Penn State Berks Professor Lolita Paff receives Eisenhower Award for Distinguished Teaching

Written by Lisa R. Baldi, Director of Strategic Communications at Penn State Berks.

Lolita Paff, associate professor of business and economics at Penn State Berks, is the recipient of Penn State’s 2024 Milton S. Eisenhower Award for Distinguished Teaching. The award is presented to only two faculty members annually. It is the most prestigious award that a faculty member can receive, recognizing excellence in teaching and student support.

Paff said educating her students comes only after she’s able to connect with them. Many of her students are first-generation students so her initial goal is to make herself relatable and approachable in order to promote a collaborative learning experience.

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“It’s important for students to realize — and healthy for teachers to remember — that today’s expert was yesterday’s novice,” Paff said. “I often share my first-gen experiences as I seek to build community by learning students’ names, integrating opportunities for them to get to know each other, facilitating collaboration inside and outside the classroom, reaching out when a student is absent and encouraging office visits. These behaviors demonstrate caring because many students won’t care what you know, or want to learn it until they know you care.”

Paff said she wants to share her enthusiasm for the subject matter and get students excited about the material. Topics such as accounting or microeconomics may seem foreign, so she said it’s her job to apply the field in a relatable way. She spurs interest through classroom activities like a cookie market or creating greeting cards to demonstrate core principles in action. She also finds out what students are interested in and adds those selected topics to her lesson plans.

“When we are interested, we pay closer attention, make more connections and work harder,” Paff said. “My goal is for all students to connect the content to their lived experiences.”

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In an effort to enable her students to become independent learners, one of her goals, she said, is to provide them with the tools they’ll need to advance broadly in college. Many are first- or second-year students, so she begins with detailed learning practices, such as study topic lists, timelines and practice sets. Later, she gives students more freedom as they shift to student-created learning plans, self-assessments and peer feedback. In her advanced courses, she shares some decision-making regarding topic weights, deadlines, and most recently in the use of generative A.I.

“Throughout, I strive to integrate a variety of means for students to demonstrate learning, recognizing that neurodiversity presents in every course,” she said. “Aware of the semester’s rhythms, I avoid exams and major assessments during intellectual lulls and high-stress periods like the week before break or right after THON. I also schedule material students find interesting near the end of the term, when motivation is likely to wane.”

Because learning also comes with its challenges, Paff said she balances her high expectations with kindness. She lets students revise submitted assignments so they can learn from their mistakes.

“Allowing revised submission supports learning, emphasizing process over product,” Paff said. “These practices promote intrinsic motivation and tenacity, encouraging students to safely take risks in their learning. In this environment, mistakes aren’t failures; they are an integral part of growth and mastery.”

Todd Migliaccio, vice chancellor and chief academic officer, stated, “Dr. Paff is a dedicated faculty member, not just in developing her pedagogy but in the educational experience of her students. She is consistently aware that student success is dependent upon her willingness to grow as teacher and implements the best way with which to engage them in the learning process. She readily shares her knowledge with her colleagues, making those around her better teachers, for she knows this experience is a collective endeavor. Her focus on providing learner-centered instruction is recognized beyond our campus, and this award represents the impact that she brings to her work as an educator. She truly exemplifies the impactful and important teaching that makes Penn State Berks a community of learners.” 

Paff’s teaching portfolio highlighted six key areas: innovation in teaching, equity and inclusion in teaching, service to undergraduate teaching and learning, teaching and learning scholarship, instructional development activities and mentoring for teaching.

Innovation in Teaching

Nominators said Paff takes a personalized approach to education, engaging them in the topics while making them feel part of the learning process.

“The most unique part of Dr. Paff’s teaching was how she allowed each student to personalize their learning throughout the class. Each student was able to choose a topic of personal interest to research through the lens of microeconomic concepts throughout the semester,” a former student said. “Dr. Paff worked with me throughout the semester to help bring my research to life and understand my data. I think a sign of great teaching is when a student leaves the classroom changed: more inspired, more informed and more competent. What I learned in Dr. Paff’s class was greatly informative and impactful to me then and now, inside, and outside of the classroom.”

Equity and Inclusion in Teaching
Paff is a member of the college’s Anti-racism Across the Curriculum (AAC) group. AAC promotes inclusion of race in courses that are not explicitly focused on diversity. With the AAC’s guidance, Paff integrated antiracism resources, data and primary literature to decenter whiteness in introductory microeconomics.

Paff has also been recognized with Penn State’s OAER Champion Award for her development and publication of several open-source textbooks.

One of her former students commended Paff’s commitment to providing open access textbooks: “One of the first striking differences in this course was the accessibility of the textbook. Unlike other courses where expensive textbooks often felt disjointed from the curriculum, Accounting 211 featured a textbook with free access, written by Dr. Paff herself. This unique approach ensured a seamless alignment between the textbook content and the course material, eliminating any doubts about the relevance of what I was studying.”

Service to Undergraduate Teaching and Learning

Paff has served as founding co-chair of the Penn State Berks Learner-Centered Culture Steering Committee, which identifies topics and facilitates two colloquia per semester to advance a learner-centered culture in accordance with the college’s strategic plan. She is also on the Penn State Berks Center for Learning and Teaching Advisory Board.

External to Penn State, Paff has served more than a decade on the Teaching Professor Conference Board and is a reviewer for College Teaching, an interdisciplinary pedagogy journal.

Teaching and Learning Scholarship / Instructional Development Activities

With a commitment to pedagogy, Paff has given numerous conference keynote presentations and facilitated workshops internationally. Most recently she presented “ChatGPT & STEM: Teaching strategies to outsmart the robot” at the STEM Educators Online Conference.

In addition, she has authored and co-authored peer-reviewed articles and received several pedagogy-related grants.

Mentoring for Teaching

Paff takes her role as a mentor seriously. In addition to mentoring colleagues at Penn State Berks, Paff visited Duy Tan University in Danang, Vietnam as part of a pedagogy collaboration with Penn State Berks during the summers of 2011 and 2012. In this Train-the-Trainer / Faculty Mentoring Program, she met with faculty teaching microeconomics, financial accounting, and financial statement analysis courses to promote the use of active learning strategies.

Established in 1992, the Milton S. Eisenhower Award for Distinguished Teaching is presented to just one faculty member at all of Penn State’s Commonwealth Campuses and one faculty member at University Park. It is the highest award that a faculty member can receive and it recognizes excellence in teaching and student support among tenured faculty who have been employed full time for at least five years with undergraduate teaching as a major portion of their duties. Milton S. Eisenhower, brother of former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, served as president of Penn State from 1950 to 1956.

Paff is the fourth Penn State Berks professor to receive the award. Past recipients include Brenda Russell, professor of psychology; Ike Shibley, associate professor of chemistry, and Maryellen Weimer, professor emeritus of speech communication.

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