Excellence in Teaching Award
John Tedesco, Department of Communication
John Tedesco, professor in the Department of Communication, is the winner of the October Excellence in Teaching Award. This award, given by the Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research (CIDER), recognizes effective, engaged and dynamic educators at Virginia Tech.
Tedesco, a professor at Virginia Tech since 1999, said he knew he wanted to be a teacher from a young age. “My mom will tell the story that I would take all the little Fisher-Price figures, and I’d line them up on the floor of my room and put little magazines in front of them and role-play that I was the teacher,” he said. “I’d say ‘Alright students turn to page one!’ and I’d go around and turn all the pages of the Highlights [magazines].”
Even during his doctoral work in communication at the University of Oklahoma, Tedesco saw himself in front of a class. “The image in my head was not research papers and projects and staying up late writing; it was the classroom,” he said. “That’s what excited and interested me.”
Assistant professor Cayce Myers nominated Tedesco for his commitment to learner-centered pedagogy. “In his undergraduate teaching, John is committed to preparing students beyond his classroom,” Myers said. “He is regularly available to students and frequently takes time to increase his own knowledge of his area of expertise.”
The commitment to students also extends to the graduate community, Myers said. “In his graduate teaching he regularly advises students, and in the past few years has directed multiple theses a year in the Department of Communication,” Myers said.
Myers said Tedesco’s teaching style is “a mixture of academic rigor and practical training” for students. “He regularly teaches research methods for the department and also teaches public relations-specific courses,” Myers said. “John has also completed his Accreditation in Public Relations (through the Universal Accreditation Board) which helps him link the academic and industry aspects to his courses.”
Tedesco sees this interest in student learning as a responsibility to his students. “The focus is not on me and my role in the classroom,” Tedesco said. “The focus is on trying to understand how students learn.”
For example, when Tedesco teaches Introduction to Communication Research, which he said many students consider a tough class, he offers flexibility in terms of the type and depth of exam questions – some might be multiple choice while others might be essays, but both types are weighted the same. This equal weighting allows Tedesco to judge where his students are struggling or excelling without penalizing them.
“That’s a form of feedback I can use to tailor my other lectures or assignments,” he said. “If students are not able to apply [concepts], then I can do more in class for application. Or I can load videos on the Canvas site for students who haven’t gotten the synthesis part of it yet.”
Student-centered learning also means having the students learn from each other. In his Public Relations Campaigns course, Tedesco has students divide into semester-long teams. The class chooses a local non-profit client with which to partner, and each group spends a few weeks researching the client and produces a final PR campaign at the end of the semester. “I tell my students, ‘You should be learning from your peers,’” Tedesco said. “‘That’s not to say I’m out of the equation, but much of this is on you.’”
Inevitably, a few students each semester push back against this level of group work, arguing that they can’t learn from other students or that they, as especially strong students, are carrying the others in the group. “And I say, ‘This is valuable experience for you when you go into the profession because you’ll be working in project teams, and you’re going to need to learn to cope,’” Tedesco said. “‘You have to figure out how to engage [your] peers and help them help [you] complete this assignment the way [you’d] like to.’”
Tedesco said constant feedback and self-reflection is invaluable to student-centered learning. As part of the Introduction to Communications Research class, students must conduct an interview with someone on campus. As part of the final assignment submission, students complete a self-assessment. “One of the important parts of my evaluation of their interview [assignment] isn’t what they learned or didn’t from the interviewee,” he said. “It’s the process of ‘did you feel comfortable?’ and ‘If you were to do this again what would you do differently?’”
Tedesco offered a number of tips to help faculty embrace a learner-centered approach in the classroom. The first starts even before the semester officially begins – with syllabus construction. “You want to give students a template for the semester,” he said. “Even more so now than when I started teaching [25 years ago], the syllabus is seen as a contract, so having clarity on that is important.”
Allowing students to find and own their voice throughout the semester is also key, he said. “Always have an opportunity for students to talk in every lecture,” he said. “I think you can lose them really quickly if they’re not engaged in an activity, and it helps me understand that they’ve understood the assignment, and that the scope and breadth are at the level I was expecting.”
Finally, embrace both mid-semester evaluations and constant feedback. “Let [the students] school you when things aren’t working,” he said. “I want to know so that I can fix it instead of waiting until the semester ends and getting zinged.
“Students have to feel a part of the evaluation process,” he continued. “Give them ways they feel like they’re influencing the class and you’ll get investment or engagement in ways you might not have had it before.”