In the Classroom with Dana Randall
By Victor Rogers | June 22, 2017
By the time Dana Randall finished college, she had five years of teaching experience under her belt. She started teaching math team every morning during her senior year at Stuyvesant High School, a math and science magnet school in New York.
Then, while an undergraduate at Harvard, she taught fellow students how to prepare for and pass the freshman requirements in quantitative analysis and in computer programming and later served as a teaching assistant for theory courses.
“I had no experience programming,” said Randall, now co-executive director of the Institute for Data Engineering and Science and the ADVANCE Professor in the College of Computing. “So I learned it to pass the exam. When I went to get my results, they said, ‘why don’t you try out to teach for us?’”
She did, and then she spent several years teaching other students from her self-described perspective of “I know nothing extraneous. I’m going to tell you exactly what you need to learn to get through this exam.”
During those early years, Randall said she very deliberately tried to make the classroom comfortable for the students. Sometimes, she would sit on the desk to be different from the students’ usual classroom experiences, causing them to have different expectations.
Another early experience – two summers during high school spent at a math program at Hampshire College – taught her how to engage people and ‘trick’ them into learning something complex by solving puzzles.
“These experiences really shaped how I teach now,” she said.
This semester, Randall is teaching Honors Discrete Mathematics (CS 2051). She describes the class as an honors class on “how to think about discrete math, how to do proofs, and how to think mathematically [for mostly computer science students].”
“Early on, I explain my expectation that everyone in the class at some point will say, ‘I don’t understand’ and everyone at some point will say, ‘wow!’ I see it as my job to get them to the point where they feel comfortable saying those two things,” she said.
When designing a course, Randall said she has a collection of topics that need to be covered. But she works to keep it from being boring.
“I definitely switch things up,” she said. “With some courses, you have to start with the basics, and it’s just boring for the first couple of weeks.”
Randall said she often starts with the ‘meat’ of the course – and even though the students may not have some of the fundamentals, they can follow along. Then she goes back later to fill in the missing details.
“Early on, I explain my expectation that everyone in the class at some point will say, ‘I don’t understand’ and everyone at some point will say, ‘wow!’ I see it as my job to get them to the point where they feel comfortable saying those two things.”
“I think it’s more fun to go out and play tennis a little bit before you spend two hours learning how to hold the racket,” she said.
REACHING THE STUDENTS
Randall is excited when she sees students “thinking differently” after taking her class. She enjoys leading students and pushing them a little bit farther than they think they can go.
“In an honors class, you certainly have some students who are very, very confident. But you’re still pushing them,” she said. “They each have their own style of learning. And, I teach very differently than most people do, so I definitely push them a little bit out of their comfort zones. I feel like I can do that with students at different levels.”
Randall also enjoys the puzzle of trying to figure out what the students are missing and what will help them understand.
“As a teacher, you have to not be pre-programmed,” she said. “You have to think on your feet and be reactive. I’ve found I have a good ability to know – when students have their hand up – who is right and who is wrong, and I use that to help teach the class.”
When Randall senses that her students don’t understand what she’s talking about, she repeats herself.
“Yesterday, I had a day like that. It just wasn’t as smooth as it usually is,” she said. “When I see that they’re confused, I back up and say ‘let me remind you of the salient points. And I think that helps.”
ADVICE FOR NEW FACULTY
Randall said one of her biggest assets as a teacher is talking straight to students, and having a conversation. That’s one of her recommendations to new faculty.
“Have a real conversation with students, as though you’re having coffee with them,” she said. “The more you get away from this persona of teacher, I think that helps.”
Randall said the demands on a new faculty member’s time are overwhelming.
“You do have to put less time into absolutely everything than you wish you could,” she said. “When teaching, the place not to skimp is the energy you put into the classroom. It’s worth engaging the students and enjoying that hour or hour-and-a-half that you’re standing in front of them.”
Randall suggests being clear about expectations for the class, but new faculty don’t have to polish every piece of material they bring to the class.
“You don’t have to practice your presentations twenty times before you come in,” she said. “Making mistakes is okay as long as you’re honest and you own up, think quickly, and recover. And have fun.”