Associate Director, Teaching and Learning Center
"I find getting to know students really important—more important than I would have initially thought….The main benefit of knowing students’ stories and goals comes back to motivation: I work harder, and they work harder….I become a better teacher every time I get closer to their real stories."
I have taught a variety of TLC courses designed to help students improve their approach to academics. These courses have ranged from 5 to 30 students, 1 to 3 credits, face-to-face to online formats, P/N to graded assessments, and 3-week to full-term durations. Topics have included study skills, time management, writing, grammar, critical thinking, speed reading, money management, and interpersonal communication.
What inspires you to teach? What do you love about teaching?
I love being involved in learning--and the transformations that precede, accompany, and follow learning. My experiences as a student were sometimes dull, sometimes frustrating, sometimes even painful, but the challenges and rewards of moving through these toward new understanding, questions, and insights were irresistible. Whether I was deciphering Hegel, memorizing muscle attachment sites, or acting out scenes from Le Petit Nicolas, I felt gratified. When I discovered that teaching is essentially a way to get paid for learning, well, I was hooked. As a teacher, I get to continue to play with new ideas, including ways to design courses, engage students, hear their stories, identify their strengths, understand their needs, and help them access the rewards of learning. As every situation provides a new twist, it’s impossible to get bored.
What teaching approaches, methods, techniques, etc. have you tried? What have you learned from these experiences?
I am most disheartened when I see students miserably drift through a course, waiting to be pulled across the passing line and seeing every assignment as “busy work.” I would love to discover an “engagement” shot to accompany the immunizations required for admission—but, lacking that, I experiment with various student-centered approaches, most of which fall into two categories: involving students in course design and providing choices.
Several times I experimented with having students develop their Introduction to University Studies course syllabus—a terrifying process. I worried about giving up control and class time, and some students likely initially perceived I was unprepared or didn’t know how to do my job. Still, we went through every aspect: learning objectives, specific topics, out-of-class responsibilities, grading, and course policies. We spent about a week discussing the university mission, uncovering students’ goals, drafting statements, and coming to consensus on a final product. It wasn’t easy, but the results were wonderful. Students gained abilities to discuss the purposes of university education, analyze materials and expectations for their other courses, think critically about requirements, identify many of their academic strengths and challenges, understand their own investment, develop skills in group process, and increase their buy-in for our course. Throughout the term, they had great class dynamics and high motivation to succeed—and they acknowledged the methods behind the madness.
Notice, though, that I mention this approach in the past tense. As much as I enjoyed the results, the time and energy investment and stress of the suspense were a bit too much to maintain. Also, the design experience isn’t relevant to the learning objectives in all of my courses. To compromise, I often ask students to create or revise specific aspects of the course, including discussion standards, deadlines, cell phone policies, and even some of the reading materials.
Another way I have tried to better meet students’ specific needs and increase their engagement in the course is simply to provide options: write about 4 of 7 prompts, choose 6 of 8 assignments, research 2 of 3 topics, read these handouts or listen to those podcasts, write an essay or make a presentation, meet these deadlines or those. I hold onto some firm requirements so that students have to stretch in areas of less comfort and interest, but providing some options helps students tailor the course to their specific interests, study according to their learning preferences, improve their personal investment, and express themselves in a way that best represents their learning. Because providing choices has improved students’ attitudes and the quality of their work, I continue to seek ways to offer variety.
What advice, insights, etc. would you share with beginning university instructors?
I find getting to know students really important—more important than I would have initially thought. I have the luxury of small classes that allow me to learn students’ names, read their reflections, and occasionally require individual conferences, but I think even large classes can provide opportunities to connect. The main benefit of knowing students’ stories and goals comes back to motivation: I work harder, and they work harder. I also am better able to tailor explanations, examples, and activities to suit the group, and I get the joy of having my assumptions dashed. Sometimes a student who appears apathetic comes to office hours with the most thoughtful questions; sometimes a student who appears confident is struggling to stay eligible for enrollment; sometimes a student who appears satisfied with low-quality work is a hard worker juggling family responsibilities, intense work hours, or health problems. I become a better teacher every time I get closer to their real stories.