Dr. Matt Winslow pulled a smartphone out of his pocket and held it high.
All the information his students need, he explained, is as close as their fingertips.
“What is not so cheap and easy to access,” Winslow added, “is the critical thinking skills that allow them to process, evaluate, apply and even create information. You can’t ask Google to do that for you.
“My job,” he insisted, “is not to give my students information. It’s to train them how to think.”
It is because of Winslow’s ability to actively engage students in the learning process that the Eastern Kentucky University psychology professor has received the 2017 Acorn Award, the highest honor for teaching excellence presented by the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education and co-sponsored by Kentucky colleges and universities. He was selected over all his peers at four-year colleges and universities throughout the Commonwealth; a winner is also chosen among two-year schools.
Winslow is the fifth EKU recipient of the annual award since 1995, the most of any institution in that period. Two of the recipients, Dr. Hal Blythe (1996) and Dr. Charlie Sweet (2005), are co-directors of the University’s Teaching and Learning Center. Dr. Merita Thompson (1995) and Dr. Jerry Cook (2008) have retired. Since 2011, the award has been presented every other year.
Just as students have their “a-ha” moments, Winslow’s epiphany came approximately five years ago. That’s when he began moving away from a passive lecture style to a format where his students are active participants in the process. It’s when he became, as he put it, less of a “sage on the stage” and more of a “mentor in the middle” or a “guide on the side.”
“I used to work very hard crafting lectures,” said Winslow, who began his teaching career at Eastern in 1998. “This required me to master the material, weave a narrative that would make a lecture captivating, figure out how the material might apply to my students’ lives, create useful handouts and clear visual presentations, practice the delivery so that it would seem effortless, and then deliver the lecture. But ... I was essentially robbing my students of the benefit of doing that hard work themselves! After all, the point of my classes is not for me to learn the material, it’s for my students to learn it. Now I try to get my students to do the work in my courses instead of me doing it. To be clear, my new approach still requires a significant investment of work from me in designing the course and course materials. But the work during my class sessions is mostly done by the students, not me.”
Winslow, a two-time Critical Thinking Teacher of the Year honoree at EKU, has “flipped” most of his courses, from his large Introduction to Psychology class not naturally conducive to small-group breakouts to a senior-level capstone course. “Flipped courses require students to access the knowledge base for the class on their own time, and engage with that knowledge during class time,” he noted, “rather than listening to lectures in class and then working on assignments on their own.”
For many years, Winslow has used and advocated for the “jigsaw” classroom, where students assist in teaching each other in small groups. “This relatively simple activity can engage analysis, synthesis, application, even creativity,” he said. “Its original purpose was to reduce racial tension in the classroom. That it can do both is remarkable.”
Winslow’s pedagogy, the method to his classroom madness, is transparent to his students. “I tell my students why our class is designed the way that it is, and I tell them when I’m trying something new, and why. Students love it when they know why they are doing things rather than just being told to do it. I now see my role as a facilitator of learning and a designer of effective learning experiences. This is a far cry from the imparter-of-knowledge model that I experienced as a student and used in my early days.”
Cassie Whitt, now pursuing a Ph.D. degree at the University of Alabama after earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology at Eastern, said she models her research habits after her former professor and research mentor.
“Dr. Winslow has a knack for presenting information in an innovative and novel way, like in his flipped class, that makes learning appealing to students and encourages them to think critically,” Whitt said. “Getting to this point in my academic career has required a lot of effort on my part, but I believe that working with Dr. Winslow was one of the biggest factors contributing to my acceptance into a doctoral program.”
Dr. Robert Brubaker, chair of EKU’s Department of Psychology, called Winslow “one of the best, if not the best” teachers he has encountered in his 34-year career. “His enthusiasm and expertise have really energized his colleagues and fostered a strong departmental culture of continuous improvement in teaching.”
In fact, Winslow plans to donate a portion of the financial honorarium that accompanies the award to the department to support the pedagogical development of its faculty.
In 2015, Winslow assumed a University-wide role of “chief faculty innovator,” leading a group of colleagues known as Faculty Innovators, who in turn lead the campus in ensuring that students are provided with creative, engaging and effective instruction. He stepped down from the post earlier this year to assume the role of Faculty Senate chair.
“Matt represents the best of what our faculty offer to our students – deep knowledge of content, pedagogical skills, and concern for the success of each individual who steps into our classrooms,” said Dr. Sara Zeigler, dean of EKU’s College of Letters, Arts, and Social Sciences.
Noting the high number of Acorn Award recipients from Eastern, Winslow declared: “One of our great strengths at Eastern is that we are focused on our students. I’m right at home. This is where I want to be.”