I can remember quite vividly the first day of Introduction to Chemistry as a freshman undergraduate student at Clemson University. More than 150 students were packed into a large auditorium with fold-out tabletops ready to take notes. The professor gave a brief introduction, reviewed the syllabus, and went straight into the PowerPoint presentation that he had prepared. He lectured the rest of the class. After four weeks of lectures, we had a test and then returned to a steady diet of more PowerPoint lectures. We never had an open discussion, or group work, or any conversation about our motivations for taking the course. The instructor’s teaching never adapted as we experienced challenges. As I have learned more about active learning methods in my Contemporary Pedagogy course at Virginia Tech, I am inspired to approach teaching with a focus on individual student learning and outcomes.
Learning should not be confined to the traditional classroom setting, where instructors transfer information to the students, similar to my experience in my chemistry course. I regard learning as reciprocal education between the student and the teacher. I want to be open to learning from student experiences and opinions, and in return, I will create an environment that develops curiosity and welcomes questioning and change.
During my pursuit of my Master’s of Public Health at Virginia Tech, I learned through experience how learning can be active and engaging. In a course called Community Education, our class would often sit in a circle and have guided discussions about the readings. The professor would join the circle and prompt us with difficult questions, like how would we gain the trust and acceptance of community members when our beliefs about vaccinations were fundamentally different. This style of teaching allowed for more viewpoints to emerge than just those of the professors. When I am a teacher, I want to emulate the qualities and active learning techniques that I learned from this course.
As I am pursuing my PhD in Environmental Design and Planning, I have served as teaching assistant (TA) for a small, graduate course called Topics in Interdisciplinary Research: Bioinclusive Solutions in the Built Environment, and helped implement activities that allowed students to use their skills from their respective disciplines. The class was made up of architects, interior designers, engineers, and veterinarians. As a class, we developed a protocol for assessing the built environment and then presented our results to the class to share individual perspectives. Even though we went on the same tour, our values and past experiences made each presentation unique. The final assignment allowed the class to work collectively to design a dog run for the Veterinary School, demonstrating principles of bioinclusivity. The project was not predetermined, but rather was a product of class interests and current needs. By being flexible as an instructor and TA, we were able to create a project that was relevant and exciting to students. Today, this VT project is still ongoing with a strong partnership established between the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and Department of Building Construction.
My current role as TA has pushed me to redevelop an undergraduate course in Building Construction called Buildings and Materials. The new instructor, Dr. Annie Pearce, and I saw an opportunity to restructure the content, assignments, tests, and experiential learning. For example, students now tour local quarries and steel mills to understand the manufacturing process of construction materials. A new assignment is that students must create photo essays of their experience. The photo essays require them to rethink the typical PowerPoint presentation format by using images as evidence to support concise messages.
As I imagine my role as a future collegiate faculty, I know my strategies will need to adapt based on class structure. A class of seven graduate students is quite different than a class of 75 undergraduates. Still, the learning environment should embrace student stories, push creative boundaries, and encourage knowledge sharing wherever possible. I have experienced a class of over 50 students where live blogs create a space for sharing ideas and peer reviews were used as the first form of feedback. These activities provided a course of 50 or more students with new ways to engage and communicate with peers. In other words, the principles of student-centered learning hold as true for a large class of undergraduate students as a small class or graduate students.
I recognize that my strategies as an instructor need to vary based on the course and type of students. In any setting, my goal is for students to leave my courses feeling inspired to think beyond expected solutions and the ability to recall concepts and topics critical to their professional success in Public Health. I am highly motivated to leave lasting memories of an undergraduate program and provide course experiences far more impactful than my freshman chemistry class. Through my openness to learn and desire to create relevant experiences for students, it is my fervent hope to achieve this goal.