Elsa Johnson


elsa@uoregon.edu | 541-346-5233

Courses: Astr 121, Astr 123, Phys 391

In my classes you will:

  • Practice foundational, transferable skills.
  • Learn with and from peers.

I was invited into the Teaching Academy because:

  • I participated in the UO Summer Teaching Instutite.

In what ways are you working to make your teaching inclusive?

I teach large-class astronomy courses for non-science majors with widely ranging skills and technical backgrounds. In my courses, we use maybe 3 simple math equations and usually the first thing I hear when meeting one of my students in office hours or after lecture is that they are terrible at math. Surprisingly, this is a great conversation starter and leads to a discussion about their goals, not only for the course, but their career. I usually find out that the student knows more than what they think they know. I think it is incredibly important to make this known to them immediately because a student’s negatively skewed perception of their ability versus the rest of the class will only increase the likelihood of them giving up and doing poorly.  In the event that a student isn’t doing so well, I encourage and work with them to find a topic in the course that captures their interest, motivating them  to learn.

What do you do in terms of professional engagement with the teaching and learning culture on campus or nationally?

I was promoted to NTTF in the physics department mid 2017. I continually research ways to increase student understanding of my course material and find that most successful courses rely on peer instruction. I have reconnected with the Science Literacy Program and as of this term, enrolled in the Provost’s Teaching Academy. I frequently consult with the American Astronomical Society’s web sources for astronomy education (I am a member).

In what ways was your teaching in this course research-led—informed by research on how students learn and inflected by UO's research mission?

Providing an active learning environment is a challenge in large lecture halls with limited teaching assistant resources. For many years, I have relied on iclicker technology as a good way to assess their understanding and increase engagement. I like to try new techniques for maybe two classes per year. Some examples are online low-stake practice quizzes and online “journals” that require the students to list and describe three things they learned for a particular week. Winter 2019, I included a weekly in-class discussion worksheet and used the ‘think-share-pair’ model for iclickers. Reading quizzes were implemented and due prior to the relevant lecture to prepare students for the following discussion. I learned lessons from this experiment and plan to apply improvements next time I teach the course. For Spring 2019, I am experimenting with an external online discussion platform that encourages students to ask thoughtful questions pertaining to the course subject material by providing the latest science news relevant to the course topics. At least once a week, I will select the best student questions for discussion in lecture. The intent is to build curiosity and help them become active learners, two incredibly important life skills.

What are your interests?

I have a variety of interests outside of my field, like programming, sports, simple construction and craft projects.  In order to do any of them, I need to be patient, keep trying if I want to improve and accept that I will fail until I get it right. Sometimes this is easier said that done since my expectations can run high. However, it is a great reminder of what students face when learning to solve problems. I try to convey this to my students every term and include the following note in all of my syllabi: If you are struggling in this or any class, remember this: The real way to learn something new is to accept that struggle and failure are an essential part of the learning process. Seriously. I can't tell you how many times I have failed initially when solving new problems. It's rare that I or anyone else gets it right on the first try. But I must keep at it until I get the job done because no one else can do it for me. In some situations I have to find a solution because others are relying on me and I won't get paid. That's how real life works. Our society, particularly social media, focuses too much on the end product of awesome skills and forgets there was a struggle to get there. So don't give up or panic if you do badly on something. Just stick with it and see me for help until it makes sense. By the way, do not tell yourself or me that you do not have a scientific or mathematical mind. That is BS. If anyone told you this, even if it's someone who cares about you, they are wrong. There might be people who get concepts faster than you but there is evidence that slow learners have a greater depth of understanding when they finally figure out a subject. In my unofficial study, it's simply a matter of wanting to learn it or not. This means putting time into figuring it out. Truth be told, all fields - scientific or not - require lots of practice and varying amounts of critical thinking. Otherwise we would all be skilled artists, poets, athletes etc. I really want you to get something positive from the course - whether it's one topic that totally captures your imagination or just a general appreciation and new perspective of our place in the Universe. Let's make this a great term!