Powell Distinguished Senior Instructor of Finance, Director, Lundquist College Honors Program, Lundquist College of Business
"I think it is true that my attitude is the single most important thing in a classroom. If I’m enthusiastic, students will pay attention….But if I act bored, students are bored. As teachers we have a lot of control, whether we realize it or not, of our attitudes and how we present ourselves in the classroom."
I teach courses in Business Administration and Finance, with class sizes ranging from 50 students to 280 students, and I also teach online courses.
What inspires you to teach? What do you love about teaching?
I enjoy teaching and do it for the students. I enjoy interacting with students early in their career, as freshmen, and then seeing their growth over four years as I develop relationships with them. My courses are math-based, so I have many students coming in that are fearful. Yet it is very affirming to witness their “yes” moment when the material begins to click for them. They learn to conquer their fears by developing skills they could not otherwise acquire easily on their own. I see this transition often: students come in with a perception that this will be the worst class ever, but leave with it being a favorite class.
As a teacher at the university level, I value the independence I have and the creativity I can pursue. I can try a variety of things in the classroom and love to be creative, to experiment and to find those things that are most pertinent and fun for students, for example the use of news stories to highlight real-world examples of business finance. My success or failure is my own, with no one else to blame, so it is important to try new things if one is not feeling successful or needs a new challenge.
What teaching approaches, methods, techniques, etc. have you tried? What have you learned from these experiences?
I feel like I’ve tried just about everything. In my finance classes, for instance, I feel like I cannot get away from lecture. There are certain things – equations, theorems, etc. – that I just need to tell students. However, after lecturing, I give students time in class to work on specific problems based on the lecture material. I encourage them to work together with me in the room. This allows for peer-to-peer learning, which can work very well for students. It is affirming to watch one student explain something to another student, which helps both students learn. This in-class time also allows for students to get individual help from me. It is easy to spot students who are struggling with a problem – they look uncomfortable, perplexed, nervous, etc. They often won’t raise a hand for help or wouldn’t contact me if they were working on these problems outside of class. But being there in class with them, I can walk up and ask how it’s going, and then they’ll ask a question. In this way, I feel I have been able to help a lot of students who otherwise would not have asked for help. Some students have even thanked me in their course evaluations for approaching them in class to help. I love this part of my class because it allows me to have individual interaction, and the students are learning as they work together through the points from lecture. Students also like it, and I recommend it to others who are seeking opportunities to boost interaction and learning in the classroom.
In terms of class structure, I focus a lot on organization and preparation, which students really appreciate. It is difficult enough to learn finance without an instructor having to change the syllabus each week and thus making students’ learning experience more difficult. So, it is important to be organized. For instance, I use a course packet that includes an outline of class notes and is available in the bookstore for students to buy. We go through the packet page-by-page on a daily basis using a document camera in the classroom. This saves students from having to scramble to take tons of notes, although I do recommend that they take notes and not rely solely on the packet. The packet thus provides an organized structure with clear expectations for everyone. We work on problems together, which I demonstrate in front of the class, while they work through them on their calculators. Using the document camera really helps for this purpose – it allows much more freedom than something like PowerPoint, which I don’t use in the classroom.
Another form of interaction in the classroom, of course, is discussion. I used to teach a freshmen seminar on business ethics that was organized as student-led discussion for most of the classes. Students were assigned to teams, each of which was responsible for a particular article. Each team had to come up with discussion questions that I would okay ahead of time, and then the team had to lead class discussion for that article topic. This experience was different for me because most of my teaching involves a “correct” answer, whereas the ethics class was more open-ended with different potential answers to specific problems that involved ethical dilemmas and various stakeholders and the impacts of their different decisions. Even so, it was great to see transformational learning happen. Students could really grasp what we were discussing and relate their personal experiences to it. The challenge was getting them to think beyond what had happened to them in the past and reframe things using an ethical decision-making framework, so that they could make different decisions in the future. Classroom discussion and argumentation was a good way of doing this.
I enjoyed the business ethics class. I don’t foresee teaching it again, but if I did, I’m not certain if I would do anything differently. I will say that it is challenging to lead seminar-style discussions with freshman because it is early for them to be really into their work and also engaged in serious critical thinking. But it was a good start for them. As for their grades, which were based largely on participation, I had them write three reflection papers on the topics we discussed. They also researched and prepared company profiles and used news articles.
For my large lecture class (280 students), I use iClickers and feel they are quite effective in that situation. They help draw students in and bring their attention back to the class. I’d be in trouble without them, in fact. They are also an easy way to track participation points and attendance. More importantly, they are relatively easy to use and have a low start-up cost.
I also teach online, which provides access for students who might not otherwise be able to attend classes on campus. It also is a way for those students who don’t learn well in the classroom – I am like this, in fact. Like I did when I was a student, some students prefer to spend time learning outside of class, and they can excel in an online class. Other students have schedule problems, so online learning can be more convenient for them. Yet online learning is not as good at facilitating certain kinds of interaction or peer-to-peer discussion. The instructor also has to be very organized and consistent, with the same format each week. I try to cater to different learning styles, too, by having readings, providing notes, and posting narrated PowerPoint presentations, along with weekly quizzes, practice problems, and proctored exams for assessment.
Regardless of the approach, students – and sometimes instructors, too – don’t always see the learning impact right away, but students will often come back two years later and say thanks because now they recognize the value of the skills they developed previously.
What advice, insights, etc. would you share with beginning university instructors?
When first starting to teach, the key is not to worry about elaborate technology like iClickers or being highly innovative. Focus instead on getting your presentation of content down, meaning being able to present in a way that students can understand and so that you are comfortable with presenting. For instance, when I started, I was afraid of public speaking, so I practiced every lecture out loud before class. This helped ease my anxiety and helped me identify where I was stumbling. I could recognize that while I understood something, I was having trouble explaining it, which are two very different things. Practicing out loud also helped me figure out transitions and prepare a smoother lecture. Some instructors make the mistake of thinking they are content experts and thus can teach. But the vast majority of university instructors, including myself, have no background in education and teaching approaches. It is important therefore to break things down into basic building blocks, the most basic concepts, and build on that when presenting to students. It also helps to use lots of real-world examples and make topics applicable to students’ lives –something I can do in finance by discussing student loans, car payments, and so on. Perhaps the easiest and best thing to do is to sit in and watch others teach, especially the material you have to teach. This is a great way to learn quickly how to present and see what is working and what isn’t, and what you can do differently.
I also recommend asking students for feedback early and often. A good way to do this is the midterm survey on Blackboard, which is quick and easy. I actually do this less now than I used to, but it was invaluable when I first started. At first I worried that my class was a total disaster, but I got more positive feedback than I would have believed possible. Students would actually indicate that they were learning, which helped get me through the term. They would also indicate if something wasn’t working, and I could walk into class and talk about what they said and propose something different. Incorporating their feedback was important, and I feel the way I became a good teacher was based on student feedback. In fact, almost everything I do now was based on student feedback, for example the use of a course packet.
Instructors should also use other resources on campus, such as TEP, asking for help early on and especially if they don’t feel things are going well. This isn’t always easy to do, but it is very helpful.
I think it is true that my attitude is the single most important thing in a classroom. If I’m enthusiastic, students will pay attention, even if my example or story is boring. But if I act bored, students are bored. As teachers we have a lot of control, whether we realize it or not, of our attitudes and how we present ourselves in the classroom. Students say in their evaluations and other feedback that it is obvious I love what I do, even when I don’t state this explicitly. I love teaching, and though I often walk out of the classroom exhausted, it is worth it and a great feeling.