The days of expecting students to accept information and knowledge from the podium via lecture format are long behind us. Pedagogical studies continue to illustrate that learning, as a cognitive process, is fraught with idiosyncrasies depending on everything from the subject being taught, the layout and social environment of the classroom, and the style and language of the instructor. Thus, in addition to the students’ responsibility to acquire the knowledge presented, it increasingly behooves instructors to be innovative and devise new strategies of information dissemination in a manner that is readily apprehended by the audience. In a nutshell, good educators must not only bring material to students in a way that will resonate with their current knowledge of the world, life experiences, and ways of thinking, but they must also present and deploy the material in ways that students will readily accept.
Every group of students has a different dynamic, and thus, I find it is best to regularly revise my pedagogy to ensure that I am consistently helping students learn in a manner that is not excessively taxing on their cognitive load. Before designing a syllabus for a course, I often think back to when I was an undergraduate. What did I expect from a class? What did I hope a class would be like? What courses and instructors met the mark and how did they do it? On the other hand, which ones failed to meet my expectations and why? Though the methods of teaching have changed drastically since I was a student, the components comprising a good class experience have not. I outline what some of the core components are, in my opinion, below.
Egalitarianism & Setting the Social Atmosphere
When I was an undergraduate student my favorite courses were the ones where I felt as though I could speak up as readily as I might in my own living room. I always tell my students at the start of the semester that my job is not to dictate to them what they need to learn. My job is to provide them content and then facilitate their learning of it. I promote chatty and comfortable classrooms by insisting that students call me by my first name and by allowing people to speak up without raising their hand as long as they are not interrupting anyone else. I am a fan of small group discussions; as I find that small groups provide shy students an ability to talk without feeling pressured. I also attempt to get as many students to know one another as possible by continually mixing up the small groups. I have found that when I do these things most students are quite comfortable speaking in front of the entire class by halfway through the semester, because they are talking amongst friends, not strangers.
My teaching evaluations have frequently mentioned that my “enthusiasm is infectious.” I believe that an instructor must continually attempt to pique students’ interests in every topic covered. If he is not passionate about a topic being taught, the instructor must become an actor. I come to every class acting as though what I am about to present to the students is the most exciting topic since sliced bread! If an instructor appears bored discussing a topic, students will likely assume that they too can be bored with the topic. However, one person’s loathing is the next person’s future compulsion. It is crucial to let students decide for themselves what excites them about a subject and what bores them, with minimal influence from me. An example of this would be lecturing about map projections. I appreciate projections, yet they do not excite me as much as discussing visual hierarchy. My goal when teaching is to make sure my students cannot figure out that I give two hoots about the science of projections outside of class.
Building Trust with My Students
In every class I teach, one of my first priorities is to connect with the audience (i.e., the students staring… or is it glaring?… at me). One way in which I do this is by keeping up on pop cultural references that students are likely to associate with. The first day of every class, I ask students to write down their favorite book, film, band, and hobby from the past year. It seems almost too easy, but by knowing who the pop stars are that students are talking about and what music they are listening to outside of class I earn their respect. It is my experience that once students feel that an instructor can relate to them, they are more attentive in class and more likely to learn what is taught. In addition to letting me know about the cultural tastes of my students, surveying the class on their cultural preferences helps me gauge what type of personalities and backgrounds the students are bringing into the classroom. It facilitates the construction of analogies that are pertinent to their learning; I am able to connect concepts to everyday things that my students have told me they relate to. Finally, knowing what they do not expose themselves to outside of class allows me to introduce them to new things and ways of thinking.
Another technique I often use to build trust with a class is to infuse my own personal experiences and anecdotes into lectures. This helps my students realize that learning is an ongoing process, and that even though I am now a professor, I too am learning things on a daily basis! I often relay stories about how a particular trick saved me hours of mapping time or how I blanked during lecture one day as to what properties a conformal projection preserves. By providing examples of the learning pains I went through in understanding abstract concepts I am lecturing about, students are more open to learning through trial and error themselves. By letting students know that I understand that they are human – because I let them know that I make mistakes too – they end up feeling comfortable in asking for help and advice rather than feeling ashamed of their mistakes.
Beyond similes based on pop artists and in‐class anecdotes, I feel the most crucial component to being a successful instructor is letting students know that I actually care about them as people. I am a student‐centered teacher. I am constantly asking students how they are doing outside of class, and letting them know that if they have any questions or concerns about life, the university, or geography in general, they can always come and talk to me. I build ongoing relationships with my students. I am always open to keeping in touch with students once the semester ends to help them achieve their goals and dreams in any way I can.
Providing Students with Knowledge and a Reason to Listen
Different generations respond to information in different ways depending on how it is presented. In How to Talk So People Listen, Sonya Hamlin (2006) argues that the current generation that is beginning to trickle into universities has a completely different learning and listening style than the generations before it. Hamlin argues that today’s students are forced to wade through massive amounts of information and data hurled at them from all types of media devices. Stemming from this, they have become extremely efficient filterers. The current generation is used to gathering its information via social media sites and podcast, parceling out any literature or events that they do not perceive to be of interest to them.
Regardless of how one feels about this generational evolution – personally, I find it somewhat unfortunate – it is a reality. Thus, I believe we have a responsibility as instructors to let students know why what we are teaching is important and beneficial to them. When we fail to explain how the information is useful, students will often simply memorize material for a semester and forget it as soon as they finish their final exam. I constantly remind them of what they stand to gain from learning the material. By constantly demonstrating to students that I am trying to provide them knowledge that they can use to succeed, they are more inclined to remember what they have learned.
Using Technology to Help Students Help Themselves
In teaching I believe it is not only imperative to find content that widens students’ horizons about the world around them, but to do so via a diverse set of mediums they are familiar with. The Internet is a great place to start. I typically utilize online course software (including Moodle, D2L, and WebVista, depending on an institution’s preference). I am also a fan of creating course Websites (that I typically embed as the homepage of my course software). These sites provide my classes with a unique flair that is often lacking when using the generic course software templates. On my Websites I blog about course material and my lectures; I post links to pertinent current events; I let students start up discussion forums; and I typically post podcast lectures and mini‐films I have created dealing with certain topics discussed in class (e.g., a brief home video I made discussing McMansions). Though I quit Facebook on principle – too many pictures of what relatives and obscure high school friends were eating on vacation – I do utilize Twitter handles in my courses to cater to student online habits.
I do not believe that technology is always used well in the classroom. There are definitely good and bad uses of online technology in the classroom. Bad use is setting up course software and telling students they must use it. Good use is when you allow students to interact and participate virtually with the class via whatever method is most intuitive to them (e.g., Web site, Twitter, blog, or Moodle). I find that when students are excited about how the course is run virtually, they end up helping to run it. They also seem to participate more during class.
Gauging Student Knowledge Acquisition
When students leave college with a GIS or geography degree, what knowledge will be most important to them in the workforce? I assure you it will not be that they are able to define “topology” to ICA specifications or that they can recite the three components of Agnew’s theory of place! My exams are always a balance of detailed and abstract questions. The detailed questions concentrate on the key concepts that need to be learned in order to solve abstract problems. I do not test for memorization but for utilization of knowledge. If a student leaves understanding why an abstract concept is relevant to her and will never forget it, I feel I have done good work.
My grading is always balanced. In applied classes like GIS and cartography, I tend to put as much emphasis on lab work (applied skills) as I do tests and in‐class exercises (knowledge skills). I feel that exams are very good at making sure that students stay caught up on concepts and information that they need to learn to make informed decisions, but outside of academia what they will be judged upon is how well they can apply their knowledge. To accommodate different learning styles, my exams always consist of a mixture of true‐and‐false, multiple choice, short answer, fill‐in‐ the‐blank, and problem solving questions. My labs are always structured to help students build off of their previous capabilities, as well as push them to think outside of the box.
How I Teach in the GISciences
Obviously, one cannot teach in the GISciences today without computers. However, I would also argue that one cannot teach these subjects only using computers. I am a firm believer in looking at real, paper maps in class and spending a considerable amount of time critiquing them.
My GIS and cartography lectures are run interactively and are very much hands on. Some days it is necessary that I lecture for most of the class period. However, when I do this, I also make sure to engage the audience by asking them pointed questions or by having them get into small groups and work on five‐minute exercises on a topic I just finished discussing. Though I embrace technology whole‐heartedly, I also believe it is important to “slow things down” and force students to actually engage during class time with bona fide paper maps. I also like to draw on overheads, bring in props (e.g., mandarins for projection exercises), and have students participate in discussions. One of my main goals is to encourage students to start looking at maps critically; I often will put up a paper map and ask the class to explain to me how the map was made, who the intended audience was, and how they might remake the map so it is better than the original.
I am also very interested in challenging my students to think outside of the box. Often this requires making up scenarios that prey on students’ preconceived norms. I like to have students design maps for diverse audiences. Design issues are always contingent on the intended audience; so I will test my students’ ability to rise to different challenges. Whenever I give a mapping assignment, I tell my students who they should presume the audience will be – e.g., grade school children, high school instructors, a non‐profit organization, or the fledgling government of Kosovo. For example, I have had students design multivariate maps that take into account red‐green color blindness. Though I provide them resources so that they can test the effectiveness of their map, I do not walk them through the process. I believe one of the best ways to learn is by troubleshooting and figuring things out on your own.
I often promote a social and collaborative work environment. Cartography and GIScience requires learning from one’s peers and colleagues as much as from books and hands‐on time in the lab. This is true both in higher education and in the workplace. I attempt to get students into this mindset from the beginning, encouraging them to post their own discussions, chat in lab, and ask for tips from one another.
My teaching philosophy is constantly evolving through experience. However the following tenets are consistent. I attempt to:
• Establish an egalitarian classroom based on mutual respect;
• Display as much enthusiasm as possible, day in and day out;
• Bridge the divide between students and faculty by getting to know my students as people;
• Let students know why they should listen and how what they are learning is useful to them;
• Use online technologies to reach students and help them learn from one another;
• Audit student performance through practical and conceptual exercises, not memorization;
• Challenge students to make non‐normative and wide‐ranging maps and conduct socially progressive GIS analysis.
For a complete overview of all of my teaching evaluations, course syllabi, and other teaching material, please continue perusing this site.
Hamlin, Sonya. (2006). How to Talk So People Listen: Connecting in Today’s Workplace. New York: Collins.