Faculty in Focus: Benjamin Cheung wants students to live and use psychology; not just learn it

Benjamin Cheung

We sit down with Dr. Benjamin Cheung, one of the new Lecturers in the Department of Psychology. For Cheung, UBC Psychology is home; he received his PhD, his MA in Social Psychology, and his BA in Psychology and in Asian Language and Culture (Korean) at UBC.

He has held many teaching fellowships and assistantships in the department and in 2014 he was awarded the UBC Killam Graduate Teaching Assistant Award for his teaching excellence.

Aside from teaching, Cheung tries to answer a wide variety of questions about human psychology through his research. He explores how culture affects our behaviour, and how our understanding of genes biases the ways we think and act. He’s also interested in understanding the psychological outcomes of students who adopt different ways of responding to poor performance.

In this Q&A he shares his approach to teaching, what he learns from his students, and his advice for students.

First of all, what attracted you to teaching?
It all started with my experience as a graduate TA and how much I thoroughly enjoyed my interactions with students, and that my students seemed to appreciate the way in which I taught them. It felt natural for me to start teaching given the enjoyment that I derived from really engaging with students. In the classroom itself, I’d have to say the most fun part of teaching would be my conversations with the students, the jokes I can share with my students, and the connections I make with my students. Students, students, students.

How would you describe your approach to teaching?
Fun, engaging, informative, and human. People find it easier for new information to stick (and be interested in it) when it’s made tangible for them – What does the self-reference effect look like? Would people be able to recognise threats to internal validity? And if they do, so what? I try to contextualise everything in a way that is relatable to them – what things look like in the world beyond the textbook, and why they’re relevant to students. Ultimately, I want students to live and use psychology, not just learn it.

What can you learn from your students?
Students are a great source of knowledge for me. First and foremost, they help me figure out what I’m doing that works and doesn’t work, which is of benefit to me and to them. Also, students bring a lot of their own knowledge and interpretations to the classroom that can contribute a lot to class discussions, sometimes taking the lecture in a completely unexpected (and often hilarious) direction.

What learning or studying advice do you have for your students?
The whole educational endeavor makes it seem like grades are all that matter. They do matter; but what always gets lost in that narrowed focus is that studying for grades may be detrimental for learning. Live the material, breathe the material, and really understand the material. When you get it, then the grades will come – not the other way around.

More specifically, I encourage that students test themselves, and get more engaged in class by discussing ideas or forming study groups. Test each other. Find examples to illustrate class concepts. Go see exams. Ask questions. Try to learn from mistakes. These are all simple steps that anyone can take to get the best out of their education.

What are your research interests?
The primary question that drives my research is how people (mis)understand what it means for something to have a genetic cause, and what consequences that has. The most prominent application of this has been in the realm of legal decision making, but I am hoping to expand this to understanding people’s perceptions of learning and the educational decisions that people make.

I am also interested in understanding the psychological outcomes of students who adopt different ways of responding to poor performance, which has implications for what messages educators should be passing onto students.

Why did you choose UBC for your graduate studies?
I chose UBC for several reasons, the simplest of which was that I have family here, and I think Vancouver is generally a great city to be in. More academically, I did my undergraduate studies here, which allowed me to foster some really great relationships here in the psychology department. I was also really interested in exploring cultural psychological research, so what’s a better place to do my graduate studies than a place that had four cultural psychologists at the time?

And what has attracted you to stay at UBC?
UBC has increasingly put more emphasis on teaching and student engagement, which is evidenced by the increase in the number of teaching-stream faculty on campus, the sheer amount of professional development opportunities given by the CTLT, and the student engagement and teaching-centred graduate training opportunities popping up at various departments around UBC. I’d also like to think that the new hiring of Dr. Santa Ono is part of this reinvigorated push to make the institution an even more student-friendly environment. All of this is really exciting, and I really want to be a part of this movement.

Do you have a motto or favourite quote?
One of my teaching idols (and UBC Faculty) Dr. Andrea Perrino ended our psychology course during my undergrad by telling us “Once my student, always my student.” That speaks to her student-centred approach to teaching, viewing it as a sustained teacher-student relationship that persists through time. I hold this approach very dearly, and try my best to emulate it.

What do you like to do in your free time?
All sorts of things. I’m a big sports fan, so I enjoy playing sports, especially roller hockey and ball hockey. I also like watching ice hockey, soccer, football, or just about any sport. I’m also a big gamer, so I’ll do some gaming if I have time, or I will watch my favourite gamers/YouTubers if I don’t have time to do my own gaming.


Benjamin joins Mark Lam, Kyle Danielson and Lillian May as 12-Month Lecturers in the Department of Psychology.