Thursday, September 27, 2012

Does Teacher Personality Matter?

Yes, but only if you're like Darth Vader or Lord Voldemort.  Both of these personality types tend to have issues with restraint, power, and creating a safe (learning) environment :)

Personality matters less than what some may think.  It's very easy to think about a charismatic professor like Ed Burger getting high marks and saying, "Well he's such a wonderful personality.  How could I ever be that?"  First of all, we shouldn't be comparing ourselves based on perceived personality attributes.  Second, we all have different teaching environments, so it's really not about us as personalities and about how we help our students overcome their challenges.

It's really about the teaching skills.  It's really about the teaching practice.  

Noticing big personalities is rather obvious and easy to latch onto.  What is hard to see is how courses are setup and what skills and practices are brought to the table, how the "little stuff" is handled on a day-to-day basis. While being charming may be minimally helpful, when I talk to faculty about why their students are not (yet) buying in to their IBL classes, almost always we can identify something technical that is the root cause.

A starter list of questions to ask yourself to help you reflect on your teaching:
  • Have you been marketing IBL effectively and regularly? That is, do students know their role, your role, and how things will operate daily?
  • Beyond saying "It's okay to be stuck," what activities have you employed to encourage and support the process of being stuck?
  • Are you giving regular, positive feedback? How often?  Have you given positive feedback of some form to every student presentation or comment?
  • When the class is silent or not talking enough, do you employ various small group activities to engage your students?
  • Are the problems too hard or too easy?
  • Have you dealt with the quite/shy students in your class, by finding activities to specifically engage them and get them involved more and more over time?
  • What are you formative assessment strategies?
  • Are you still relying primarily on traditional exams for summative and formative assessment?
  • Do you know how your students are doing before the first exam?  If no, then you've missed out on a lot of data gathering.
  • Do you listen to your students to see if they know the answer, or are you also listening to figure out where they are?  Put another way, do you know how your students think and what their specific strengths and weaknesses are?
  • Do you spend more than one-third of IBL class time talking?
  • Are you still looked upon as the mathematical authority (i.e. answer validator)?
  • What grade would you give yourself for restraint and knowing when to step in?
  • If a student makes a mistake or is stuck, do you have several strategies for dealing with this situation?  What cues do you use to know when to step in?
  • Are students having fun in class doing math?
This list of questions is meant to help you reflect on your practice.  As you consider some of the questions above, it may make you think "Oh, I could do more of..."   Rather than think about who you are as a personality, which really does not matter, you can instead focus on the skills and practice that actually make a difference in learning.

And the data speaks to this as well.  The work by Hake, et al has been well documented and accepted in Science Education.  There's famous graph that speaks volumes:

In the red group are the traditional instructors and the green are the interactive engagement instructors.  Included in both groups are novice instructors, experienced instructors, award winning instructors, and those who have not been rated highly be students.  What matters isn't the personality or the perceived ability (i.e. popularity) of the instructor.  What matters are the skills and practice employed by the instructor.

A more useful self-assessment tool is in the works. Stay tuned!