In Conversation with Dr. Haniya Azam, Awardee Vice Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence 2021-22
Dr. Haniya Azam is recognised by her students and colleagues at LUMS and young students who participate in Math Circles, as an exceptional teacher dedicated to helping all students master mathematics. She identifies students’ anxiety about mathematics and then takes them on a journey to build their understanding of (often abstract) mathematical concepts. She does this through meticulous design of her courses, engaging lectures and demonstrations, and a range of assessment tasks and feedback.
Dr. Azam invests in building learning environments inside and outside the classroom where all students feel welcome to engage, to question, and feel supported to learn. As one student said, “Dr. Azam is one of those educators who takes interest in and supports students’ personal and professional development. For an institution like LUMS where students come from diverse backgrounds, instructors like Dr. Azam make this journey invigorating and rewarding.” This is a true testament to Dr. Azam’s unwavering commitment to going above and beyond to help her students to learn.
We sat down with Dr. Azam to learn more about her teaching philosophy, her thoughts on winning the award and what motivates her. Here is what she had to say.
What does winning the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence mean to you?
I am very grateful and honoured. But I think predominately, I feel a huge sense of responsibility. Before this, my goal was just to improve as a teacher, but now I feel this is something that I need to uphold.
What inspired you to become a teacher?
I love teaching! Teaching has never been a burden or chore for me; it feels very natural. If you ask me to switch to a purely research position, that wouldn't be for me. I wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t have this contact with students in the classroom. Personally, I suffered with the online mode of teaching during COVID-19, because I couldn’t see my students’ faces, and couldn’t see their eyes. I like to have this physical interaction with students. It’s something that drives me.
Have any of your own teachers inspired your teaching style?
I’ve been fortunate to have really good teachers, especially during the graduate part of my studies. I’ve had all kinds of instructors and they have all had an impact on my teaching. I’ve had teachers who would take you from step one of a concept to step ten, and then I've had teachers who would just walk into a classroom, and would start with a bang, and then open the concept up for you bit by bit. I do a bit of both in my courses, depending on what I’m teaching. At times it helps to go in a more linear fashion, and at times it's better to give them the big picture first and then unravel it.
What innovative strategies and techniques do you practice to keep students excited about learning?
The first challenge in teaching math is addressing the anxiety it brings in students. Unless you ease that, it’s like a wall exists between you and the student that you just cannot penetrate.
My strategies for that are fairly simple. I sometimes make small intentional 'mistakes' of a computational nature. So when someone in class is able to point them out, I acknowledge them and make corrections reinforcing then notions being taught. Just the fact that they pointed out a mistake in my calculation gives them some confidence in their ability.
A math instructor always has to be patient and very persistent. It takes some time and eventually they warm up to the subject. I try to give students these small opportunities to feel good about themselves so as to engage and ask questions. It can be very hard to ask a math instructor questions. I remember my time as a student, I would keep debating half of the time if the question I had was stupid. Which is why I truly appreciate when my students ask questions.
Amongst your various achievements, what is one as a teacher that you are most proud of?
I’ve received lots of feedback at the end of the term by students, regardless of their grade, telling me that my course has restored their confidence in their ability to do mathematics. That is a huge prize for me, because this feedback comes straight from the heart. When there are students who want to do mathematics but their motivation has taken a nosedive, and you are able to lift them up - I consider that a big achievement.
Mathematics has a direct bearing on their ability to think critically, no matter what situation or context. I take pride in playing my part in preparing them for challenges that lie ahead once they have graduated, which require analytical and problem-solving skills. I cherish the love for math that I am able to instil in some, if not all, of my students. Most of all, I truly value the opportunity to set aside the math anxiety for all of my students through my teaching practice.
How have interactions with your students informed your teaching throughout your career?
LUMS was my first job. In my first semester, it felt like I was thrown in front of a class of 150 students with very diverse backgrounds. Primarily because I had no idea what to do. But in the course of the semester, I realised that the students aren’t me. They don’t learn the way I learn, so I need to adapt. That’s the lesson I got right from the start; that I need to adapt and be on my toes and stay flexible. Experience gradually taught me how to achieve that.
I always try to take all my students along on the journey. In any given class, I have students who are really good at math, students who are somewhere in the middle and some who are struggling. It used to be very challenging for me in the beginning but it isn’t anymore, and now I’m used to designing and delivering my lectures in a way that they are offer something for everyone.
I also acquire feedback at multiple levels. I interact with my students while I’m teaching, I interact with my advisees and with my TAs. My teaching practice is then informed by all this feedback.