Teaching Fellow Prepares Students to Work in Special Education

Set clear expectations, be organized, be flexible, and show enthusiasm. These are a few of Joseph Madaus’s guidelines for successful teaching.

An associate professor of educational psychology in the Neag School of Education, Madaus prepares teachers who will work with students with disabilities in settings ranging from kindergarten to higher education.

He came to UConn in 1997 as associate director of the University Program for College Students with Learning Disabilities, and began teaching in 1998.

Clear Expectations

<p>Joseph Madaus, associate professor of educational psychology, teaching a class in the Gentry Building. Photo by Jessica Tommaselli  </p>
Joseph Madaus, associate professor of educational psychology, teaching a class in the Gentry Building. Photo by Jessica Tommaselli

Madaus, who was named a 2008 University of Connecticut Teaching Fellow, says it’s important for professors to set very clear expectations and standards for students: “Teachers need to help students understand what these are, whether it’s an assignment, an exam, or a presentation.”

He says he tries to put his students in the shoes of someone with a disability.

“For example, I’ll create situations where I’ll intentionally interfere with my students’ learning,” he says.

“I make the task hard for them. I might give them a reading passage that is distorted or misspelled, and they have to read it quickly and respond. Then we’ll have a discussion: What does this mean? How did you feel? How could we have done this differently or better? I try to get them to understand what it’s like to be a student who’s struggling in a class.”

Madaus uses PowerPoint presentations and short videos in his classes, and brings in guest speakers. Students with disabilities often speak to his classes on exceptionality.

To make discussions of special education law more effective, he has students read transcripts of cases and present them to a “judge” – their classmates.

“It brings the situations to life,” he says.

Learning from Mentors

Madaus says he owes some of his success to former teachers. “I picked up tips from the professors I had that I thought were most effective,” he says. He advises his students to do the same.

“I tell my students to watch their teachers,” he says. “Take what they do well and use it, and identify what you didn’t like or found ineffective. It worked for me.”

Melissa Skiba, a former student, says Madaus “truly cares about his students and is dedicated to the quality of education they receive.”

She noted that he took “great time and effort in grading assignments. For every paper or project submitted, whether it was a two-page reflection or a 10-page psychoeducational report, Dr. Madaus included thorough and meaningful comments to ensure that his students understood exactly what they did correctly and what they could improve.”

Katelyn Anderson, another former student, describes Madaus as an “exemplary instructor in the field of special education. He truly possesses a wealth of knowledge in the areas he teaches,” she says.

Former student Kristen Luttati says, “Dr. Madaus has deeply impacted my experiences at the University of Connecticut and my experiences now as a teacher. His support and guidance continues to influence my growth as a special educator.”

Madaus says it’s important for students to feel that they’re part of the community.

“We need to let students know that we’re concerned about their growth and learning,” he says, noting that he tries to learn the names of all his students and something about their interests outside the classroom.

He also makes a point of responding to e-mails in a timely manner. “These sorts of things help build the sense of community, he says, “and the students feel they’re an important part of the class.”

Regular Feedback

Madaus also makes an effort to give students detailed and individual feedback about their progress.

For example, in an undergraduate assessment course, there’s a large case study due at the end of the semester, he says. It’s broken down into sections, with the first two sections due one week and the other the following week.

Students bring in drafts to share with Madaus and their classmates, and he gives feedback at each stage.

Students in special education need excellent writing skills, Madaus says: “I try to impress upon them that writing is a professional skill. They need to be able to write well because they’ll be presenting their results in a written report that will become an official document in the school. They need to be as clear and accurate as possible.”

What does Madaus hope students will take from his courses? “I want them to see that students with disabilities have incredible potential.”