This lengthy page details my thoughts on how to best connect with students in the classroom and promote meaningful, long-term learning. I’ve got no shortage of opinions on how to approach my craft.
I learned a lot from your class, Professor Simon. Not only did it help me with my current classes, but I have applied that knowledge in my job as well.
- Active and Experiential Learning
- Desirable Difficulty
- Technology and Experimentation
- Maximizing Personal Interaction
- Fusing Theory and Practice
- Offering Extra Help
- Looking Backward and Forward
- Stressing the Importance of Effective Communication
- Staying Current
- Being Interesting
- Learning Should Never Stop—for Students and Professors
- Critical Thinking and Real-World Problem Solving
- Timely Grading
- Respond Well to Feedback
- Helping Colleagues
- Reaching Out to Accomplished Professionals
- Sense of Humor
- Consistency Yet Fairness
- Students Are Not Customers
In no particular order, I strive to abide by the following 23 principles in my classes:
With every book, I become a better writer. Why stop there?
In other words, Homer Simpson is right. I strive to improve my performance every semester. This involves both quantitative and qualitative feedback. No, I can’t reach every student, but I can keep pushing the envelope. I can try to make my classes more meaningful and engaging every semester.
Active and Experiential Learning
Yeah, it’s entered the realm of jargon in higher education, but I still believe in the importance of active learning. Ditto for its counterpart experiential learning. Put differently, although this is not always under my control, I try to minimize the number of pure lectures over the course of a semester.
Don’t get me wrong: Sometimes lectures are necessary, but as much as I can I develop interactive exercises designed to teach and reinforce critical thinking. Beyond individual in-class exercises, though, my students learn a great deal on their capstone projects in part because of the way that I choose to seek them out.
I find that this approach maximizes teachable moments.
Going easy on students contravenes long-term learning. I retained a great deal of what I learned as an undergraduate and graduate student because my schools and professors believed in desirable difficulty. I first came across this theory in Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath and completely buy into it.
If this means that my student evaluations suffer, then so be it. I’m there to educate, not grant easy A’s.
Technology and Experimentation
I believe in experimentation—and not just in developing new types of in-class exercises. In my time at ASU, I’ve introduced new tools in the classroom such as WordPress and Slack. I’m particularly fond of the latter, as are some of my more progressive colleagues. (Click here to learn more about how I use tech in the classroom.)
As for using laptops in class, I discourage this but don’t prohibit it. There’s plenty of research to support the idea that in-class computers inhibit long-term learning, but this New York Times article provides a nice summary.
Maximizing Personal Interaction
Sure, I love technology, but it’s no panacea. To quote Steve Hogarth of Marillion, “Technology is wonderful when it isn’t in the way.” Sometimes the best way to address a problem involves having a conversation in person, not via new tchotchkes. In other words, personal interactions top e-mail. (Yeah, my three-e-mail rule applies in academia as well.) For more on how I use tech in the classroom, click here for a profile that CourseHero did on my methods.
I try to spend as much time with my students as possible. I have arrived late for a grand total of zero classes at ASU. What’s more, I’m usually at least 15 minutes early. In my 400-level classes, I make it a point to meet with my students individually each semester to the extent possible. Beyond that, I’m almost always able to stay after class, speak with my students, set up time to talk outside of my normal office hours.
In the fall of 2019, I started holding open tech-discussion sessions with anyone interested.
Fusing Theory and Practice
I can’t imagine discussing consumer surplus without mentioning Uber. How can you introduce the topic of network effects and not cite Amazon or Facebook as powerful contemporary examples? I find that this technique represents an effective way to engage students—something that can be challenging in an era of continuous partial attention.
Offering Extra Help
I recognize that students often benefit from additional interactions outside of the classroom and my normal office hours. Schedule permitting, I’m happy to accommodate them. For instance, CIS450 students in the fall of 2017 requested a separate workshop for Tableau because, at that time, W. P. Carey didn’t offer a proper course on the dataviz tool—something that our curriculum-review committee fixed the following semester.
I obliged by setting up and supervising a two-hour hands-on workshop with four student power Tableau users. Although the five of us couldn’t cover every Tableau feature, we did answer individual students’ specific questions, help them build new data visualizations, and improve their existing ones. The students that attended found the workshop valuable and expressed their gratitude.
In addition, for CIS236 I hold two-hour mid-term and final-exam review sessions a few days before each test. No, I can’t possible review everything discussed in that fast-paced survey class, but I do clarify concepts about which they may have questions.
Looking Backward and Forward
In each class, it’s important for students to get a sense of where they are—and where they are going. To this end, I frequently tie together concepts that they’ve already learned and preview ones that they’ll tackle in my course and/or others down the line.
At the beginning of each class, I’ll spend a few minutes revisiting the material that we covered in the previous one. What’s more, I’ll frequently tease a topic that we’ll cover a few weeks down the road. In the case of my current survey course, I’ll point out that students interested in SQL or Python can take entire courses devoted to these programming languages. I’ll also remind them in a 200- or 400-level course of concepts that they have learned before—or at least should have learned.
Stressing the Importance of Effective Communication
More than four in five employers describe “the ability to effectively communicate in writing” as very important . Having the right answer doesn’t mean much if you can’t write and speak well. No, I’m not an English teacher, but I don’t let bad grammar and poor writing slide. No professor should. Ever.
I also believe strongly in staying current and getting out of my bubble. This means several things. First, I get out of the classroom as much as possible. I speak at conferences and visit companies such as Amazon. Second, I integrate tech- and data-related news stories into the classroom and suggest articles after class in Slack. (See the screenshot on the right from my Slack #tech_in_the_news channel.) Adopting this mind-set allows me to do connect with students in ways that most pure academics simply cannot.
It’s not easy to get members of iGen to pay attention for 50-75 minutes. To combat this, I try to be interesting and, dare I say, funny. This includes teaching the rudiments of Python. (I’m no Gary Gulman, but I have my moments.) I pepper my lectures with pop-culture references and quotes from movies, songs, and obscure books. (A stats professor of mine at Carnegie Mellon did the same when I was a sophomore and I appreciated the effort.)
With respect to class materials, I use PowerPoint, but I assure you that my slides are anything but anodyne. All materials should be as visually engaging as possible, including syllabi. (Here is an example of what I mean.)
I find this style effective. The Chronicle of Higher Education does as well.
I have never met an academic who agrees with every university or department decision. I’m certainly no exception. Still, students don’t need to know what takes place in faculty meetings. With a nod to Wayne Jarvis of Arrested Development, I consider myself a professional.
This also means being flexible in the courses that I teach. For instance, during my first semester, ASU threw three courses at me—a first-time professor. Yeah, that’s a big number but that’s my department needed from me. Also, after my second year, my department chair needed me to teach a survey course in lieu of my normal capstone courses. Again, I heeded the call.
This is the best professor that I have had at ASU. His class is challenging and involves critical thinking. He is able to teach in a way that allows the material to be fun to learn.
Learning Should Never Stop—for Students and Professors
I believe in constant learning. Sure, I know a thing or six, but it’s impossible for someone to know everything about any subject—and that includes technologies, programming languages, industries, companies, software-development methods, etc.
I also believe that all students should possess at least a modicum of coding skill. TLDR: This isn’t 1985.
I’m a curious person. Professors can and should learn from other professors and their students. I teach some pretty smart cookies and I can’t think of a reason not to try and pick up a few things. Case in point, I decided in December of 2017 to teach myself some Python after seeing what some of my students were able to do with it on their capstone projects. I’m hardly an expert, but I know more than I did when I began my professor career.
I also believe in transparency. I create detailed rubrics for my each of my assignments. No, they aren’t recipes or listicles—for example, the five things that you need to do to get an A. Rather, they are guideposts.
The combination of @zoom_us and @SlackHQ in the classroom is quite potent. Today I turned a traditional lecture into an interactive exercise to demonstrate how PC's and Mac's are very similar. Cue #PulpFiction reference. #highereducation @WPCareySchool pic.twitter.com/5FMSPmFUPH
— Phil Simon (@philsimon) September 5, 2019
Critical Thinking and Real-World Problem Solving
You read it on the Internet. So what? That doesn’t make it true. The era of Big Data means that the ability to question claims, sources, “facts”, and assertions has never been more important—a trend that shows no signs of abating.
According to a 2013 national survey of business and non-profit leaders, more than three-quarters of employers want more emphasis on five key areas including: critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.
To this end, I routinely stress critical thinking in my courses. I often ask questions of my students that necessitate thought and additional questions. Yeah, I dig Socrates’ style.
I also believe in timely feedback. Many of my students are surprised at how quickly I grade their papers and exams—and I hold my grading assistants to the same standard. It’s not uncommon for my grades to start trickling in later the same day. I can’t imagine taking more than a few days to grade my students’ work.
Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.
—Folk wisdom (origin unknown)
Respond Well to Feedback
I like to think that I’m not set in my ways. No, I don’t read my Rate My Professor page, but I do listen to feedback from peers and my department chair about how I can improve. Ditto for students whom I respect.
On the basis of some feedback, for instance, I made some significant changes to my capstone courses after my first semester. Brass tacks: I honestly hope that each day I improve in my craft.
As John Templeton famously said, “It is nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.”
I couldn’t agree more. Sure, I’ve accomplished a few things in my career and I’m able to express myself in a confident way. At the same time, though, I strive to act in a humble manner.
I know what it’s like to be new to a university and to academia in general. The experience can be a little overwhelming, even if your background aligns nicely with the requirements of a college professor. (This was certainly the case with me.)
Because of this, I’m happy to help newly hired professors should they ask—and even experienced ones at other schools who have read about my methods and want to pick my brain. Assistance may come in the form of specific recommendations, class-related tips, or general pedagogical approaches.
Reaching Out to Accomplished Professionals
I take the same tack with teaching as I do in my books: I liberally interview others who know more about a particular subject than I. Put differently, with sufficient preparation, I can deliver an effective lecture about just about any technology- or data-related topic. Still, because I am more of a fox than a hedgehog, plenty of others can bring a more profound viewpoint to certain subjects. I’m not afraid to acknowledge this.
Case in point: In my CIS440 class, I interviewed expert automated-testing expert John Sonmez for a virtual guest lecture. In short, my students benefited from his perspective and experience because John knows the topic cold—far better than I do. I couldn’t help but laugh at their reaction when he mentioned his hourly rate.
Beyond asking for guest lecturers from experts on individual topics, I frequently talk to other professors about different pedagogical approaches. I enjoy discussing different ways to reach students. My friend Terri Griffith is a particularly valuable muse in this regard.
Phil should be the role model for expected behavior from staff at W. P. Carey. He has been my favorite and most exemplary professor throughout my undergraduate curriculum.
Sense of Humor
I take what I do seriously but not myself. In other words, I can laugh at my own expense and my students pick up on this pretty quickly. See the images on the right for some good-natured in-class exercises. Some classes have even created Jeopardy! categories for some of my mannerisms and favorite sayings. It’s all in good fun.
Consistency Yet Fairness
Generally speaking, I am consistent. I have to be. Still, I listen to my students and strive to be fair. I understand that life happens. If a legitimate crisis warrants giving a student an extension, I’m happy to provide one.
Students Are Not Customers
They are products or, if you like, customers ten years from now. For more on this, click here.