James Madison University

Dr. Tracy Zinn Teaches Students How to Learn

By Deirdre E. Myers

PHOTO: Tracy ZinnThe College of Health and Behavioral Studies has selected Dr. Tracy Zinn from the Department of Psychology to be the 2012-2013 recipient of their Distinguished Teacher Award. As a faculty member in a department and college that is comprised of dedicated and outstanding teachers, this is a tremendous accomplishment.  As the recipient of this award, Dr. Zinn will be the speaker at the 2013 College commencement ceremony.

Dr. Zinn claims that teaching was not always her passion. It wasn’t until three years into her graduate degree that she found her interest in passing knowledge on to others. Until then, she had been more interested in developing a career in applied field of Psychology.  Over time she says that she realized that  completing research collaboratively with students is fulfilling on a larger scale.  She can watch students apply concepts in new and different ways.  She says she enjoys seeing what new research ideas students bring to her classes. Dr. Zinn says that what she likes more than research is teaching students why it is so important. She feels that through teaching she is able to reach a large audience in a meaningful way, and therefore has a great impact.  She says for example, “if I do research on advocacy, some people might read it, and a nominal percent might do something with it,” she explains. “But if I convey research to students, I can get a much greater percentage of them involved and connected.”

One of Dr. Zinn’s favorite classes is psychological statistics.  Few students choose the psychology major in order to study statistics.  When asked how she gets students excited about a subject that can seem tedious, Dr. Zinn admits that though she knows it may not always be popular, research is too important to be overlooked. As her psychology students learn from her classes, it is common to look for confirming information in research if not otherwise educated not to.  The untrained eye tends to select solutions to conflicting information that results in misinterpretations.  She says that she works her students hard, but she is upfront about her rigorous teaching style, referring to herself as an “academic personal trainer.” Dr. Zinn holds that it is good educational practice to challenge students and pushing them outside of their comfort zone. These sorts of experiences help students develop the ability to learn which is more essential than simply absorbing information during college.

Dr. Zinn’s students have benefitted from her use of interteaching, a classroom method that her research helped to develop.  Students are required to do work outside of and prior to class that is guided by specially-designed study guides.  They come to class prepared to explain key concepts to fellow students. Though this requires an additional effort to prepare for this teaching style, her students say that it has allowed them to get more out of a class, because they are encouraged to think about the material in a more interactive manner than they would by just listening to a lecture on the readings they had completed. Through working with other classmates in discussion groups, her students claim that the level of comprehension they gain from Dr. Zinn’s interteaching method is well worth the extra effort required of them.

Kendra Burek, one of Dr. Zinn’s students, maintains that Dr. Zinn’s class was the first time that she was able to see herself making connections between the learning objectives and course materials. She remembers the first day in Dr. Zinn’s class, students were told that working hard was important because having knowledge and understanding of the material will be meaningful long after grades are forgotten. “I began to see the importance and value of truly learning and understanding information, which is far greater than the value of any letter grade that one can achieve,” she explains.

Through her driving work ethic, passion for her subject, and outstanding teaching abilities, Dr. Zinn has provided the students of JMU with invaluable lessons about not only how to be a good college student, but also how to truly be a critical thinker, a good scholar, and someone who will continue to seek to understand things throughout their lives.