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Engaging professor makes psychology memorable
Martin Bolt receives Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching

by Phil deHaan

The reasons that Calvin College professor of psychology Martin Bolt is the 1997 recipient of the school's annual Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching are many.

One sure reason is the passion of his teaching, a passion that springs from his love for psychology. "Psychology," he said, face beaming and eyes sparkling, "is such an exciting discipline. You'd almost have to work to make it boring. There's a story to tell in psychology. It speaks to our lives."

Another sure reason is Bolt's ability to communicate that love to his students, the ability to take what he calls the abstract theory and make it real and alive in the lives of his students.

"The key to effective teaching," he said, "is active engagement of the student. We delude ourselves if we think our lectures will have a truly lasting impact on students' lives. If it's going to be memorable, the classroom has to engage the learner."

For Bolt, 52, that means looking for new and fresh ways to make psychology real. "You need hooks," he said, "to capture the students' attention."

Early in his career Bolt began using short stories as jumping off points for discussions. "The Lame Shall Enter First," by Flannery O'Connor, and "The Lottery," by Shirley Jackson, are still two of his favorites. But recently he's also incorporated short film clips of five to 10 minutes into his teaching. For lessons on the psychology of control he shows a powerful clip from Shindler's List in which Shindler talks to a maid about her fear of the compound's commandant, who is given to shooting people at random, regardless of their actions.

"There's no connection," she said, "between what I do and what he does to me."

For Bolt, that short clip is a powerful way to begin talking about the whole literature in psychology on personal control. "It's a hook," he said, "that gets their attention, but it's also a hook on which they can hang a principle on theory. They remember the theory in much more vivid and personal ways, having seen the film clip first."

As one might expect, Bolt's students learn their lessons well.

In soliciting support for Bolt's nomination for the Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching, the Calvin psychology department asked for testimonies from colleagues at Calvin, but also from former students. One student noted that 23 years after taking a Bolt-taught course he still can list specific ways in which Bolt's influence continues to impact his life.

A former student who now is a middle school teacher wrote that he not only uses what he learned from Bolt to encourage his students' interest in psychology, but also to enrich his teaching. "Recently," he wrote, "in a study of the Holocaust, I referred back to my notes from Psychology 310 to help students understand how responsibility for one's own actions can be diffused among a group."

Another noted that Bolt was the primary reason he decided to major in psychology; he described Bolt's teaching style as "down-to-earth" and added that it was obvious Bolt "not only cared a great deal about psychology, but also about his students. I will also remember him for the unique and insightful Christian perspective he added to our class discussions."

A former student, who went on to earn a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is now a psychologist for the Air Force, said that in 10 years of undergrad and grad school he never had a finer professor. Another added: "Dr. Bolt really makes psychology come alive to me" and noted that an integral part of Bolt's commitment to education is "his commitment to the Christian faith."

John Brink, a former student who now is a colleague of Bolt's at Calvin, said of his former mentor: "I have come to have the highest regard for his commitment to undergraduate education and for his ability to communicate psychology with clarity, compassion, and most of all, a contagious enthusiasm for the discipline." Brink added: "He continues to demonstrate an enthusiastic celebration of our discipline that is accompanied by a personal Christian humility and a genuine compassion for the brokenness of the human condition."

Such testimonies hearten Bolt, not for the kudos they pay to him, but because they reinforce his philosophy of teaching and provide the occasional reminders of the worth of teaching.

"It's activating the learner -- engaging the learner -- that makes teaching worthwhile," he said. "You don't always know if you're reaching people; you live with that as a teacher. When someone returns and talks about remembering this or that from a class, or talks about how something they learned changed their life in some way, it's extremely satisfying. I think all teachers can relate to that feeling."

While Bolt has reached many Calvin students over the 27 years he has taught at his alma mater, his scope of influence has been even wider over the last dozen years as he has reached literally hundreds of thousands of students each year because of materials he's prepared to accompany two of the country's best-selling psychology textbooks.

His Instructors' Resources manuals accompany both Introduction to Psychology and Social Psychology -- written by Hope College professor David Myers, whom Bolt describes as a colleague and a friend.

Both Myers' texts and Bolt's manuals are used by high school and college teachers across North America (and beyond) as those teachers seek to find the best ways to present the materials in the texts.

In Bolt's manuals they find lecture topics, hints for films and videos that might be useful, classroom exercises and demonstrations, self-assessment questionnaires and student project suggestions, everything needed, Bolt said, "to get the most out of the text and make the subject come alive."

Myers, who asked Bolt to write the accompanying manuals, said: "There was no precedent for what he (Bolt) achieved, and to this day nothing else quite like it. With several thousand instructors and nearly five million students having engaged the text over the last dozen years, and most of them having experienced some part of the teaching package, the reach of Martin's contribution to the teaching of psychology can hardly be exaggerated. Martin is, by reputation, a teacher par excellence at Calvin. But he is much more. He is a mega-teacher, a teacher of teachers, an exporter of Calvin's influence to places far removed from Knollcrest."

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