Professors of the Year Reflect on How Failures Helped Them Improve

November 14, 2013

A student in Ann L. Williams's French-conversation class clicked his way down a street in Lyon, France, until he found exactly what he needed: a store that sold bonsai trees. The student, who was exploring the city using Google Earth, had adopted the persona of a tree collector as part of a project for Ms. Williams's class, at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Ms. Williams is one of four national winners of the 2013 U.S. Professor of the Year awards, which are being announced on Thursday. She said that the assignment, which asks students to invent a character and imagine that they live in a city as that person, enhances observational and analytical skills.

Over the course of several weeks, students write letters to one another's characters and work through logistical problems. The project helps them learn to look at other cultures in a "nonjudgmental way," she said.

"That's as important as learning the actual words of a language," she said.

The other winners are Robert A. Chaney, a professor at Sinclair Community College who teaches students to program robots with mathematical functions; Gintaras K. Duda, an associate professor of physics at Creighton University who tells his upper-level students on the first day that it will be the last time he lectures them from the front of the classroom; and Steven J. Pollock, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who says he tries to take the role of coach, not instructor, in his physics classes.

The national awards, sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and administered by the Council for Advancement for Support of Education, honor top practitioners in undergraduate teaching. The four recipients were chosen from among more than 350 nominees. Thirty-six state Professor of the Year awards are also being announced.

The Chronicle asked this year's national winners to reflect on their biggest failure as a teacher and what they had learned from that experience.

Ann L. Williams

Professor of French

Metropolitan State University of Denver


Every so often, late in the semester, Ms. Williams sees a class that has not unified. Class cohesion is crucial to language newcomers because talking in class is necessary to learn a language, she said, and students speak up only when they feel comfortable.

"There have been a few times in my career where I have felt that the level of comfort wasn't reached," she said. "If students trust each other and me and the language-learning process, they'll be willing to make mistakes and take risks and make progress more quickly."

She can tell when students haven't clicked because they'll stay self-critical, quiet.

And Ms. Williams said that she has been there, too. As a nonnative French speaker, she also makes mistakes. She tells them to trust the process, that she was once where they are now.

She also pairs confident and timid students, asking them to work together in class.

"Sometimes working with a partner helps to break down that fear of making mistakes and looking silly," she said, "because you've got someone on your team."

After a semester in which a class doesn't find that cohesion as quickly as she would like, Ms. Williams said, she reflects on her role as a professor before the next group arrives.

"It's a whole lot less about me talking or presenting material than them discovering," she said. "And they discover so much better when they're working together. They take ownership of the process."

Photo courtesy of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education

Robert A. Chaney

Professor of Mathematics

Sinclair Community College, Dayton, Ohio


When he taught math courses during graduate school, Mr. Chaney said he was too focused on being clever—sounding confident, writing his notes neatly and logically. What he now calls a selfish action came at the expense of his students' learning.

A series of personal setbacks early in his career drew him to Christianity and led him to stop pursuing his Ph.D. He left academe and began working in a nursing home.

The step back, he said, changed his life. He had isolated himself in a collegiate environment with math and forgotten about the world around him. And when he returned to academe, he better understood people, which he said brought him more humility in the classroom.

In retrospect, he can understand why he cared so much about his delivery: He was lectured at as a student, and it's natural to present the way you were taught, he said. "But I should teach the way I wanted a teacher to teach me."

He remembers making that discovery and turning around to face his students. He looked out and saw rows of bored eyes. He began asking for feedback, again and again, seeing where his students felt frustrated and how he could help them work through tough problems.

Mr. Chaney now looks for practical applications of his discipline, like the robot project, where students write functions to program robots to walk or interpret data.

"If they start to be successful," he said, "they will enjoy it."

Photo courtesy of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education

Gintaras K. Duda

Associate Professor of Physics

Creighton University, Omaha, Neb.


When he began teaching, in 2003, Mr. Duda used lab-based teaching with his pre-med students. Each section of about 25 students worked to understand physical laws in three-hour labs, twice a week.

The students, many of whom were taking his class to fulfill a requirement for applying to medical school, said they disliked the teaching method.

Mr. Duda walked around the classroom during the lab and said he got to know his students quite well. But the students sometimes voiced frustration that he wasn't explaining the material in a traditional manner. They complained he wasn't teaching them.

The complaints, in part, caused him to back away from the workshop-physics method after three semesters. Mr. Duda said that change was his biggest regret. His classes turned more traditional.

"I was lacking the courage to keep striding forward even with pushback from students," he said. "That stopped us from doing what we know is most effective, what the educational research and cognitive science shows."

The students who engaged in the workshop-physics classes performed well compared with their peers, he said, so he knows the method works.

Mr. Duda continues to use project-based learning in upper-level courses, but he wants to get back to that environment in introductory and pre-med courses.

Photo courtesy of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education

Steven J. Pollock

Professor of Physics

University of Colorado at Boulder


In 1994, Mr. Pollock stood before three seniors and began to lecture, talking through his notes to the upper-level physics students.

He looks back on those three-student lectures and regrets not asking more of himself and of his students. He wishes he had handed the class to his students, seeing where they would take the material. Instead, he taught the way he had been taught.

"I got three lovely reviews that semester because I did what everybody expected," he said. "Everyone was happy. In retrospect, it was a mistake."

At the time, lecture-based instruction was all he knew. He had not read literature about education and different effective ways to teach students.

"I'm certain that we could have taken them much further," he said. "I was directing that experience, and they had little say in it."

Since then, Mr. Pollock, who teaches about 60 students this semester, has read literature about learning that has helped him find moments where he can bring interaction into even the larger classrooms, like using clickers for quick feedback and asking upper-level students to work on concept-based questions in groups.

Photo courtesy of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education