Education Professor Tom Smith doesn’t mince words about the challenging aspect of what he teaches at NIU.
“There’s no getting around the fact the classes I teach are technical,” Smith said matter-of-factly.
Statistics, data analysis and research methodology are among the courses which can be daunting to students, but Smith has used his personality and mentoring skills to lead students since arriving at NIU in 2000.
Smith’s legacy over the last 17 years also includes being a key factor in making more classes available online in the College of Education and within his department. He’s recognized for devoting considerable time to serving on numerous doctoral committees. Smith’s body of work recently earned him university recognition with a Presidential Teaching Professorship Award.
In her letter nominating Smith, Professor Elizabeth Wilkins points out that the statistics classes taught by Smith are “categorically unpopular” and create “high levels of anxiety” among students. Smith counters all of that with humor as part of his special approach to the class.
“He not only builds students’ knowledge base, but also masterfully lowers their stress levels and develops such interest in statistics that many of them take additional classes ….” Wilkins wrote. “Students often describe his teaching as ‘calming, reassuring, confidence-building and funny.’ Yes, students have confirmed that Dr. Smith has a dry wit and brings humor to an extremely dry topic.”
Associate Professor Pi-Sui Hsu also highlighted Smith’s dedication in the classroom and on numerous committees.
“His office is always open to students, and he is available to them outside of class for help,” Hsu explained. “Students respect him as a great teacher and a great researcher. As his colleague, I am inspired by his teaching excellence and by the qualities he exhibits as a great professor.”
Smith credits his colleagues for their support throughout the years, adding he was “awed” by the recognition they offered that led to the award. As meaningful has been the experiences with students, which sometimes extend beyond their years on campus.
In one instance, he joined a former student – at her request – to assist with research that linked anxiety to premature gray muzzles in dogs and resulted in a published paper that went viral by appearing in hundreds of news outlets worldwide.
“That’s really fulfilling,” he said of that full-circle experience.