Teaching and Learning at RU: First Impressions

By Provost Sam Minner

Sam Minner

Provost Sam Minner

Some of the things I love about Radford—the students who learn here and the faculty who teach here—are the optimistic and positive attitudes I observe on our campus. I love the feeling that things are moving forward at RU. Enrollment growth, new buildings, new programs and new connections with other organizations in the New River Valley and beyond are all examples of this progressive trend. Our students are also optimistic about their futures and seem to understand that their time at RU is a critical variable helping them to achieve their dreams.

My sense is that Radford is a place focusing more and more on outcomes. Lots of institutions of higher education focus too much on inputs, for example, the perceived academic abilities of students upon arrival as gauged by measures such as the SAT and ACT.  Those measures are important, no doubt, and we are blessed to have many incredibly talented students here at RU. They are proud to be here, and we are proud and I would say very fortunate to have them here.

However, at Radford we care more about outcomes than inputs. We want our graduates to achieve at high levels, to go on to top-notch graduate schools and good jobs, and to acquire the intellectual habits of mind and refined social skills to lead meaningful lives. As a group, the Radford faculty is committed to these outcomes for all of our students. And the faculty’s belief that all of our students are capable of achieving them is a beautiful thing to behold.

The wonderful news is that people now understand that many learners have the potential to achieve at high levels. We know that high performance and the positive outcomes associated with high performance are not the exclusive domain of a few elite students. Those outcomes are as much about trying hard, attending to the good guidance of excellent teachers and not accepting anything less than high performance as anything else.

I recently read a great book titled “The Genius in All of Us” by David Shenk. Shenk repudiates what he calls an “unnecessarily pessimistic view of humanity” and suggests that “greatness is in reach of every individual.” That’s an incredibly positive and hopeful message.

Just the other day, I saw a good example of this idea in action. I was walking by the Bonnie, and I heard a professor talking with a student who had apparently not done well on a quiz. The student suggested that the content of the class was perhaps just too difficult for him and talked about dropping the class to avoid a bad grade. The professor would not hear of it. He offered the student the opportunity to come to his office for a tutorial and even recommended a few specific (and very good) study ideas. But most critically, the professor simply refused to accept the student’s suggestion that the material was too difficult.

I have no idea what happened there, but I say well done to the professor for his effort. I sincerely hope the student did not drop the class. For some reason, I have the hunch that he did not.

I also love the fact that the focus here at RU is on teaching and learning, and I have been very impressed by the pedagogical knowledge and skills of the faculty. I see cutting-edge examples of teaching all the time.

Over the summer, I read John Medina’s book “Brain Rules.” Medina is a molecular biologist who has identified 12 easy-to-understand principles helping teachers of all kinds, including college professors, to maximize learning. For example, he describes how much information most learners forget during the first hour or two of initial exposure. Absent frequent and deliberate repetitions of the new information, most of us rapidly forget new things. The next week, the next day, sometimes even the next hour—we frequently forget what we just learned. Our brains simply work that way. I see lots of examples of how RU professors seem to understand this important principle.

A few weeks ago I was walking by a classroom with an open door, and I heard the professor say something like, “We went over this at the beginning of the class. Take another look at the board.

I wrote down the critical concepts in today’s class. I’d like you to think about what we’ve done today and write down what you think are the key concepts in your own words. Let’s take a minute to go over those statements to see what everyone wrote.” Maybe the professor is knowledgeable about the latest research on brain science, or perhaps the professor just learned what works through trial and error, but that brief example of teaching was pretty impressive. This excellent RU professor clearly understands that new information needs to be repeated frequently in order to fix it into learners’ brains. Again, I say well done!

I have only been at RU for a few months, and I have much to learn about the culture, the opportunities and the challenges here. However, when you expect high levels of learning from students, presume that students can learn at those high levels and behave accordingly by employing the best teaching practices, our outcomes will continue to improve. It is very exciting to be a part of that process. My first impressions of teaching and learning at RU are extremely positive indeed!