Eric Hudson, associate professor of physics, is one of three Penn State faculty members to receive the Alumni/Student Award for Excellence in Teaching and to be named 2021 Penn State Teaching Fellows.
The Penn State Alumni Association, in conjunction with undergraduate and graduate governing bodies, established the award in 1988. It honors distinguished teaching and provides encouragement and incentive for excellence in teaching. Recipients are expected to share their talents and expertise with others throughout the University system during the year following the award presentation.
Hudson said great teachers are great learners. What makes him a great learner, he said, is by relying on his peers to improve and learn from mistakes.
For students, the learning process is just the same. To learn, students need motivation, participation and mistake-making.
Students need to be motivated to learn. Some students are self-motivators, however, he said some students need inspiration from their teachers.
“Generating interest and motivating students comes down to linking the physics being taught with students’ curiosity about the world,” Hudson said. “Physics is a beautiful subject, with the ability to both provide a fundamental understanding and be relevant in everyday life. As a physicist I feel a responsibility and ability to convey physics’ depth, its relevance and its beauty.”
Students also need to be engaged. For topics such as physics, he said, dense readings from a textbook won’t do the trick. To make the subject matter more engaging, he relies on demonstrations, sample problems and conceptual questions. Active participation in class is also a must.
“A lecturer can, and should, engage students in the presentation of material. This holds true in classes of five students or 500,” Hudson said. “Students should be questioned. They should be told to discuss with their neighbors the likely results of the next demonstration. They should be quizzed to probe what they don’t understand, and asked for end of class comments to find what they do. Such engagement not only improves student learning, but also provides the feedback necessary to improve teaching.”
A willingness to make mistakes is also part of the learning process. Hudson said his courses are challenging and he urges students to meet the challenge, and learn from the times when they don’t. That’s also a chance for him to learn from points that are unclear to his students and to grow as an educator.
Hudson’s students praised his ability as an educator and for being able to establish an environment where they can learn the basics and continue to grow. One student said Hudson uses a “smart teaching” approach to convey difficult concepts.
“Dr. Hudson actively addresses his ‘expert blind spots’ by analyzing students’ prior knowledge and communicating with his TAs about students’ progress and pitfalls,” the student said. “He uses instructional scaffolding to teach students the relevance and conceptual significance of each step in solving a problem, rather than to plug and chug a meaningless equation. He gradually turns students into self-directed learners by removing the scaffolding as they become more adept and requires students to write out their plan when solving large problems.”