Reaching students best with ‘old school’ methods

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Williams: Believes he reaches students best with ‘old school’ methods

Scott Williams is a professor, a chemist, an inventor and a philosopher. At the heart of it all for this pedagogue is the premise that critical thinking and communication are not best shared via e-mail or PowerPoint. Relics of the past—a chalkboard and books—are still the most effective tools to connect with students.

Williams, professor in RIT’s School of Print Media, won the Provost’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1996. He says his teaching style has come full circle with Eisenhart Award honors more than a decade later.

“When I won the Provost’s Award, I was using chalkboard and chalk,” says Williams. “There were no electronics. In 2003, I got caught up in the electronic modalities of teaching. I had the computer, the video clips, the PowerPoint slides and was getting nowhere with it. I decided last year to do a set of experiments to find out what was the most effective way to present the course content.”

Williams’ ‘Aha!’ moment came after he gave an examination, and one of his students inquired as to why he took off points for her answer.

“She said to me, ‘I put on the exam exactly what you had on your Powerpoint slide.’ And sure enough she had. I realized at that point I was training parrots. That incident combined with the number of students who were constantly multitasking on their laptops during class, doing e-mail, checking their Facebook pages, led me to scrap the entire electronic method. I went back to writing on the board. I completely banned anything that had a battery in it in my classroom.”

Williams says his changes have resulted in near perfect classroom attendance and lively classroom discussions.

“My students are engaged. Now we are having a conversation.”

Andrew Henry, a first-year new media publishing student in Williams’ materials science course, Materials and Processes II, appreciates the way Williams structures his course.

“I like how Professor Williams conducts his class, the way it’s laid out with its quizzes, tests and labs,” says Henry. “They all flow and build off each other. He uses interesting correlations—for example, food, to describe some topics that we may not understand. He encourages us to ask questions that help us engage and better understand a topic. His way of lecturing makes the material he teaches easy and interesting to learn.”

In addition to teaching material science and chemistry courses, Williams’ background in patents (he holds 30 patents) led to an opportunity to teach a media law course.

“One of the areas I love to study on my own is critical philosophy. John Locke is my favorite philosopher, hands down. This media law course allows me to be a philosopher for a while. I try to impart to the students that they have a very special and responsible position in this country in that they are the sovereign power, not the government.”

Williams says a political philosophy professor at Purdue University was one of his most influential.

“You’ve heard the saying, ‘You stand on the shoulders of giants.’ A lot of what I’ve learned over the years, I learned from modeling professors I’ve had in the past.”