Teaching Today

Teaching Physics With Love

To be successful, faculty members must go beyond teaching the material, writes Matthew J. Wright. We must care deeply about students and show it.

October 31, 2017
 
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I frequently tell my students outright, “I love you.” Although every time I write it down on paper it doesn’t sound right, I’ve found that the more I outwardly care about my students, the more successful I am as an instructor. So I tell my class how much I love them -- out loud and often. My students just smile back.

Typically, when students take a physics class, the last thing on their minds is love. Often they are filled with sheer terror. They walk into class with uneasy, stressful thoughts. Because my institution, Adelphi University, offers generous pathways programs to help students make the transition to college, many come from very different backgrounds and experiences.

That can be a tough position from which to teach. I have found that to be successful, professors must go beyond just teaching the material; we must be leaders, mentors and guides. We must care deeply about students and show it.

It starts by building a relationship with students. I am very enthusiastic in class. I yell, clap, dance and act silly. I do this to make class fun and engaging and to break down the barriers that many students face when they think about physics. When one of my students, Tracy Paltoo, nominated me for a teaching award, she specifically pointed to a day I kept running into walls. “Professor Wright willingly ran into a wall repeatedly until it was clear to us for every reaction there is an opposite and equal reaction,” she wrote. “His strategies are unique, which makes learning Newton’s three laws of motion easy and impossible to forget.”

This love of students requires time and patience. At Adelphi, we welcome students with autism spectrum disorder for whom the classroom environment can be an overwhelming experience, leading to a wealth of questions and comments. They may be unaware of the social cues suggesting they are talking too much or “hijacking” the class. For these situations, program director Mitch Nagler and I created a three-question rule: three questions are allowed during class, but unlimited questions are welcomed after class, at a weekly question-and-answer period with me personally. Yes, that’s in addition to normal office hours. But by giving the student a platform to work with me outside classroom hours, I am providing a more equitable educational experience not only for them but for all my other students, too.

Love also means catching students who aren’t doing well in class early and digging deeper to figure out what is preventing them from being successful. Often these conversations go beyond just the academic to help them deal with serious life issues. I listen. I help them any way I can. Sometimes the stories are so difficult and so traumatic that I admit I go home with tears in my eyes.

Unexpectedly, I have found that I spend as much time helping the high-achieving students as I do with the low-achieving students. The stress and difficulties of many of these high-achieving students are real. A study recently reported in the magazine Science found that one-third of graduate students have or are at risk of some sort of psychiatric disorder. One time a student was so nervous about getting the best grades she let it control her life. First, I acknowledged everything the student had already done toward her goal. Then I shared those moments in my career where I felt that stress and how I dealt with it. Finally, I walked with this student to the mental health counseling office. That wasn’t the first walk I’ve made, and it won’t be the last.

This type of advising is especially important in encouraging our underrepresented students. I vividly remember the moment when a good student in my classes had failed a standardized test. This student was not accepted into any professional schools, despite being an excellent candidate as far as grades, research experiences and character considerations were concerned. We spoke for a long time about other opportunities, such as the American Physical Society Bridge Program, which provides graduate school opportunities in physics for students from underrepresented groups.

Even though wonderful programs like that exist, it often takes some care to encourage students to take advantage of them when they are in a vulnerable state. After not being successful at getting into typical graduate programs, many students wonder if they even belong, and they give up. I have had success at getting students back on track by helping them understand their own strengths and weaknesses and reminding them that sometimes things do not go right, even if we do everything we can. I still talk to (and mentor) this student frequently. In the end, we worked to together to get him into an excellent graduate school. He is currently well on his way to a Ph.D.

As professors, our work isn’t limited to just the classroom. We must meet students wherever they are -- in the classroom, during office hours, on the basketball court or on the campus shuttle bus. Talk to them. Have fun with them. Help them and guide them through the transition from being a high school kid to a successful college-educated professional.

You will see, as I have, that love doesn’t make the teaching easier. (My day of running into walls proves that.) But love can make reaching students -- all students -- much more successful.

Bio

Matthew J. Wright is an assistant professor of physics at Adelphi University. He was named the university’s 2015 professor of the year and earned its 2016 outstanding teaching award for junior faculty.

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