To Help Students Learn, Professors of the Year Sharpened Their Own Teaching Skills

November 17, 2011

Four professors who have changed their teaching approach to engage their students in the learning process and have provided research opportunities for undergraduates are being honored today as U.S. Professors of the Year.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education are recognizing the educators for excellence in undergraduate teaching and mentoring. The honor is the nation's most prestigious teaching award, with national winners chosen from four types of institutions: a community college, a baccalaureate college, a master's institution, and a doctoral, research university.

This year's honorees were selected from a pool of almost 300 nominees who were evaluated on their involvement with students, their contributions to their communities and profession, their support for colleagues and students, and their teaching methodologies.

In interviews with The Chronicle, each of this year's winners talked about key things they do in the classroom now that they didn't do during their first years of teaching, and their advice to new college instructors.

Ursula Shepherd

University of New Mexico 

Ursula Shepherd

Over the 15 years she has worked at the University of New Mexico, Ms. Shepherd, an associate professor of university honors and biology, has made her classes more interactive by allowing her students to design their own experiments and create portfolios of their work. She gives her undergraduate students opportunities to conduct their own research projects as a strategy to teach them critical thinking skills.

When she first started teaching, a professor gave her a great piece of advice, she recalled.

"He said, To be a great teacher, you have to be an actor, you have to be aware of your audience, and you have to be willing to make mistakes and take risks to fix them."

Since then she started paying more attention to how her students respond to her teaching, and making adjustments accordingly.

"Sometimes classes just aren't working," said Ms. Shepherd. "I have walked into class and said, We are going to change the syllabus, and we are going to do this differently, and that usually gets the students' attention too, because they are not used to people doing that."

Kathryn C. Wetzel

Amarillo College

Kathryn Wetzel

Ms. Wetzel is department chair of mathematics, sciences, and engineering at Amarillo, and has taught there for 25 years. In her math and engineering classes, she teaches by using real-world applications. Ms. Wetzel said that she became a better teacher by learning to listen to her students when they talk among themselves. "I'd listen to one student explain something to another student, and a light would turn on," said Ms. Wetzel. "I said: That is the key phrase I was looking for."

Learning how students process and absorb new information has changed her lectures significantly because it has improved the classroom interaction, she said. "I'd notice by their responses when they understood and remembered something," Ms. Wetzel said. "I learn what works for them, and then I apply that with upcoming students."

Steven S. Volk

Oberlin College

Steve Volk

Mr. Volk, a professor of history and chair of the Latin American studies division, has been teaching Latin American political history for 26 years. To maximize discussion time in the classroom, he posts video lectures on the Web that students can watch before the class. Mr. Volk said he started doing that so that students can actively participate in their own learning.

"Every class is a discussion, because that is the way that students can construct their own understanding and knowledge, rather than me telling them what's going on," he said.

Having more discussion in class has caused a tremendous increase in students' participation and interest in the topic, he said. "There is no one that can really not pay attention," said Mr. Volk. "They are not falling asleep, they are not on Facebook, they are not doing a lot of things that might happen in a lecture, because they are the ones who have to be participating."

Stephen L. Chew

Samford University

Stephen Chew

Mr. Chew, a professor and chair of the psychology department at Samford, strongly advocates undergraduate research to help students gain practical experience in their field. He draws on his psychology background and his research on cognitive learning to help develop better teaching strategies.

"I study the way my students learn and think to inform my own teaching," said Mr. Chew. "I'm more aware of how they perceive the information and how they are using it."

The key is to know the students' level of understanding, he said. "Professors have to meet the students where they are, understand what their beliefs and misconceptions are, and then go from there to bring them up to where they want them to be."

He also tries to help his students develop better studying skills, talking to them about misconceptions about learning and the bad habits that undermine the learning process.

"I measure my success on what my students take from my class," he said. "I'm interested in knowing what they can do after they have the class that they couldn't do before they had the class."

Photographs of Ursula Shepherd, Kathryn Wetzel, and Stephen Chew by CASE. Photograph of Steven Volk by Tanya Rosen-Jones.