Tag Archives: teaching

Serious Arab and Goofy American

This post is only about the culture of classroom in Jordan and USA.

The following story happened back in the days when I was an undergraduate in Jordan:
While our professor was busy lecturing, a colleague of him knocked on the door and asked to speak with him outside the classroom. While our professor was busy with the other professor I and someone sitting beside me had a little chat. I completely forgot what it was about but it made us smile. While we were smiling the professor entered the classroom and saw us chatting and smiling. He stood striaght and asked us what we were laughing at. We both answered “Nothing!” But he kept repeating the qustion and we both refused to share what we were chatting about. He didn’t like it and gave us “the look” to let us know that he didn’t like our behavior.

The following conversation happened in one of the classes during my first semester in the US:

Student: “How difficult is the exam?”
Professor: “It is not that difficult.”
Student: “This is like saying she is not that pregnant.”
The entire class including the professor laughed loudly.

These are two random stories. There are exceptions of course but in general the culture of the classroom in Jordan is that the instructor is serious while in the US it is a more relaxed and friendly environment. Before I was allowed to teach American students I had to attend three days workshop. The purpose of the workshop is to educate international TAs about the culture of teaching in America. We were told to be goofy, not to tell students they are wrong, not to embarrass students, and many do and don’t.

I found the relationship between students and their instructors here much more better than the one we have in Jordan. Although, instructors here are less serious in class their students respect them more than students in Jordan respect their instructors. I know a female professor who wears a purple wig or a magician hat on Halloween. In Jordan, she might be disciplined by the Dean.

Some American professors even tell their students to call them by their first name. This is more common in graduate level courses. Of course such thing is a no-no in Arabic countries.


PowerPoint gets sexier

If you own an iPhone or an iPod touch and you use PowerPoint here is an app for you. It is called i-Clickr. Currently, people use remote PowerPoint presenter to switch back and forth between slides and so they can move around and not stay still near their laptops, like what good presenters do.

As a college instructor I use PowerPoint but I don’t depend entirely on it. During the class session I use the blackboard to explain things in more detail or to show students the steps in solving a problem. The problem with the remote PowerPoint presenter is it can only switch between slides. On the other hand, i-Clickr has many advantages over the current PowerPoint presenter:

  1. Enables the user to see the slides on his iPhone/iPod touch. During my last lecture while I was using the blackboard I wanted to copy something from the slide so instead of stopping and go back to see what is on the slide, I looked at my iPod and continued.
  2. What is even more useful is that the presenter can read his slides’ notes on the iPod without the audience seeing it on the big screen.
  3. The presenter can see the next slide on his iPod. This helps the presenter to prepare for a good transition between slides.
  4. Enables the presenter to skip or select slides without the audience or students noticing.
  5. Uses WiFi so the presenter can move freely in any direction even in very big auditoriums.

You can see the current or the next slide.

courtesy of i-clickr


or you can see all the slides to select one without the audience noticing anything.

i-Clickr is highly recommended for people who do lots of presentations.

3. Building rapport with students

First day of class means a lot to both the students and the instructors. But I think, being a student for a long time myself, it means more to the students. They want to know what they are getting themselves into. They are anxious to know if their instructor is going to make this semester easy and smooth on them or not. Is he another [stupid] boring professor or smart and funny?

The culture of building rapport in the first day in class in Jordanian universities is rarely practiced. In its best scenario it involves the instructor explaining the syllabus and telling the students what textbook is used as a reading material or reference. Also, if the class size is manageable the instructor reads the students names as a way of breaking the ice and knowing their names. In the four years of my bachelor degree I never knew anything about any of the professors other than their names. Believe it or not, many of them don’t even bother telling their names to students. They don’t think it plays any role in the advancement of learning.

In American universities, the issue of building rapport is well practiced but of course it varies a lot from one instructor to another. But mainly, it involves the instructor telling or revealing to students more about him/her than just his/her name. Some instructors tell their students how long they have been teaching, where did they study, where they came from, etc. This information helps break the ice and establishes some kind of socializing with students.

In the first day of class I use the world map and tell students that I am from Jordan and show them where it is in the map and complain how far it is from here. I tell them that Arabic is my first language not English “if you are wondering about the accent”.

Back home I used to think that my instructors were from a different planet because most of them rarely socialize with their students.

2. Respect your students’ privacy

1. Know your students

2. Respect your students’ privacy

When you do something bad you don’t want anyone else to know about it. The same scenario applies to students’ grades. If a student got a bad grade he doesn’t want anyone else to know about it as well.

  1. Don’t write grades for exams, assignments, projects, etc. on the first page. If the paper is multiple pages write the grade on the last page, and tell your students where you write the grade. If the paper is one page only write the grade in the back of the paper or in a small font bottom right. Writing the grade in a very big font in the front page is not advisable. In a class with many students it is difficult to hand out papers to students one by one. In such big classes, instructors usually hand the papers to one student to pick his paper and pass the pile to a neighbor student and so on. In such case, students will only be able to read the names on the first page but not other students’ grades.
  2. If you are posting grades on your website or on your door don’t use students’ names or their IDs. I remember during my bachelor degree, in Jordan, professors used to post grades along with students’ IDs. Since students’ IDs are not private it is not a good way to post grades. Some professors ask their students to send them special names or nicknames that no one else know. Of course the better way would be using special software like WebCT or BlackBoard in which every student has an account and students log in to see their grades.
  3. In a case a student is absent when you give back students’ papers don’t give the paper to a student who is a friend to the absent student. Assume nothing!
  4. Believe it or not I took a class with a college professor who likes to arrange the exam papers in descending order. The last student to get his paper has the lowest grade. I am not sure what this professor was thinking but it is by far the most stupid way to give back the exam papers. He is telling the students and now the most stupid of you is …!!!

1. Know your students

The students like to be called by their first names. In the US, calling students with their last name is considered formal and hence not recommended. In Jordan, calling students with their last names doesn’t imply formality and some times it might be better than calling a student with his/her first name.

So how to memorize students’ names?*

  1. A very good tool to help teachers remember their students’ names is that my university provides a roster accompanied with students photos. Since this is not the case in all universities continue reading.
  2. You can invest two minutes of lecture time by asking five students to introduce themselves; their names, majors, hobbies, something they plan to do or something good they have achieved or did. Doing this every class has great affect on students; they will know each others and they will feel you care to know them.
  3. Every time a student come to your office hours ask him about his name so you remember it next time he comes to your office or ask a question in class.
  4. When a student correctly answers one of your in-class questions ask for his name. This has twofold; it will help you memorize his name and the student will feel appreciated and is doing a good job.
  5. Spend some time and make an effort to memorize your students’ names.

* Although memorizing students’ names is not applicable in classes with more than 50 students or so at least memorize the names of students who like to participate or regularly ask questions.

How to be a good teacher

This summer I am teaching an introductory programming course for college students. It is very intensive course since we have to cramp four months of rough materials into two months. Although, the two months were very hectic I liked it. I love teaching since it involves two things that I like, interacting with many people of different backgrounds and not working in a cubical.

Although, I taught in Jordan but I learned a lot about teaching here in the US. I liked very much the teachers-students relationship. Contrary to my former believe before I came to the US, students here respect their instructors very much. I have been in the States for six years and I have never seen any student tries to disturb or make any foolish behavior in class. And this is because they learned, in schools, to respect their teachers.

To help myself improve and learn more about teaching I am going to start writing some posts that are related to teaching college students. I will write some useful tips, philosophies, and strategies of teaching I learned from other instructors, read it, or experienced it probably by chance.

Teaching in Jordanian Universities

Another two Jordanians I know are returning back with their prestigious doctorate degree. One of them is an Anthropologist, the other is an Engineer. Although the Anthropologist spent more than six years here in the State but he did an excellent work. He has published works and a field experience in his major. The Engineer is working on the latest top wireless technology. When they go back to the Jordanian universities guess what they will work on? Or how the universities will benefit from their expertise? Nothing but to teach classes that has nothing to do with their research area.

The research in Jordanian universities (and in the Arab world) is in a catastrophic level. Every one knows that, I am not saying any thing new. Many statistics were published about the research level in the Arab world. But let me talk about Jordan. I did my Bachelor degree in Jordan and my Graduate degree here in the US and I can tell you there is no comparison between the amount of homework assignments and projects that are assigned to students in the American universities with those in the Jordanian universities. I remember when I was an undergrad student at most there was 20% of the total grade for lab assignments. In most courses no more than 10% for projects and homework. During the semester we almost have nothing to do until the week of exams. Undergrad students in the American Universities are intensely and continuously pushed to do weekly presentations, homework assignments, and projects. So, how can a professor grade all these assignments, quizzes, projects, etc. if he has for example 500 students? Simply, because for every X number of students (depends on the university and the department) the department assigns a TA to help the instructor in the course. Last Winter 2007 I was among six TAs for a programming CS course for 340 students.

Since a professor in Jordanian universities has no helpers, such as TAs, he has to take care of every thing in his course such as, teaching, office hours, grading homework assignments, exams, etc. Being overwhelmed with teaching and grading hundred of students, a professor has no time to spend on his research assuming he is doing a theoretical research that does not require labs or huge finance.

Our Universities should think seriously about starting quality research. As they say in Academia “Publish or Perish”. We can start by changing the way we assign homework to undergrad students. For every course, students have to do a project that may involve small group of students, five for example, and they have to research about the subject, write it in a formal report and present it in front of the class. By the help of their instructor they can improve it and present it to businesses or whoever interested in such work. Or may be it could be extended to graduate research work.