The Graduate Student Postdoc Spotlight features interviews with graduate students and postdocs doing innovative teaching work at WashU. Look out for future installments of this monthly column on our website.
“My first goal in teaching is trying to make the material relevant. Sometimes students take classes because they fit into their schedule or fulfill a requirement. I know what it feels like to be sitting in class saying, how will I ever use this? Even if it’s a small way of connecting content with their future goals, it goes a long way to keeping them engaged,” said Meagan Pilar, MPH, a doctoral student in Public Health Sciences in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. Meagan taught a program evaluation course and also participates in mentored teaching at the university.
Meagan has a Bachelor’s degree in exercise science and German from McDaniel College. After graduating in 2012, she moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where she spent the next two years teaching and studying at the University of Kentucky’s Master of Public Health program. Upon graduating in 2016 with a concentration in health behavior, Meagan spent a year working as an adjunct faculty member and a research project coordinator for two faculty members in the University of Kentucky’s College of Public Health.
At WashU, Meagan works in the Dissemination and Implementation Research Core (DIRC) at the Institute of Clinical and Translational Sciences, and the Prevention Research Center (PRC-StL), which explores behaviors that put people at risk for chronic diseases such as obesity, cancer, and diabetes. Her research interests include implementation science, mental health services, and racial and ethnic health disparities.
In an interview with the Center for Teaching and Learning, Meagan highlighted the importance of making course material relevant for students. She also discussed how cultivating a community can help improve one’s teaching.
How did you become interested in public health?
I started off in pre-med and then I moved to kinesiology. I focused on health and wellness and making an impact at an individual level. The more I started learning, I thought, there needs to be a population impact. In 2010, I didn’t know public health was a thing. It wasn’t a major at my college. Once I read about it, I was like, this is what I was talking about! When I went back to get my masters, there was no question that it would be public health. It’s about looking at groups of people at the community, state, and national level.
What was your first teaching job and what did you take away from it?
Years ago, I taught an online class called career and professional development. I had a great mentor who taught the class before. I had never taken an online class or taught one before. She walked me through the process. She told me how to encourage engagement since it wasn’t a traditional classroom.
What was your experience like working as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Kentucky?
The University of Kentucky had a certificate program for college teaching and learning, and I learned about community-based service learning (CBSL). A year later, I got to design my own course for the College of Public Health. I decided to create a CBSL course on nutrition and fitness where students engage with their surroundings. It makes the material more hands-on.
There was a lot of growth and progress with the course. I spoke to colleagues who had designed CBSL courses and they said it took a good year of planning. I had three months. I got overall positive feedback from the students. It was the most labor-intensive course I’ve ever taught, but also the most fun. We had partnerships within community. Some students talked about working at an after school program, and others worked in drug rehabilitation programs and tried to incorporate health and wellness into that.
How does your research influence your teaching?
I’m very interested in measurement in public health. Right now, it’s about how we measure impacts in policy. I like being able to look and have data to back up what students are learning and thinking. It provides continuous quality improvement. There’s always a way to make learning better, but you don’t know that unless you’re measuring all along. Especially at the University of Kentucky, I was doing a lot of check ins and exit slips, and the students all asked why. I said, bear with me, there’s a method.
What are your goals in the classroom?
My first goal in teaching is trying to make the material relevant. Sometimes students take classes because they fit into their schedule or fulfill a requirement. I know what it feels like to be sitting in class saying, how will I ever use this? Even if it’s a small way of connecting content with their future goals, it goes a long way to keeping them engaged. In the program evaluation class that I taught at WashU, sometimes I was talking to them about research methods and I saw their eyes glaze over. I’d say, you’ll be doing this but on a different scale. What might this look like with your client? What information might you get to make sure your sessions are as helpful to them as they can be? Making that connection is important.
What are some of the challenges of teaching, and how do you address them?
You have to remember there’s a limited number of hours in the day. You can spend way too much time creating the perfect assessments and rubrics and going over lectures. Perfection is the enemy of progress. You have to recognize that the first time you teach a course especially, there will be kinks to work out. A course gets better the more you teach it. Balancing responsibilities and priorities are important. Last semester I spent so much time on the course to the detriment of other things, which was a good learning experience.
How has The Center for Teaching and Learning enriched your teaching?
I love the workshops. I love the sense of community it has cultivated here and getting to geek out with other students about best practices in teaching. It’s a really awesome opportunity to engage with other people who believe that teaching is not a chore; it’s its own discipline.
What advice do you have for graduate students who are teaching or considering teaching?
Take advantage of all available resources, whether it’s peers, faculty, or on-campus resources like the Center for Teaching and Learning. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel in some cases. Also, just being kind to yourself. It will not be perfect the first time or ever, because there’s always room for improvement. Extend that grace, that it’s a learning process and we’re all in it, and there are people who want to help and support you.
What was one of your most influential classes?
It was a measurement course during my Master’s program. My professor, Christina Studts (Visiting Associate Professor, Pediatrics-General Pediatrics, University of Colorado School of Medicine) became my advisor, boss, and friend. The course covered topics including how to develop a survey and what types of data will lend to statistical analyses. It taught me how data can shape your study and also improve the overall process.
Who are some of your favorite teachers, and why?
I took a seminar freshman year from Mohamed Esa (German professor in McDaniel College’s World Languages, Literature and Culture department). I ended up having him all four years. I TA’ed for his class and he was my capstone advisor. He brought this energy into the classroom. He was so passionate about the German language. He did a program every year, German American Day, where brought high schoolers around Maryland to our college to engage with German culture. I graduated in 2012 and I went back every year except last year to help out with the event and host a workshop. He was one of those faculty members who just makes an impact on students and is a lifelong connection.