My first job after my undergraduate degree was teaching fourth graders in Houston. Although undergraduate and graduate students are very different than elementary school students, some of the basic principles I employed in teaching fourth graders I still use with older students. Generally, students need to feel motivated to learn; students should find the course engaging; and students should have the resources they need to be successful in the course.
At Duke, I have applied these lessons through serving as a teaching assistant for the introductory statistics sequence for Masters of Public Policy students. Along with creating homework and other materials for the lecture portion of the course, as well as guest lecturing, my role is to teach an additional hour-long weekly section in which students apply statistics concepts using software (Excel and Stata). Course evaluations have been very positive about my teaching abilities.
As a former Masters of Public Affairs student, I believe that having a strong foundation in statistics and exposure to social science research techniques is essential for future public policymakers to be able to read and interpret social science research. I am therefore motivated to design courses that achieve this goal.
Students need to feel motivated to learn
Communicating to graduate students how coursework is relevant to their lives is generally much easier than convincing fourth graders that long division matters! Graduate students in professional programs are typically paying for their degrees themselves and want to acquire more skills in order to get better jobs. However, graduate students often also have multiple demands on their time - including work and family obligations. Therefore, they make decisions about which class topics are important to their future lives and which are only program requirements. My job is to convince students that the material we are covering is important for their professional futures. In teaching students how to use statistical software, I try to incorporate information not only on how to use the software but on how having a basic understanding of coding may prove useful, even if they end up not using this specific software in their daily work lives. For example, I introduce them to basic coding principles (such as Boolean operators) and discuss other programming languages or software that use these principles.
Students should find the course engaging
Many students, particularly those who have not taken math or statistics in many years, are not excited about statistics. Students seem to learn better if the course is fun. On the first day of statistics, students complete a survey with a variety of silly questions. They then use data from that survey to learn about statistical software and to complete homework assignments. This serves multiple purposes: 1) students learn how questions are turned into data and subsequently analyzed; 2) students are more interested in examining survey results; and 3) the survey is fun.
Of course, statistics cannot always be fun. Sometimes students have to struggle with difficult concepts, which often take repeated exposure in order to understand. Therefore, the classroom must be a space in which students feel comfortable asking questions about confusing concepts and are not afraid to try and be wrong. I try to foster that environment by encouraging students to ask questions and express any misunderstandings. This is reflected in students' high ratings on my ability to foster a positive classroom dynamic and on my enthusiasm about the class.
Finally, I have learned to incorporate hands-on activities, which help to build student understanding and keep the course engaging. After receiving feedback that students were feeling somewhat overwhelmed with all the content presented in my class, I tried to slow down and include an in-class activity during each section. Essentially, I lead them in completing an activity together and then they complete a very similar activity on their own, while I walk around to see which students are still having difficulty with the skill. I think this has helped students grasp basic use of the statistical software, and I plan to incorporate these activities more in the future.
Students should have the resources they need to be successful
Graduate students in public policy come into school from many different backgrounds - although some students come directly from completing undergraduate degrees in economics or statistics, other students did not take any math or statistics as undergraduate students. Other students have been working for many years and find that some of their prior math or statistics coursework has atrophied. I have found addressing students at multiple levels to be challenging: particularly in the first weeks of class, some students feel like the material is much too easy, whereas other students are trying to keep pace.
Although I do not think there is an easy solution to this issue, I try to address differing levels by offering "challenge'' problems for more advanced students, creating homework assignments that are primarily graded on completion (but provide students with extensive feedback on their answers), and making myself available to students who are struggling. Students report that I am very accessible (one student refers to me as "pathologically responsive'') and explain material clearly, but I am most proud that they refer to my desire to ensure that students understand the material. For example, "she explains concepts with students in mind and if what she says does not connect she tries to find another way to explain it.''
Future teaching plans
Increasingly, it appears that paying attention to early warning signs can help ensure that students are successful; this makes sense, as students who are struggling are likely to fall further and further behind without intervention. In future classes, I plan to incorporate an early warning system, in which students have to take short weekly quizzes. In order to avoid introducing too much additional stress, students will primarily receive points for taking the quiz, rather than for answering questions correctly. However, if they score poorly on a quiz, they must come meet with me in office hours to review concepts. Then, homework will serve as a way for students to practice, whereas the short quizzes will provide better information to me about which students are still struggling with the material as well as require students to come to office hours for additional reinforcement. I think this early warning system will also work well with undergraduate students, who are less likely than graduate students to seek out assistance when they need it.
Beyond my experience as a teaching assistant, I have sought out opportunities to learn more about teaching within the higher education context. I am working towards earning a Certificate in College Teaching, which requires coursework in teaching as well as teaching observation. I am also participating in Duke's Preparing Future Faculty program, in which I am working with a faculty mentor at North Carolina State University's College of Education.
With training in public affairs from Indiana University-Bloomington and Duke University, I am prepared to teach methods courses in statistics and program evaluation, as well as substantive courses in U.S. education and social policy.