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Leonard Wins UMass Amherst Distinguished Teaching Award

William Leonard

Dr. William Leonard, a senior lecturer in the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department, has been chosen by the Office of the Provost to receive a 2015 University of Massachusetts Amherst Distinguished Teaching Award (DTA). The purpose of the DTA program, a feature of the UMass Amherst campus for 40 years, is to honor exemplary teaching at the highest institutional level. Both faculty and graduate students, nominated by students or alumni, are eligible for this highly competitive award.  DTA winners are honored at both the Undergraduate and Graduate Commencements.

As the awards letter to Leonard explained, “The DTA is the only student-initiated award for teaching on campus, and it is especially significant to receive recognition for your skill in teaching by the students who take your classes. At the center of every educational institution is teaching, and we applaud you for helping to make the University of Massachusetts Amherst an institution that honors our students and propels them into their future through teaching excellence.”

Dr. Leonard will receive a $3,500 monetary award and a plaque, in addition to being recognized at the UMass Honors Dinner which will be held on Wednesday, April 22, 2015 at 6:00 p.m. in the Campus Center Auditorium.

As one student wrote about Leonard in his nomination letter for the Distinguished Teaching award, “A distinguishable and outstanding teacher stands above all others, not just because he/she knows the material, nor just because he/she is a good lecturer; but because the highest degree of perfection, the pride that has been taken, and his/her professionalism in instructing becomes so remarkable it makes people yearn to be that person. [Dr.] Leonard exemplifies all of these attributes daily and is hands down the best educator I have had in my 26 years.”

Among other teaching honors, Leonard has received: the IEEE/ASEE Frontiers in Education Conference Benjamin J. Dasher Award (with C.V. Hollot and W.J. Gerace, 2009); a MERLOT Award for Exemplary Online Learning Resources (with I.D. Beatty and R.J. Dufresne, 2009); the UMass Amherst College of Engineering Outstanding Teaching Award (2009); and a UMass Amherst Distinguished Teaching Award (graduate student category, 1995). 

Leonard earned his Ph.D. in physics at UMass Amherst in 1988, and his research is about “learning.” It deals with engineering education, rate of learning models, expert-novice differences, alternative assessments, and his invention of “Mastery” learning.

In the Mastery-learning approach, there are no midterms, no final exam, no weekly quizzes, and no traditional homework. Instead, students work through a set of 16 online modules, for which there is incentive to earn a perfect score, and additional incentive to do so before they are due.  To earn at least a C, a student needs to master at least 9 or 10 modules.

As ECE Department Head Christopher Hollot wrote, “It was clear to me from day one that Bill was a very, very special teacher. He thinks deeply about how students learn, he cares about students, and he invests enormous amounts of time and energy in his craft. He made a keen observation in his first pass through these circuits courses; i.e., that due to partial-credit scoring in exams, students can pass the course with only partial knowledge of key topics and that this has detrimental effect on both student learning and on our program. This observation was the basis for his invention of Mastery, its application to our circuits courses, its continued refinement and his receipt in 2009 of the Benjamin J. Dasher Best Paper Award, given by the American Society of Engineering Education.”

Leonard is universally adored by our undergraduates, as demonstrated by how he regularly dominates the end-of-year student award for ECE Best Teacher. Faculty members jokingly mention that this award should be renamed the “Leonard Teaching Award” so that other ECE faculty members have a chance to win.

“There is absolutely no reason why an instructor should go out of his or her way to make a course hard,” one of Leonard’s students explained. “After all, I am not paying the university to teach myself! The courses [Dr.] Leonard teaches are very tough; but because of the pride he has taken in educating the youth, he has made learning the material easy. He provides all of his lectures online, which are imperative for days you truly cannot make it to class. He also provides pre-class exercises, in-class exercises, and sometimes makes us do complex calculations in class to make sure we know what we are doing.”

“In closing,” Hollot added, “Bill Leonard has a deep and rich teaching persona. My mental model of this has three layers. The first layer is one of a very caring and approachable teacher; the second is one of tough love characterized by high standards and a willingness to make hard and unpopular decisions; and the third is one of learning and adaptation. Bill doesn’t rest. He is always in improvement mode and incorporates feedback that he receives from both student and colleagues.” (April 2015)