Students come to college for a variety of reasons. Some come to develop specific professional skills, some come to explore potential career paths, some come to grow as individuals. There is an equally wide range of motivational underpinnings for which students enroll in any particular class. As a teacher I am sympathetic to the myriad reasons students have for taking classes, and I strive to cater to the diverse needs and interests of any group of students. But ultimately my goal is for students to develop critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, and a deeper connection to the world around them. Broader goals like these transcend individual course objectives, while enhancing day-to-day learning outcomes, long-term retention, and mastery of course content.
In practical terms, pursuing these goals can be a challenge, and my preferred approach is constantly in flux as I learn more about how learning works. However, some of my more fundamental beliefs about how best to approach teaching have been reinforced throughout my own education, and more recently through my interest in evidence based pedagogy. First and foremost, it’s clear that students learn best through direct engagement. Educators can encourage engagement in the classroom many ways, but we are most effective when we choose activities carefully, and intentionally.
Tested strategies exist for engaging students inside the classroom, and course design choices can and should draw on the most up-to-date research. Active learning is not a new concept, but methodologies for its effective implementation are constantly being developed and refined to better serve the diverse range of students enrolling in college. As an instructor, I owe it to students to update course design to stay in line with tested and effective teaching methods, and utilize the available tools which are constantly being improved.
On the other hand, I recognize that it is important to make changes to course design only when the evidence for doing so is sufficiently compelling. Quick tips and tricks for lesson plans are easy to come by, but changes should be intentional, made from an informed perspective, and should be consistent across the design of each course. From the choice of texts to the types of assignments and assessments, design choices should complement one another and serve distinct, identifiable purposes.
The most effective specific methods vary by topic, individual, context, course objective, mastery level, and so on. Generalities are difficult, but there are a few I’ve found to be helpful. One that I’ll highlight here is the importance of variability in type and form of modules within an individual course. Assignments which are sufficiently different from one another provide multiple entry points for students to become engaged with the content. Importantly, this technique is a key component of universal course design, where assignments and assessments are diverse enough that no group of students is systematically disadvantaged. It also helps minimize the necessity for individual accommodations and exceptions by making courses intrinsically flexible.
Another method I’m interested in is developing and maintaining an undergraduate presence in research. Identifiable opportunities for students to take ownership of their learning are some of the most effective ways to motivate student interest, and transition students from classroom exercises to applications which they can apply more readily after college. Actively recruiting undergraduates to research projects is a useful way to hook students attention, and increase participation of underrepresented minorities in STEM. Depending on available resources, I envision this taking the form of either building an active lab group with opportunities for students, or maintaining connections with researchers who have such positions available.
One of my favorite methods for introducing students to research is research-based coursework. Techniques for building research into coursework need to be chosen even more carefully than most pedagogical tools, but the rewards can be high. Some of my favorite courses in college were the “advanced lab” sequence in the physics department, where we were free to choose almost any project and see it through to completion. Developing a course like that with the intent to introduce research practice first in a classroom setting is one specific teaching tool that really appeals to me. It’s a great way to prepare students for a more traditional undergraduate thesis, or summer research project.
Lastly, verifying efficacy of pedagogical choices is important, and can be difficult to assess in many cases. Engagement can take many forms, and expression of engagement varies by individual, making assessment on these terms difficult or impossible. But engagement does manifest its self indirectly in assessable ways. Combinations of tests and quizzes, self-assessments, peer reviews, writing, and just about any other ordinary or novel assessment technique can be informative if designed with specific outcomes in mind. Meaningful student assessments can serve as a powerful tool, and can help adaptively guide the direction of a course if used judiciously.
My teaching philosophy is constantly under revision as I learn more about cognitive development, but it is built out of my understanding of the state of educational science, and my anecdotal observations of various teaching methodologies throughout my academic life. It is inspired by a metacognitive understanding of my own educational experience. I want to teach physics and earth sciences because both subjects inspired me to see the world from a completely new perspective, and shaped my understanding of the place and space I live in. I want other people to have a similar experience, and learning how to meet students where they are to help them through the process is my approach to that overarching goal. My teaching philosophy is an open-ended expression of that approach.