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November 21, 2002

HOW TO TEACH: His motto for students: Be prepared

Occasionally, one of John Poulakos's students will make the mistake of answering "I don't know" — or not replying at all — when Poulakos asks him or her about an assigned discussion topic.

When this happens, Poulakos just stands there, staring at the student.

Poulakos waits. And waits. And waits some more, for 10 minutes out of a 50-minute class period, if that's how long it takes the student to respond.

Eventually, they all crack, the communication professor says. "Either these students drop my course or they never come to class unprepared again," Poulakos said during a Teaching Excellence Fair dialogue on "Leading Classroom Discussions."

Merely informing students that class participation will figure into their final grades accomplishes nothing, according to Poulakos, who said he tells his students: "I want you to be on from the moment you walk in this door. No excuses. Whatever the assigned reading is, whatever is being discussed, you're responsible for it."

Unless students take responsibility for their own educations, a teacher is reduced to the status of "a talking box, an entertainer, a babysitter or a policeman," Poulakos said. "I don't want that. I'd rather be an interlocutor and speak with students, trying to find out what they do understand and address what they don't understand."

He noted that asking "how" and "why" questions in the classroom stimulates better discussions than "who," "what" or "where" questions.

Another professor suggested that some students are intimidated by the prospect of speaking in class, even afraid.

"What are they afraid of?" asked Poulakos.

"They're afraid they're going to look stupid because they're not used to doing this," the professor answered. "It's very frightening."

"You believe that?" Poulakos pursued.

"Yes, I do," said the other professor.

Other dialogue participants suggested that many students come to Pitt having never been required to be active learners. From their first day of kindergarten to their last day of high school, these students were encouraged to absorb information passively.

This practice sometimes continues at the University, Poulakos said: "A former chairman of [the Pitt education school's Department of] Instruction and Learning told me that he had students graduating from Pitt who wanted to be public school teachers, who told him that they had not spoken one word during their four years here in any class."

Poulakos said instructors should create a classroom environment in which students feel assured that they won't be dismissed or demeaned, where even na•ve questions will be seriously considered.

"But the flip side of that is, they have to be real questions," Poulakos added. "They cannot be things like: 'I have a question: Can you go over what you just said?' Whenever a student asks me to repeat a point that I just covered in my lecture, my answer is 'No. If you weren't paying attention, if you didn't catch what I said the first time…sorry.'"

To set a firm tone on the first day of class, Poulakos compares himself with a much-beloved man who serves as a common point of reference for his students: Mister Rogers.

"I tell my students, 'My name is Poulakos. Which means, I'm not Mister Rogers. Which means, I don't like you the way you are. I want you to be better than you are. And that is what we're going to work on here. If you want to be in the neighborhood of make-believe, there's the door.' "Some students go to the door. Most stay. Out of the 20 students who, typically, enroll in one of my W-designated courses, 2 to 5 may end up dropping. But the ones who stay play my game, to the end."

Not all faculty would be comfortable with such a tough style, Poulakos acknowledged. "I'm not asking you to be as hard-wired as I am," he told his fellow teachers. "All I'm saying is, 'This is what I do.'"

One teacher who took heart from Poulakos's tough-love message was Jackie Harrell, who is completing her first term as an assistant professor of economics at Pitt's Greensburg campus.

Harrell said she tried to be a nurturing teacher this fall — and students took advantage. "I told my students, 'I want to help you in any way I can. If you're having problems with the course material, come meet with me in my office. And please don't be afraid to call me. We'll set up a time to talk.' "When I tested my students and found that some weren't doing as well as I wanted them to, I think I tried to develop ways to make the class easier. After all, I told myself, it's economics. It's difficult material.

"Now I can see that the message I really was sending was: 'I will go the extra mile for you, so you don't have to work hard,'" Harrell said. "Well, next semester I hope to send the exact opposite message: That we're in this together, and if you show an interest I will work doubly hard for you. But if you're not willing to work hard, I don't want you in my class.

"Some students try very hard and have problems," she said. "Those are the students I really want to help, not the student who spends half an hour a week on my class, and then expects me to help them to pass a test. Students like that don't deserve to pass.

"My goal is to develop in my classes a culture of wanting to learn, which I think is missing from some of my students."

Harrell agreed with Poulakos and others that many students want to sit back and absorb the minimum amount of knowledge they need to earn good grades and a Pitt degree.

"In high school, they learned to listen. It's difficult now to get them to do anything else," Harrell said.

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 35 Issue 7

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