Victoria Cross  is wearing a yellow top and is standing in front of her class
Victoria Cross, an associate professor of teaching in the Department of Psychology, stands in front of her students during class. (Alex Russell/UC Davis)

Engaging All Students: How Professors of Teaching Improve Undergraduate Education across the UC System

In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down university classrooms, professors nationwide realized they would quickly have to learn how to engage their students completely online. At UC Davis and other campuses across the University of California, many research-focused faculty turned to their teaching-focused colleagues.  

“During covid we found that we were the most popular kids in our departments,” said Victoria Cross, a professor of teaching in psychology in the UC Davis College of Letters & Science. 

A professor of teaching is a lesser-known classification of faculty member who plays a critical role in undergraduate education at UC Davis and other campuses across the University of California. Their focus on teaching students in their disciplines was critical during the unexpected crisis of the pandemic and is now helping to shape the way departments face the challenges of educating a growing—and changing—undergraduate population. 

Teaching in the largest undergraduate major at UC Davis 

The nature of teaching undergraduates has changed radically over the past decade, from new technologies like Chat GPT to overall increases in class sizes. Every academic department faces these same challenges, but for the Department of Psychology at UC Davis these challenges are magnified.  

Psychology is the largest undergraduate major at UC Davis with over 2,450 majors and fewer than 60 tenured and tenure-track faculty members to teach them. Introductory classes, even for the most challenging courses for majors, are often taught in lecture halls that seat as many as 600 students. 

“One of the jobs of a professor has always been communicating basic knowledge and facts, and people can do that now on their phones,” said Paul Hastings, a professor of psychology. “This is part of what’s redefining what it means to facilitate effective education and helping students to become good learners. That requires a different way of teaching.” 

In 2015, Hastings was department chair when they hired Cross as their first professor of teaching after a nationwide search for the position. Like other professors of teaching, Cross had earned a Ph.D. in her discipline. She had also been teaching in the department as a lecturer for a decade. 

“Access to the information is not the same as education and knowledge,” said Cross. “Our question as teachers is how do we spend that time in-person so students are connecting with the material and with each other?” 

Professors of teaching across the UC system 

Professors of teaching are different from Academic Federation lecturers, who also teach undergraduate courses. Like their research-focused colleagues, professors of teaching are members of the Academic Senate. However, their job description prioritizes teaching over research and they tend to do research on teaching in their discipline in addition to their service responsibilities.  

“Even though we don't have a lot of formal training in teaching, I think there is enough of a push within our respective disciplinary societies to use evidence-based teaching practices more commonly than your typical research-focused professor,” said Brian Sato, associate dean of the Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation at UC Irvine.  

Sato leads the UC Tenure-track Teaching Professor Network (T3PN), which provides mentorship, collaboration and training for teaching professors across the UC system. His also a professor of teaching in molecular biology and biochemistry at UC Irvine. 

Sato led a 2020 study on the roughly 500 Academic Senate teaching faculty in the UC system. Teaching faculty were concentrated in biological sciences, engineering, social sciences and chemistry. About 90% held a Ph.D. in their discipline and nearly half had post-doctoral training. While few had formal education training, nearly all had taught at the undergraduate or K-12 levels and had received some form of teaching professional development.  

“I think the biggest contribution they make is on advocating for strong evidence-based teaching practices and being student centered in their teaching,” said Ashely Harlow, the manager of the Teaching and Development Program at UC Riverside, who co-authored the study with Sato. “Often we forget to be student centered in higher education and they're the whole reasons why we are here.” 

Building a network to share what works 

Within a couple years of taking this new role, Cross began to reach out to other professors of teaching at UC Davis, then at psychology departments across the University of California. One of the first people she met was Vanessa Woods at UC Santa Barbara, who was working to address the same challenges of teaching difficult introductory psychology courses effectively at scale.  

“There are many teaching practices that can be implemented with 15 students but trying to do things at scale gets real messy real fast,” said Woods. “As teaching professors we spend time staying current with evidence-based ways to leverage course structures, assignments and technology to engage students in relational ways so we can create inclusive and meaningful learning environments at scale.”  

Together, the two began to build a community of practice that provided mentorship and the space to share what works. They started a journal club where everyone could bring new ideas from the latest research to discuss.  

“There’s a lot of conflicting evidence about exactly how to teach undergraduates,” said Cross. “There’s a lot of focus on active learning and peer interaction, but there is no single solution. It’s important to motivate while being flexible. It’s also important to give students agency as well as guidance.” 

In 2020, Cross and her colleagues helped research-focused faculty in their departments transition to online instruction. That year, she shared a College of Letters and Science Distinguished Teaching Award with Steve Luck, a professor of psychology, for their work planning for instructional continuity during the pandemic. They even created a website with all of their advice.

It was also in 2020 that Cross and her colleagues launched their first conference on teaching undergraduate psychology. In 2023, that conference focused on two of the most challenging courses for majors: research methods and statistics for psychology. It was sponsored by the American Psychological Association and had over 400 registrations. 

“It takes a group to really make it effective,” said Cross. “We don’t all need to reinvent the wheel. We can share wheels. 

Teaching into the future at UC Davis 

The pandemic might be over, but Cross said there are still many challenges for teaching effectively. One of these is to teach more students than ever with the same resources. Last year, show the UC system admitted over 88,200 California freshmen, an all-time high. Students from underrepresented groups make up 44 percent of admitted California freshmen, also an all-time high.  

Many of these students will require additional support because of how the pandemic affected their education. Kevin Gee, a research-focused professor in the UC Davis School of Education, recently published a policy brief with the Center for Poverty and Inequality Research about how the COVID-19 pandemic put students of color and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds at an even greater disadvantage.  

For these students in particular, said Gee, professors of teaching can be especially valuable. 

“The advantage is that professors of teaching focus on the craft of teaching,” said Gee. “They can bring in even more innovative approaches to students who are struggling because that’s their main focus.” 

While Paul Hastings is no longer chair of psychology, he said he has seen Cross’ efforts increase all her colleagues’ ability to teach effectively. This year, the department is conducting a search to hire its second professor of teaching. 

“Our department has recognized the value that Tor has brought and the importance of this role to our teaching mission,” said Hastings. 



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