This is the first interview in a new series of bi-monthly CELT website features focused on faculty reflecting on their teaching. We hope you find these interviews interesting and useful as you think about your own teaching. We thank those who participate for their openness and sharing of ideas.
Professor Roger Tobin, Physics – Astronomy
Can you summarize your philosophy of teaching?
I think teaching is a craft. We didn’t learn in school how to do this. Sometimes you have to learn the skills, you have to consciously to work at it. This seems obvious, but it’s a separate craft from our disciplines, and we need to learn from people who have researched it.
Teaching is a partnership with students. That means I have to pay attention to who my students are, what they need, what skills they have. It took me a long time to realize that they are not all like me. My interest and passion for physics is different than theirs. I realized I’m not teaching for me, I have to design my teaching around the students I have, and that’s not easy. They are younger, have different backgrounds, motivations, passions that I do.
There are really smart people out there studying, thinking about, doing research about teaching, and I need to steal as much from them as possible. I don’t have to do this myself. Even outside of physics, I can learn from others about teaching.
How would you describe your teaching style?
I’ve learned from my own experience, my students, and experts, that if you want people to learn, you need to get them engaged in the process. I began by lecturing. A lot of faculty think, “lectures worked for me,” and it’s true, it did. [In higher education] the system is designed to select people for whom the old system (lecturing) worked. So the fact that I and all of my colleagues succeeded in learning physics from that system doesn’t mean that it works for most students, or is even for the best students. It just means that the ones for whom it didn’t work didn’t become professors.
I’m always struggling to engage students in their own learning. How I do that changes depending on the size of the class. I’ve learned that students can learn more from each other than they can from me. If I explain something to them, they don’t think about it critically, since I’m the professor. But when they talk to each other, they don’t have the same power relationship, so even if they are explaining it badly, they may learn more from that than from my polished presentation. In large lecture classes, I use the Classroom Response System (clickers) to get a lot of the students engaged at some level. In a smaller class for more advanced students, often physics majors, I ask a lot more questions. It’s easy to get lost during long derivations, so I’ll pause to ask questions like “Why we are doing this?” “Where it is leading us?” and “What is it really telling us?” I also do small group activities to try to vary the class. It’s less formal [in a small class], but it’s the same goal – to get them into active learning mode.
I push pretty hard. I think I demand a lot. One student told me” The only class I’m afraid to go to is yours,” because she knew she couldn’t just sit there passively. I think Tufts students can achieve a lot, and I’m going to push them. While doing that, I strive to provide the supports (materials online, office hours, in class activities) they need to be successful.
How has your philosophy or teaching approach changed over time?
I’ve been teaching for over 20 years. I started in a traditional mode, as I had been taught. I was vaguely aware that it wasn’t working that well. I heard about things like clickers, looked at what other professors were doing, and began to read some of the educational research literature.
I’m much more experienced and confident now. I used to have pages and pages of notes for every lecture. Now, my notes are a page a day with reminders. A lot of the time, I don’t even look at my notes, I know where I want to get to. I feel freer to ad lib. I think you can only do this when you have had a lot of practice.
Certainly, the technology has changed. There’s power point, clickers, blackboard…you have to think about what they are good for, or not good for. For example, I try to avoid bullet points on slides, and pull up dynamic examples that you can’t necessarily physically demonstrate in the classroom from the internet – you couldn’t do this ten years ago. Each tool brings new capabilities, but you have to sort it all out.
What advice would you give to a new professor at Tufts?
First, recognize that teaching is a new skill, a craft, and that there is a learning process.
Second, remember that you are weird – your students are not what you are like. Most of us try to emulate the teachers who had the most impact on us – and we should probably not.
Third, take advantage of resources that are there – workshops in your field, CELT, articles in your professional journals. And take advantage of people in your department. Talk to them, look at their syllabi and ask why they make the choices they do.
Fourth, be protective of your time as there are lots of things that will east up your time. Look for efficient ways to improve your teaching for now, that don’t take up all of your time.
Lastly, you have to like your students. The 3% that take up 30% of your time are not the norm. The vast majority of students here are great. We all complain about the “grade grubbing” students, but remember they did not create the system, they only learned how to be successful in it. Their grades do matter, and it’s not their fault that they matter.
How would you want your students to remember you or describe you after they have left Tufts?
I hope they never think about their physical word in the same way. I hope they think about this stuff when they turn on a light, when they walk down the street, in their every day activities. I hope they begin to see the “meta.’ My goal is to give them an intellectual tool kit rather than simply teach them the subject matter.
Professor Roger Tobin is currently the physics-astronomy department chair, and was awarded the Lillian and Joseph Leibner Award for Excellence in Teaching and Advising of Students in the spring of 2010. For more information about his work at Tufts, click here: http://ase.tufts.edu/faculty-guide/fac/rtobin.astrophys.htm or here http://www.tufts.edu/~rtobin/
For more information about other teaching awards and award recipients from AS&E, click here: http://ase.tufts.edu/faculty-info/facultyAwards.htm
Find more from the Faculty Spotlight interview series at the spotlight’s archive here.