Shank Wins ‘Excellence-In-Teaching-Citations’ Award With Attentive Communication Philosophy

Scott Shank, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication, is a 2024 recipient of Michigan State University’s Excellence-In-Teaching Citations award.

As a researcher, Shank focuses on communication within organizations — specifically, how new employees are socialized into workgroups, how group norms are conveyed to newcomers, and the extent to which those factors can assist a new employee to adjusting within the organization, even above and beyond what formal trainings and onboarding can do.

He also looks at things like the calibration of communication between employees and managers, which is something he has been able to keep in perspective and put into practice while teaching.

Since the “right amount” of communication that a person expects from their manager can vary drastically, Shank notes that it can be challenging to appraise — and does require the manager to put in extra effort to be attentive to those needs and preferences.

“People tend to be forgiving of managers that over-communicate,” Shank advised.

However, if the employee feels that their manager isn’t communicating as much as they would like or need ... “That can have some negative impacts on the relationship, and also perceptions that the employee has everything they need to do their job,” Shank said.

On the flip side, he said, “The employee can ask, ‘What can I do to be actively involved in getting the relevant information I need from my manager?’ Because I think sometimes employees just kind of expect the manager to take the initiative. They don’t want to bother them.”

Knowing this has influenced the way that Shank communicates and sets expectations with his students. Since undergraduates often lack this kind of organizational experience, Shank said they may be hesitant to take the initiative to seek the information they need — placing more of the responsibility on the educator to actively provide the level of communication their students require, while also keeping in mind that each student may be different.

“Some need very minimal communication and guidance and they’re just cruising along, whereas others need almost continuous coaching for them to really grow and develop. So, from what I research in leadership and organizational effectiveness, I simplify it when I’m teaching.”

Challenge, Feedback and Support

Shank said there are three things that he tends to look for in appropriate amounts: challenge, feedback and level of support. After all, just like within a professional organization, there is no one-size-fits-all answer for students.

When Shank is planning for his courses, he said he tries to structure a course to build in some of the challenge, feedback and support upfront — but to do so in a way that frees up some of his time to develop more individualized relationships with students and get a sense of their unique needs.

“You get to know the students so you can understand if you need to push them a little bit more to challenge them — or if you’re like, oh, this person is borderline overwhelmed; they need more support,” he said.

How he approaches a class with 29 students versus a class with 240 students will be different. For instance, Shank said his larger 200-level class would have more structure and guidance. With those larger groups, he proposes routines that students may want to consider to be successful in the course, along with providing variety for how students can engage with the materials, like podcasts and video lectures.

However, with his smaller groups — like one course Shank teaches on groups and teams — he provides less structure and allows student teams to be more autonomous with their decision making.

“I’m really upfront with this at first,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Okay, you are a self-managed team.’” He explains that his role as their teacher is to provide clarity with what the deliverables are and provide resources to use along the way ... but ultimately, it’s up to the students to decide how their teams schedule and coordinate to accomplish their goals.

“That’s part of the purpose of this class,” Shank said. “And for the first several weeks, students are really confused. They’re kind of disappointed with me; they’re not enjoying the experience. But by week six, the dots are connected.”

Shank said he especially enjoys teaching the 300 and 400-level project-based courses like these and likes to simulate situations his students might experience in the workplace — all while monitoring the appropriate amount of challenge, feedback and support those students need.

“If I have my own teaching philosophy, it really gears around identifying those three things,” he said.  “If I can play my part to help them manage those three, that to me is where a lot of the learning and development happens.”

As for his own learning and development, Shank said he’s been inspired by his mentors, Vernon Miller and Jim Dearing, and his colleagues in the Department of Communication. While he had experience teaching before coming to MSU, Shank hadn’t settled into his teaching philosophy until this leg of his journey.

“I’m very grateful to be in the situation where I was able to learn from people with incredible expertise on the topics I teach. I was able to learn from people that kind of rubbed off on me; things like constant experimentation and innovation with teaching,” Shank said. “Based upon the experiences teaching here, I really have what I would call a refined set of goals and objectives that I try to accomplish when I have the privilege of teaching our Spartan students.”


—Jessica Mussell


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Excellence-In-Teaching Citations Award