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Teaching Philosophy

- Sharma Chakravarthy

I am passionate about teaching, research, and mentoring. I have taught undergraduate (both entry level and upper level) and graduate courses (both core and electives), supervised 19 PhD, 92 MS thesis, and numerous undergraduates, post docs, and visiting scholars. I work very closely, diligently, and patiently with my students to teach them the process of learning - how to do research (and not just how solve a problem) - problem identification, problem formulation, fleshing out details, comparison with extant approaches, development of new theory/approaches/techniques and algorithms, experimentation, validation, and communication of new ideas & results clearly to peers and the broader community. I take keen interest in teaching, and take it very seriously - one of the few who grades all exams himself and goes out of his way to help and keep students motivated and involved.

Learning is the cognitive process of gaining knowledge, experience, and problem solving skills. Preparing people to solve real-world problems they are going encounter down the road is quite a challenge. My philosophy has been to teach how to solve problems rather than to teach what a solution to a specific problem is. Since it is not clear as to what problems students are likely to encounter in the future, two basic components need to be imparted: fundamentals and the process of applying fundamentals to new scenarios. I truly subscribe to the Chinese proverb "give a man a pound of fish and it will take care of his family for a day; teach the man how to fish and it will take care of his family for a generation; however, if you teach the man how to make a fishing net (and fish), it will take care of his family for generations to come". Based on this philosophy, what I strive to do in the class room is to go beyond preparing students to answer questions and do well on exams. The goal is to actually prepare them for a real world where technology and the problems that need to be solved do change drastically over a period of time (e.g., new paradigms, ubiquitous use of mobile devices, PC's, internet revolution, sensor revolution). In my view, knowledge acquired by course-work is of little use unless it is accompanied by a process to apply that knowledge to solve real-world problems and understand the nuances of going from theory to application of the theory (or practice). Thus, based on the concepts taught in each course, I give well-designed hands-on assignments/projects (in every course I teach) reflecting real-world situations or allow students to work on my research projects. I have received emails from students after 2 to 5 years indicating what they learned in my database course has come in handy in their jobs. I am also of the view that no single instructional technique befits all undergraduate or graduate level courses. Each class and composition of a set of students are different. Gauging what works and adapting oneself to the needs of the current group of students is critical and a challenge.

Motivation, in my opinion, is another key element of teaching. Without motivation class rooms become monotonous and even boring. History of how current theory and technologies came about, anecdotes of follies and successes, and instances of personal experiences preserve students' interest. In addition, challenging assignments where they have to think beyond what they have been taught will keep students motivated. For maintaining student interest, I use a variety of strategies: encourage students to be interactive by asking questions, support active learning and cooperation among students. I try to be entertaining while teaching, without deviating too much from the course material, as it allows students to learn in a relaxed atmosphere. Making yourself approachable inside and outside of the classroom is extremely important. Once the professor-student barrier is dismantled, interaction, discussion, and communication flourish.

I teach materials using familiar and concrete examples, as it expedites learning. I pick out these examples from real-world scenarios as it allows students to visualize things and learn. When I teach new material/approach, I establish a connection with the old material, as it allows them to grasp new information more quickly. Furthermore, it will be more rewarding to the students when they can apply the old approach as well as the new approach to the same problem to understand the difference and progress. This is very evident in the introductory object-oriented (OO) course I teach (CSE 1325). The come with C background and are learning OO design using Java. The first do a problem without using object-orientation and apply object-orientation for the same problem to understand and appreciate the difference. Practicing the knowledge and skills acquired in real-world-like projects reinforces learning and builds confidence. I design projects reflecting real-world situations or themes. For example, in the introductory database course, I ask the students to choose a problem from a domain they are comfortable with and use that for a five phase project that runs through the semester. I indicate that they are the domain experts which give them tremendous confidence. Students have indicated that they have benefited very much from the hands-on projects and a number of students who have taken the course in their undergraduate curriculum take the course again for the sake of projects.

I make it clear that my quizzes, tests, and projects are aimed at understanding of the material taught and not memorizing them. I do not test on speed of writing, but on one's ability to think, apply, and answer problems.

A continuous feedback to students throughout the semester is important as they can see exactly where they stand with respect to their expectations and make adjustments. I make it a point to discuss solutions to all my quizzes and exams in the class so that they know what is expected and improve upon their answers in subsequent quizzes/exams. I keep them aware of their overall progress while returning their tests, labs, and quizzes. I also encourage them to come and discuss their progress in my office where I can provide feedback that is customized to that student. After each milestone, I try to get feedback from students (sort of exit poll after an exam/quiz) regarding material covered and fairness of exams. I make my teaching more effective by utilizing appropriate and available teaching tools such as discussion boards, email lists, blackboard, videotaping lectures, and so forth.

When teaching upper level or graduate courses, I involve students and create an environment where they can exercise the knowledge and skills acquired in my on-going research projects. Through this process, not only can I improve their knowledge in the subject, but also nurture their research interests and stimulate them to study further by doing research in the field. I view my research as part of my teaching and vice versa, and use my research as a canvass for my students to develop their knowledge and skills.

Finally, I fully agree with the top ten requirements of Prof. Leblanc in The Teaching Professor, one of which reads: "teaching is about listening, questioning, being responsive, and remembering that each student and class is different. It's about eliciting responses and developing the oral communication skills of the quiet students. It's about pushing students to excel; at the same time, it's about being human, respecting others, and being professional at all times. Finally, it's about caring, nurturing, and developing minds and talents".