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Feature: Sean Speziale, University of Waterloo

Pedagogy is constantly changing, and instructors must adapt to align with the learning styles of each new generation. However, adoption of new teaching methods can seem daunting when teaching many different course levels. To respond to the ever-evolving needs of learners, Sean Speziale, a math lecturer at University of Waterloo, has developed an adaptive approach that works for his varied course environments. Recently, Sean sat down with us to discuss how being open to change has helped him on his professional journey.

Adaptive Teaching Style

In his first years as an instructor, Sean’s teaching style mimicked that of professors he considered to be good teachers. However, Sean believes in continuous research to provide the best learning experience for his students. So, as the years passed, he developed a unique approach by taking the time to educate himself on newer concepts in teaching and learning. Not only does he research trends in pedagogy, but he studies psychology texts that help him better understand the mental processes that lead to learning. He uses his research to incorporate cognitive science strategies into his teaching style.

Sean finds that applying these practices makes it easier to motivate students and sets clear expectations for what he, as an instructor, expects from his students. Further, Sean finds that understanding the psychological aspects of teaching and learning helps him better understand his students. This is important, he says, because, when students feel as though their instructors care about their learning, they are more intrinsically motivated to engage in class.

One key concept Sean has incorporated into the classroom is active learning. For example, he may ask students to think on their own about a math question for a few minutes; then, he instructs them to discuss the question with their neighbor. By having students think through and discuss concepts out loud during class, Sean is able to hear and better recognize gaps in learning. He can then address issues during class instead of allowing students to silently struggle with these challenges at home.

Advice for Other Instructors

For any professor interested in taking a more adaptive teaching approach, Sean suggests exploring non-academic works such as the book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Similarly, one area of study he recommends researching is the testing effect. Some of the key concepts revolve around retrieval practice and spacing out learning. These practices have been part of Sean’s approach to empathizing with his students’ learning mindset.

Another first step, Sean says, towards developing an adaptive style is active observation of student behavior. For instance, if students are regularly skipping assignments—choosing only to review the solutions—an instructor may choose to adapt assessments in a way that more strongly encourages students to further engage with the work. When looking to adapt assessments to encourage engagement, instructor Michael Evans recommends assigning weekly assessments that build towards heavily weighted midterms and finals.

New technology also helps professors become more adaptive in the digital age. Sean is open to incorporating technological tools into his teaching. He finds that the most useful tools are easy to use and user friendly for students. Sean has been an avid user of Crowdmark because it helps him stay current in his teaching approach.

Crowdmark and Adaptivity

Sean loves Crowdmark’s ability to make grading more flexible for instructors and TAs. As an adaptive professor, he appreciates that grading on the platform is more efficient and facilitates more collaboration than traditional grading methods do. As someone who places a lot of emphasis on feedback, Sean finds it helpful that Crowdmark keeps assessments and marks in one place and makes it easy for instructors and students to review previous feedback.

Sean is constantly looking for ways to improve his teaching, and Crowdmark has been a great facilitator in his teaching journey. Crowdmark not only makes his life easier, but improves his students’ experience as well.