WILLIMANTIC, Conn. — James Diller, associate professor of psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University, was honored with the System-Wide Teaching Award for the 2015-16 academic year by the Board of Regents for Higher Education, the governing entity of the 17 Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU). With hundreds of faculty to choose from in the system, two awards are given annually — one to a university faculty member and one to a community college faculty member.
“Some professors are skilled as lecturers, others excel in designing innovative approaches in class, and some elicit excellent discussions among their students,” said Eastern Provost Dimitrios Pachis. “There are also professors who stand out as mentors, impacting students in a profound and life-changing way. James Diller excels at all of these.”
Diller, who has been on the Eastern faculty for eight years, is an expert in the psychological field of behavior analysis, and derives his teaching methods from the field. “One of the tenants of radical behaviorism as it relates to education is that the learner is always right,” said Diller. “If your learner isn’t doing something that they should be, that’s something about the environment, something about the instruction, instead of necessarily a flaw with that person.”
Connor Patros ’11, a former student of Diller’s, said of his teaching: “He has an uncanny ability to recognize when students are having difficulty grasping complex concepts, and is able to modify his teaching accordingly.”
Diller ensures his students’ success through frequent assessment, providing immediate feedback and offering opportunities for remediation when they perform poorly. He engages students by asking a lot of questions and summoning participation through ‘choral responding,’ the use of response cards and other creative tactics. “The more engagement that can be fostered, the better the learning outcome,” explained Diller.
Mentoring is perhaps Diller’s most exceptional area of teaching. “James is gifted in his ability to recognize and encourage students with potential,” said Pachis. “The gauge of his success is the achievements of his students” — many of whom, as undergraduates, have been published in research articles and presented in prestigious conferences across the country.
“The ability to mentor students is absolutely one of the best parts of my job,” says Diller. “A lot of students underestimate what they can do. They’re not sure they would be able to present at a conference or write a paper for publication, but they see they can do those things after working closely with a faculty mentor.”
Diller is also a prolific researcher within the area of behavior analysis, and turns his scholarly pursuits into opportunities for his students. “I have several published papers with student coauthors,” he said. “I’ve been able to advance my research agenda while training them to conduct research and write and do other professional things that will be important to them when they go onto graduate school or into their careers.” Diller acknowledges that if he worked at a larger school, this sort of research and access to faculty would be happening only for graduate students.
“James is quite simply the most gifted and committed teacher I have known,” said Eastern Professor Kristalyn Salters-Peneault, a colleague of Diller’s in the Psychology Department. “It is no coincidence that so many of James’ students go onto master’s and doctoral programs.”
“Dr. Diller is entirely responsible for my current status as a doctoral candidate,” said Patros, who is enrolled in the Oklahoma State University Clinical Psychology Doctoral Program. “I have been in the university setting for the previous eight years and have yet to meet an individual with the teaching and mentoring ability exhibited by Dr. Diller.”
Patros commented that while in pursuit of his graduate degree — upon seeing his impressive resume of nine professional posters, a publication and several conference presentations — peers assumed he already had a master’s degree. “I think that’s the best thing I can do,” said Diller. “To train undergraduates as if they are graduate students and give them a head start on the next part of their career.”