What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?
I use a variety of tools and ideas, as much to get people to think about things differently as to get them into the actual course content. For the content, students learn to apply increasingly sophisticated modeling tools to real issues, culminating with their own model that they present at the end-of-year symposium I organize.
In terms of ideas, I try to knock students out of their intellectual comfort zone by showing them the themes and assumptions that underpin their learning. To start with, there is the recursive nature of modeling and learning in general: we learn most when our models and ways of thinking fail to provide an explanation for something. Progress through confirmation is self-limiting, but failure makes us change our thinking. And there is the nature of our learning and logic as well: our knowledge is like Swiss cheese, full of holes. All this is very revealing to students because it goes against that view of university as the setting for the transfer of sound knowledge.
How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?
In the modelling course, we start by simulating simple, real-world problems using a software tool that requires no background knowledge, and then we move to more complex systems with more feedbacks. Students learn the basics as they work through all this and complete a series of progressively harder assignments, designed both to pace and push them, and track their progress.
They also complete a detailed critique of a simulation model using a checklist I provide. This way, they know what to look for when they get cut loose and have to build their own simulation models at the end of the term. For this project, they propose a model on a real-world problem, I review it, and then they present their model at the symposium.
Aside from that, I’ve got an excellent textbook for this course; we usually do the exercises right out of it because students appreciate the familiar format. I also have TAs because the course demands a huge amount of contact time with students.
What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?
Definitely systems thinking, both for students from the discipline and from outside of it.
More broadly, and coming back to those ideas about failure and incomplete knowledge, I think students should learn to become more uncomfortable and critical with their accepted knowledge, in the sense of training them to think and reflect critically about things a lot more. To me, the most important things that we teach are the modes of thinking, and that there are many of these. This is why I highly recommend “rattling one’s cages” by taking courses from outside the traditional disciplinary boundaries.
How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?
I don’t, overtly—though I do reinforce this notion of failure being positive. After failure or inconsistency, we start feeling our way forward, so that learning and research, which in the context of a failed hypothesis are indistinct, become a truly heuristic process.
Even though we have a lot of incomplete knowledge, progress still happens, and we still have decisions to make, like whether to build a nuclear reactor and what to do with the waste. Here again we experience research through problem-based learning. It’s not a set methodology that I teach—it’s more of a cognitive methodology, a way of systems thinking. It’s a way of thinking like a researcher, like a professional in the field.
What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?
When I started teaching, one of my professors said, “Develop a course outline and stick to it. Don’t start jumping all over the place. Get through the course, see what didn’t work and then revise the next year.” I agree. I recommend that new faculty members stick to a game plan when they begin, and that they revisit their courses only after a couple of years of getting to know the student body and themselves as teachers. In general, students are most interested in getting through the course, and don’t know what their interests are yet. It’s only once professors realize this that they can see teaching more as an opportunity to turn these people on than as a job to primarily convey information.
Also, I think new professors need to take risks and to not be afraid of making or admitting to mistakes. The worst thing a professor can do is to start faking it because students’ hogwash barometers are pretty acute.
What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?
I tell students to follow their interests because learning requires engagement. And I tell them to read, read, and read more. There is so much interesting stuff out there to digest and think about. The other advice I have is to really listen to things and to get engaged in activities outside the classroom: only a small fraction of real learning happens in the classroom.
Why do you teach?
I love teaching. I think teachers have the ideal job. I would happily give up administrative responsibilities to teach more because the teaching of this age group—and dealing with students in general—is personally very rewarding. On the philosophical side, I think it’s essential to the survival of democratic societies and to humanity, to have educated, thinking, and self-aware populations.
Photo by Owen Egan