Teaching heroes: Colin Allen has learned to treat each class differently

Colin Allen beside slide of ape


Colin Allen learned early on that teaching can be a tough endeavor.

Now in his third year as a faculty member in Pitt’s History and Philosophy of Science, Allen was teaching two sections of a large course on logic, back to back, a few years ago at Texas A&M. One was going well, but the other was not.

“I think my frustration with the slower class was showing through,” he admits. “I didn’t really realize how different the experiences had been until I saw the student evaluations afterwards. How do you respond to that?”

He answered the challenge by realizing, “What works with one group of students won’t necessarily work with another group of students.” Instead of marching through the material with all of his students at the same pace, he decided “to be more responsive,” he says, and devised incentives for them to gain confidence and proficiency in the subject.  

He began allowing students to make a choice: get more credit for turning in quiz answers right after the quiz was administered or take the answers home to check on their accuracy, for less credit. In this way, the students who took their quizzes home (those who doubted their proficiency with the material or who perhaps had fallen behind) could catch up and better see where they needed to review or that they had gotten the answers right and had no reason to doubt their abilities after all.

He also re-designed the final to make it more comprehensive, which meant students could prove they had mastered the material by the end of class and substitute the final grade for earlier, poorer grades.

“The idea in education that you can redeem yourself is helpful,” Allen says. “We all make mistakes. We learn from those mistakes.”

Allen came to Pitt as a fellow in the Center for Philosophy of Science and had taught previously at Indiana University–Bloomington. He teaches several courses at Pitt: for undergraduates, Philosophical Issues in Artificial Intelligence and Introduction to Philosophy of Science, and for graduate students, Philosophical Foundation of Cognitive Science and the seminar Topics in Philosophy of Cognitive Science.

He says the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences is one of the few schools in the nation with a history and philosophy of science department, but the topic matches his eclectic interests. Philosophy, Allen says, “seemed to combine a kind of rigor with a kind of generality,” employing math and computers but delving also into everything from physics to ethics and esthetics. “That sort of breadth appealed to me; I hated being pinned down to one thing.

“Most of what I teach is concerned with ideas where there aren’t wrong or right answers, just better- or worse-defended answers,” he says. Thus, he mostly avoids formal lectures. “I tend to find myself talking too much in class. I need to remind myself that I need to get students talking and steer the conversation in a certain way … trying to establish a kind of conversation where ideas are presented and defended.”

As a Ph.D. student at UCLA, Allen recalls taking a class from Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology faculty member Charles Taylor, called Minds, Brains, Humans and Computers. “I really learned from Chuck,” he recalls, “that it was OK in front of the students to say, ‘I don’t know.’ Students sometimes need to see that you yourself are still struggling to find the answers, and (they) can also use the teacher’s way of exploring. You as instructor have considered a range of answers and research sources. You model that for students.

“Just be yourself,” he adds. “Don’t pretend to be someone else in front of the classroom.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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