Herbert A. Simon Award for Teaching Excellence 2020
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh PA 15213-3891
(412)268-8525 . (412)268-5576 (fax)

Three Principles

Brian Railing

Three principles guide my teaching: Respect for students, enabling students to do, and measuring learning.

So first, let me say that all people, which definitely includes college students, are made in the image of God, and are therefore worthy of respect and confidence that they can succeed. I try to see things from their perspectives, and explain things using their majors, hobbies, etc. What we teach can reach to many disciplines, resonating across many chords. And what the students will come to do with Computer Science is beyond imagining.

The second principle is that students learn by doing. Herb Simon, for whom this award is named, said:

  Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.

I continually want to find circumstances in and out of lecture for students to do so that they can learn. From Socratic questions to solving problems together in class, I am trying to foster the circumstances in which a student will have an "ah ha!" moment and grasp something new. And I tell them that making mistakes and failing are not to be feared, because failing is when you are learning the most.

My third principle guides something the students rarely see. We are always trying to innovate and improve how we teach. Though any student learning is a success, we need, as instructors, to study data to know whether we are doing better than last semester or last year. Our students may never realize the exploration and questioning responsible for how each course we teach continues to improve.

I was a CMU CS undergraduate student at the beginning of this century. In that time, I had many past Simon Award recipients as instructors; at present, I have two as my faculty mentors. I would like to thank them all for their example and guidance. I would also like to thank all of the great TAs that make it possible for us to reach our many students – and, of course, the students themselves, for making it all worthwhile.

17 May 2020

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