What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?
In my statistics courses, I first assess students’ anxiety level, as they’re social sciences students who typically don’t have a math background or are fearful of math. Fortunately, one of my areas of research is how to motivate students, so it’s a nice way to link my teaching and my research.
There is also this misconception that statistics is not related to anything in the real world, and many of the students are convinced that they will never actually use what they learn in my courses. So I try to engage them by connecting statistics to the real world, talking about actual research and the stats behind it.
We’ll get into topics that are relevant to them in their own classrooms, like bullying, or we’ll do mini experiments. For example, to learn about the central limit theorem, I’ll bring in a bag of chocolate bars and we’ll weigh them and observe that they don’t all weigh 50g. So we’ll look at different distributions, means, variations, etc., to make the statistics quite concrete, if not tasty!
For my classes on motivation, if the students are teachers, I give them what I call “instructional design challenges” where they take what they’re learning about educational psychology back into their own classrooms and apply it. And so they videotape their class to see how aligned their learning theory and practice are. Then we evaluate the results—what works, what doesn’t, and why?—to help them become critical consumers of the research covered in the course.
How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?
One of the first things I do in most of my classes is to sit down with the students and say, “I want you to be responsible for your learning. How would you like to be evaluated?” Then we co-create the grading rubrics because I believe it’s important that students have a sense of ownership about their own learning. This creates a productive environment of mutual respect where they can provide and receive constructive feedback.
For my statistics classes, on a practical level, since I want them to apply the content they’re learning, I encourage graduate students to use their own data, which I’ll have them analyze and write about. Obviously, there are going to be some tests in statistics courses, but they’re conceptual. There’s also a lab component, where they get to apply what they’re learning.
For the Introduction to Statistics course, I have them critically evaluate the papers that they read. One of the strategies that I use to alleviate their “fear of taking statistics” is to provide a lot of formative feedback. They can hand in assignments multiple times, making any necessary adjustments before I grade them, because I focus more on the process, which helps scaffold their learning.
What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?
Of course I want my statistics students to know what statistical analysis to use under given conditions and how to interpret the output. Beyond that, I hope the students will come away with the notion that they can actually succeed at something they initially felt they would fail, since most arrive saying, “I’m terrible at this, I don’t think I’m going to do well.”
For the courses on motivation, I want them to learn that educational psychology has something important to say about learning and teaching—they can take the theory and apply it in the real world even if it’s not going to be a perfect 1:1 correspondence.
How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?
I bring in articles that are current and relevant. For example, with teachers we can talk about bullying and analyze how the research is conducted. In the statistics class, we can actually break down each component of the article and talk about the research methods and the research challenges, especially lab-based versus classroom-based research. Lab-based is very controlled, and classroom-based research is very messy. In the real world, people are not going to behave as you expect them to.
As well, I have the students interview people who have done research and talk with them about the kinds of research that they do, so that the students see the kind of discourse that goes on as part of the scholarship process.
What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?
Seek support—that’s what I did and it really paid off. I participated in a number of workshops for new professors to learn how to develop effective courses. I spoke to other professors about their most effective teaching strategies and reviewed their syllabi. I even asked some individuals to observe my classes and give me constructive feedback.
What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?
Do something that’s of interest and relevant to you. That’s why I provide different types of assignments and bring in pertinent examples. At the beginning of the semester I ask them, “What are your interests? What do you want to pursue?”
Why do you teach?
I teach because I absolutely love to help others construct knowledge. And since I am researching what I teach, it allows me to fold my research into my teaching. Hence, I research what I teach and I teach what I research—it is a perfect mix for me.
Photo by Owen Egan
I hope the students will come away with the notion that they can actually succeed at something they initially felt they would fail, since most arrive saying, ‘I’m terrible at this, I don’t think I’m going to do well.’