By Doug Ward

A colleague pulled me aside this week and said she wanted my thoughts about something. She seemed apologetic.

She is relatively new to college teaching, having made the switch to academia after a distinguished professional career. Students rave about her. She pushes them to think creatively and to stretch their abilities through hands-on projects. She holds students to high standards, but she is also accessible and serves as a strong mentor. When we talk, I always leave feeling energized and hopeful.

This week, though, she seemed uncharacteristically down, and she wanted my advice.

“How do you, a teacher of teachers, feel at the end of the semester?” she asked.

I laughed before offering a brutally honest answer: Mentally and physically exhausted, I said. Morose and filled with self-doubt. I dwell on missed opportunities, worry about what I may have forgotten to teach, and wonder whether I have truly helped students.

She leaned back in her chair and exhaled. “Oh, good,” she said. “I was afraid it was just me.”purplish-red hibiscus

It’s not, I said. Teaching feels like both a sprint and a marathon combined. Each week, we dash toward short-term goals, never fully able to catch our breath as the pace of the semester sweeps us along. I felt much the same way as a student, pouring myself into my studies, gasping toward the finish line, and wondering whether I had made the most of my opportunities.

I learned something then that I continue to draw upon now: Even though I felt exhausted and numb at the end of the semester, I had a chance to recuperate and rejuvenate. Academia, I found, had its own seasonal pace, its own cycle of depletion and rebirth. Every semester, I had a chance to start over.

I try to hold on to that thought at the end of each semester now that I’m a professor. I also remind myself that my class is only one of many that students will take. As I told my colleague this week, none of us can teach students everything. Seeing end-of-the-semester projects with sloppy writing, weak research, haphazard connections and faulty reasoning may seem like failure, but it’s not. Each of us has only a small part in the broader learning of our students. If we have done our jobs right, we have helped students improve their thinking and their maturity, helped them gain confidence in their ability to learn, and provided strategies for helping them learn in the future. The work we do will help them improve on their skills old and new in future classes.

I also remind myself that students are as tired as I am at the end of a semester and probably aren’t doing their best work or their best thinking then, just as I am not doing my best work or my best thinking. The end of the semester is a lesson in humility for all of us.

My main advice to all faculty members is to be kind to yourself at the end of the semester. Take time to reflect: What worked this semester, and why? Most certainly you had some successes. What were they and how can you transfer those successes into other areas? At the same time, what didn’t work? What parts of a course do you need to change? What can you do to improve overall student learning but also learning in smaller components of a class? What activities or assignments can you change to boost students’ confidence but also help them improve on weak skills?

After that reflection, take some time to relax and revive. Yes, you missed some opportunities this semester. We all do. No, students didn’t seem to learn as much as you would have liked. Do they ever? So give yourself a break. Do something that doesn’t require intense thinking. (I personally favor binge-watching “The Walking Dead.”) And remember that rare, magnificent part of academia: Next semester, you get a chance to start over.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

“What just happened?” Carl Luchies asked his graduate teaching assistant.

 They stood at the front of a lecture hall in early 2013, watching as 120 normally subdued engineering undergraduates burst into spontaneous conversation.

Luchies, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, had just given the students a problem to work on and told them it was a collaborative quiz due at the end of class. Students could work with anyone in the room, he said.

“Anyone?” they asked.

carl luchies points to computer screen as he helps a student
Carl Luchies works with a student in a graduate-level biomechanics class

Anyone, he said. They could move wherever they wanted to move. Use Google if Google would help. Ask questions of him or the GTA. Do whatever they needed to do to find the answer.

After a few moments of uncertainty, “the class just came alive,” Luchies said.

Luchies was surprised at how successful his experiment was that day, especially because it was a spur-of-the-moment experiment to try to revive a mostly listless class. His willingness to experiment and to focus on the best approaches for students was nothing new, though. He received the school’s Louise Byrd Graduate Educator Award in 2010. And this fall, he received the Outstanding Teaching Award from the Midwest Section of the American Society of Engineering Education. He will now be considered for a similar national award.

Luchies looks at that day in 2013 when the class came alive as a turning point in the way he teaches. Robert Beichner, a professor at North Carolina State and an advocate for active learning in STEM fields, spoke to School of Engineering faculty members the week before classes started that year, urging them to try flipped and hybrid learning in large classes. Luchies was intrigued, but he didn’t think he had time to make changes.

In January and February, though, he realized that few students were listening as he lectured. After 15 to 20 minutes, students began checking their phones or staring blankly. He asked for questions at the beginning and end of each class. Students rarely responded.

“I tried to entertain them,” he said. “I tried to get excited about it. I was using an active display or I was writing out solutions and then automatically putting that on Blackboard so that they could see my solution. I was trying a lot of different things.”

It didn’t matter, though. Students had simply checked out. So he cut back on lectures, gave students in-class problems and told them to work collaboratively.

“All of a sudden, all the students were talking and asking questions, because now they needed to know – they wanted to know – because there was pressure to figure this out before they left the classroom,” he said. “That’s all I had to see. That was like a night-and-day difference between what I had been doing and what I was going to be doing in the future.”

Carl Luchies at his computer in a biomechanics class
Luchies answers a student question in class

Luchies describes his approach to teaching as one of engagement. He often demonstrates new material to students and then turns them loose to work in groups. He and a teaching assistant move about the room and offer assistance. Each student turns in an assignment, but he encourages the class to work collaboratively to find answers and learn from each other.

“If I explain how to do something, and then I say, OK, now let’s do it, then they have to now think about exactly what I said, what did I mean by what I said, and how do they actually use what I said to solve the problem, do the analysis, whatever it might be,” Luchies said. “That’s when the actual learning goes on. They are actually doing what I just taught them.”

Luchies has gradually expanded and adapted the in-class and out-of-class material for his class over the past few years. He recorded lectures and put them online, created online quizzes, and insisted that students come to class prepared to work collaboratively. He experimented with different types of peer-to-peer learning – pairs of students, groups of three, groups that change during the semester, groups that stay together – before settling on teams of five that work together the entire semester. Eventually, he was able to move out of the lecture hall and into the new active learning rooms at the School of Engineering, add an additional GTA and two undergraduate teaching fellows.

“Each semester, I just went further and further,” Luchies said.

That doesn’t mean that switching to an active learning approach was easy or universally accepted.

“When I first started off there was a lot of pushback,” Luchies said. “There were students who basically told me that for the last 13 years I have learned like a sponge and I don’t see why I have to do any work when I come to class.”

The numbers on Luchies’ student teaching evaluations dropped, and “I had some pretty negative comments.”

As students grew more accustomed to active learning in his class and in other classes, though, the pushback diminished. Most now like the approach Luchies uses, praising the variety of class activities and the ability to develop as teams. Luchies, too, has grown more comfortable with his changing role as a teacher, moving away from lecture and becoming what he described as a mentor or a coach.

“At the beginning I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “I was just trying things. Now I’m much more intentional about it.”

He describes active learning as a continual learning process for students and instructors.

“Experiential learning goes both directions,” Luchies said. “I have learned a tremendous amount by trying new things and experiencing it and finding out for myself what works and what doesn’t work. Not everything I’ve tried works, but that’s OK. I don’t mind failing.”

Sometimes, though, those experiments pay off, leaving an instructor to ponder a delightful question:

“What just happened?”


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Good teaching often starts with a simple greeting to students.

A simple hello will work. A smile helps. So does body language that signals a willingness to work with students. That recognition — both inside and outside the classroom — can go a long way toward engaging students and setting the tone for an assignment, a class or even a college career.

We can’t forget that. Stellar lesson plans, carefully chosen readings and incisive questions mean little if students aren’t engaged. That doesn’t mean that every instructor needs a cult of personality. Not at all. It simply means that an instructor needs to show human elements that students can relate to. They have to connect in some way.

hands with puzzle pieces that fit together
Pixabay

At a discussion at CTE in the spring, a group of freshmen explained just how important that is. During their first semester, those freshmen were trying to find their place on campus: Where did they belong? Did they belong? How would they know?

One drove home the point this way: A few weeks into her first semester, she was still feeling unsure about herself and about KU. When one of her professors smiled and greeted her in the hallway one day, though, she felt validated. Her professor recognized her. He knew who she was. He said hello. That simple acknowledgment made her feel that she had a place on campus.

Charlie Blaich and Kathy Wise made a similar point in their opening plenary at the annual Teaching Summit last month.

Good pedagogy is important, Blaich said, but students need professors who make connections with them. They notice instructors who experiment with teaching and pay attention to students. They seek them out, and they learn from them.

“Being human and being present for them is a really important thing,” Blaich said.

A Gallup-Purdue Index Report released earlier this year further reinforced that idea. Students who felt that their professors connected with them, cared about them and made them excited about learning were far more likely to succeed in college. That held true whether colleges were large or small, public or private.

The connectedness lasted long after college, the report said, doubling the likelihood that graduates were engaged in their jobs and felt an overall sense of well-being.

None of that is surprising, but it provides a reminder of the important role that instructors play in the lives of college students. Simple acts of humanity pay dividends in students’ engagement, learning and long-term success.

That’s worth keeping in mind the next time we walk into a classroom, reply to email or see a student in the hallway.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.