Per the article in Tech Today, this week, College of Sciences and Arts Dean Bruce Seely recognizes Ruihong Zhang, lecturer in Computer Science for more than 13 years, as the newest member of the Deans’ Teaching Showcase. Seely selected Zhang for her role in delivering foundational CS courses while enrollment has increased dramatically.
Asked to discuss her approach to teaching, Zhang says she finds herself balancing four pairs of ideas: her teaching goals vs. student learning goals; what she wants to teach vs. what students want to learn; her teaching style vs. student learning styles; and self-evaluation of teaching vs. student evaluations.
Zhang recently offered three foundational courses for CS majors: Data Structures, Databases and Introduction to Programming. None are easy. With its focus on different algorithms for structuring data, for example, Data Structures challenges students.
“During class, I constantly ask motivational questions, encouraging students to have short discussions with each other before presenting answers,” Zhang says.
The goal is to promote student engagement. Databases are equally essential, but this class is more practical and requires attention to detail. She relies upon lab sessions, not lectures, to “help students troubleshoot problems. They like these sessions and feel they learn a lot in one class period.”
Growing enrollment and larger class sections over the past three years have created serious teaching challenges, but Zhang has adapted in several ways. First, she begins the semester by asking students to introduce themselves and find a team partner. This enhances small-group work and short discussions. In each session, “I ask three to five interesting, but not too difficult, questions for students to approach as a team.”
After a few minutes, depending upon the problem, “I go over the answers or ask for responses from the teams. Many students actively participate and feel no pressure about giving wrong answers in front of the class.”
Zhang also has cut back on detailed PowerPoints, asking students to take their own notes. “Research shows that writing notes with paper and pencils helps people to retain knowledge.” Coincidentally, students must set aside electronic distractions to follow the discussion.
Because students will not always ask questions in large classes, Zhang holds extra office hours and evening study sessions led by herself, student mentors or teaching assistants. “This semester we offered four weekly study sessions for Data Structures, led by mentors from the Computer Science Department’s new Student Academic Mentor (SAMs) program.”
Finally, Zhang is aware that different students have different skills and learning approaches and considers these when designing homework problems. “The problems have different levels of difficulty. I strive to use real life problems whenever it is appropriate. I often include challenging problems with extra points for students willing to study and work more after class.”
In summary, Seely indicates “This is the picture of a committed teacher constantly adjusting to changing conditions in her classes. The idea of balancing the potentially competing factors she identifies seems to be serving Ruihong’s students well.”
Zhang will be recognized at an end-of-term luncheon with other showcase members, and is now eligible for one of three new teaching awards to be given by the William G. Jackson Center for Teaching and Learning this summer, recognizing introductory or large-class teaching, innovative or outside-the-classroom teaching methods, or work in curriculum and assessment.