We sat down with Dr. Eileen O’Brien, program director of UMBC’s graduate certificate program in College Teaching and Learning Science. She shared a glimpse into her personal journey in teaching and where she is today in her career at UMBC.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Can you share with us a little bit about the path that you took to land here at UMBC?
I entered education through the nursing education portal. That was my background. Due to this, I spent a number of years teaching nursing as well as going back to earn my Ph.D. in psychology. As a result of challenges in training for healthcare professionals, the healthcare field resembled virtual labs of virtual patients. Working in that industry and with individuals outside of academia made me realize that I had a framework around teaching that was purely academic. When I completed a fellowship and earned my Ph.D., I wanted to translate some of this framework back into academia. I love the blending of psychology and education.
At that point, I came back to UMBC and I was given a class to teach with 200 students. Colleagues said, “Oh, it’s just a straight lecture, twice a week.” My first thought was that my students were going to fall asleep. Maybe I would even fall asleep! I feared there would be no engagement, that everyone would be listening to my monotone voice. Would anyone be happy or excited about the content? I wanted them to be.
I joined a group from the University System of Maryland to learn more about how to engage students better. The group received funding through the Chancellor who had gotten a Carnegie Award for innovation and teaching. I went through a course redesign with people from other institutions in the system to create a new way of reaching new learners. I ended up redesigning that UMBC course with the 200 students. That was in 2007, and in 2014, UMBC followed through with the redesign.
Well, let’s step back to consider the course when I taught it. It had as high as a 33 percent failure rate. Students hated the course. It was considered the behemoth no student wanted. So they avoided it.
We redesigned it to make it more interactive, adding online activities, and offering students digital textbooks. When they came to class, they did so with enthusiasm. I didn’t want to sit at the head of the classroom and just read the textbook to my students. I wanted to talk about what my students learned with behaviorism and how to translate what they read about behaviorism in psychology to the real world.
A real-life lesson
So we had an in-depth discussion about traffic jams. I posed the question of how we would get people into either Baltimore City or Washington D.C. for their workplace on time. We analyzed things like what happens with traffic and why we have traffic jams. We discussed how they could use behaviorism to move traffic more efficiently. All of a sudden, the students were saying, “Oh, is that why we have EZ Pass?”
The lightbulbs were going off and I encouraged them to continue expanding on the concept by asking them how that strategy is reflected in psychology. “Ah, so if you have this little EZ Pass, you don’t have to stop through the gates, which eliminates a whole lot of traffic behind you!”
As you can imagine, the students will never forget how to apply psychology to everything in life.
An exciting way to teach
I love teaching in this way. It’s an exciting way to take a lot of what I had done earlier in my career in teaching and apply it to psychology. Bringing in this whole new approach of engaging students, making them active learners, and facilitating their learning was a lot of fun. All of a sudden, the department found that an hour and forty-five-minute lecture was too long. We cut it back to one hour and fifteen minutes. My students began to learn online at their own pace, coming back to the classroom and contributing to the discussion.
I was thrilled to have a classroom full of students who were not sleeping in class! The students interacted and grew excited about the discussion. That’s the measure of my outcome in teaching. Can the students absorb what they’re learning and apply it to everyday life?
What was one of the biggest lessons you learned in teaching?
You have to love teaching and the relationship you have with your students because that’s what learning is. It’s about the relationship you have with students. Unless you understand who that audience is, you’re not going to engage them and meet them where you need them to be. Part of impactful teaching is understanding what is going to work for each individual student. For example, there are students who are afraid of online work, but we still need to be able to meet their needs. I’ve found that once you sit down with a student and show them how online engagement is done, the student gains a degree of comfort that allows them to use technology. As an educator, you need to be ready to address your students’ fears and be able to work through those fears in order to meet the needs of the workforce.
What excites you most about this field?
Here’s what I typically say to my classes: there could be a Steve Jobs in this classroom and I, as an educator, need to tap into that creativity.
What I really want for my students is to have them stretch their minds to do things differently. This is how innovation comes about. The workforce wants to hire people that think creatively. There could be future great innovators sitting in your classroom, and you have to instruct in such a way that helps them to open up some doors. What really excites me is that there could be somebody in there who’s going to be so creative that they’re going to fix one of the biggest problems we face.
Students in education, particularly higher ed, are ready to be the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Their prefrontal cortex is all set and developed, hopefully. If not, I say let’s exercise those neurons and see what fires!
If you could tell your younger self something what would that be?
I went through so many different routes to get to where I am. And I wouldn’t change it. To my younger self, I would say try to experiment in many disciplines and learn more about communication and cross-disciplinary work. Building relationships in education is important. Understand that the impact that you have on individuals goes far beyond the classroom. Looking at the academic mission of the university, the impact is far-reaching because you’re coming across so many individuals out there who have great potential.
I’d also say to try all the new innovative ways of doing things through technology. I would have started the technology a lot sooner, but it was only until recently that I made the connection between education and technology. Technology comes naturally to most of our students, so keeping that frame of academia close to technology can make education much more exciting. Translating the excitement of learning and being that lifelong learner is so important because we never stop learning. I teach my students and in return, they teach me.
Claim your future
If you’d like to learn how to distinguish yourself from other candidates applying for community college and four-year college teaching positions, please visit collegeteaching.umbc.edu.