Darth Vader: teaching method in disguise? – Josh Neufeld

Every year, I teach 600-900 students a “Fundamentals of Microbiology” course (Biol240). Three years ago, I wore a skull-print tie to class on October 31st. Afterwards, a student expressed disappointment that I had not worn a costume. The following year, I decided to wear a more… *impressive* Halloween costume to my lectures. I rented a replica Darth Vader costume and gave both of my back-to-back lectures fully suited. The reception for these lectures was nothing short of extraordinary. The university promoted the costume (http://www.bulletin.uwaterloo.ca/2012/nov/01th.html), students’ photos went viral (even making the front page of reddit; http://www.reddit.com/r/funny/comments/12eqaz/my_microbiology_professor_did_the_entire_lecture/), and I posed for many pictures with thrilled students after both class sections. Last year, I rented another replica costume: The Dark Knight. Again, student photos of the lecture circulated widely through social media and the costume was profiled in the Daily Bulletin (http://www.bulletin.uwaterloo.ca/2013/oct/31th.html). In a completely unexpected way, these costumes seem to have left their “viral” mark on Biol240.

Josh Neufeld in costume
Josh Neufeld darkens the day on two Hallowe’ens

But why? Many students wear costumes to campus on Halloween. Why is it so worthy of comment when a faculty member dresses up? 

Student appreciation of these Halloween costumes reminds me of other classroom responses that I’ve noticed at seemingly unrelated moments. For example, when I show a picture of my kids and quote them in relation to the course, the room responds warmly and audibly (“awwwwww”). When I told the class how a particular episode of Swiss Family Robinson (involving a creeping white mat spreading over the island and killing its animals) instilled a lifelong phobia of fungus in me, students sat rapt on the edge of their seats. When I recorded a message for students in my basement and as part of a narrated video animation of a class concept, course evaluations tell me that this was very much appreciated. 

It occurs to me that all of these teaching elements are linked. They convey unique messages to the class. These personal moments communicate that “I trust you”, and that trust is strong enough for me to be vulnerable in costume and risk looking silly, enough to show you my kids, enough to share my quirky personal foibles, and enough to let you see what my basement looks like (i.e., not pretty). In addition, I suspect that the simple personal things that we do send another message that is possibly even more important than trust, they communicate that we *like* our students. Our actions reflect that we like them enough to let our guard down in the classroom, just a little more than they would expect. 

In some ways, building rapport with a class is very similar to relationship building. When we trust and like someone, we do extra things for that person, we even act silly at times. And, if all goes well, we end up… learning about microbiology. We enjoy the classroom experience that much more. We want to keep coming back. Could this be the very spoonful of sugar that makes course content go down?

Importantly, this isn’t about parlour tricks for simple entertainment, it is about building trust and relationships as a precondition for effective learning. I am thrilled that students respond positively by cleaving to course content and exploring microbiology with enthusiasm in the classroom. These in-class experiences may also influence future course selections and career choices, steering interests a little closer to micro than they might have done otherwise. It’s a win win. 

Although wearing a costume can help foster trust and mutual appreciation in the classroom, there is an important unanswered question that lingers for me… what to wear for Halloween 2014?!

Josh Neufeld (Twitter: @JoshDNeufeld) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology, studying the microbial ecology of terrestrial, aquatic, and host-associated communities. For several years, Josh has taught a large second year course (600-900 students) as well as a small upper year course (18 students). 

How to Reignite Intrinsic Motivation — Sophie Twardus (CTE Co-op Student)

There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is something you do because you enjoy it for its own sake. Extrinsic motivation is something you do for outside factors like grades or money. One of the intriguing things about motivation is that if a person is intrinsically motivated to do something, giving them an extrinsic motivation diminishes that original motivation.

This is especially relevant in education considering that humans are naturally interested in learning. You only need to talk to four-year-old children to see how excited they are to go to school, how proud they are that they can count to ten. However, talk to them ten years later and all that enthusiasm will have dissipated. The problem is that in school you don’t learn for the sake of learning – you do it for external reasons like grades and getting accepted into university.

This approach leads to a decline of people’s intrinsic motivation to one solely driven by external rewards. The question is how do we address this problem. I know personally that math is my passion. Despite that there have times where I have been so bogged down by assignments and midterms that I have forgotten that math can be fun.

Last term I had an absolutely brutal week: I had gotten sick twice, I had gotten a midterm back and the results were less than optimal, and I had broken my laptop screen. I was in dire need of a break, I was exhausted, with zero motivation. I walked into the MathSoc office where my friends were playing the card game called SET. The game has a lot of interesting mathematical properties. You can see a sample game here.

While playing the game, I mused out loud how many unique sets exist in the game. “That’s an interesting problem,” exclaimed my friend. Naturally, being mathematicians. we put the game on hold in order to solve it. It took us no time at all to find out that the answer was 1080. We then tried finding out if it’s possible to model the number of sets for the general case of n values and m attributes.

It took me four days to solve this problem. Working on it reminded me why I was studying math. I love the mental challenge of a good problem, the battle of wits as I try to deconstruct the situation. I especially love the flash of insight that comes at the end when the solution is suddenly obvious.

University can be a stressful environment. It is all too easy to get caught up in the frenzy of midterms, assignments, and exams and forget why we originally chose to pursue post-secondary education. If you feel burnt out I recommend taking a break from your responsibilities and do something not because you have to but because you want to. Remind yourself that learning is fun.

As for the solution to the problem, I leave it as an exercise to reader. I would not want to spoil the fun.

Talking to Yourself: Apps for Taking Audio Notes — Mark Morton

When’s the last time you sat down at your desk and said to yourself, “Okay, now I’m going to come up with a good idea.” Probably never. The thing about creativity, in my experience, is that trying to force it to happen simply ensures that it doesn’t. It’s a bit like a sixteenth-century woodcut I once saw that depicted a man gently cupping his hand so that it would hold a bit of water for him to drink: the message or moral of the woodcut was that if he tried to forcefully grab the water, by squeezing his hand tight, it would go squirting through his fingers onto the ground. Continue reading Talking to Yourself: Apps for Taking Audio Notes — Mark Morton

Failures, mistakes, stupidity – foundations of success in academia

oops2Earlier this term I read a one page article, The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research. The article proclaims the importance of – nay – the imperative of learning from mistakes as a valuable education path. The author describes his astonishment that a very bright fellow PhD student gave up a career path because it made her feel stupid. Continue reading Failures, mistakes, stupidity – foundations of success in academia