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A Brief History of NITOP by Douglas A. Bernstein

The National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology convened for the first time on October 9-11, 1978 on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, jointly sponsored by the UIUC Psychology Department and the University's Division of Conferences and Institutes. Originally called "An Institute on the Teaching of Psychology to Undergraduates," the event was the brainchild of Frank Costin, a member of the Psychology Department at UIUC from 1948 until his death in 1998. Frank's idea for the Institute was as simple and straightforward as it was important, namely to offer psychology faculty an opportunity to get together to hear stimulating talks—and to exchange ideas and advice—about the challenges, frustrations, problems, and pleasures of teaching. The Institute has grown significantly in size and scope over the years, but its purpose and goals have remained the same.

Frank Costin (1914 - 1998), founder of NITOP, maintained an abiding interest in fostering excellence in the teaching of psychology. As director of the introductory psychology program at UIUC from 1967 to 1984, he carefully selected and trained new instructors for the course and conducted research on the relative value of various methods of classroom instruction. Each year's Frank Costin Memorial Award goes to the NITOP poster presenter whose work offers the best example of promoting quality teaching methods.


The tradition of outstanding speakers at NITOP was established in its first year with an opening address entitled "Teaching Psychology to Undergraduates: Problems, Issues, and Solutions," by Wilbert McKeachie, who was then director of the University of Michigan's Center for the Study of Learning and Teaching. The other five speakers that year included Frank Costin himself, along with Freda Rebelsky, a winner of the American Psychological Foundation's award for distinguished contribution to teaching, Ralph Turner, a former president of APA's Division Two (now the Society for the Teaching of Psychology), John Ory, then coordinator of examination services for the University of Illinois Office of Instructional Resources, and Larry Braskamp, then head of the measurement and research division of that Office.

A crowd of 128 participants attended the 1978 Institute and, following the opening address, they were treated to three additional sessions on "Effective Use of Lecture and Discussion," "How to Evaluate Undergraduate Teaching and Learning," and "Innovative Methods and Techniques of Televised Instruction." The registration fee of $48 (approximately $167 in 2012 dollars) covered 11 hours of sessions, four meals, and two social hours. As a cost-cutting measure, the final morning of the Institute took place three blocks from the conference hotel, in the psychology building. Room rates at the hotel were $24 for a single, $34 for a double, plus tax (approximately $84 and $118, respectively, in 2012 dollars).

Participants were obviously satisfied with the Institute experience. They said so on their evaluation forms, and they must have told their friends, because 100 new participants—including some from Mexico and Canada—showed up in Champaign for the Second Annual Institute on October 25-27, 1979. For their $85 registration fee, participants at the second Institute had the same number of meals, but heard twice as many speakers as before, including Richard Solomon, Edward Diener, Lawrence Wrightsman, Bill Greenough, Evelyn Satinoff, Robert Harper, John Bare, Deborah Holmes, Frank Costin, and Doug Bernstein. The Institute's tradition of repeating some sessions was established that year as a way of making it possible for participants to avoid missing talks that were scheduled concurrently.

The opening talk by John Bare was a general one, entitled "Developing Undergraduate Programs in Psychology: Rationale, Approaches, and Issues," but the rest of the Second Annual Institute focused much more than the first one had on the teaching of specific courses. Panel discussions and workshop sessions dealt with problems and issues in teaching introductory, child/developmental, experimental/learning/quantitative, social/personality, abnormal, and physiological psychology. As at the first Institute, discussions of teaching technology focused on the use of overhead projectors and Betamax videotape players. The Internet was still some years away!


From 1978 to 1989, NITOP was organized by staff members of the Division of Conferences and Institutes, a part of the University of Illinois Office of Continuing Education. The first of these staffers was Carol Holden, a live wire if there ever was one, who had confidence from the very beginning that the Institute could grow in size and reach a far broader audience if it were moved beyond the confines of Champaign, Illinois. Early in 1980, at a planning session for the Third Annual Institute, Carol suggested that the popularity of the Institute might really take off if it enlisted a group of outstanding speakers to give their talks in a beautiful, warm place in the dead of winter. The planning committee members—Doug Bernstein, Frank Costin, Bill Greenough, and John Fiore—looked out the meeting room window at the blowing snow and said, "Oh, yes, let's do it."

It was not long before Carol had found a new home for NITOP—the Caribbean Gulf Hotel (later renamed the Adam's Mark) on Clearwater Beach, Florida, and the Third Annual Institute took place there on January 8-10, 1981. The registration fee for the tropical version of NITOP went up to $185, but each of the nine speakers presented at least two talks, so the number and range of topics covered was greatly expanded. The Third Annual Institute also included four concurrent 90-minute sessions at which participants were given the opportunity to present short papers describing their own research, innovations, or ideas on the teaching of psychology. This opportunity was obviously an important one, because the number of excellent proposals submitted for these sessions in subsequent years made it impossible to accommodate all of them. We solved that problem in 1987 when, at the 9th Annual NITOP, we scheduled our first participant poster sessions. There are now three such sessions at each Institute.

To provide even more opportunity for informal interaction, the 5th Annual Institute, which took place January 3-5, 1983, added two roundtable discussion sessions, one on helping students get into graduate school and the other on the use of videotapes in the classroom (film was still the most common presentation medium at that time). The format proved popular with participants, and six roundtables were presented at the 6th NITOP, January 4-7, 1984. At the 10th Annual Institute, at the suggestion of planning committee member Robert Hendersen, these roundtables took the form they retain today—60 minute Participant Idea Exchanges. At these PIEs, participants circulate among several large round tables to take part in discussions on topics proposed and led by other participants. Bob originally envisioned these sessions as "ice cream socials" and, in fact, the first time we offered them, we had hotel employees passing among the tables with frozen treats for everyone.


The 1984 NITOP marked two notable changes, each brought about by the ever-growing popularity of the Institute and the expanding role of its participants. The first change was the expansion of the 6th Annual NITOP from three to four days. Amazingly, the previous year's $240 registration fee stayed the same, but the new, longer format allowed for longer participant paper presentations, more repeated sessions, and a more leisurely pacing of events. It was at the 6th NITOP, too, that the program committee began its efforts to recognize participants who make the most outstanding contribution each year to the conference's goal of promoting excellence in the teaching of psychology. These efforts took the form of the first annual Frank Costin Award, a certificate and a check for $100 given to the participant who gave what was judged to be the best short paper that year. The Costin Memorial Award is still given each year, now for an outstanding poster presentation, and its cash value has grown to $250.

More growth-related changes appeared at the 7th Annual Institute. The most noticeable of these was the deletion of the words "to Undergraduates" from the meeting's name, resulting in the title whose acronym is NITOP—The National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology. "NITOPU" just did not have the right ring to it. The new name reflected the fact that our speakers and our audiences were interested—and continue to be interested—in talking about the teaching of psychology at all levels, from secondary school through graduate school. As the years have passed, we have continued to attract participants from high schools, junior and community colleges, four-year liberal arts colleges, research universities, and graduate schools.

A second change was seen in our efforts to stimulate networking among participants. For the first time, we included in the registration packet a list of the names and addresses of all participants and speakers.

Third, the program committee bowed to the wishes expressed by many of our colleagues on the west coast of the United States that we offer NITOP in their part of the country. Thus, the 7th NITOP was held twice—once on December 27-30, 1984 in San Diego, California, and again just days later, January 2-5, 1985 at its usual spot in Clearwater Beach, Florida. Most of the speakers made the transcontinental trek and gave their presentations at both NITOP-1 and NITOP-2. We expected to accommodate double the number of participants in this way, but that is not what happened. We attracted about 60 people in Florida, but only about 40 in California. In short, the same total number of people split themselves across the two locations, generating the same income as in the previous year, at twice the expense to us. In the hope that we simply had failed to get the word out properly, the conference committee—now composed of Frank Costin, Doug Bernstein, Bob Hendersen, and Sandra Goss (now Sandra Goss Lucas)—tried the same two-meeting format again in 1985-86, for the 8th NITOP. This time, though we tripled the publicity effort, the outcome on the west coast was even worse. So few people registered for the San Diego version of the Institute that we were forced to cancel it. The five participants who showed up at the conference hotel were treated to dinner by a faculty member from the University of Illinois Psychology Department who happened to be there at the time. We lost almost $7400 on the dual-meeting venture and never again attempted to take NITOP on the road.

The financial losses incurred by the 7th and 8th Annual Institutes were absorbed by the Office of Conferences and Institutes, and by the University of Illinois Psychology Department, whose executive officer at the time, Emanuel Donchin, was an enthusiastic supporter of NITOP. It was clear, however, that further losses could not be tolerated and that we needed a new approach that would make NITOP self-supporting. The first stage of this new approach began when, during a meeting of the planning committee early in 1986, Frank Costin looked at the financial report on the 8th Annual NITOP, and said, "You know, our loss this year was almost exactly the amount that we paid in speaker expenses." A motion to break even in future years by eliminating speakers from NITOP died for lack of a second, but your scribe—who was then hard at work on a new textbook—suggested that we could dramatically cut our costs by inviting publishing companies to provide grants to cover some of our speakers' NITOP-related travel expenses. I wrote to about 20 companies (there were a lot more of them then than there are now), and 10 agreed to be sponsors, thus beginning a partnership with publishers of textbooks and educational software that has grown over the years to benefit the publishing companies, NITOP participants, and NITOP itself. As the range and eminence of our speaker cadre grew, so too did our reputation, and the size of our audience—but not immediately. True, the 9th Annual Institute attracted 121 participants, and that year we had a surplus equal to our loss the previous year. To get back to square one, though, we had been forced to charge a registration fee of $295, which, in 2012 dollars, is $591—even more than the registration fee for NITOP 2012.

So though we had publishers on board, we had still not found the right financial formula for NITOP. Perhaps it was the hotel. In 1988, the 10th Annual Institute took place at a new and better venue, the TradeWinds Hotel and Resort (now the Tradewinds Island Grand) on St. Pete Beach, Florida, where it has been held ever since. Still, only 70 of our colleagues paid the $295 fee, and we lost almost $3000.

For the 11th Annual Institute in 1989, we formed yet another partnership, this time with the Department of Psychology at the University of South Florida. Its then-chairman, Louis Penner, graciously agreed to help us cut expenses by providing some audiovisual equipment and several graduate student volunteers to assist in various aspects of conference administration, from registering participants to running slide projectors and distributing handouts. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement, and the USF psychology department, now chaired by Michael Brannick, remains a valued NITOP co-sponsor. Having the support of USF certainly helped, but the Institute was still in trouble. We cut the registration fee to $275, recruited more speakers than ever before (18), and sent out a record 20,000 copies of our publicity brochure, but though we attracted 127 participants, the largest audience since 1978, the 11th Annual Institute lost $2500.

When the University of Illinois Division of Conferences and Institutes proposed solving the budget problem by raising the registration fee to $467 for the 1990 Institute ($813 in 2012 dollars), we knew it was time to look elsewhere for conference administration. Early in 1989, we asked an independent meeting planner named Joanne Fetzner to take a look at our conference and its budget and make recommendations for improving our financial situation. To make a long story short, Joanne told us that we were spending too much on publicity and conference administration, and she outlined an alternative plan for focused publicity and more reasonable administrative fees. The committee found her analysis and suggestions so impressive that it voted to hire her as our new NITOP coordinator. This was, to say the least, an excellent decision. With Joanne's administrative assistance, the planning committee for the 12th Annual Institute in January, 1990 was able to offer participants 21 distinguished speakers, a free six-hour preconference workshop on "Instructional Computing for Novices," and we only had to raise the registration fee to $295. That 1990 program, combined with a more strategic mailing campaign, brought in 240 participants, a response that allowed us to wipe out for good the deficits we had endured for several years.

NITOP had come of age.


The conference has continued to grow in a number of ways. The most noticeable aspect of this growth is the size of the audience. Since 1990, as we increased the number of speakers—there were 34 of them at NITOP 2012—and added special events such as a dance, evening social hours, four or five preconference workshops, and educational software displays, the number of participants steadily rose. When, in 1996, that number reached 400, we realized that we could not allow this trend to continue unless we moved to a larger convention facility. Evaluation questionnaires made it clear, however, that participants loved the TradeWinds, and the size of the NITOP crowd, so we decided to keep NITOP where it is and limit its enrollment to 375. In 1989, planning committee members could not have dreamed of ever considering an enrollment cap, but the need for it suggests that the conference is providing our colleagues with an annual event that is of great value.

Throughout the 1990s, the NITOP planning committee worked to find new ways to build the Institute's reputation for quality and to justify the continuing loyalty of its participants. For example, when the 12th Annual Institute achieved its unexpected financial success in 1990, we took the surplus it generated and used it in 1991 to reduce the registration fee for the 13th Annual Institute to $225. That same year we were able to offer 26 speakers and, at Joanne Fetzner's suggestion, to establish the policy of giving each participant a pocket-size edition of the conference program (complete with abstracts of all presentations), along with a three-ring notepad and binder for collecting handouts and personal notes. It was at the 13th Institute, too, that we started another tradition: the Laugh at Lunch feature at which participants tell teaching-related stories involving funny student excuses, weird and/or embarrassing classroom happenings, humorous term papers, and the like.

In 1993, the Association for Psychological Science recognized the role of NITOP in promoting quality teaching by becoming an official co-sponsor of the Institute. This vital and welcome relationship has grown to include an annual grant to the conference, support of a plenary session speaker, as well as support of a discounted registration fee for APS members. Indeed, the NITOP-APS partnership was such a good way to highlight the Association's commitment to teaching that the APS executive director, Alan Kraut, invited your scribe to organize a one-day mini-NITOP as a preconference teaching Institute at the APS convention in June of 1994 in Washington D.C. Now in partnership with the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP), the APS-STP Teaching Institute is a continuing feature of the annual APS convention.

In 1997, NITOP formed alliances with the American Psychological Association' Education Directorate and with STP. These alliances took the form of grants from APA in support of NITOP events, including preconference workshops designed for teachers of psychology in the secondary schools, an annual STP-sponsored preconference workshop, and two annual STP awards for outstanding posters. Starting with the 35th Annual Institute in 2013, STP joined USF and APS as a full-fledged co-sponsor of NITOP by providing an annual grant and support for an annual speaker in addition to its preconference workshop and poster awards.

Since 1998, the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology has been a free-standing, non-profit educational organization. This independent status allows the planning committee, including Sandy Goss Lucas, Bill Buskist, Jane Noll, and its new Chairman, Robert Hendersen, the flexibility it needs to work with its co-sponsors to make NITOP an even better resource for the promotion of excellence in the teaching of psychology.

Douglas A. Bernstein, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology
University of South Florida

Update:  In 2019, Robert Hendersen, stepped down as Chair of the Planning Committee and Stephen Chew moved into that role after serving several years as a member of the committee.

NITOP is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Contact:         NITOP, P. O. Box 963, Northport, AL  35476

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