Teaching Portfolio Narrative Aaron Bloomfield asb/portfolio/narritive.pdf Teaching Portfolio Narrative

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  • TeachingPortfolioNarrativeAaronBloomfield

    IntroductionThisnarrativeisbasedlargelyonmyexperienceduringthispastyearteachingatthe

    UniversityofVirginia(20042005),inwhichItaughtfourclasses,thesametwoeachsemester.Thefirstcoursewasanintroductiontocomputingclass(CS101),with420studentsduringthespring2005semester. Thesecondcoursewasadiscrete mathematicsclass(CS202). Thechallengeintheformerismanagingandrunningaclassofthatsize;thechallengeinthelatterispresentingsomeratherdrycoursematerialwhilemanagingtomakeitinterestingtothestudents.

    TeachingPhilosophy

    Ifyouknowtheenemyandknowyourself,youneednotfeartheresultofahundredbattles.

    Ifyouknowyourselfbutnottheenemy,foreveryvictorygainedyouwillalsosufferadefeat.

    Ifyouknowneithertheenemynoryourself,youwillsuccumbineverybattle.

    SunTzu,ArtofWar,chapter3(LionelGiles'translation)

    Thisisaratherstrongstatement,andmanymightconsiderit'suseinateachingnarrativetoberathercontroversialstudentsshouldnotbereferredtoastheenemy,forexample.Yetthis quote formulates thebasic tenet uponwhichmyteachingphilosophy(andmuchofmypersonalphilosophy)isbased.Aswithmanythingsthatoriginatethroughamilitarypurpose,ithassignificantapplicationstononmilitaryuses.

    Iinterpretthisstatementtomeantheimportanceofunderstandingtheotherside,whetherthatsideisanenemyinamilitarycampaignorastudentinyourclass.Inapedagogicalcontext,sufferingadefeatmeansdoinganinadequatejobofteaching.

    Oneapplicationofthisquoteisthataninstructorneedstounderstandthestudents'levelofknowledgecomingintotheclass,andwhattheyarecapableofdoingwithinthecoursefourthyearstudentsaremorecapablethanfirstyearstudents,forexample.Inmyintroductiontocomputingclass,noneofthestudentshaveprogrammedbefore.Indeed,somehaveneverusedacomputer before. I need to understand these various levels of knowledge so that I canappropriatelydirectthelecturesandmakethemcomprehensibletothestudents,foritisveryeasytoteachatalevelfarabovewhatthestudentsarecapableoflearning. Therearemanyprofessors who are hard to understand these are instructors who do not understand theiraudience.Whiletheymightbeperceivedasbrilliant,theyarenotperforminganypedagogicallyusefulfunction.

    Anotheraspect ofunderstandingmystudents is to understand their perceptionof theclass,soastodeterminewhatareasneedimprovement.Inmydiscretemathclass,forexample,thestudentswerenothappywiththehomeworkgradingpolicy,astheyfeltitwastooharsh.

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  • OnceIrealizedthis,Imadetheappropriatemodifications,whichfixedthediscontent.Iattempttoobtainalargeamountoffeedbackthroughoutthecoursetobetterunderstandtheirpointofview.ForeachassignmentinCS101,thestudentsfilloutshortsurveysaboutthedifficultyoftheassignments,aswellasprovidinggeneralcomments;Igiveoutmidsemesterevaluations(howamIdoingtypeofquestions);Iaskmanymorequestionsattheendofthesemesterthanthestandarddozenquestions. Indeed,thestudentsknowhowmuchIappreciatefeedback:onestudentevenprefixedhercommentswith,Iknowyoulikefeedback.... Onmyendofthesemestercourseevaluationsformy420studentcourse,Ireceiveda95%responseratethiswaswithoutrequiringorforcingthemtodothesurveys,andafteradding30additionalquestionstothesurvey.OneofthereasonsthatIgetsuchgoodfeedbackratesisbecausethestudentsknowthatIaminterestedinthefeedback,andthatItaketheirsuggestionsseriously.Theyhaveseenmemakemodificationsduringthesemesterbasedontheirfeedback,andtheyappreciatethis.

    Thebestwaytorelatetoanybodyistounderstandtheirculture. Forfacultymemberswhoarewelloveradecadeolder(atleast!)thanthestudentstheyteach,thiscanbequiteachallenge,butitisveryworthwhile. Asanexample,tworapartists(50CentandTheGame)recentlysettledafeud. WhileIdonotlistentorapmusicmyself, alot ofmystudentsdo.Knowingabouttheendofthefeud(fromwatchingTheDailyShow),Iwasabletomentionitinclass,whichsurprisedthestudents. Thestudentsthoughtitwas'cool'thatIknewthis,andithelpedmetobetterrelatetothem.

    Thelast lineinSunTzu'squotetalksaboutunderstandingyourself. Thismeansoneneedstoknowone'sownstrengthsandweaknesses.Itiseasier,Ibelieve,toseetheformer,yetthelatteriswhatonemustworkaroundinordertoimproveacourse.Asanexample,Iwasverybad with getting my homework solutions available to my students in a timely manner.Understandingthisasaweakness,Idelegatedthattasktooneofmyteachingassistants,whichsolved the problem. In a further effort to understandand improveuponmyweaknesses, IconstantlystrivetoimprovemyteachingIdon'tbelievethatanybodyeverisperfect,andtherearealwaysimprovementsthatonecanmake. Initially,thoseimprovementsarebigsteps;lateron,theybecomesmalltweakstoone'steachingstyle.Tothisend,IhaveparticipatedinalloftheteachingresourcecenterworkshopsofferedsinceIstartedlastasafacultymember.

    TeachingMethodsOvertheyears,Ihaveseenmyshareofgoodinstructorsandmyshareofpoorinstructors.

    Distilledfromthatexperienceismybeliefthatqualityteachingisbasedonthreefundamentalandinterrelatedprinciples:carefulplanning,goodstrategies,andpersonalinvestment.Attentiontoallthreeallowsmeasateachertobuildstrongcourses,explaincoreconceptsinaccessibleways,andreachouttostudentswithdifferentneeds.Together,theycoalesceintoacommitmenttocaring:caringforthecourseasawhole,caringforthesubjectmatter,andcaringforstudents.

    Perhapsthemostobviouselementtosuccessfulteachingiscarefulplanning.WhenIplancourses, I work to make all the components lectures, labs, homework, slides into acoordinatedwhole. Lectures,forexample,shouldnotonlyexplorekeyconceptsontheirown,butshouldinterrelateconceptstoformafoundationalframeworkwhichpreparesstudentsforfurthercourseworkandexploration.Homeworkassignments,fortheirpart,shouldnotbeaset

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  • ofrandomexercises,butratherthoroughlyintegratedintothecoursesoastosupportandexpandon material presented in lecture. Finally, labs should not makeup for things left out oflectures,butshouldcomplementthoselectures,offeringstudentsamorehandson,interactivelearningenvironment.IprovideafewassignmentsthatIcreatedinappendixD.Inallelementsofthecourse,then,Iworktoprovidestudentswithasmanydifferentwaysoflearning,investingaheadoftimeinplanningouthowtofitallthosepartstogether.

    Organizationisanotheraspecttocarefulplanningindeed,itwasparamounttoensuringthatmy19teachingassistantsforCS101bothknewandperformedtheirjobsproperly.Inthiscontext,organizationtooktheformofwellstructuredmeetingswiththeteachingassistantsandcleardirectionsastowhattheirjobentailedandwhatwasexpectedofthem. Anotherpartoforganizationisawellstructuredwebsite;Iviewthewebsitenotjustasareferencetotheclass,butasoneofthemainmethodsofcommunicatingwiththestudents.Allthehomeworks,exams,labs, andgradesareavailable to thestudents via thewebsite. Thestudents appreciatedthewebsite,asevidencedbythiscomment:verywellorganizedcourseandwebsitewhichmadeiteasytoknowwhatwasgoingonandwhatneededtobedone.Thestudentsalsoappreciatedtheoverall organization of the course: well organized worthwhile class, very logicallyorganized,andthecoursewasveryverywellorganizedandwellplannedweresomeofthestudentcomments. Pursuanttomybeliefthatcourseorganizationisveryimportant,Itrytoincludeasmuchorganizationinmycoursesyllabusaspossible.Theconcern,ofcourse,isthatbyincludingtoomanyrulesandregulations,itwillbeadetrimenttothecourse,yetIbelievethatIhavefoundaproperbalance. ThesyllabiandthewebsitesformycoursesareavailableinappendixA.Inanefforttoimprovetheorganizationformyteachingassistants,IdevelopedanonlinegradingsystemthatwasusedforCS101.ThissystemisdescribedinappendixF.

    Planningactivitiesdesignedtoreachouttostudentsindifferentwayspointstothesecondaspectofsuccessfulteaching:goodstrategies.Tosomedegreethisisaquestionofadaptingtodifferent learningstyles. Studentscometocomputersciencecourseswithdifferentwaysoflearning. Some of these are accommodated well within standard college courses, whetherthroughlectures,recitationsorlabs,homework,textbookassignments,officehours,etc. Forsomestudents,however,standardmethodsdonotworkverywell.Mychallengeasaninstructor,then, is to determine how different students learn, and to structure activities and developstrategiestoworkwithandforthosedifferentstyles.Centraltodoingthisistoseethesubjectmaterialfromthestudents'pointofview.Onewaytoreachouttothosenewtothefieldistobuild off what they already know, either through analogies to their noncomputer relatededucation, or by demonstrating the applicability of a concept through specific examples.Teachingbyexampleoranalogyaloneisneverenough:usedwell,however,ithelpsstudentsgraspthefundamentallanguage,concepts,andparadigmsofcomputerprogramming. Takentogether with attention to different learning styles, examples and analogies provide thefoundationforgoodteachingstrategies.

    Finally,successfulteachingrevolvesaroundinvestinginstudentsasindividuals. Goodplanningandsuccessfulstrategiesontheirownareliabletofailureifthestudentsdonotsenseacommitmenttothemaslearnersandaspeople.Asagroup,studentsneedtofeelempoweredtoexplore newconcepts. As individuals, students need to feel comfortable asking questions,

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  • requesting assistance, and expecting support. In courses where I have designed additionalmaterialstoexplainparticularlydifficultconcepts,studentsinmylabssaidthattheyfeltmoreconfidentthattheycouldmakesenseofthings,knowingthatIwastryingtohelpensuretheirsuccess.Obviouslynotallstudentswillaskforhelpinallcoursesorinallcontexts.AndIdonotbelieveinhandingeverythingtostudentsonasilverplatter;theyneedtoworkhardtolearnthematerialbeingtaught. Buttheydoneedtoknowthattheyhaveaccesstothesupporttheyneedinordertomasterwhatistomanyanentirelynewfield.Foritisthatsenseofconfidenceinthemasindividuallearnersthatwillempowerthemtoexploreprogrammingfurther.

    Approachabilityisanotherkeyconceptininvestinginthestudentsthestudentsneedtoknow that they can seek helpeither in or outside of office hours. I believe in beingveryavailableforthestudentsinfact,Ikeepmyofficedooropenatalltimesforthisreason.Thismusthaveit'slimits,however,especiallyinaclassof420people.AlthoughIdirectstudentstomyofficehours,Iwillmaketimeoutsideofthemwhennecessary.Indeed,twostudentsneededasignificantamountofextrahelpinthecourseonehadneverusedacomputerbefore.Imetwiththemforatotalofover10hourseachduringthesemester,alloutsideofofficehours.Itrytomakemystudentscomfortablecomingtoseemetoaskquestions. Towardstheendofthesemester,afewstudentsfeltcomfortableenoughtostayinmyofficeafterofficehourstofinishuptheirassignments. ThisisthelevelofcomfortItrytofoster,aswhencombinedwiththeappropriatedistanceofa teacherstudentrelationship, allowsforgreaterstudent learningandinvestment.

    HumorStudentspayingattentionforanentire75minutelectureissimplynotgoingtohappen,

    nomatterhowgoodtheprofessoriswhoisteachingtheclass. Studentsareusedtoconstantstimulusintheirlivesfrom24hourcableTVnewstotheInternettovideogames. Thus,sittingstillfor75minutesinalectureisaverydifficultsituationforthemtolearneffectively.Therehavebeenstudiesdone that showthat theaverageadult attentionspan is 20minutes(referenceinappendixE). Whilemanystudentsmayhaveanaveragehigherthanthis,it isunlikelythattheiraverageattentionspanisthe75minutelengthofaclass.Understandingthis,Itakehumorbreaksduringthelecture,andtrytohavethemevery20minutesorsothus,2or3alecture.

    HumorisveryimportantaspectofmylifeandhowIteach. Peopleenjoythingsmorewhentheycanlaughaboutthem. Thechallenge,ofcourse,ishowtomakesubjectssuchasdiscretemathematicshumorous.Thepurposeforbringinginhumoristwofold.First,itallowspeopletoenjoythelearningexperiencemore. I havehadmyentire420personlecturehalllaughingandapplaudingatsomeofthehumoroustidbitsIbringintoclass(I'mnotparticularlyfunnymyself;IjustbringinhumorousorinterestingasidesthatI'vefound). Secondly,andperhapsmoreimportantly,itallowsthestudentstotakeabreakfromthelecturematerial.Thishelpsbringtheirattentionbacktothematerialoncethehumorbreakisover. Ialwaysexplainthesereasonsfor thehumorbreaksduringthefirst class. Inparticular, thebreaksareoftenunrelatedtothematerialbeingdiscussed,asthatgivesthemachancetofocusonsomethingelseforamomentortwo,soastoresetthemindsotheycancomebackrefreshedtothecourse

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  • material. Asoneofmystudentsphrasedit,heunderstandsthatstudentsdo,infact,havealimitedattentionspan,andhisattentiontogivinghumorousasidesbetweenlectureskeepstheclassfocusedandattentiveingeneral.Byunderstandingthelecturefromthestudents'pointofview,Iamabletomaketheappropriatemodificationstoenablethemtobetterpayattentionandthustobetterlearn. Thisalsomakesthelecturesmoreenjoyable,andcausesthemtobemoreinterestedintheclassmaterial.

    Muchoftheextanthumorrelevanttomyclassesisveryspecifictothefield,andwillnotgetmuchofareaction(ifany!)fromalargeclass.Thus,IoftenusehumorthatisnotrelatedtothefieldIamteaching.Considerwhatwasrecentlyvotedonasoneofthemostfunniestjokes:

    SherlockHolmesandDr.Watsongocamping,andpitchtheirtentunderthestars. Duringthenight,Holmeswakeshiscompanionandsays:"Watson,lookupatthestars,andtellmewhatyoudeduce."

    Watsonsays:"I seemillions ofstars, andevenif afewof thosehaveplanets,it'squitelikelytherearesomeplanetslikeEarth,andifthereareafewplanetslikeEarthoutthere,theremightalsobelife."

    Holmesreplies:"Watson,youidiot.Somebodystoleourtent."

    ThisjokeishumorousifpeopleknowSherlockHolmes. Thisjokeisascleanasjokescanget,butit'sreallynotallthatfunny.Andinaclassof420students,itisnotlikelytobringmorethanafewweaksmiles.

    Alineexistsbetweenwhatsortofhumorisappropriateinaclassandwhatisnot,andalotofthereallyfunnyhumorisonorbeyondthatline. Considerthetopicsthatprofessionalcomediansjokeaboutmostofitisverypoliticallyincorrect!Ihaveevencrossedthatlineonceortwice.WhileIdomybesttosayonthepropersideofthatline,Ifeelthatonemustpushtheenvelopetogetthebestresults. Thereisnopointtobringinginhumorintoclassifitisnotfunny.

    The challenge, therefore, is to find humor that is relevant, funny, and appropriate.Lackingtherelevancytothetopicbeingtaught,thegoalistobringinfunnymaterialwhilepushingtheappropriatenessenvelopeasmuchasiscomfortableinordertogainhumorvalue.IhaveincludedasetofallmyhumorslidesinappendixB;Ishowacoupleoftheseineachclass.Notalloftheslidesarehumorousbythemselves;butwiththepropershowmanship,theyareallcapableofgeneratingapositiveresponsefromthestudents.

    These humor breaks need not always be funnymaterial, however I often bring ininteresting tidbits to share, even if theyarenot humorous. Someof themhavebeenquitesobering.Oneexampleisalistofthetopsoftwareerrorsofalltimeoneofwhichcostthelivesof28servicemenandservicewomeninthe1991GulfWar. Thismanagestoachievethesamegoalsasahumorousbreakitallowsthemtochangetheirattentionforamomenttoatopicthat,ifnothumorous,isquiteinteresting. Thisexampleisparticularlyapplicable,asitalsoshowswhyweteachgoodprogrammingpractices:sothesesortsofmistakeswon'thappen.

    Onemygoals with the humorousasides is seamlessly working theminto thecoursematerial intheformofdemonstrations. Oneexampleis whenIdemonstrate theconceptofbinary search, an algorithmfor finding anelement in a sorted list. To demonstrate this, I

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  • dramaticallytearaphonebooktoshredsinfrontoftheclass.Andthestudentslovedit!TheyevenapplaudedonceIwasdone(andthephonebookwasintattersandstrewnacrossthelecturehall). Thisdemonstrationservedsomanypurposesitillustratedtheconceptprecisely,theirattentionspanreturned,anditwasveryentertaining.

    Thestudentsfeltthatthesebreakshavehelped:[thehumorbreaks]immediatelybroughtmebacktofocusandaftertheywereoverIwasabletomaintainfortherestoftheclass,healsounderstoodthat75minutesisalongtimetositandlistentosomeonelecturesohebrokeclassupwithjokeswhichreallyhelpedkeepthestudentspayingattention,aswellasmanyothersimilarcomments.

    EvidenceofTeachingSuccessIbelievetheretobetwoaspectstobeingasuccessfulteacher:makingthestudentslearn,

    andmakingthemenjoylearning. Theformerisratherobvious,asthatisthejobofateacher.Ensuringthatthestudentsenjoythematerial,though,isjustasimportantasthelearningitself.Ifthestudentsenjoytheclass,theywillwanttolearnmore,bothwithintheclassandoutsideofit.Thistoo,isthejobofateachertoencouragelearningbeyondtheclassroom. Considerthiscomment:Ijustwantedtothankyouforagreatclass.IonlytookCS101becauseIhadtoformymathmajor,butIendedupenjoyingitandlearningalotwithyourhelp. Althoughthisstudentmaynotpursuecomputerscience,shecertainlyenjoyedthecourse!

    The student comments I have received also help paint the picture of my success atteaching.Someofthecommentsareincludedhere.

    Theinstructorwasafantasticlecturer,andthematerialisdefinitelyworthlearning Aaron Bloomfield was an excellent lecturer. Wellprepared, very good slides,

    awesomehumorbreaks Comingintothisclass, Iexpectedtoreallyhateit. However,Iendedupactually

    enjoying it. Bloomfield did a really good job of clearly presenting material andexplainingitindepth.

    Prof.Bloomfieldexplainedeverythingclearlyinclass,andwasverywillingtohelpmeoutsideofclass.Ifherealizedafterlecture thathehadmadeamistakeornotexplainedsomethingclearly,hewouldgooveritagaininthenextlecture,ratherthanpassingoverit.

    Bloomfieldisamostexcellentteacher.I'mgladtheylet/madehimteachCS101. ProfessorBloomfieldwasoneofthebestteachersIhaveeverhad. ThisismyfavoriteclasswithmyfavoriteprofessorhereattheUniversity.

    Withonlyoneexception,ofallthecommentsI'vereceived(Iprobablyreceivedclosetoathousandthispastyear)theonlyneutralornegativecommentshavebeenaboutotheraspectsofthecourse(lecturesize,textbook,etc.). Allofmystudentevaluations(notjustafewselectedgoodones)areavailableinappendixA.

    Inrecognitionofmyteachingsuccess,Ihavereceivedanumberofteachingawards.Inthespringof2005,IwasawardedtheACMProfessoroftheYearawardbytheUVastudentchapteroftheACM(thecomputersciencesociety).Thisawardisvoteduponbythestudents,

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  • which makes it particularly meaningful to me. As a graduate student at the University ofPennsylvania,Ialsoearnedtwoteachingassistantoftheyearawards,onedepartmentwideandoneUniversitywide.

    Perhapsjustasimportantasmyownsuccesshasbeenmystudents:inthecoursesthatIvetaught, mysectionsexamaverageconsistently beat theclassaverage,sometimesbyasmuchas10%.Finally,mystudentstellmethatIhavemadeadifference:thereisnothingmoresatisfyingthantohaveastudentcomeuptomeafteryearswithmanyotherinstructorstotellmehowmuchheorsheenjoyedmyclass.Greatteachershavemadeadifferenceinmylife.Ienjoybeingabletomakesuchadifferenceinotherpeople'slives.

    AppendicesInanefforttomakethesizeofthisteachingportfoliomanageable,thematerialsinthe

    appendix are available online, and are not included in the printed (or PDF) version of thisportfolio.TheURLfortheappendicesishttp://www.cs.virginia.edu/~asb/portfolio/.

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