Arts & Sciences

CTL Teaching Spotlight Series: Thomas Shomer on why he loves teaching math — and how he helps students love it, too

This Q&A is part of the “Teaching Spotlight Series.” Hosted through the Center for Teaching and Learning, this interview series pays special attention to teaching as a profession and vocation at Marquette. All kinds of instructors and faculty will be profiled in this series. Graduate student instructors, new faculty, associate professors, adjunct or full-time participating faculty, staff who teach our students or part of a collaborative teaching core on campus: We want to shine a light on great things happening everywhere on campus!

Thomas Shomer
Ph.D. student, Mathematical and Statistical Sciences
Klingler College of Arts and Sciences
Teaching at Marquette since fall 2021

What do you find rewarding about teaching?

What I find most rewarding is seeing other students improve in a math class with my help. It is such a nice feeling when, after working with students for long enough, they do better on the next exam or on the next attempt of a problem set.

What led you to teaching as your career or part of it?

I was mainly brought to teaching through COVID. After I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2020, it was difficult to find a job in my expected field. So, I started working as an online math tutor, and it felt much more fun compared to my initial plan. In an interesting way, COVID actually helped me get a better understanding of what I want to do as a career.

What do you hope students learn from your teaching?

I hope students learn from my teaching that there are people out there who are not just doing their job begrudgingly.

There are people like me who enjoy what they do because of the impact it could have on other people’s lives. Many new educators are striving to not repeat the bad habits of previous generations.

Some of the key bad habits include taking off the majority of points from an exam problem due to a simple algebra mistake and setting up minimal office hours while deferring to various teaching assistants if students need help. College classes should be created under the assumption that the professor is the main person to teach students the material. This is why my graduate research focuses on the most optimal teaching strategies to address students’ common errors when it comes to probability and statistics. A teacher’s and professor’s goal should be to help the next generation learn; not to hand out F’s.

Which special challenges do you think educators face today?

One of the main issues that educators are dealing with now is free online AI services such as ChatGPT. For math classes, these services are not a new problem. Earlier resources such as WolframAlpha can already solve many math problems we give to students for homework and online quizzes. This problem is addressed by having in-person exams. So, if students cheat, then they only hurt themselves in the long run. ChatGPT is mainly causing issues for classes with essays as the key source of points in the rubric like English and social science classes. Due to ChatGPT, I can see many classes resorting to either in-person essays or longer take-home research projects.

Equations from Thomas Shomer’s discussion.

What are your favorite tips for people starting to teach in your field or generally?

If you have the funds to support this idea and no one has a severe allergy to what you bring, my number one tip is to bring food and/or candy to class. From my experience, it helps students relax before class starts and the class does not feel as boring as it may have been without it. Since there is likely a few minutes before class starts where most students are present, you can have them grab food/candy at that moment so class will not be interrupted. I only have the means to provide snacks and candy for days before and after exams (to help relieve stress from said exam), but I would even encourage some easy-to-package breakfast foods if it is a morning class, or some dinner equivalent for three-hour long afternoon/evening classes.

How do you seek student feedback about your teaching, and how does this feedback inform (or not) your teaching practice?

I seek student feedback by sending a survey out to all students in my discussions near the end of the semester that they can respond to anonymously. The only two parts of the survey are for them to rate me out of 5 stars and write anything they want about the discussions in a text box. This provides a concrete set of data that I can use to estimate my teaching ability. On average, about half of my students fill out the survey and all of them have been positive. There could be some bias in those results because students may not want to leave a terrible review while they are still in my discussion, but half of my students leaving a good review still is not bad.

Non-astonishing teaching tip time! Please share one favorite thing you do in class or with your students that you think everyone should try. Limit yourself to three sentences.

In my first semester as a teaching assistant, my professor had a quiz once a week where the problem on the quiz was randomly chosen from selected homework problems. To randomly choose the problem, I had a student volunteer to roll a die where each outcome corresponded to a different problem. This was exciting for my students as they would anxiously watch the die, hoping I would not give them the difficult problem.

Thomas Shomer spreading holiday cheer.

If you would like to recommend someone you know (or yourself!) to be profiled in this series, email Please provide a very brief description about the educator and/or why you think they should be highlighted. After consideration, the CTL will contact your nominee to start the interview process, which will entail the educator responding in writing briefly to different interview questions from a menu of choices.