Dr. Andre DenhamWhat inspired you to become an educator?

I came into the teaching profession quite by accident. I have an undergraduate degree in Mathematics and was fully intending to work in operations research when I finished. So much so that I enrolled in an operations research master’s program. Once I began taking classes, I quickly realized that this was not what I really wanted to do. A friend of mine told me about a school that was in a pinch and looking for a middle school mathematics teacher. So I applied and got the position. Once I started teaching, I was hooked!

Is there a particular teaching moment or experience that stands out in your career?

I have been fortunate to have had a lot of great teaching moments, but the one that sticks out to me would be my experience co-chairing the General Education Task Force. When I accepted the provost’s invitation to serve on this task force, I had no idea the huge task that I had signed myself up for. Working with my GET colleagues in developing the proposal for a revised general education curriculum required me to apply all facets of the training in instructional design I received at the graduate level. It also required me to apply the knowledge, skills and abilities I teach in the Instructional Technology program. It was a full-circle experience for me and one that has made me a better designer of instruction.

Innovative teaching methods can make a profound impact on students. What unique or creative approaches do you use in your classroom to engage and inspire your students?

I’m a big advocate for active learning in the classroom. Anyone who has been in one of my classes can tell you that I am not going to lecture much. There are times when I do need to impart information to students, but I go to great lengths to limit time spent being a “sage on the stage” and maximize the time I spend facilitating learning. So I make frequent use of think-pair-share, WebQuests, project-based learning activities, peer feedback and jigsaws to name a few.

Teaching often involves adapting and evolving. Can you share an example of how you’ve adapted your teaching style or curriculum to better meet the needs of your students?

Great question and I can give you an example from this summer. I teach an elective course in the Instructional Technology master’s program on game-based learning. The students in this program are a mix of those who are K-12 educators, folks who work in HR/training and folks seeking to transition to the instructional technology field. So they bring with them varying amounts of background in pedagogy.

In the previous semesters, I would have the students spend some time reading and discussing the theory and empirical work that serves as the foundation of game-based learning. I found the discussions to be difficult and wondered if the readings were too dense for the students. So I inquired and found out that was how the students felt as well! So this summer I switched from having them read journal articles to focusing on chapters from two books: one written to be a practical guide for teachers interested in using games for learning and another that went a bit more into the theory. The students this summer really loved the practical guidebook and I learned that once they had read that then, I could better weave in the underlying theory behind game-based learning. So I’ll be switching to just having one book as required for the course and make the other recommended.

This is just an example of how I apply my training in instructional design and a reminder to myself that a course is never finished! To provide the best learning experience possible to your students, you have to be intentional about always working your way through a phase of the ADDIE (analysis, design, develop, implement, evaluate) model.

Student success is a priority for all educators. Could you share a story of a student whose journey or transformation in your class has been particularly meaningful to you?

The most meaningful transformation I’ve been a part of has been not in a typical class but as a dissertation chair. The PhD students we have in our program are super sharp, but even the brightest struggle once they get to the dissertation phase. I can think of one student in particular who was bright and passionate but struggled with getting their thoughts together on “paper” during the proposal phase of the dissertation. So much so, at times I felt they might quit and not finish, which happens way more often than people realize. There are a lot of “all but dissertation” folks out there! I switched up my approach to working this student through the writing process and their progress on the manuscript accelerated. Once the student graduated, they gave me a thank-you card, which I have to this day, and said that I helped them get their academic “voice.” That’s still today one of the best things I’ve had a student say to me.

Collaboration among faculty can lead to innovative teaching practices. Have you been involved in any collaborative initiatives or projects that have enriched your teaching?

I mentioned the General Education Taskforce, but I’ll go into one particular phase of that project to answer this question. We had developed a set of competencies that we felt all undergraduates should have once they leave UA. We then pulled together faculty from across campus to work on developing student learning outcomes for each competency. I was the GET liaison for several of those sub-committees and the one that stuck out was the Critical Thinking sub-committee. When we started I thought I knew what critical thinking meant, but quickly realized if you put nine academics in a room and asked them to define it you would get eight or nine different answers. So we ended up using a backward design approach to help us arrive at a common definition, which made it easier for us to develop a set of student learning outcomes. Work with folks from Arts & Sciences, Communications, Engineering and other units was so enriching as it showed me 1) the variety of lenses that can be brought to teaching and learning, and 2) the power of backward design for learning.

Teaching is a dynamic field, with new technologies and methods continually emerging. How do you stay informed and incorporate new tools or ideas into your teaching practices?

I’m a frequent reader (almost daily) of The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education. I am always on the lookout for innovative teaching strategies and technology within those publications, especially in Josh Kim’s Learning Innovation blog. I also follow a lot of tech websites, which I scan through via an RSS reader, to keep up with new advances in hardware and/or software that could possibly have applications down the road for learning purposes. I’m also in a Slack group with a bunch of folks who are into learning innovation.

Finally, what advice would you give to fellow educators looking to enhance their teaching effectiveness and make a positive impact on their students?

Never stop learning and keep the student at the center of what you do. Also, you can be a great teacher and a great researcher. These things are not mutually exclusive. So take advantage of the offerings that will come out of the Teaching Academy and within your unit to improve your pedagogical skills. You won’t regret doing so.