A couple of weeks ago we sat down and had a little chat with the man himself, Alastair McClelland.
Interviewers: Helice Stratton and Diana Urlichich (Bugle Team)
· How did you find yourself at UCL?
To be honest, I’m pretty much a UCL person, man and boy, because I came here to do my undergraduate degree, and then I stayed on to do my PhD, which was in memory research. I then left because of a job: my first lectureship came up, which was actually in the NHS. I taught research methods and cognitive psychology for 10 years to speech science students, whether they liked it or not, (and) I don’t think they did much * laughs *. A lectureship then came up at UCL and I’ve been here ever since. I was out of UCL for about a decade and then I came back.
· How did you begin teaching statistics?
Good question. Almost by accident. At the end of my PhD, I hadn’t quite written it up, but I had done the experiments. At that point I got a job helping a very famous psychological statistician Jonckheere (Jonckheere trend test), as a Teaching Assistant teaching stats. He was actually teaching the 2nd year course that I now teach. That’s how I started, because I needed the money and the job was there. It proved to be quite useful because when I came back as a lecturer, they wanted somebody to teach research methods in addition to some other subjects, such as cognitive psychology. A lot of people interviewed (for the job) were either good at research methods not memory, or good at memory but not research methods but I happened to have experience in both, so I got the job. I wouldn’t have said as an undergraduate or even postgraduate that what I wanted to do (one day) is teach research methods but it just ended up that way, and in truth, it sounds peculiar, but I prefer teaching research methods than I do other things. I used to teach cognitive psychology, particularly memory, but I actually do prefer teaching stats.
· What do you enjoy most about teaching (Statistics)?
I think it is partly because as it is statistics, a lot of people are very worried about it. I had a student actually email me about it earlier this year, to say that to her surprise, her favourite course was the first year stats course. She said she would never have predicted that to be the case. The fact that that happens is quite good. Often the students who worry about being bad at it or think they’ll hate it, actually end up liking it and doing quite well. Also, there are clear concepts which you either get across or you don’t. Often psychology is not quite so clear cut, but with stats it is. When the student says “Ah I get it, I see it”, they do. You can gauge more easily that your teaching has been effective and that students can grasp the concepts. Also, what I quite like are the practical sessions, which aren’t (present) in other modules. It’s (a) good (way) to interact with students on a one-to-one basis. We’ve kept this model of teaching for many years: the two hour lecture followed by the two hour practical and I think it works well. Students often think that they’re being distant, but it’s just part of the way everything (in university) is set up, you go into a room, give the lecture, leave. With stats it’s more interactive, so I like that aspect of it.
· What kinds of research have you conducted (for UCL and outside)?
I’ve done work in memory, judgment and decision making, speech sciences and specific language impairment in children- I was involved in producing a test, called the GAPS test. Its purpose is to identify learning difficulty in children with respect to grammar. I’ve also done a lot of work with Professor Furnham: I published over 25 papers with him on a variety of things. Here’s the list if you like: the psychology of attractiveness, applied decision making, perceptions of psychiatric disorders, personality, ethnicity, and gender in the workplace- We’ve also done an interesting one on the influence of sexual material in television adverts. Another piece of research, which was quite interesting, was the effect of environmental distraction on cognitive performance: How well people perform in noisy situations, how badly does this affect them? We found that this effect is mediated quite strongly by personality. Extraverts aren’t affected by noise when performing cognitive tests, whereas introverts are badly affected. So, tests should be done in silence so it’s ok for everyone.
· Are you conducting any research at the moment?
I’m actually only 80% in psychology at the moment, 20% of me is in center for advancement of learning and teaching in Torrington place. There’s an initiative called Connected Curriculum. It is an initiative to try and integrate research and teaching at UCL, to have a better connection between the two. In psychology it is done pretty well already. Our 1st years are already engaged in experimental work. In other degree programs this is not true. The overall aim is to get students more involved in research from quite early on in the degree program. So one intervention I’m quite involved in is the Meet the Researcher program (for first years). That’s one tiny element of it. This year, I’m going to try to convince other people to do that, so my aim is to talk to faculty level committees and talk about how we run this initiative and to try to encourage them to run the same program. The main aim is for all undergraduate programs to have a ‘Meet the Researcher’ aspect.
· What is your proudest achievement to date?
I’m pretty proud that I’ve won 4 teaching awards: Faculty of Life Science Teaching award, School of Life and Medical Sciences teaching award, Student’s Choice teaching award, and a Provost teaching award.
· Do you have a favourite piece of research that you’ve done?
I guess the one that’s potentially most useful is the work on specific language impairment in children because that actually generated a test which is now used in the real world. I suppose I wouldn’t call it my favourite piece of research, but it is the one that I’m quite proud of. A lot of academic work only remains in journals whereas this had actual practical use.
· What’s an average day like for you?
Teaching, teaching, teaching, teaching. * laughs * I teach every day apart from Wednesday. Mostly in the mornings, but on Tuesdays in the afternoons. Something that undergraduate students probably aren’t aware of is that there are a lot of committees, and I am program director so I chair that committee, and I’m also on many other committees, and also because I’m in CALT (Centre for Advanced Learning and Teaching), I spend Wednesdays there. A typical day would be some teaching and at least one meeting, if not more. Most of my energies are directed towards teaching rather than research these days.
We would like to thank Dr Alastair McClelland for taking the time to be interviewed for the Bugle.
This interview is presented in the Bedford Bugle with the permission of Professor McClelland. Its content may not be reproduced or used outside the context of the official Psychology Society blog and for any other purposes without the permission of the Bugle and of Professor Alastair McClelland.