Becker's Teaching Philosophy

I assume that you wouldn't be here if you didn't want to learn some stuff. If you have no interest in the subject of this course, find something else to study - life's WAY too short to put up with what I will want from you if you don't even like this stuff.

SO, it is important to understand that novices (that's you) don't always know what they don't know, and sometimes they also don't know what they need to know. I don't always know either, but I've been at this a while, and I've been paying attention.

Also, the way you are accustomed to being taught may not always be the most effective way to teach something.

I want all my students to succeed. (really) I am not here to “weed” anyone out. On the other hand, I will not knowingly give marks to someone who has not earned them. University degrees are NOT bought, they are EARNED. I also won't let you pass if you don't have what you need to succeed - no matter what your reasons for wanting or needing to pass.

That having been said, I see my role as teacher/professor/instructor as that of 'facilitator'. In case your image of 'facilitator' is one of those “lifestyle coaches” who tells you things you already know, and acts like it's profound, permit me to explain. I'm here to guide you through the material in the courses I teach; to explain some of the trickier bits, and to help you find out where to look for the information you need (and what to do with it once you've found it). My job is to help you get what you need in order to succeed: in the course, and in the program. What I bring to the table is a considerable amount of experience and a sincere desire to see you all win: I was a student once too (and I sometimes still am). I've also done teaching, programming, and even consulting for money. Part of my job is to share some of that with you (not the money part though). I've been at this long enough to have learned that people do not all learn the same way and the 'one-size-fits-all' approach to teaching only works for some of us. I am always willing to try new approaches and hear new ideas. Talk to me.

My preferred style is to provide my students with the resources you will need to succeed, give you some interesting or worthwhile problems to solve, and then help you solve them. Notice I said HELP YOU. I won't tell you how to do it. I won't necessarily even give you all the information you need to complete the task before you begin. Most disciplines will require you to learn new stuff throughout your entire working career, so I want you to learn how to do that while there's still someone here to coach you along.

I am not interested in how well you can memorize and repeat facts - I am interested in helping you acquire the tools and tricks of the trade so you can use them to solve brand new problems. This way I get to learn new stuff too. It's one of the reasons I like teaching so much.

I will try to keep you informed about the course outlines and schedules. However, if I detect that the class could benefit from a different approach or a change in the order of topics I reserve the right to change the schedule on the fly. On occasion I have even changed gears in the middle of a lecture. Please let me know when you need something other than what I'm doing.

Feedback from you is very valuable to me. I am always happy to deal with questions. If you don't understand something TELL ME. I will try to find another way to approach it. If I hear nothing from anyone I have no choice but to assume you understand and I will go on. From this side, there is no easily detectable difference between the look of boredom and the look of confusion.

If my style of teaching does not mesh with your style of learning, I apologize. I respect your ability to recognize what's best for you and encourage you to ask for it. I may not be able to match your personal style but I am certainly willing to help you find resources that will. Let me know.

On the other hand, I do NOT apologize for setting a high standard or for expecting you to work hard. If you are looking for an easy 'A' or someone who hand feed you, you'll have to look elsewhere. I will attempt to challenge you and stretch your abilities because I know from experience this will help prepare you for your future. Life is messy and complicated. Simplifying complex concepts and processes or trying to make wicked problems neat and tidy does not do you any favours in the long run. Looking at real problems and dealing with whole systems is the way to prepare for life. It is actually more work for me too (just in case you think I'm trying to make you do all the work).

I encourage people to ask “What is this good for?” and “Why are we learning this?” I suggest you ask these questions of all your teachers. Informatics (of which Computer Science is a part) is largely an applied discipline - if you can't apply what you are learning then it's probably a waste of time. I put a great deal of effort into organizing material so one bit relates to the rest. Before I ask you to learn something I actually think about whether it's worth your time and what you might be able to do with this knowledge. I am able to justify my pedagogical and topical choices. Feel free to ask.

I Receive on My Student Reviews (and what I have to say about them…)

  1. I'm poorly organized. I try very hard to be open minded and flexible. If someone suggests an improvement to a topic or lecture I sometimes try to incorporate it on very short notice. I'd rather try something that might improve the class or make it more interesting than force you to stick to a certain way of doing things just because it's less trouble or because I already have the notes prepared. (There are few things more dangerous than a teacher with slides already prepared - especially if they put some time into them).
  2. I'm easily distracted & often go off topic. I try never to deflect questions and make an effort to answer questions as completely as I can. Sometimes this results in the lecture taking a detour. I also believe it is important to connect concepts and topics at more than one level. Since we are a university I expect you to learn the material at a different level than would be expected from someone at a technical institute or IT “college” (A.K.A. “Get-Tech-Quick” Schools). The things we learn are not particularly useful in isolation.
  3. I jump around from topic to topic. Guilty - sometimes. However, if you sit back and take a higher level view you will often see how the topics I “jump around” to are related.
  4. I often back-track and change things when I go through an example. Don't you? I have plenty of clean, tidy, complete, perfectly executable examples. People don't learn much from them. People especially don't remember them. Even worse, people have a whole lot of trouble trying to make their own examples work out as nicely. Seeing a complex task executed perfectly can be a thing of beauty. Sometimes, following a messy, clumsy, error riddled path to a final correct outcome is a better way to learn how to do it. Sometimes learning how NOT to do something is just as valuable as simply being shown only the “right” way. Once in a while my 'scenic' route through a problem will prompt a student to come up with an idea or an approach that is new. I really love those moments.
  5. Some examples done in class contain errors. At least 90% of the time this is on purpose (see above). Don't become complacent. Watch me. See if you can spot the geliberate mistakes. Correct me. Some of my examples have contained the same errors for several years. Some of my examples have errors inserted on purpose.
  6. Goes too fast - glosses over some material. I try to keep my lectures interesting - even if the material sometimes isn't. If I get the sense that the class is uninterested in what I'm doing - I will try to change it. If you seem to be bored I will go faster. If you give me the impression the material is “old hat” I will skip over the “common” parts so I can spend more time on some other (hopefully interesting or at least uncommon) aspect of it. I am almost always willing to slow things down, repeat parts, try another example - ASK. I assume you are just as capable as I am when it comes to learning so if you don't understand something it must be because I'm not explaining it right. Ask me to explain it again.
  7. Assignments are too big. I can give you small, well defined problems or I can tell you exactly what you need to do or how to approach something by providing detailed specs. This is WAY easier for me. Unfortunately, real life rarely comes this way. Assignments are substantial because the discipline you are studying for requires you to be flexible, creative, and able to handle symbolism of all sorts as well as arbitrary complexity. My assignments are intended to help you practice for the real world.
  8. I sometimes make you start assignments before I've given you all the material you need to know to complete it. So will your boss.
  9. I go through the same material as in the notes. I made the notes. They are how I think about things so it stands to reason that my lectures would often seem very similar. I do try to present a slightly different point of view in class and I often supplement the notes with things I say only in class. I make my notes available to you so you don't have to write everything down during lectures. That way you can listen and make additional comments.
  10. I don't stick to my notes. That's because sometimes it gets boring and because I assume you can all read. When I can I try to add something I haven't already given you in the notes. Sometimes I think of a different way to approach a topic and try that out instead. Since I spend a great deal of time working with individual students I don't always have time to type or re-type notes. If you come to class you will always get the information you need.
  11. I should stick to what you need to know for the assignments and exams. Again, this would be less work for me. If you ask, I'm happy to explain my rationale for an exam or any assignment.

Exams are supposed to assess your mastery of the subject matter. My exams present a random sample of the total material covered in the course. Some exams you may have written are very superficial and ask shallow questions about many topics. My exams tend to ask fewer, but deeper questions. My exams tend to test your ability to solve problems rather than how well you can recite what I said. I can guarantee I will not ask you a question that I have not prepared you for. My exams rarely ask you to regurgitate material. They test your comprehension by asking novel questions that require you to apply the knowledge you have gained.

I always have specific goals in mind for each assignment. Assignments should be designed to help you learn the course material. My assignments are created with that in mind. If you do them and understand them, you can be pretty sure you have learned what you needed to. Often, my assignments deal with realistic problems that don't fit nicely into a single category or topic. It may not be easy to list what you learned from doing my assignments, but you can be sure that later course material (and even some real life material) will be easier to handle as a result.

My preference is to provide assignment details (as well as all other course elements) at the start of a term (actually, I like to have this stuff available when people are deciding what courses to register for in the first place). That way people can make informed decisions about planning their term, scheduling tasks, and organizing their time.

Designing Classroom Instruction

What follows is a variation on: Walpole, S. (2004) Designing Games for the Wage Slave, Gamedev.net This is a wonderful article, easily applied to learning, teaching, software design, you name it. The following is a summary of the main points, only applied to teaching and learning. The parts in BLUE are bits I have modified and added to fit the current context. A bit of latitude is necessary, as there is still a difference between playing a game for entertainment, and taking a class to learn something or earn a degree or certificate. The latter cannot always be expected to be “fun”. It CAN however, be expected to be relevant. (I hope Stuart Walpole doesn't mind.)

  • Make every moment the learner spends in your class time well spent.
  • Spend that time entertaining and rewarding the learner for choosing your course.
  • Challenge without frustrating, and guide while still keeping the learner in control.
  • Your world, your choice. If something isn't fun (useful, applicable, justifiable), don't put it in the course.
  • Keep the learner engaged as often as possible.
  • But let him(her) leave whenever (s)he wants.
  • And remove any barriers that stop him(her) from picking up where (s)he left off..
  • Keep it simple, keep it accessible, and keep it fun. (a certain amount of challenge is necessary here)
  • Don't demand a huge time commitment from the learner or dictate the length of his(her) sessions; let him(her) take it at his(her) own pace.
  • Don't fix things that aren't broken.
  • Test with a wide spectrum of learners to find out what's intuitive and well-received.
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