Erin Quinlivan Murdoch: I'm a Member of STP and This is How I Teach

31 Jan 2017 11:41 AM | Anonymous

School name: George Mason University

Type of school: R1

School locale: Fairfax, VA (Northern Virginia area)

Classes you teach: Statistics, Research Methods

Average class size: 34

What’s the best advice about teaching you’ve ever received?  

Teach in the style that works best for you – play to your strengths. There are so many great teaching ideas out there, that I often feel inspired and start thinking that I should incorporate some new strategy or activity or project into my class…and then I realize that it doesn’t fit with my personality or teaching style. When I read about people’s ideas for improving a class, I have to think carefully about whether their ideas would work for me. I love reading about new and effective strategies that others have used successfully in their classrooms and then finding ways that I can comfortably incorporate the spirit of their ideas in my own classroom.

Briefly tell us about your favorite lecture topic or course to teach.  

I love teaching undergraduate Statistics. It’s my absolute favorite course to teach. I was assigned this course when I started teaching ten years ago and have chosen to teach it every semester since. There’s something extra rewarding about taking a topic that students dread/fear/avoid and changing their view. I’m so encouraged when my once fearful and anxious students leave the course feeling confident and proud of all that they have accomplished in the semester.

Briefly describe a favorite assignment or in-class activity.  

On the first day of Statistics, I do my best to create a comfortable learning environment for my students. One of the ways that I accomplish this is by handing out index cards and having students anonymously share their thoughts and/or feelings about Statistics. This could be a word, a phrase, or several sentences. I then collect the cards and read them out loud to the class. I’ll usually have a couple that say positive things about Statistics, but the overwhelming majority are people who express their dislike or their fear for the topic. This creates a good deal of laughter from students and helps to create a bond between them, as they now know that they are not alone. It then gives me a chance to reassure them about the supportive structure of the course and to start getting them excited about the things that they’ll be able to do by the end of the semester. 

What teaching and learning techniques work best for you?

I like my students to be activity engaged in what they’re learning. Even with the standard lecture format that I typically use to start class, I insert lots of opportunities for them to answer and ask questions. If I’m teaching a new statistical analysis, I’ll typically go through the conceptual part and then the calculation and then follow that with practice problems for them to work through on their own. I like to have them work through problems in the classroom so that I can see where they’re having trouble and help them right then, rather than having them struggle at home and then have to wait for help until the next class period. I also like to have them learn new concepts by doing class activities that get them moving around and working with each other. Learning about survey design in Research Methods by creating their own surveys, for example. Or learning about standard deviations in Statistics by separating the class into small groups and then doing group comparisons using height as a variable – a great visual to help them understand the concept of variability!

What’s your workspace like? 

Very organized, both at home and in my office. I can focus and concentrate on doing my work much better when my surroundings are neat and orderly. I’ve tried to lower my standards about everything being ‘just so’ (two kids will force that on you!), but I also accept that this is part of who I am.

Three words that best describe your teaching style.  

Structured, supportive, enthusiastic

Tell us about a teaching disaster (or embarrassment) you’ve had and how you dealt with the situation.

I once made copies of my exam and handed them out to the class…only to find out that I had made copies of the answer key! Luckily, I had a group of honest students in the front row who immediately told me about my mistake. I very quickly took back the copies that I had passed out. Fortunately, I was teaching in the same building where our offices were located, so I could run down the hall and quickly make copies of the right version. Yikes. I don’t even make an electronic answer key of my exams these days!

What is something your students would be surprised to learn about you?

That I still feel anxious going in to my first day with a new class. I want to create a positive first impression so that the rest of the semester goes smoothly, but I’m still surprised at how nervous I am to start. I relax within the first few minutes after starting class, but I still get those butterflies in my stomach as I walk to class at the start of each semester!

What are you currently reading for pleasure?

I recently finished re-reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. I became Associate Chair for Undergraduate Studies this semester and knew that some of the advice in this book would be useful for situations that could arise in my new administrative role. I like to avoid conflict as much as I possibly can, which is impossible to do when part of the role requires addressing student complaints and concerns! Re-acquainting myself with the strategies in this book has been helpful in creating smooth interactions throughout the semester. (Wait, does that count as reading for pleasure?!)

What tech tool could you not live without?

Although I couldn’t live without my computer for most work-related things, I’m really old school when it comes to how I handle time management. My calendar and to do lists are all on paper. I write a LOT of lists. The act of writing things down reassures me that I’m not going to forget to do something – putting research into practice!

What is your hallway chatter like? What do you talk to colleagues about most (whether or not it is related to teaching/school)?

This is my third year at Mason, and I feel so fortunate to be surrounded by incredibly supportive colleagues. We talk about what’s happening in our classrooms, what’s happening at home, and what’s happening at the University. There’s always someone that I can go to when I have a concern or question or want to share some news. We’re all respectful of each other’s time but also willing to stop and listen when a colleague stops by.    

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