Teaching Philosophy

 

Please see the Documents page for examples of my teaching.

 

 

              

            Like most others that have achieved a high level of education, school always came naturally to me.  I saw every assignment as a challenge, a puzzle, or even a game; and it was a game I was good at.  I knew that not all of my peers saw it the same way, but I never really “walked in their shoes” to see how education fit into their lives.  The first month of teaching as the instructor of an evening course in chemistry at a community college very quickly showed me that school is a not game for everyone.  For some it is a family sacrifice, difficult, and a way to a better life.  I feel that it is my responsibility to do everything in my professional abilities to help them succeed not only in school, but also beyond the classroom.

 

                I believe that, as an instructor, it is not in the students’ best interest to lower our expectations of them.  We need to set high goals if we want them to truly succeed.  However, I also believe that it is our responsibility to tailor our teaching to the type of student we have and to remove impediments that may prevent them from achieving to the highest level they are capable of.  I have significant experience teaching at three levels, and I have adapted my teaching to each scenario in order to maximize student learning and growth.

 

                My first major teaching experience came as a co-instructor for a summer course in Cancer Biology and Therapeutics for high-achieving high school students.  My colleagues and I developed the course from scratch, but very quickly realized that we were teaching beneath the capability of our students.  The lecture material was simple for them.  We didn’t need to spend too much time belaboring every point, and, for these students, simply telling them once was enough.  To truly grow, these students needed to apply this material to abstract and real-life scenarios.  I have co-taught this class for seven summers and we have steadily added discussions and debates that force the students to think about how they can use what they’ve learned about DNA mutations to alter their lifestyle for better health, or use the lecture material on chemotherapy to dream up new and exciting therapies. We also saw tremendous interest in ethical debates about topics such as exorbitantly expensive drugs and the morality of gene therapy. Over the years, the time we spent on lecture decreased as we increased discussion, yet the class average on a standardized cumulative exam at the end increased year-over-year for five straight years. A publication highlighting our findings from this course can be accessed here.

 

                I have also given a number of lectures to doctoral students.  As students seeking a Ph.D., they are already using complex thought processes in their daily research.  Graduate courses cover very specific topics and the purpose of attending them is to learn the cutting-edge and state-of-the-science of the field in order to apply it to their own lab work.  Again, these are highly competent students and they are able to process information easily, allowing me to spend less time on the facts and figures.  To maximize the benefit of my lectures to these students I make sure to emphasize the connection to the lab.  Unlike basic science topics, which are perhaps centuries removed from their discovery, many topics that I cover are recent advancements.  By highlighting how they came to be, the students see examples of laboratory applications.  It is then not such a large leap for them to use the information in their own experiments to extend our knowledge in the area.

 

                Undoubtedly, the experience that has required the most adaptation by me is teaching community college students that are seeking degrees in clinical health programs.  Many of these students have not previously performed strongly in science, and the first thing I do during the first lecture is an interactive activity where students anonymously text in the one word that comes to mind when they think of learning the subject at hand.  Without fail, the top submissions are variations of the word “hard” and “scary.”  To them, science is foreign, but those of us that enjoy science and that have spent years in the sciences know that science is everywhere and that the principles we learn affect everything that happens in our daily lives. 

 

               With that science, comes logic.  People use logic constantly throughout the day, but when someone who is not comfortable with science tries to apply logic to a concept we’re covering in class, they often struggle.  I make extensive use of analogies, either to real-life situations or to made-up situations that involve more relatable concepts and objects, and the students respond well.  For example, I describe the spinal cord as a freeway, with lanes going up in the back and lanes down in the front.  Similarly, when explaining that London dispersion forces exist due to temporary distortions in the electron cloud since the electrons move randomly, I understandably get blank stares.  Once I give them the example of dropping a hundred mice in the center of the room and letting them run around randomly, they can picture the fact that sometimes there will be more mice on one side of the room than the other, and that if the mice had a negative charge, like an electron, the room would have partial positive and negative sides.  This is a strategy that I have used in my own learning for a long time, but I truly became aware of what exactly I was doing after I saw its importance pointed out in J. Dudley Herron’s The Chemistry Classroom.

 

                I have also found that many of my students struggle with more of the everyday logistics of school and that I can help them succeed by simplifying things for them.  I try to think about the skills and tactics that allowed me to be successful in school, and integrate those directly into the framework of the course.  In my combined lecture and lab course, there are a large number of assignments (homework, quizzes, exams, prelabs, labs, postlabs, etc.), so I provide a comprehensive schedule that lays out exactly when each item is due.  Similarly, in speaking to students as to why they performed poorly on exam questions that were similar to homework questions they understood, I quickly realized that many of my students experience test anxiety.  By simply adding weekly quizzes along with the exams, it makes each exam seem less do-or-die since they are worth fewer points, and simply removing the word “exam” from the top of the page seems to relieve some stress.

 

                However, as our department has standardized comprehensive final exams, I am not able to fully remove high-stakes exams from the course.  As we neared the end of my first semester, I realized that my students had poor study habits and had not been taking a holistic view during the semester.  This meant that they had to study and, in many cases, relearn much of the material for the final.  In order to keep all material fresh in their minds, I now include comprehensive homework assignments during the semester and also use the final meeting of the semester as a quiz-bowl, group competition-style review of the entire semester.  This has dramatically increased student performance on the final exam.  By keeping up with the requirements of the course, students are getting the repetition needed to remember that vast numbers of facts, names, and processes that are inherent in the courses that I teach

 

                When I took general chemistry in college, the course contained an hour of recitation that allowed us to go over homework problems and ask the professor questions about things we didn’t understand.  My chemistry course does not include time for this and I’ve found that the students often do not take the initiative to ask questions, either through email or during office hours.  To provide a sort of recitation time, I have created a partially flipped classroom.  I recorded the first fifteen to twenty minutes of each lecture at home, covering introductory material, and require the students to watch it before class.  This allows us to use that extra time covering homework problems and letting the students see how to do the problems they had struggled with.  Click HERE to view examples of those videos.  I look forward to creating similar videos for my other courses once I have taught them enough to understand which material can safely be moved to a flipped format.

   
            In addition to these videos, I work to use technology in my instruction whenever possible.  I video record all of my lectures, allowing students to review them whenever and wherever they are able to access YouTube, which I find that students are very appreciative of.  I also recently began using kahoot.com as a platform on which to hold in-class review competitions.  The students have responded very well and said that they felt it was a good review strategy.  I aim to create a wealth of resources that will allow students to learn using their computers and phones in media formats that they are comfortable with, at a time and place that works for them.


            The variety of resources I provide is particularly evident in my online courses, and is partially a result of the distinct difference in the perceived difficulty of online courses between instructors.  Instructors feel that taking a content-based course online is much more difficult than taking it in-person, and students sometimes take online courses solely because they believe it will be easier.  National statistics on the pass/fail rate in online courses clearly confirm the instructors' perception.  To combat this, I give many different resources, being careful not to simply throw an unorganized collection of sources at them.  For example, my students receive lecture slides from my in-person course, a video recording of that same lecture, a lab handout to complete along with individual videos made specifically to go along with them, online interactive homework, and more, all in addition to the textbook.  I also make myself freely available through email, real-time chat, and online conference calls.

              

                To evaluate the success of these initiatives and whether my students are learning the material that they need to learn, my quizzes and exams are always based off of the learning objectives.  At Santa Fe College, these learning objectives are provided by the department and represent the material that the instructor is expected to teach.  By directly tying my assessments to these learning objectives, this allows me to directly measure the students' mastery of the required content, the students to better anticipate the material that will be covered on the assessments, and the department to evaluate my commitment to the learning objectives.


                While my teaching styles may vary based on the students, there are common threads that unify my teaching philosophy.  I emphasize to my students that I cannot learn the material for them and that, in order to succeed, they must take responsibility for their own education.  They need to create a road map to their own success and then utilize their lectures, texts, and classmates, along with myself, as tools to learn what they don’t already know.



I also hold myself to this same critical-thinking standard and am constantly advancing my teaching strategies.  I view my classes not only as a way to help my current students master the material, but also as a laboratory to improve the course for future semesters.  I am regularly making discreet changes in my teaching and have both objective and subjective measures to evaluate their success.  I am open about this with my students and use it as an example of putting science into a science course.  I look forward to continuing to grow my teaching approach throughout my career.

 

 

"The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day."

                                                                                                                                                           — Albert Einstein