UC Berkeley News


Talking teaching, pondering pedagogy
The Presidential Chair Fellows program gives faculty the chance to discuss what matters most

| 02 December 2005

Becoming a teacher is like becoming a parent, says Brian Wirth, an assistant professor of nuclear engineering and father to two small children. "When you leave the hospital, no one gives you a manual on how to bring up your child. Teaching is like that," says Wirth. "There are a lot of individual resources out there, but everybody does it differently."

Brian Wirth (Wendy Edelstein photos)
This year, his third at Berkeley, Wirth found a veritable pedagogical primer in the form of the campus's Presidential Chair Fellows Program. The program offers faculty members a two-semester series of monthly workshops and forums in which to discuss and improve their teaching. Ladder-rank faculty who are teaching at least one undergraduate course during the year may apply to the program for the opportunity to talk shop once a month with colleagues. During the eight-session program, participants hear from other Berkeley faculty and staff with expertise in teaching and learning on such topics as course and syllabus design, new pedagogical methods, and assessment strategies.

Wirth has already implemented two strategies from the group's discussions. Just four weeks into the semester, he conducted an evaluation and learned that several students would prefer weekly homework assignments to his bi-weekly ones. Wirth made the change and tried another new strategy, splitting students into small groups to compare answers to a weekly quiz.

"Working in teams, they get their peers' perspective as opposed to the teacher's," he explains. Once the students confer, Wirth asks one of the groups to present their answers to the class. Reviewing the answers then "becomes more of a discussion and a way to get the students more engaged," he explains. "It makes them feel like they're more a part of the process in their own learning."

Sara McMains, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, participated in the first cohort of Presidential Chair Fellows in 2003-04. "It was a great opportunity to forge connections with faculty in different departments and talk about teaching," she says of the experience. "It was almost a luxury to focus on issues that were not deadline-driven but are very important nonetheless."

McMains often teaches large-lecture classes and applied to the Presidential Chair Fellows Program to learn about new ways to add interactivity to her courses. The program inspired her to have her class videotaped and observed in order to learn how her students were responding to her teaching techniques. When she got feedback from an observer about an in-class exercise, she saw that "some of the students were taking it seriously and some were not."

In her larger classes McMains now uses a personal-response system that enables students to answer multiple-choice questions using a remote-control device, thereby indicating whether they understand key concepts. She also incorporates a variety of low-tech methods to get her students to "wake up and think actively" about the information she's conveying.

Shared pedagogical concerns

Judith Stilgenbauer, an assistant professor in landscape architecture, found while teaching two upper-division classes during her second semester at Berkeley that she had many pedagogical questions, so she applied to be a Presidential Chair Fellow. Stilgenbauer's questions ran the gamut - from how to design a course syllabus and course description to assigning grades that reflect a mastery of material to more general questions concerning student motivation and learning, instructional technology, and presentation techniques.

Judith Stilgenbauer
In a session about course descriptions and syllabi, the young landscape-architecture professor observed that "even people who have been teaching here a long time weren't exactly sure about all the rules and guidelines. Participants' syllabi ranged from extremely brief to very long and detailed." Stilgenbauer and her group of fellows learned that the syllabus is actually the "legal" basis for what they're teaching and thus that certain information should be included in the document, such as the campus policy on plaigiarism.

Each year, the Presidential Chair Fellows have included faculty at different stages in their careers from a mix of departments. Stilgenbauer was concerned about whether she would be able to learn from faculty members who teach in disciplines far removed from the design-related arena she knows. While some faculty raised field-specific questions, Stilgenbauer found that the group shared many pedagogical issues in common.

Stilgenbauer asks: "How can we get students to sit down and focus for an hour instead of Googling? What are good formats for students to demonstrate their abilities? How can we apply new technologies to get students' interest without being shallow or superficial or following a trend in an unreflective way?"

Stilgenbauer learned that "tiny things that I never thought about can make a huge difference" in teaching. Rather than asking if students have any questions in the middle of a lecture, rephrasing the query as "What questions do you have?" can have a subtly different effect, she explains. The rephrasing "implies that you expect them to have questions."

Enormous changes mid-semester

Philip Stark
Philip Stark, a professor of statistics who participated in the program in 2003-04, was not satisfied with making minor changes in a class he was teaching to 50 undergrads. By mid-semester, Stark had arrived at the point in the course he calls "the doldrums," when, over a two-week period, he builds a theoretical foundation that the class then applies to studying statistical uncertainties. "That section of the material is painful for everybody, including me. It's just heavy."

After hearing a presentation in the program, Stark was inspired to jettison his syllabus. He asked the students to read the theoretical material on their own and develop project ideas that dovetailed with their other academic interests. The students then formed groups to work on the projects, which, Stark says, ranged from automated trading schemes for playing the stock market to earthquake prediction to factors that determine economic growth in less-developed countries. For those students who were reticent to work in small groups and make presentations, Stark offered the option of doing the homework as it had originally been assigned and taking a final exam.

While the statistician allows there were some "logistical hurdles" to get over, on the whole he thought restructuring the class was a success. "The goal for me is to change how students think about quantitative information - to help them develop a different way of thinking - rather than to make sure they know some list of techniques."

Making light of the work involved in changing the course mid-semester, Stark dubs it "an experiment. I thought it would interest and excite the students. That's what it's all about, right?"

For additional information about the Presidential Chair Fellows Program, visit teaching.berkeley.edu/preschairfellows.