15 Minutes with a UConn Prof: Andy Ballantine

This is the second interview in our series, 15 minutes with a UConn Prof (see our first with Dr. John Redden), that captures the accumulated wisdom of our instructors. In this interview, Dr. Andy Ballantine discusses the importance of instructor enthusiasm, relevant material, and the still-pertinent but increasingly-passé lecture.

What are some ways that you’ve found to keep the larger classes engaging?

In general, I find what really gets students engaged in a lecture format is making it relevant and conveying enthusiasm. Part of what students seem to respond to in me is that I’m really enthusiastic about what I’m teaching, and that I have a bit of theater background. On some level, I see it as kind of a performance, so I get up, and I’m dancing around, and I sing to my class, I tell stories. I try to keep it lively with the way I talk and interact, and I work hard to make as much of it relevant as possible, and I think that’s really key. Whatever you’re teaching, make it relevant. If it’s just a bunch of theory without any hook into how it relates to them, students don’t tend to absorb it.

Photograph of Dr. Andrew Ballantine
Andrew Ballantine is Associate Professor in Residence in Geography with his teaching areas in physical and environmental geography.

Do you tie some of your material into current events or news items?

Sometimes it’s that. There are a couple ways you can do it. Sometimes, it’s personal relevance where you get them to connect with you as a person. So, for example, I talk about the difference in the environmental cost of me living where I used to live in Danielson vs. living in Niantic, and what does that mean for the environment that I’m commuting longer in one case, but my wife has a shorter commute in the other case? How does that make a difference? How does choosing where you live and being walkable and bikeable–how does that make a difference in your life? So I tie it to my own life and tell stories about these things.

Just this morning I was talking about Harold and the Purple Crayon in class, so [that’s an example of] using a children’s book that a lot of people have seen and looking at how they use perspective in the book to understand space. I use everything from media, things they may have seen and they may identify with– not that I’m up on pop culture–but I can still talk about Disney movies and talk about my own life and what’s likely to be relevant in their life. Even though it’s not a concern to them right now–the cost of water waste of cloth diapers vs. disposable–it has meaning. They may pass it off now, but someday they’ll come back to it and they’ll remember that lecture.

What has changed in your teaching as you’ve done it over the years? What are some ideas that you had walking in that have changed?

I’m trying to work more and more interactivity into classes. Trying to do that with a large class is hard, but it’s something I’ve been working on. A few years ago I started doing clickers for Physical Geography, and now this semester I’m trying to do Poll Everywhere. I’m messing around with in-class polling to stimulate discussion and to get students sending me some kind of live feedback. One the reasons I like the Poll Everywhere and Socrative is you can do more than just a,b,c,d, responses. You can create word clouds and stuff like that. That’s one big evolution.

Certainly early on, one of the hard lessons I learned was not to give students too much mercy…You just need to lay it all out at the beginning of the semester: these are the extra credit opportunities, and if you do them consistently throughout the semester, you should do fine. That way  you don’t have to negotiate that the end of the semester. I try to build things into the syllabus that allow for contingencies that say if you need this, you can go this route. It’s stated at the beginning.

I also try not to put too much emphasis on exams…if you weigh the exams so heavily in the class then students who don’t take exams well but who are otherwise solidly trying run into the unfortunate situation where they can’t express their knowledge.

How do you keep energized and manage the work/life balance?

There are a lot of ways you can manipulate the grading scheme to make your life easier, and I think that’s really important. It’s important to take advantage of HuskyCT. They have some great tools for doing automatic grading, and if you can just tweak your exercises a little bit so that when you have 130 or 300 or however many students that the computer does [the grading] for you, that instantly saves you a ton of time, but you have to do work up front to set that up. Rather than having free form answers, they can be multiple choice or fill in the blank. If the computer can do it for you, that saves you a lot of time, especially in big classes.

Anything else you want to say?

One other thing is that I went to at a teaching conference this past fall is and ran into Todd Zakrajse, a teaching and learning person UNC Chapel Hill. He’s got all this literature at his fingertips. He just knows it so deeply, and it’s fun to hear him talk extemporaneously. One of the things he had on his mind this fall was this idea that we’ve got a bit of a pendulum of what we think in teaching and learning where we go through fads or ideas.

Active learning is one of those ideas that he’s been thinking about as yes, it’s important, but it’s getting to the point where we are trying to move so far away from being people who provide information to students through a lecture that the art of a good lecture is kind of being lost in the scramble to just do interactive, flipped classrooms stuff, but receiving information in a well thought out way from someone who really knows the material is valuable.

There’s a role for an expert, especially at the level of education where we work in higher ed, not to say that standing up there and droning to people is a good thing, but it’s kind of reaffirming to know that when I get up there and I dance around, and I do my theatrical thing, and I’’m giving information as part of that, that’s still valuable in some way.