom materials in modern environment can be greatly reduced by making class materials become more applicable to student’s life and their primary motivations to solving these adaptive problems. As such, I plan to develop and teach topics which are applicable and are central to students’ lives such as mating intelligence, sexuality, cooperation, parent-child relationships, social status, health and motivation.

Some potential courses I might teach include, “Human sexuality from Evolutionary Perspectives,” “Mating Intelligence and Dating,” “Applied Evolutionary Psychology,” “What Makes Human Special?” Evolutionary Social Psychology,” etc. Of course, the plans to teach these specific courses are still tentative. I have a lot to learn and explore before I start teaching. I also believe these plausible courses I planned to offer will create fun and educational learning environment where I could easily exercises all the detailed teaching plans I laid out above. I will also use evolutionary themes as critical thinking tools because evolutionary psychology materials encourage students to think critically about the functions of human psychology, examine comparative psychology and evaluate classic theories (Gray, 2005). This critical thinking ability will benefit the students in all psychology classes.

Although evolutionary psychology is accepted within the field of psychology and incorporated into all introductory psychology textbooks (Barker, 2006), the accuracy of the representation of the field varies. For example, Cornewell, Palmer, Guinther and Davis (2005) reported that almost 80% of 39 introductory psychology textbooks between years 2000 and 2004 contained misrepresentation of the field, and 30% were negative toward the field. A more recent study by Winegard, Winegard and Deaner (2014) investigated misrepresentations in Sex and Gender Textbooks and found that most common types of misrepresentations of the field include “Straw Man,” “Genetic Determinism,” and “Species Selection.” Common misrepresentation along with unique approaches and insights in evolutionary psychology certainly raises moral implications. I imagine myself in dealing such situations in the future as I teach and conduct researchers in the field. To better deal with these misrepresentations, I plan to constantly keep up-to-date with the findings in the field by reading, writing and teaching. I also plan to learn how experts in the evolutionary psychology field deal and explain these misrepresentations either towards the students, colleagues or public. For instance, Buss (2010) provided excellent examples in disputing common misunderstandings, validity of the field and teaching tool kits for evolutionary psychology.

  • Conclusion

In this paper, I have outlined the future plans that would help me become the kind of professor I imagined to be. Using self-awareness and other-awareness principle, I have also discussed my tentative teaching actions and plans (see figure 3). These plans have been based on personal reflections and information from multiple disciplines such as philosophy, education, psychology, evolutionary biology and sociology. In the near future, I plan to pursue graduate studies, which will provide me with academic credentials to further pursue professorship. Until then, my plans remain as plans.


Barker, L. (2006). Teaching evolutionary psychology: An interview with David M. Buss. Teaching of Psychology, 33(1), 69-76.

Buss, D. 2010. Why students love evolutionary psychology… and how to teach it. Psychology Teacher Network, 20(3).

Cornwell, R. E., Palmer, C., Guinther, P. M., and Davis, H. P. (2005). Introductory psychology texts as a view of sociobiology/evolutionary psychology‘s role in psychology. Evolutionary Psychology, 3, 355-374.

Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2013). Evolutionary psychology: A primer. In S. M. Downes, E. Machery, S. M. Downes, E. Machery (Eds.) , Arguing about human nature: Contemporary debates (pp. 83-92). New York, NY, US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

Doménech-Betoret, F., Gómez-Artiga, A., & Lloret-Segura, S. (2014). Personal variables, motivation and avoidance learning strategies in undergraduate students. Learning & Individual Differences, 35122-129. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2014.06.007

Farrell, T. S. (2013). Teacher self-awareness through journal writing. Reflective Practice, 14(4), 465-471. doi:10.1080/14623943.2013.806300

French, R., Henderson, H. L., Lavay, B., & Silliman-French, L. (2013). Opportunities for recognition can improve learning and performance. JOPERD: The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 84(7), 51-55. doi:10.1080/07303084.2013.818409

Geary, D. C. (2012). Application of evolutionary psychology to academic learning. In S. C. Roberts, S. C. Roberts (Eds.) , Applied Evolutionary Psychology (pp. 78-92). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.

Goldman, Z. W., & Goodboy, A. K. (2014). Making students feel better: Examining the relationships between teacher confirmation and college students’ emotional outcomes. Communication Education, 63(3), 259-277. doi:10.1080/03634523.2014.920091

Gray, P. (2005). Using Evolutionary Theory to Promote Critical Thinking in Psychology Courses. In B. Perlman, L. I. McCann, W. Buskist, B. Perlman, L. I. McCann, W. Buskist (Eds.) , Voices of Experience: Memorable Talks From the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology, Vol. One (pp. 59-70). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Society.

Hagger, M. S., Sultan, S., Hardcastle, S. J., & Chatzisarantis, N. L. (2015). Perceived autonomy support and autonomous motivation toward mathematics activities in educational and out-of-school contexts is related to mathematics homework behavior and attainment. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 41111-123. doi:10.1016/j.cedpsych.2014.12.002

Komarraju, M. (2013). Ideal Teacher Behaviors: Student Motivation and Self-Efficacy Predict Preferences. Teaching of Psychology, 40(2), 104-110. doi:10.1177/0098628312475029

Plato. (2000). The republic. (T. Griffith, Trans.) G. R. F. Ferrari (Ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Tews, M. J., Jackson, K., Ramsay, C., & Michel, J. W. (2015). Fun in the College Classroom: Examining Its Nature and Relationship with Student Engagement. College Teaching, 63(1), 16-26. doi:10.1080/87567555.2014.972318

The Lighter Side of Psychology. (n.d.). In Charlotte’s Web. Retrieved November 16, 2015, from http://users.erols.com/geary/psychology/

Winegard, B. M., Winegard, B. M., & Deaner, R. O. (2014). Misrepresentations of evolutionary psychology in sex and gender textbooks. Evolutionary Psychology, 12(3), 474-508. doi:10.1177/147470491401200301


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Figure 3. Overall teaching plans in teaching and motivating college students to come out of the “cave.”

(P.S. I did not add all the figures here. Anyway, this is my complete paper in response to the essay question of what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be a great professor. Time and efforts will answer if my plans come true.)


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