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Much More Than a Lecture

April 17, 2020
man and woman with a tray of seedlings in front of them
Clinical Assistant Professor John Willford and physiology major Paige Osborn.

UW professors help students succeed inside the classroom and out. 

By Micaela Myers 

When asked what sets the University of Wyoming apart, most students will say that it’s the professors. Known as friendly and approachable, they sincerely want students to succeed.

Don’t be intimidated by the “sage on the stage.” UW’s professors and lecturers can answer questions and help connect you with resources, such as teaching assistantships, undergraduate research or even internships. Below are some tips from students and instructors on how you can get the most out of your education.

 

Paige Osborn and Clinical Assistant Professor John Willford

Two years ago, Paige Osborn took freshman biology from Clinical Assistant Professor John Willford. During this course, he offers an optional weekly review session.

“I really like those, because it lets us slow down and just do a Q&A,” Willford says. “I get to listen to the students and see what the issues are. Paige was a student who regularly came to the review sessions. In that smaller group, I was able to see her interact with other students, interact with me about the questions she had, see the work she had done and just get to observe better her understanding of course material.”

This led Willford to recommend Osborn as a supplemental instructor for future semesters. Willford says he tends to recommend students he knows from either office hours or things like the review sessions.

Osborn, a junior physiology major from Cheyenne, recommends that students take their questions to office hours. “Going in during office hours or setting up a meeting to meet with professors for help shows them that you care and want to do well in their class,” she says. “I think professors can help students on their research, help find internships they know about, write recommendation letters for students they had, and definitely students should be able to go in and get help regarding their classwork.”

“The first message is to not be scared or hesitant to talk to your professors,” Willford says. “There will be questions or things that didn’t click. Some of it you can figure out on your own, but sometimes you just need help. It’s fine, and you should come and get that help. Utilize office hours, review sessions, supplemental instruction, tutoring and class resources.”

Willford says that undergraduate research made the biggest difference in his academic career. UW offers a number of paid opportunities for students to take part in undergraduate research, including the Engineering Undergraduate Research Scholars Program, Wyoming Research Scholars Program, Wyoming INBRE and EPSCoR, and the NASA Space Grant Consortium. Your professors can be a good place to start.

“There are all these advantages that come with really engaging,” Willford says—whether that be tutoring, teaching or doing undergraduate research. “First and foremost, you get more depth of knowledge in your field. You start to better understand what you want to do with your career and your skillset. It’s not just courses on your transcript, but you have more to speak about on your job interviews. You’re able to start tailoring your education.”

two people sitting on a bench
Assistant Lecturer Allison Gernant and philosophy student Caden Garland.

 

Caden Garland and Assistant Lecturer Allison Gernant

“The advantage to a student who really wants to succeed is that it’s really easy to connect with your professors because they want to. It can be a scary prospect to go sit down in office hours, but it’s really nice,” says philosophy junior Caden Garland of Jackson, Wyo. “Professors want to help you because they care. I’d talk to professors after class and introduce myself or just speak up in class and ask questions.”

A nontraditional student, Garland returned to college after a break and took part in UW’s Bridge Program, a first-year learning community for students who qualify. During his Bridge English class, he met Assistant Lecturer Allison Gernant, who noticed his hard work in the class and his positive interactions with other students. She asked him to apply as a peer mentor for future classes. Bridge courses include an instructor and a peer mentor who helps with the class and also organizes activities outside the classroom.

“I see a lot of myself in freshmen students who don’t try because I was there,” says Garland, now approaching his third semester as a peer mentor. “I came back to college, got really good grades and have been really successful. There’s that mental shift you need to make. I want to help students make that shift, because I think it’s really valuable that you have these opportunities and resources here.”

As a peer mentor, he earns a stipend, meets great students and learns a lot through the class and outside opportunities, including an all-expense-paid trip to a conference in New York City.

“The curriculum Gernant uses in the class is this game-based curriculum,” Garland says. “It’s kind of like Dungeons and Dragons—everyone gets a character to live out a historical time period. You have goals and motivations.”

The conference—called Reacting to the Past—at Barnard College focused on this style of learning. “I was excited to go to the conference,” he says. “I was better able to help the students when I came back.”

The Bridge Program’s small class sizes make it easy for students to get to know their peer mentors and instructors. “I really value asking students to come to office hours right away in the first semester,” Gernant says. During this time, she can help them with a wide variety of needs—from disability support to just general questions about university life. “Sometimes we can act as a hub for new students,” she says. “We can disseminate information that they might not know about, especially within an office hour.”

If you’re nervous about coming to office hours, think of a question to ask, Gernant suggests—or just introduce yourself.

“Professors care about the stuff they teach. They want to help you, but you have to want to help yourself. Make an effort to try,” Garland says. “Every semester I’m here, I’m consistently impressed with the quality of education I get from professors. You can really tell they care about student success and the material they teach.”

two men with laptop computers
Physiology student Thatcher Spiering and Associate Professor John Hoberg.

 

Thatcher Spiering and Associate Professor John Hoberg

While many students get to know their professors by going to office hours, physiology senior Thatcher Spiering of Saratoga, Wyo., got to know chemistry Associate Professor John Hoberg at the gym. He was taking organic chemistry from Hoberg, and they always ended up the gym at the same time. Spiering found him very down to earth. 

Approaching your professors can be intimidating for first-year students, he admits, but professors are people too. “You’re maybe a little star-struck and nervous, but your professors are very helpful,” Spiering says. “They know what’s going on and how to help you.”

Hoberg got to know Spiering in person and saw that he was in the top 5 percent of the class, so Hoberg recommended him as a supplemental instruction (SI) leader for organic chemistry. Supplemental instruction is a series of out-of-class study sessions that help students succeed.

“It’s been big to keep that organic chemistry knowledge fresh in my mind,” says Spiering, who plans to go on to medical school. “I think it’s helped me in my problem-solving abilities, too. I understand things differently than one of my peers, and they understand things differently than the next person. It’s being able to take that knowledge and turn it around in a way that the rest of the class or students can understand it. That’s been the coolest challenge.”

Spiering also does undergraduate research with another professor and urges incoming students to get to know their professors.

Hoberg agrees: “I have pretty much an open-door policy. Students are always welcome to just drop in and help solve issues. One of my office hours is over in the Union. Often, students feel really comfortable going to that setting.”

All students should attend office hours, he says. “You will leave that office knowing more than when you came in. I don’t know any professor who isn’t willing to help. It’s the one-on-one interactions that are better than anything in terms of learning. Walk into their office the first week,” Hoberg says.

He also advises students to develop good study habits right off the bat: “No one learns how to ride a bike by watching a video on it or a PowerPoint. You learn to ride a bike by actually getting on and doing it. As part of study habits, you have to start doing actual problems, writing essays, whatever it is. It’s the actual doing of something where you learn.”

 

Disability Support Services

UW’s Disability Support Services (DSS) strives to ensure successful access and services for students with disabilities. While students need to connect with DSS to request accommodations, they are also encouraged to advocate for themselves by speaking to their professors about needs and accommodations.

“I am eager to help when student stop by after class and say, ‘I have a disability,’ ” says LeaRN Program Assistant Lecturer Allison Gernant. “I’m happy to say, ‘What can I do to help you be successful in my class?’ I want students to know that we teachers at UW want to accommodate our students, and we want to help them get accustomed to life at a university and assist them in learning about the academic resources here for them.”

She says, “I think students with disabilities should feel like they belong here, and there’s lots of support.”

Visit UW Disability Support Services at uwyo.edu/udss.



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