E. Murat Sözer’s Teaching Experience at Koç University

"...Knowing that lecturing alone does not ensure learning, I focus on varying my teaching methods through integrating educational technologies and innovative pedagogies in my courses..."

Assoc. Prof. E. Murat Sözer
College of Engineering, Mechanical Engineering
Koç University Outstanding Teaching Award, 2012

I have been teaching at Koç University (KU) since 2000. I have taught 8 different courses at KU since then. I also taught 2 different courses at University of Delaware as a visiting professor. I am writing this letter to share my teaching experiences.

When I was a student, I usually felt like I was a secretary copying the lecturer’s handwriting from the board to my notebook. I was always lagging behind at least a few lines on the board. It was almost impossible for me to read, write, think, understand and answer lecturer’s questions simultaneously. I could understand the subject only when I went through the notebook later. That means, to understand a subject, I needed to eliminate tedious lecture note taking, but just concentrate on the subject. Most of the lecturers faced the board as they had to write and draw continuously (theory, derivations, proofs, graphs and problem solutions). Knowing that lecturing alone does not ensure learning, I focus on varying my teaching methods through integrating educational technologies and innovative pedagogies in my courses that I will describe below.

First day: On the first day of a semester, I talk about major outcomes of the 4-year curriculum and how my course contributes to the attainment of these outcomes. I draw students’ attention to the knowledge and skills that they gain by completing my course. Students should get motivated and see the big picture in a way that all courses are integrated and follow each other making them gradually ready for their future jobs. Students should also visualize what they know and do after taking my course. I also give them the message that learning does not stop at the end of 4th year, but continues lifelong which is fed by two major ingredients: curiosity and inquiry (trying to find the answers to why/how/what if …).

In-class rules: I set my in-class rules for late coming, mobile phone use or some other distractive behaviors right at the beginning of the semester. I tolerate students who are late to class occasionally or misbehave as long as it is not frequent.

Beginning of a class: I start class promptly. Indeed, I come to class 5-10 minutes early to save time to set my laptop and projector, erase the board, write the daily subject list and important reminders (such as approaching assignment deadlines). This pre-class time also allows me to make small talk with my students.

Striking start: Sometimes, I start the lecture with a striking example or paradox (in the form of a question, survey result, graph or image) to make students focus on the day’s subject.

Course organization & Learning Management System: I organize my course material such that it is user-friendly to follow. I use Blackboard Learn (Koç University’s learning management system) for not only structured file sharing purpose, but also for interactive tools and many practice opportunities. The following is its menu: syllabus; lecture notes and videos; in-class assignments; online quizzes with randomized parameters (two sets: for practice and graded); paper based quizzes and their solutions; textbook’s supplementary resources (e-book, solved example problems, …); a full set of old years’ quizzes and exams along with their solutions; list of common mistakes and misunderstanding; guideline for how to study in this course; updated attendance and grades.

Practice after theory: I share lots of problems with students for them to practice (many come with solutions available). Now many textbooks’ publisher resources come with rich question banks. For each chapter that we study, I select a set of problems that require students to demonstrate lower and higher level thinking. These questions have a variety of types: true/false, multiple choice, fill in the blank (a word or a numerical value with a plus/minus tolerance), open ended and classical solutions (detailed step by step).

Variety of practices: I try to finish each class with an application of the subject that I taught that day. The application exercises can be example problems that I solve on the board, a set of problems on a hand-out solved by students individually or as a group, clickers exercises with instant feedback or a pop-quiz. It makes the students pay attention starting from the beginning of class and learn the subject better.

Examples: I search different sources for the best examples to discuss or solve in class.

Effective in-class exercises: In some occasions, I hand out partially filled in-class exercises. This saves time for me and students to write the question, draw figures/graphs and empty table.

Pace: I adjust my lecturing pace according to an average student. However, I am flexible to show basic steps if students with weak background cannot follow me. I do not neglect advanced students; I ask challenging questions to stimulate analytical and critical thinking.

Repeat & emphasize important things: I overemphasize important things by repeating them two-three times. However, I use different wording each time for two purposes: not to bore students and to simplify my explanations to improve students’ understanding of the topics.

Student confusion: If I sense students’ confusion in their eyes, I gladly rephrase or simplify any part that is not understood well.

Educational technology & instant feedback: What if I cannot really sense students’ confusion or misunderstanding? What if the smart student sitting in the front seat answers my question correctly and thus does not give me a chance to see what the other students are thinking about the same question? Also, what fraction of students have understood the major topics? Thanks to educational technology, I am using clickers (also known as personal response system) via an application installed on their mobile phones to get instant evaluation/feedback from the entire class. In my slides, I post a set of questions ranging from simple to difficult (which are short but requires analysis and critical thinking instead of understanding level questions only) and show the response distribution at the end of each question. Any question with a low success rate means that students’ learning is not at a level that I desire. I go over the corresponding subject once again. We hold clickers sessions not too often but usually a few times per month. Each session lasts for 15 minutes approximately, usually at the end of a class. Although pairing students increases the noise level, it also increases the excitement and creates peer-supported learning which enhances the learning outcome. Although this activity is anonymous and non-graded, it gives a feedback to students about their progress.

Student names: I try to learn names of the students (by matching the photos and names listed in our KUSIS system). Being called by names makes the communication better. Honestly speaking, I am very bad in memorizing, so it takes me long time to learn the names.

Enthusiasm & approachability: I enjoy teaching and have positive attitude toward my students. I hope that my face reflects my enthusiasm in teaching. I try to be approachable and available most of the time. If I am not available, we make an appointment. I usually reply students’ e-mails the same day or next.

Major vs minor parts: In class, I make sure that students do not get lost in details, but understand the major parts. This is difficult to do. In early years of my teaching, I was trying to overload content with many details. Now, I leave some minor items stay in slides (or in the textbook) but do not necessarily discuss them in class and expect/ask students to study them later.

Tutoring: I select KOLT tutors for my courses among students who received a grade around A in previous years. Having good communication skills is also crucial for being a tutor, so I take tutor’s social skills into consideration as well. I invite them to one of my class early in the semester to introduce them to students. They talk about the recipe of success (how they received a good grade in that course).

Lecture videos: I recorded lecture videos in my office by using Panopto (Koç University’s lecture capturing system) installed in my laptop. My students have an access to these videos in Blackboard and watch them if they need to remember the important subjects that we study in actual class. I do not like them much since they are not mirroring exactly the actual class environment. This is probably because I was tense by knowing that I was being recorded. I plan to re-record them.

Slides: I organize my PowerPoint slides in such a way that the items of a single page comes sequentially by using a pointer. I do that by using “animation” menu. Instead of writing/drawing tedious things on the board, it allows me to speed up at unimportant parts, but emphasize major steps. Showing the full material on a single page is bad because, (1) students already see the answer/solution to your questions; (2) it kills the surprise factor; and (3) while you are trying to explain/emphasize a part, many students may be looking at another part and not following you. I try to find and show related visual materials (images, graphs, animations and videos) of the subject that I am teaching so that students understand it better.

Eye contact: Having most of the lecture materials on PowerPoint slides allows me to make eye contact with my students.

Board markers: I use dark black board markers so that my writing is visible from the back seats. This may seem an obvious or unimportant issue, however I observe almost invisible writings on many boards non-erased at the end a class when I come to my own class.

Group work: I offer one of my courses (MECH 307 Numerical Methods for Mechanical Engineering) in a computer lab. I cover the theory part in the first half of a class. In the second half, we write an algorithm or a pseudocode code as a big team. Each student participates sequentially by writing a small part of it. Actually, while they talk, I type and they see it on the screen. A student may object to the current algorithm/code and propose how to fix it. This format of group work creates a very effective learning environment because they observe their peers’ genuine approach and realize why an approach could be wrong. They finalize the work by writing their own code individually.
Questions & stimulation of thinking: Instead of waiting for students to come up with a question, which doesn’t happen often, I come to class prepared when and what to ask in my lecture to stimulate thinking and encourage student participation.

Is it obvious or not?: In years, I realized that many students stop following a lecture because they struggle to understand and build connections among topics discussed in class. This is partly because the instructor assumes that some part of the subject is obvious and skip explaining or discussing about it. Many students are shy and do not want to ask in front of others. Yes, you cannot discuss every bit and minor items in class; however, if you skip a major component by assuming it is obvious or known already, and if students do not know it previously, they may easily get lost afterwards. I try to eliminate this problem by sensing their confusion in their eyes, or better to ask small questions to see if they know the answer, or at least see if they are familiar with the concept. But, your question should not be “Is anybody not familiar with this?” or similar. I actually ask the meaning/interpretation of the subject with a set of nicely designed questions. It takes time and effort to prepare all these questions, however you get the benefit of it by having more and more students paying attention since they now feel that they understand the subject and follow you.

Restate a question asked in soft voice: When a student asks a question with a soft voice, before answering it, I restate the question louder and in a simpler wording for two purposes: all students can hear it and I make sure that I really understood what the question was.
Quizzes & immediate feedback: I conduct 10-15 paper based quizzes during a semester. These are usually scheduled quizzes, but occasionally given as pop-quizzes too. Two lowest grades of each student is excluded while calculating the overall score. I make sure that all students receive the solution key to the quiz problem (very neat and detailed showing the necessary steps) while leaving the classroom so that they immediately learn if they made a mistake and thus do not repeat it next time.

Homework assignments: After studying a chapter, I assign a set of problems as a homework. The first problems are short and straightforward, but they allow students to remember the fundamentals in short time. At least one last problem is challenging requiring skills of analysis and integration of knowledge. I ask my teaching assistants (TAs) to grade homework within one week and mark enough comments about major mistakes so that students do not repeat them.

Problems solving sessions (PS): I meet with my TAs before and after each PS. I usually select the problems to be solved and let them work on the solution for a few days. During the pre-PS meeting, I go through the solution key to make sure that important steps are emphasized. Each PS has three parts. In the first part, students work individually on the problem set and TAs are available to answer their questions. TAs help struggling students to start. In the second part, TAs solve the problems on the board. The last part is a short quiz for 15 minutes asking a similar question that students have just worked on. The post-PS meeting with my TAs allows me to learn common mistakes done by students so that I can briefly go over that subject in the next class.

Review before an exam: I conduct a review session in one or two classes before an exam. This gives me a chance to emphasize important topics and go over some previous years’ exam problems along with some common mistakes. If there is a demand by students, I am more than happy to organize an additional and optional review session in the evening just before the exam day. I try to answer as many their questions as possible. This meeting is very valuable as the students are almost ready for the exam, but they need to clarify some parts by asking questions.

Exams: All of my exams are open-book. I want my students not to memorize, but actually learn the subjects and demonstrate the knowledge and skills that the course is designed for. Usually the last question is challenging one, and its points are bonus (i.e., students who can solve it can get above 100). I grade exam papers within one week. I show major mistakes clearly and write detailed comments as much as I can. Students come and see their paper in my office, and are allowed to make an objection. I supply a solution key when they check their paper.