Burak Özbağcı’s Teaching Experience at KU

I believe that lecturing in some way resembles being on stage or being in a TV show. This is why I try to make every class unique and engaging. I also look the students in the eye to figure out whether they follow the course or not. Upon decoding their behaviors, I sometimes slow my pace down and end up covering fewer topics than I intended. The most important thing is being apt to communicate with people who sit there in the class (and with the ones who sit there because they have to).

Prof. BURAK ÖZBAĞCI Faculty of Science, Mathematics
Koç University Outstanding Teaching Award, 2013

Since 2002, I have taught 16 different courses in 35 sections at Koc University, both at the undergraduate and graduate level. I have lectured both in small classes with 8-10 students and large classes with 70-80 students. I wrote these in order to share my experiences.

THE FIRST WEEK

I place a lot of importance on the first class and I prepare well for it. I try to earn students’ respect and attract their attention when I first meet them. Students will definitely feel how eager and prepared I am to give a lecture in the first class. The atmosphere I create in the first few classes determines the tone of the course for the rest of the term.

At the beginning of each semester, before going to the first class, I check the student list on KUAIS. I memorize at least a couple of students’ names by looking at their pictures. With large classes, for the first few weeks I take a class list with pictures with me to class and try to learn students’ names. Students become happy when they are called by their names.

I introduce myself in the first lecture and talk about the education I had along with my experiences both in the USA and at Koc University. I tell my students that the courses at Koc University are at the same level as courses in the USA, and explain that the education they will be receiving will be at an international level. At the beginning of the semester, I clearly explain the rules to abide by during the classes:

  • Students must arrive on time and remain until the end of class.
    Of course I accept anyone who is 5-10 minutes late, but I first ask the late comer’s name and ask him or her to explain why they were late before telling them to be very careful not to be late again. This student will do their best not to be late again. I remind students that when they arrive late, they interrupt the class and distract others’ attention. I do not allow students to go out during the class unless it is something very urgent. I have been teaching at Koç University for 11 years, and at the beginning of each semester, one student tries to go outside just to test me! The reaction I give to this one student determines the discipline I will have over the class throughout the term.
  • Mobile phones/tablet computers cannot be on desks; they need to be in pockets or bags, and cannot be used.
    If I allow students even a little leeway in using such devices, this will become routine throughout the semester and at the end of the term, all students will be watching their screens rather than paying attention to me.
  • Students can talk with each other only when I allow them to.
    When a few students talk with each other during the class, this will irritate me and the other students while disrupting our class. This rule is especially crucial in crowded classrooms.
    I apply these rules very stringently, especially during the first two weeks. Afterwards, students get used to the discipline I have throughout the semester and they eventually appreciate it. Even if someone is late, they will sit quietly, pay attention, and not distract others’ attention.

In the first lecture, I talk about the syllabus and how grading will be in the course. I will put a copy of the syllabus on the course website without waiting until the semester is over. I find it normal that students care about their grade and ask questions about this issue. I believe there are benefits to using one main textbook throughout the whole semester.

PREPARATION TO THE CLASS

I always prepare before each class. This preparation phase can be 20-30 minutes for a Calculus course I gave many times before or 1-2 hours for a course I will give for the first time. I specify the most important sentence/theme/theorem I will be explaining in that course (this would mean a section for Calculus) and I think about how to best deliver the lecture centered around this one idea. I usually focus on only one idea per lecture because it is important for me to explain this idea to the students completely.

SOME HABITS

I always go to class in a decent, clean, and simple outfit. For example, I have never entered a classroom in jeans and sneakers. Usually, I arrive in the classroom a few minutes early and chat with the students. I always take lecture notes for the topic I will be explaining with me, no matter how knowledgeable/comfortable I am with the topic.

In Calculus courses, instead of solving random questions, I solve questions that I have solved before and whose solution I know well beforehand. I always carry colored markers with me to class and I pay attention to writing in big, legible letters on the board. At the beginning of every semester, I ask the Registrar to give me a large classroom with four decently sized boards. Classroom conditions can affect the course immensely.

I allow the students to stop me at any time they want during the class. I never find their questions silly and always give a sincere answer. While I am not writing on the board, I make sure I am facing the students. I place my hands at my sides and use body language to indicate that I am open to questions. Usually, I give them the chance to write what is on the board before continuing talking. I want to communicate with all students in the class without exception. I never allow some to sit in the back and use their tablet computers or read newspapers.

I contact my students every week at least once through an e-mail message. I let them know what I have covered in the class during the week. If I am going to start an important topic, I advise them to definitely attend the lecture. I announce the exam dates and the topics that are on the exam via e-mail.

I always reply to student e-mails.

I try to be in my office during office hours. If a student cannot visit me during my office hours, I allow him or her to come at another time by making an appointment. I let every student see his/her exam paper and explain his/her mistakes.

CLASS PARTICIPATION AND DIALOGUE

During the last couple of years in particular I put great emphasis on class participation and communication in the classroom. Sometimes I put the students in groups and ask them to solve some questions in order to encourage in-group discussion. I believe that giving students a chance to discuss course material is an effective way for knowledge to be transformed into long term memory. Sometimes I invite students to come to the front and write a couple of sentences on the board before asking others in the class what they think about the sentences. I make sure that all students, not only the most successful, get the chance to step onto the stage and be a part of class discussions. For the small classes that I teach, I group successful students with less successful ones when doing problem-solving exercises.

WEBSITE

I prepare a website for every course that I am teaching. I upload the syllabus, office hours, and assignment questions (in addition to the questions that the TAs are going to solve during the PS) to the website and update all the needed information weekly. After each exam, I also make sure that the website has the exam questions and the detailed solutions to those questions. I ask a previous student from the course to write down the exam solution with LaTex, this gives me an opportunity to get in touch with previous students too.

COMMUNICATION WITH ASSISTANTS

I would like every TA to show their problems and solutions to me before each PS. I talk with TAs every week to assess what parts of the course the students have difficulty with. I occasionally attend PS sessions myself to observe the TAs and provide them with some advice about their performance. I make sure that each and every TA understands that their pass/fail grades at the end of the semester are based on their own performance, and I comply with this TA grading policy.

During every September for the past two years I have helped deliver information sessions for TAs. On September 20, 2012, I organized a meeting for the TAs in the Mathematics department in which I explained to them all what is expected from them. I also provided them with tip-sheets.

USE OF TECHNOLOGY IN THE CLASSROOM

The use of technology in the classroom is a heavily debated issue among mathematicians. While some construe it as beneficial, others think that it might be hazardous to the learning process. For some of the courses I teach, I am planning to utilize technology and gain some experience with it.

ENJOYING LECTURING

I greatly enjoy lecturing on Mathematics. I believe that lecturing with enthusiasm and joy also helps students to feel motivated about the course. Even though I have lectured about the same topic several times before, knowing that the students are going to hear or learn about that topic for the first time and realizing that I can directly contribute to students’ comprehension of the material gives me great satisfaction. Having students pass my course with a good grade and seeing them graduate makes me pleased.

One of my aims as a Mathematics instructor is to persuade uninterested students who perhaps do not like Mathematics or who are anxious about it into changing their views about the course by leading them into thinking that Mathematics is not difficult after all, and that one can excel in it with a little effort.

I believe that lecturing in some way resembles being on stage or being in a TV show. This is why I try to make every class unique and engaging. I also look the students in the eye to figure out whether they follow the course or not. Upon decoding their behaviors, I sometimes slow my pace down and end up covering fewer topics than I intended. The most important thing is being apt to communicate with people who sit there in the class (and with the ones who sit there because they have to).

I believe the main issue is not to have comprehensive content knowledge as an instructor, but to simplify it and to make it engaging for students.