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If asked a teaching question in a interview for a math professor position about how you engage students or innovate your teaching, would it look bad if I say I'm just a traditional lecturer, teaching either using the board or slides or both?

This is in fact how most people lecture in my experience, it works fine, and the interviewers probably know this. And students like it, but somehow it feels almost shameful to admit it.

"I engage students by giving clear and insightful explanations of concepts [include some examples], using a standard lecture format with the board or slides."

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    "it works fine, and the interviewers probably know this. And students like it". Consider that you may be wrong on all of that. It works for some. Some students like it. But many have no experience of anything better. – Buffy Dec 25 '19 at 12:03
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    @Buffy The OP should also consider than their "clear and insightful explanations" may be neither. Who reviewed their lecture slides? Who's sat in on the lecture see and given them honest feedback? From an engineering background, the most important concept isn't covered at uni, and it's "we all get things wrong". The review process ensures we've all got each other's backs, so the end result is better. It may be painful, but it isn't personal. – Graham Dec 26 '19 at 8:28
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    While I agree with many things said here, a lot of the answers here seem to conflate innovative/engaging teaching with "active learning"/flipped classrooms. You can spend most of your time lecturing and still be innovative and engaging. – Kimball Dec 26 '19 at 13:36
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    @Graham If it is traditional lecturing I assume there should be no slides to review. A chalk and a blackboard id the traditional (and my favourite) tool. I do start the computer if illustrations in the form of videos or photographs are appropriate. – Vladimir F Dec 26 '19 at 13:50
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    Also, a blackboard lecture can easilly be more active than a beamer one. – Vladimir F Dec 26 '19 at 14:05

10 Answers 10

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When someone asks in an interview, no-matter what the topic, which cutting edge approaches interest you, they are subtly asking three entirely different questions (in order of severity):

  • Are you even exposed to any of them (which shows an interest in your subject in general)
  • If yes, do you have an opinion on any of them (which shows leadership, independent thinking)
  • Can you justify it with evidence (which shows critical thinking, experience etc)

Saying "no" is like answering "no" to all of the above.

Your answer is effectively saying "no I know nothing about that, nor do I care to know or have to justify myself".

Even if the end-message of your answer is that at the end of the day you prefer traditional teaching, your answer will be much better received if it first shows knowledge of all the cutting edge techniques in the field or even some experience in trying to adapt them to your own teaching, which show promise in general and which do not, your personal opinion on what works and what doesn't, why, how it fits your particular style or not and why, how you think students benefit or not, or tend to respond in each, and why you feel that traditional teaching trumps all of the above based on your experience, and critical judgement of the competitor methods.

Contrast that with "no I just teach". Doesn't sound so professional does it?

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    As for that last sentence, it might be worth juxtaposing "lecturing" and "teaching". The traditional style is really "lecturing", which is one way of teaching but neither the only nor the best way to teach. – Wolfgang Bangerth Dec 26 '19 at 3:42
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    Very good answer. My university uses the concept of "Scholarship of Teaching and Learning" (SOTL) - when they ask about modern teaching, they don't want to hear that you are indiscriminately using a zoo of fancy techniques in each unit, what they want to see is that you reflect and evaluate your teaching (and are open to the possibility that "how you have been taught" or "how you have always taught" might not be ideal). – xLeitix Dec 27 '19 at 21:00
  • Yes, you should be able to discuss a recent SOTL article for your discipline even if you disagree with it. Also you should be able to discuss how you know whether your own teaching methods are effective (i.e. assessment). Based on exam questions is not a good answer. – Elin Jan 1 at 15:00
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Well, it is good to be honest, of course, but if they are interested in "innovative" teaching methods you aren't helping yourself. If they are asking the question, I'll guess that they are looking for innovation and modern methods of course delivery.

But, rather than being dishonest, I just suggest that you take some time to investigate things like "active learning" and the psychology of learning. Lecture reaches only a portion of your audience.

I suggest a book that might help you think about the issues: The Art of Changing the Brain by James E Zull.

At a more detailed level, things like the flipped classroom are worth investigating.

But not every institution will have these concerns. There are plenty of places where traditional methods of instruction are widely used without issue. This particular place may just be a poor match for your skills.

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    Please take the discussion about merits and demerits of innovative teaching techniques to this chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment, and please everyone be nice: there's no need to be offensive when expressing disagreement. – Massimo Ortolano Dec 26 '19 at 21:31
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You should, of course, give an honest answer to this question. If you say that you use active learning in your classes then you're likely to be asked follow-up questions about how you teach- You won't be in a good position to answer those questions.

Some mathematics departments in the US have made significant efforts to change pedagogy and seen good results. Other departments are still very conservative about this. If you're being asked about this in an interview, then you can assume that it is something the department is interested in and that you might be expected to adjust your teaching if you're hired.

I've served on a total of five search committees over the past 10 years. We regularly include this in our prepared set of phone interview questions. The majority of applicants seem to struggle with the question because they simply aren't familiar with the topic. Candidates who are knowledgable about the topic (even if they prefer a more traditional style of lecturing) are more likely to be shortlisted for an on-campus interview.

I'd encourage you to spend some time learning about these approaches and experimenting in the classes that you teach.

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If asked, you probably don't just want to say, "I don't do that". I've been in roughly similar positions and I sympathize, and agree that the question can be a little silly/boilerplate depending on who is asking it and how. Traditional lectures are perfectly defensible, and it's quite possible that current fads will swing out of favor at some point.

You should prepare some answer which is true and demonstrates that you care about your students and the quality of your teaching. Here's a menu of some possible options. Most will require some future time commitment to your teaching, which is likely what they're looking for.

  • "I've done research on different pedagogical methods, and I see that methods such as flipped classrooms reduce equity for minority and weaker students. Since I'm committed to equity for those disadvantaged students, I've tailored my methods to increase and improve on my fully guided instruction". This should likely be tailored to the student population in question. E.g., if you're teaching a population of uniformly very well-prepared students, then flipped classrooms might be a good idea; if the students are more disadvantaged then it wouldn't be.

  • "I keep a comprehensive database of statistics on my lessons and associated outcomes. After each semester I perform an assessment on those and look for opportunities for improvement, editing and updating my lesson plans and homework projects accordingly." Note that data-driven program assessment is a major requirement of accreditation bodies, so saying that you'll be happy to interface and help with that work institutionally is a big plus. (This helped to slot me into head of assessment for my department, which is my primary service work.)

  • "I can cite my past student evaluations as showing that I'm a very successful teacher. I keep a close eye on those evaluations, and look for particular areas that I can improve. For example, in the past I was getting a lower score in category X, and therefore I took action Y, and now my score in that category is significantly higher." This assumes you have such evaluations available, and you really have an example of a successful response to them, of course.

Those are all some efforts I've made in the past to bolster and support my traditional-based, fully-guided lecturing at U.S. open-admissions community colleges. As a side note, I'll point out that I've regularly had students address me at the end of a semester and ask, "How did you come up with this revolutionary teaching method? I've never seen anyone do it this way!"

In summary: Think in advance about what efforts you're making to improve your teaching on an ongoing basis (and you should have such a process!), and then have an intelligent conversation about those.

(*) More on the referenced recent study critical of flipped classrooms: See Setren, et. al., "Effects of the Flipped Classroom: Evidence from a Randomized Trial", Annenberg Institute at Brown University (2019). Randomized trial conducted at U.S. West Point military academy in math and economics (N = 1328 students). Overview article at Education Week. Recommended reading.

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    Hmmm. I don't consider giving six year olds access to iPads a positive educational practice, and it certainly isn't what is meant by a "flipped classroom." And "fully guided" doesn't equate to lecture, nor is it an argument against the flipped classroom. – Buffy Dec 26 '19 at 15:54
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    @Buffy: You seem to have misread the linked article. Highlight: "A similar effect has been found for 'flipped' courses, which have students watch lectures at home via technology and use class time for discussion and problem-solving. A flipped college math class resulted in short-term gains for white students, male students, and those who were already strong in math. Others saw no benefit, with the result that performance gaps became wider." – Daniel R. Collins Dec 26 '19 at 15:59
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    Sorry, but the paper you cite is badly flawed. It discusses a "model" for a flipped classroom that few who do that would recognize. The experimental methodology is also fatally flawed. Sorry that SE doesn't give me a way to expand these comments fully. But beware. – Buffy Jan 1 at 14:04
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    Most important, the conclusion in the paper that the flipped classroom disadvantages minorities is just a consequence of a poor experimental design. The design itself advantages cultural and economic majority students. The classroom design used in the experiment would be malpractice if extended. – Buffy Jan 1 at 14:15
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    I've given a long form critique of the paper mentioned at the end of this post on Math Educators: matheducators.stackexchange.com/a/17665/8756. The question asked there is more specifically about teaching methodology. – Buffy Jan 1 at 16:55
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I think it depends on what kind of school you are interviewing at and who the interview is with.

If it is a teaching position, then this answer is not great. You should be honest, but you can add "I'm open to learning more about problem-based teaching or flipped classrooms but I haven't had experience with that kind of teaching yet." Do some research. Do "modern" teaching methods help in your field? Maybe they do.

If this position is a research position with some teaching, then your answer matters less, but probably the same answer as above is a good strategy. Say what you have done, but be excited about learning to improve your teaching.

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    If they ask the question, the answer is probably important. – Buffy Dec 25 '19 at 12:00
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If you've considered the other teaching methods out there (such as problem based learning and flipped classrooms) and come to the conclusion that these are not for you or that you believe they are not better than traditional methods, my practical advice on how to answer this specific interview question would be to twist the question and instead answer "How do you keep your students engaged?"

In other words, when teaching in a traditional way, on a whiteboard or giving a lecture, how do you engage your class? How do you make your lectures interesting, exciting and effective at conveying the important concepts?

If you can express that well I think you'll have passed this interview question.

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As someone from a humanity's field that uses teaching as an intervention technique I know I would never answer I use the standard way.

Standard way is a meaningless term. Whose standard way?

I had to integrate theory and self to teach or train. I have a toolkit of theories I can choose from depending on the specific circumstances.

I would suggest you include your educational theories that your standard way practise is based on.

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    In mathematics there is a standard way, to some extent. – Eric Dec 27 '19 at 2:35
  • Of adult education theory? – Mark Dec 27 '19 at 22:45
  • Of adult education theory. – Eric Jan 2 at 2:50
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There is actual research on even the question of board versus slides. Board is better, possibly because it slows the lecturer down; possibly because it sometimes models making mistakes as a normal part of work for everyone; possibly because it models an actual process of problem solving.

So if you really want to insist that you "lecture" I think a good answer is to talk about the idea that what you mean by lecture is not that you stand in front of a room reading off of slides (or possibly writing on the board and never looking at students). If nothing else, most students cannot maintain focus for a full hour so you should talk about how a good lecture will have a break in the action every 15-20 minutes and what you do to make that happen. Again this is about knowing the research on what happens in classrooms.

For example: check understanding by asking questions (not "do you have any questions?"), have students do a problem, have them write something.

Also you could do exit tickets where you ask students to write something (such as what the most important thing they learned today was or what was confusing)or the definition of a term, collect and review to improve the next class.

Even "standard" lectures can be improved, there is literature on that, and as someone who wants to do well at your work who is also a scholar you should be reviewing that literature just like you do for your research. That's what they are looking for.

Also, if you don't preface your response with something like "Well, of course this depends on what the course is, teaching senior math majors in a seminar course is going to require a different approach than teaching a course oriented to the general student population." you have missed the boat entirely.

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I would keep it simple and not over think the question. Your prepared answer should touch on:

  1. Differentiated learning -- Customer focused and adaptive. Every student is different, you know.
  2. Education Technology -- https://edtechmagazine.com/ has lots of buzzwords.
  3. A couple references to new developments in pedagogy and how you are dying to try them out.

Then flip the question back on the interviewer and ask how the institution supports “innovation and engagement” in the classroom. Listen with rapt attention like on a first date and wait for the offer.

Or

You can do the hard work of self-reflection, discussion and research to become an excellent teacher no matter what process or tools you choose to use.

Good luck

  • Differentiated learning, if I understand correctly what you are taking about, is highly controversial. If you want to use it, be prepared with evidence to justify the costs. – Anonymous Physicist Jan 1 at 8:10
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No, it is not okay to say you lecture in the traditional way. There are many high quality experiments showing that a wide variety of teaching methods are better than the traditional way of lecturing. Further, traditional lecturing disadvantages students who are historically underrepresented. For example, in my field male students are better prepared to learn from traditional lectures than female students. If I lecture, it will be harder for female students to learn and many of them will give up.

In short, if you say in an interview you are lecturing in the traditional way, you are saying that you are unethical teacher. You are saying you use less effective methods. You are saying you use discriminatory methods.

Also, don't say you use flipped classroom. That's no longer innovative. It's cliche.

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