# Teaching to the choir

Although much of the reason that I am in graduate school is for an eventual career teaching college students, I have not had many opportunities to teach courses yet. Therefore, for a teaching reflection, I will be reflecting on other opportunities I have had to speak and the one or two opportunities I have had to give a guest lecture.

For the purposes of this blog, I will consider two different experience I’ve had related to teaching: (1) in the fall, when I gave a guest lecture for my advisor in a sophomore-level dynamics course, and (2) yesterday, when I got the opportunity to preach the sermon at my church, Fieldstone UMC. There are actually a surprising amount of similarities between the two experiences. Note: my faith is very important to me, but this is a blog about teaching.

In reflecting on these two experiences, I’ve noticed some things about my teaching style.

Examples are very important to me

Examples help illustrate concepts and help us connect ideas to things we can already wrap our heads around. Maybe its the engineer in me, but I think that examples make incredibly powerful teaching tools.

In the dynamics course, I was teaching about the impulse-momentum equation

$J \equiv \int_{t_1}^{t_2} Fdt = mv_2-mv_1$

Which says that there’s this thing called the impulse, $J$, that is equal to the change in momentum. It is a useful formula for studying things like the dynamics of billiards and car accidents. To introduce the topic to my class, though, I didn’t just give them that equation, because equations are scary. I showed a video of a golf ball deforming and talked about how the impulse represents the total effect of that deformation and restoration. Therefore, we don’t have to know the details of that deformation. All we need to know is the change in velocity of the club head in order to determine the velocity that the ball.

In the sermon, I was discussing how small actions can have a profound impact, and I shared a TED talk by Drew Dudley entitled Everyday Leadership. He shares the amazing story about a time that he gave a lollipop to a girl and it utterly changed her life. Thinking about how this moment where he had so profoundly impacted somebody without even remembering it, we can see how we may all be able to impact those around us through small actions.

Examples people something tangible to hold onto when discussions become abstract.

I like to make people move

As we’ve discussed in class, lectures can get boring and people don’t have the attention span. I like to make people move around the room if possible to get the blood flowing and to help them engage.

In the dynamics course, I used a sort of think-pair-share to get the students to try to apply the knowledge in small groups and then discuss with the class in order to make sure that students were engaging with the material rather than just listening to me drone on. In a boring class talking about a derivation, I had the students try it first. Then, they would have something to go from when we talked about the material in class.

During the sermon, I was trying to encourage people to be more conscious of creating a welcoming environment. In the middle of the sermon, I asked everyone to stand up and learn the name of one other person in the room. The room was immediately filled with energy and the rest of the sermon flowed from that energy.

Getting people physically moving during a lecture helps them be involved.

It’s important to keep people engaged

Engagement is hard to describe when giving a presentation of any kind, but it is the most important thing. I think that engagement is just something you can feel. It’s in eye contact and facial expressions, but it’s really just something that you can feel.

I felt it while performing in musicals in high school. I felt it I spent my first couple years of graduate school giving presentations to prospective students and their parents. I felt it yesterday while preaching, and I felt it from some of the students when I taught the dynamics class.

I don’t yet know how to improve that engagement in the classroom. I think that is something that I’ll be working at throughout my career as a teacher.

What do you think? Do you have any fun examples to share? Do you have fun ideas to get people moving in the classroom? Do you know what it feels like when the audience is engaged? Why is it so much harder to be an engaging speaker in a classroom environment?

1. I like the various ways that you bring yourself into your teaching. You state that examples are very important to you and that you like to make people move in your teaching. I think utilizing those tactics is great because they are tactics that automatically connect to your authentic self. I also appreciate how you use “examples” and “movement” by connecting them to personal experiences in your own life. I think this is the point. You teach by connecting your personal experiences to your course content and then share those experiences with students in hopes they connect course content to their own personal experiences. I think authenticity exists in the area of connection between course content and personal experiences. I love that it was your instinct to explore this area.

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1. Thank you so much! That’s really nice of you to say!

I agree. By showing the connections we make with the course content as teachers, perhaps we can encourage our students to make their own connections with the course content.

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2. Great blog Garry! I definitely think if the speaker is excited and engaged that will keep the listeners engaged… I very much like what you did with the “sideways learning” by not just presenting the equation to them. I am Civil Engineering and took a very interesting decision making course last semester… The instructor taught us how to play poker and we had a poker playing session in that class! It was so cool since we actually got to calculate the odds in our mind while we are making fast paste decisions, and trying to control our emotions since sometimes you have already bet so much that you don’t mind loosing everything just to stay until the end… I found this fascinating since the instructor found a way to put all the decision making theories to practice while keeping us engaged and amused…

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1. That is such a cool idea! I want to take that class!

Poker is super fun and you do a lot of odds calculations on the fly. I had never equated it to engineering decision-making though. Sounds amazing!

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3. What a great post!

I couldn’t agree more. I use all those techniques as well (I love think-pair-share). And also movement, I think moving around provide such a great energy. There was one time I had 159 students in a engineering management class. We were talking about organizational structures and the class was going down, so I decided to ask them to go to different offices in the administration building (just two blocks away) and find a unit and then present to the class their organizational structure. Somehow I decided to do it like an amazing race type of thing. It was great, they were running all over campus and they did great presentations. I think those type of activities they don’t forget.

Regarding your question about engagement, in my experience when you genuinely care about your students they will recognize it and will become more engage, at least I think that is the first step.

Thanks for sharing!

Homero

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4. Thank you for sharing your experience. I like the idea of making students move around. When I explained the concepts/topics with various examples (sometimes related to my research), sometimes I also asked the students to share the examples they know or discuss with other students. But I didn’t get active feedback. I am nervous and embarrassing in that situation. I am still looking a way to engage the students.

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5. Sermons like lectures….I did not think those two crossed over very well, but you have got thinking otherwise. Your point on providing students examples, movement and engagement are really important. Sometimes something basic like “Okay everyone seems sleepy. Get up, everybody get up! Take a stretch, talk to your neighbor for a minute and sit down” can work wonders. I’ve seen a professor use this, and the class was different afterwards. Thanks for sharing this post.

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6. I think my field–wildlife science–is especially easy to get students engaged and moving around doing things. Half of the courses are either field courses or have a field component. Students are out flipping over rocks and playing in streams. It’s almost like we have an unfair pedagogical advantage! However, I focus on wildlife statistics, so I don’t get to capitalize on the field work advantage. But I do think having students solve coding problems in groups is an efficient and engaging way to teach programming and statistical modelling.

P.S. Your post elicited several humorous pictures in my head of people teaching a class in the stereotypical, animated preacher voice.

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