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Dr. Shelley Howell

University of Texas at San Antonio

Interim Associate Vice Provost, Teaching and Learning Services

Lecturer, First Year Experience

I was 19 years old and about to have my second child when I walked into State Fair Community College in Missouri to take a writing class. I had married my high school sweetheart and followed him to Missouri for his first Air Force duty station. I was fortunate that day to be sent to Faith Lovell, the chair of the English department. Ms. Lovell looked at my ACT scores and asked if I could attend full-time if I had a scholarship. I was elated! I immediately said yes, knowing that the decision would not go over well at home.

I had no idea what I was getting into at the time, and it took several years before I realized how fortunate I was to have met Faith Lovell. Today, research shows that several factors play a part in the success of first-year students. According to that research, I had a number of strikes against me:

I was a first-generation college student. Neither of my parents graduated from high school. I was raised by my stepfather, who did have a high school diploma, but thought I should join the military. College was never part of our discussions about my future.

I went to high school in rural Oklahoma. College-going rates are lower in rural areas. Resources were scarce in the public schools, and I was never encouraged to go to college by my teachers or friends.

I was a nontraditional student. I was married, had a small child, and had another on the way. Fortunately, I did not have to also maintain a job, but I did have to find child care and pay for all other college expenses.

I was affiliated with the military. Moving from place-to-place hinders completion of a degree. It took eight years and four institutions for me to complete my bachelor’s degree.

I did have one thing going for me, however. I loved reading and I loved learning new things. I remember as a child wondering how I would ever read all of the books in my local library. I checked out as many books as the rules allowed every single week, and even convinced the librarian to let me check out books that weren’t in the kids’ section (something I later found out should have required parental permission).

As I grew and evolved, I found a passion for helping others find that love for learning I had. I began working with college students in 1991 and never looked back. I have strived in my professional career to be a mentor to young women who found themselves in situations similar to mine. I enjoy helping young people navigate the college-going world and find their own way to their own passion.

To that end, in every activity, discussion, interaction and assignment with my students, I strive to teach the following:

  1. It’s okay to fail. Just learn from your mistake and try again.
  2. Don’t accept anything at face value. Question everything.
  3. Every action has consequences. Know what they are and strive to do no harm.
  4. Be kind. Respect everyone as a human being and learn from your differences.
  5. Know and understand yourself – your passion, what you believe and why you believe it, and how you learn.
  6. It’s okay to ask for help. Resources are there for a reason.

These seem like simple concepts, but I have found these six things to have a greater impact on learning than anything else I have done in my 22 years of teaching. I believe that failing is a part of the learning process, following your passion leads to the best learning, students will rise to my expectations, technology is a tool and not a learning outcome, and that it is my job to contribute to the greater good of society and encourage students to do so as well.

In my classes, I focus on building community and confidence through small, early successes and reflections. I randomize groups for the first few weeks of class so that everyone gets to know as many classmates as possible. I find that building community helps alleviate issues that revolve around differences – when we see our commonalities, we are more open to new ideas, more kind to each other, and more empathetic to others’ situations.

I have also reversed my thinking about teaching: Instead of spoon-feeding information to students and expecting them to regurgitate what they know in an exam or paper, I instead provide students with questions, parameters, and a starting place, then allow them to find their own answers. Faculty are no longer the only source of information for students and because of that I believe in the facilitation of learning, rather than the projection of teaching. This leads to an active experience for the students, and teaches them how to learn, not just what to learn.

In my experience and research, I have found a few specific things that help students follow their passion and increase their learning:

Make the content relevant. I use the student newspaper and current events to frame what I want them to know and help them make connections to real life. My entire class focuses on social issues that affect college students, providing a personal connection for almost every student.

Give students choices. I allow students to present what they’ve learned in a variety of ways. Large projects can be presented in video, presentation, graphic or written form. I leave about 20% of the students’ grades up to the student by giving them a list of ways to earn credit.

Tell students why. I review outcomes every week, explain why I do each assignment and learning activity, and explain why I use the textbook.

Share myself. I want my students to see me as a human being, with dreams and flaws just like theirs. I want them to know if I can do it, so can they.

Force reflection. Reflective writing is a key component in my course. Many of my activities include a reflective paragraph on what they’ve learned and how they will apply it in the future.

Ask questions. I increase the critical thinking abilities of my students by using questions. Every assignment in my course is focused on answering questions of some sort: About themselves, about their beliefs, about society, and about the content they are learning.

My philosophy on teaching has been informed by reading extensively about the research in teaching and learning over 25 years, and by Dr. Ken Bain, who authored What the Best College Teachers Do and What the Best College Students Do. I attended Dr. Bain’s Best Teacher’s Institute in the summer of 2018 where James Lang, Eric Mazur and Mindy Maris also presented. I did not specifically learn anything new at that institute, but the information was presented in a way that gave me an excitement about teaching I had not had before. After the institute, I developed my thoughts on deeper learning and successfully used new strategies in my class. I have presented my revelations at national conferences and have shared them with other faculty at different institutions.

I am more excited about teaching than at any other time in my career. My goals are altruistic – I want to make the world a better place by creating caring and empathetic leaders who understand the consequences of their decisions on those around them. The college students I teach give me hope for our future.