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Kulikowich's Knowledge, Enthusiasm
Communicate Complex Field
November 29, 1999

The task Jonna Kulikowich puts before her graduate class combines the statistical with the sublime - to determine which brand of cross-training shoes she should buy.

Then the numbers do the talking, augmented by discussion among the students and Kulikowich's questions to them, drawing on previous class work and her knowledge of the students' fields of interest.

It's a style that helped her win one of the four1999-2000 Teaching Fellow awards granted by the University.

The associate professor of educational psychology, who joined the University faculty in 1990, is well known to many UConn faculty members and teaching assistants for seminars she has conducted and classes she has given to help teachers become better teachers.

Keith Barker, director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning, says Kulikowich has a passion for teaching, noting the workshops she has conducted for the Institute.

"She is so enthusiastic about the topic that I can't stop her from helping us," he says. "Her ratings from students are always very high."

In his letter nominating Kulikowich as a Teaching Fellow, Scott W. Brown, chair of the Department of Educational Psychology, says that in the five years he has headed the department, "there is no professor at UConn I am aware of who has received more uniformly unsolicited positive praise for undergraduate and graduate teaching than Dr. Kulikowich."

"She has a rich depth of knowledge in measurement and statistics, she is enthusiastic about her domain of expertise, and she radiates with a joy of teaching, providing all her students with a positive attitude about a content many find anxiety-producing," Brown says.

Kulikowich says she tries to match her beliefs about the nature of knowledge with her pedagogical style, keeping in mind the context in which she is teaching and the characteristics of her students.

"I believe that each learner comes to understand a domain like statistics in his or her unique way," she says. "Pedagogically, therefore, I should try to promote as much active student participation in the classroom as possible. Discussions, in-class problems such as data analysis and interpretation, and student presentations are all ways that I try to foster student participation."

She acknowledges, however, that it's hard to conduct group-work activities in an auditorium setting, and difficult to ask students to discuss topics if they don't know the essential concepts of the subject matter.

"For example, it is very difficult for a student to present results of a regression analysis effectively if he or she does not fully understand more fundamental concepts like variance," she says.

Overcoming Anxiety
Subject matter also affects a teacher's approach.

"When many students enroll in an applied statistics class, what you have to battle first oftentimes is fear, anxiety, and the sense that 'the sooner this course is over, the better I will feel.'"

Kulikowich tries to break down the anxiety by using humor and reminding students how complex the subject is. She notes that four languages at a minimum must blend to understand statistical principles: everyday verbal language; equation-based language; numerical language - seeing patterns in data; and spatial or geometric language - looking at a scatter plot and seeing a strong and positive correlation.

"The thought of putting these languages together for the novice learner is formidable," Kulikowich says. "However, if you can begin to teach in such a way as to continuously link them, then I have observed that statistics becomes much less frightening and even exciting as one engages in detective work to put all the pieces together."

Independent of subject matter, however, Kulikowich says she works to know students by name and to know their interests.

"Even in my large classes of over 100, I work as hard as I can to know as many of my students as possible along with their interests and career goals," she says. "Not only does that practice match my constructivist philosophy, but also I feel that as an educator one of my greatest responsibilities is to promote, celebrate, and cherish individual differences. Trying my best to know students by name is the first sign of respect that I can give to each of them."

Mentors as Models
Even though she teaches teachers, Kulikowich never took a course in teaching methods.

"I was blessed with several opportunities to work with brilliant mentors as an undergraduate and graduate student who not only instilled in me a love for the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, but also were role models of exemplary teaching," she says.

"As an undergraduate, my mentor helped me see that few things in this world have definitively 'correct' or 'incorrect' answers. Teaching, like life, really is not about right or wrong - they are both about doing the best you can in the situation at hand."

She says her graduate advisor thought it was essential to see the link between research and teaching by working in public school settings. "To this day, I feel that if I am going to help future teachers prepare for their experiences in K-12 settings then I, too, must spend as much time as possible in these settings."

Responding to Feedback
Kulikowich says she monitors the success of her own teaching in a number of ways, from expressions of students' faces and other nonverbal language.

"Statistics is a really good domain, too, to get feedback that lets you know, 'We get it,' or 'Forget it,'" she says.

The kinds of questions students ask are perhaps the most revealing.

"If questions are to repeat information or provide yet another example, then I know that I am not helping them bridge concepts and procedures effectively. However, if I begin to see them asking questions related to connections that they are trying to make between concepts presented in class or connections to research that is relevant to their academic interests then I know that my teaching may be related to outcomes beyond those expected in our class - going beyond performing well on exams."

Smiles and nods of approval are good measures of success, too, she says.

"Even more magical than smiles and nods is that wonderful look of 'aha,' where everything is starting to make sense to the point of seeming too simple to be true."

Oh, yes, the shoes. It turns out the most expensive were also the most durable. Comfort, however, is another story.

Ken Ross