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 to best approach teaching have been reinforced throughout my own education, and more recently through my interest in evidence based pedagogy. First and foremost, I’ve found that students learn best through direct engagement, and engagement can be encouraged and fostered in the classroom but is most effective if implemented intentionally and by design. This applies to course design as well as development and maintenance of an active research program.
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 its effective implementation is constantly being refined to better serve the diverse range of students enrolling in college. As an instructor I feel that 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 choices 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. In a broader sense, it is important to make sure that class modules are varied and fresh. This helps encourage engagement by providing many opportunities to pique students interest. It also serves as one component of an effective approach to universal course design, whereby assignments and assessments are varied such that no group of students is systematically disadvantaged. It also minimizes the necessity to make individual accommodations or exceptions by designing courses to be intrinsically flexible to meet as many individuals needs as possible.
Developing and maintaining an undergraduate presence in research is an important component of fostering engagement. Identifiable opportunities for students to take more ownership of their learning are one of the most effective ways to motivate student interest, and transition students from classroom exercises to real world applications which they can apply more readily after college. Lowering the barrier to entry for undergraduate research is an effective way to hook students attention and attract students who might have otherwise not pursued a STEM path.
One of my favorite methods for attracting students to try undergraduate research is implementing research-based courses. Techniques for building research into courses need to be chosen even more carefully than most pedagogical tools, but the rewards can be really high. My favorite courses in college were the “advanced lab” courses in the physics department in which we were free to choose almost any project and see it through to completion. Developing a course like that with the intent to introduce self-driven research first in a classroom setting is one specific teaching tool that really appeals to me. It’s a great way to lead students into a more traditional undergraduate thesis or summer research project.
Verifying efficacy of pedagogical choices is also 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 when 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 an introspective understanding of my own appreciation for physical sciences. 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.