Adjunct Faculty Highlight

Stephen Pearlberg, Adjunct Professor, Psychological Sciences

Stephen Pearlberg

Creating a collaborative learning environment can be risky business. We have all prepped for classes that have gone extremely well. And some…well…not so well. What’s the big difference? The reality check. That is, for both the professor and the student.

A lecture can say a thousand words, but a mix of experiential and collaborative learning might just be the catalyst experience that captivates and activates student learning in the classroom. That’s why Stephen Pearlberg, Adjunct Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences, is our October Adjunct Faculty Highlight. 

Check out his interview below, for some tips and tricks on creating a collaborative classroom environment.  Don’t forget! We want to hear from you, too. Email us at if you would like to share your teaching strategies and be featured as an Adjunct Faculty Highlight.

How do you engage students, particularly those that non-majors, or less-motivated?

From the beginning, I make it clear that students’ goals and motivation levels will vary dramatically. We have a discussion on the reasons for this. Then, I use my life experiences to elucidate how we never can truly know when something might come along that changes both of them. Dramatically. It may be a course that we take because “we had to,” or it may be one lecture or assignment within that course that made them think differently about the world. You never know. Thankfully, I’ve got a basket full of these stories.

How do you create a collaborative learning environment in the classroom?

I incorporate Team learning in all my courses. After their requisite random assignment to Teams in Week 2, students learn and grow by working and studying together. It becomes a culture. In fact, I always capitalize the word “Team,” and if a student ever refers to their Team as a “group,” I pretend not to hear them until they correct themselves. Literally, and repeatedly. Later, the Teams begin to teach each other, culminating in formal presentations in front of a large crowd of current and former students. The preparation for such events spans two nights, typically running well past midnight in the bowels of Loma Hall. Frankly, few Teams are confident that they can meet my high expectations on “Game Day.” In the vast majority of cases, they shine brightly. In all cases, they learn the value of Teamwork.

How do you define good teaching?

I’d really like to research and write a book on that someday. From my perspective, I think it can be boiled down to three sentences. First, a good teacher is one who always does their very best to ensure that every student learns and grows as much as they possibly can—inside the classroom and out—from their courses. Second, good teaching requires an understanding that sometimes you need to treat everyone exactly the same, and other times you need to treat everyone differently, according to their (perceived) needs. Third, good teachers learn how to identify their students’ different needs. This may not induce a rash of offers from book publishers, but if it did, I’d probably put that on the back cover.

What do you think are the most important attributes of a great professor?

One very important attribute is the ability to truly listen to students. With your ears, of course, but also with your eyes, and your heart. The most critical feedback we get is often in real time: the looks in our students’ eyes tell us how well we are reaching them, and teaching them. Secondly, great professors are effective and efficient communicators--individuals who can say more with fewer words. This allows the great ones to spread more information while inducing a higher level of understanding. Such clarity affords students more time to provide input, which allows a great professor more opportunities to listen.

What is the single most important thing you want students to know?

I am available any time they need to speak to me. This may sound odd, but all my syllabi contain my cell phone number in boldfaced 12-font, with my email address below in 10-font. I explain the many reasons for this on Day One. After the initial intimidation factor wears off, the students call quite a bit. Hopefully, this sort of accessibility to conversation allows for give-and-take that develops students’ verbal skills, even in this mad world of texting and tweeting.

What do you want fellow adjuncts to know?

Adjunct professors positively affect the lives and futures of all their students every day, regardless of where we teach. Often, we can’t teach them long enough to witness this effect, but it shows through in the long run. The students feel it, and others see it. That’s always a good thing to remember when we’re on the freeway between teaching gigs.

How can higher education do better?

Many years ago, my father told me an old joke: “If you ask five economists the same question, you get five different answers.” I’ve since learned that college professors are much like economists. Our beliefs and goals run the gamut, and we do have ample forums in which to present them. Thus, I’ll plead the 5th on this one. Oh, to those economists who may be reading this, I think you are all wonderful!

The Basics: What’s your story? Describe a unique aspect of your everyday perspective that impacts your teaching.

I managed retail stores for many years before returning to school. Since my teaching career began ten years ago, I’ve learned that like most things in life, being an adjunct professor has many plusses and minuses. For me, the greatest plus has been the opportunity to teach psychology to an incredibly diverse audience. All in San Diego. From introductory courses at the local community colleges to advanced seminars at UCSD, I’ve been blessed to have positively affected the lives of students of every color, class, and ability level. Contact with people from all walks of life has, I believe, allowed me to understand that while our perspectives are quite different, our hopes and dreams have much in common.

Where can we find you outside of the classroom?

Ninety miles east of here, there’s a wonderful little desert community called Borrego Springs. Surrounded by a State Park, there are no stop lights for 25 miles in any direction. No people, either. The town has fewer than 3000 residents, mostly retirees, and it has an amazing civic pride. Everyone participates in everything, and the folks there have been great to me. I call it my “little slice o’ heaven” for at least 20 nights a year. In the summer, I go to places where there isn’t a soul within a ten-mile radius. I’ve done a lot of writing out there, but mostly I swim, mountain bike, hike, and play some golf. My game is terrible, but there’s rarely anyone around to notice.

Special Thanks?

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank three people who have put a great deal of faith in me to teach our students. I’m grateful to Dan Moriarty, who first hired me eight years ago. Dan will retire in December after a long, wonderful career. Furthermore, I thank former Chair Michael Ichiyama for providing a wealth of support and cultivation, which led to Noelle Norton graciously offering a position that allows me to take on myriad responsibilities and teach exclusively at USD. I feel blessed to be here.