Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of blog posts in which teaching award winners will share their experiences, philosophies, and techniques. To read the first two posts, click here and here.

Hugh Scott is a lecturer of management and a recipient of the 2018 Teaching Excellence Award.

“Well, you sold 200 units per quarter for seven quarters — how many is that?” We were working one-on-one on a sample problem. When he immediately dove into his backpack in search of a calculator, I was reminded that this problem-solving approach is a well-honed reflex I see quite often. He was one of the best traditional students I had that semester, as far as I could tell, but he went straight for the calculator without even considering whether he could calculate an interim answer mentally.

Hugh Scott

Now in year four of my short teaching career, I’ve been slow to appreciate how most of these students learned the basics in primary and secondary schools. This particular student, who had made an office-hours appointment, talked a bit about his calculator-first approach. He said his schooling had taught him, “Why do it in your head when you have a calculator handy?” My own early education inculcated just the opposite. The system has changed quite a bit since I came through, and my 35+ years of industrial experience was mostly with colleagues whose backgrounds were similar to my own.

From my very first year of teaching, there has seemed to be a strong preference on the part of students for finding the equations that will allow them to dig a set of numbers out of a word problem, plug them in, and calculate an answer. However, when a single misstep along the way produces a nonsensical answer, the impossibility of the wrong answer is simply not apparent to them.

Two things became obvious to me before long: one, there was an unmistakable look of victory on the faces of students who did grasp an underlying concept; and two, it was still difficult, at first, for them to trust a concept-first approach to solving problems and resist the temptation to fall back on the rote methods-only way.

And, just like that, I started to understand the challenge of my role differently. Our UNG students are, for the most part, impressive individuals, motivated and almost scary-smart. While they might be drenched in social media and accustomed to instant gratification, they have no shortage of processor power. They are fully capable, but too often lack confidence in their own capabilities. The “trick,” for faculty, is to reach into the minds of these modern learners, flip the switch to activate some of their lesser-used capabilities, and convince them that the benefits outweigh what seems like added effort.

That’s a tall order. Our more experienced colleagues generously share pedagogical approaches they find effective and place a lot of value on continuously improving the classroom experience. The more I teach, the more I realize how much I have yet to learn about bringing students from mastering specific skills to a higher-level conceptual understanding that will render them resilient for decades to come.