Nick: Reflections and Inspiration for Improvement

Nick is an associate professor at Stephen F. Austin State University. 

I have a problem with grading. Actually, I have lots of problems with grading, but I do it because student feedback is important. With grading it can be a problem that I tend to focus on all of the stuff that my students get wrong. By this I mean that I notice everything that they miss. The worst part of this is that I tend to not pay attention to all the stuff they do well. We actually have a rule in our house when grading exams; complaints are limited to one minute until the exams have been totaled and reexamined. This phenomenon is a lot like implicit bias, in that recognition and attention to changing conscious attitudes are vital.

The same kind of thing often happens to me when I reflect on my teaching between semesters; I see only the things that I think I can do better. Again I try to combat this with some conscious statements about the things that went well. This past fall semester I had the heaviest teaching load of my time at SFA. I had three sections of freshman level trigonometry (all at capacity) and a section of multivariable calculus. My fall semester is seems at this point like things were either the best or the worst and not much in between. This goes not just for my teaching being split like this course to course but also to each student. More specifically, I feel like one of two things happened: 1) I really reached a student and was able to engage them in meaningful and profound ways about their education or 2) I was unable to connect even at a superficial level.

As a whole, each of my three trig sections was a different story. My first section met MWF, which I point out because I almost exclusively teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Having more meeting times ended up being a great help in this section, not because we had more in class meeting time (we didn’t), but because I had more opportunities to make adjustments to the many facets of the course. For instance, students don’t know what they don’t know, so they need lots of opportunities to discuss and ask questions. I think that being able to make these adjustments had a profound effect on the students in this course. In total, this section was the most engaged group of students I have ever taught or observed. It was truly awesome to go to class toward the end of the semester.

A colleague visited this section and was overwhelmed (in a great way) by a many of the things we did in class. Going into this visit, I had mixed feeling about how things were going. After discussing what I was trying to do in my classes and what was actually getting through to students in the post-observation meeting, I had a better picture of just how far the students in this section had come (at least the ones that showed up). It was another success in a course that I was very happy with the outcomes.

Attendance was an issue for me in all of my trig sections, but no more than in traditional classes. I thankfully had another faculty member who was not annoyed by my monthly visits to her office about the various issues that come up in this freshman level course. While she does a traditional lecture course, it was good to know how things like content and attitude compare to the student-centered approach that I took.

In the spirit of not trying to dwell on the places that need improvement, I am only going to talk about one of the things that did not go as well as I wanted. I really missed a lot of opportunities to effectively engage students who are from underrepresented groups in STEM fields. I set that as a goal for my semester and a lot of the student-centered stuff we did not seem to have much of an effect on many of these students and their habits. Let me clarify; when they got past the different learning environment, they flourished, but I was not able to encourage that regularly enough and get them to internalize the habits that would make them more successful in their academic and professional lives. It is not that I didn’t have some cases that I shouldn’t see as having a great impact on my students’ lives, but I had too many misses for me to be happy with how things went. This was especially hard on me because I spent a lot of physical and emotional energy on trying to make improvements in this area.

My multivariable calculus course was a lot of fun and very easy to see the gains that many students made to their habits of mind and their approach to their education. It was especially good to teach this course alongside a young faculty member. With this new faculty member, I found it really helpful to discuss how our students were doing and what we are trying in class. I think I was able to offer more questions that show what our students don’t understand (the notation is always very difficult for students), and he kept me from reverting to mechanical questions about the content and skills. I think it was especially important as a reminder for me to remember that we should not be doing our teaching in isolation, just as we would not expect to do research in isolation.

I am headed to Atlanta right now for the JMM and I look forward to the ideas and energy that I get from interacting and working with some many people who really care about improving the facet of our jobs with the greatest impact, teaching. As always, feel free to let me know if you have any questions or comments.