What follows below is a description of my teaching philosophy as it stands today. I am currently finishing an internship in mentored teaching through VCU’s Preparing Future Faculty Program. I have been reflecting on this experience each week in my blog. Click here to download a PDF version of my teaching philosophy.
At this point in my career, my opportunities for classroom teaching have been limited, so my teaching philosophy is primarily grounded in my own experiences as a learner and my expectations as I reflect on the challenges becoming a faculty member. Having the opportunity to participate in a mentored teaching internship this semester has opened my eyes to the realities of teaching graduate students. This experience has not changed my teaching philosophy, but it has made me realize that teaching requires more time and greater skill than I had anticipated.
I started college thinking that I wanted to be a doctor, but I changed my mind after a series of difficult science courses. The classes bored me, and I was not inspired to learn. I didn’t have an alternate career plan, and, by the time I needed to declare a major, I had taken more history courses than any other subject. History became my major, and I stayed away from math and science. Although I excelled in high school mathematics and science, I decided in college that I was not a “math and science person”, a decision which seemed to limit my career options. I wonder now whether I would have made the same decision if my math and science classes had been more engaging.
As an undergraduate student, the majority of my classes were structured for passive learning. Students were assigned readings from a textbook, which they would read (or choose not to read) outside of class. The professor then lectured on the topic and possibly asked some questions resulting in a brief discussion. And then there were a few summative tests or papers. I felt like learning was my own responsibility. The instructor put the material out there, and I could choose to partake of it or not. My motivation was solely goal-oriented. I cared about my final grade, but I did not truly care about whether I was learning because I simply was not actively engaged in the learning process.
When I reflect on all of my experiences as a student, I can remember only a few faculty members and courses that really engaged me as a learner. Fortunately, most of these experiences have occurred during my doctoral program. The impact of these instructors has been twofold. First, because they teach the quantitative methods that I hope to soon be teaching, their classes have helped understand the content and develop the skills that I will need to be successful as a researcher and an instructor. Second, they have also made me realize that learning doesn’t take place in a vacuum. A student’s success can be highly dependent on a variety of factors. Whether an instructor takes these factors into consideration when designing a course can make a big difference in what students learn.
Participating in VCU’s Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) program has given me an opportunity to think about what makes the good faculty members different from other instructors I have encountered. Several characteristics seem to separate them. First, the good instructors are organized. They have lesson plans and activities. The objectives are clear, and the instructor comes to class prepared. This seems like a no-brainer, but I am surprised at how many instructors seem to fly by the seat of their pants. Second, the good instructors find ways to make meaningful connections, so learning takes place in multiple ways. In addition to independent reading and preparation for class, there are also assignments, individual or group homework, class discussions, group activities, use of other resources and technology, etc. Whether it happens through student-to-student interaction, digital technology, or other mechanisms, there is intent for students to actively engage with the concepts that will allow them to meet the course objectives. Third, formative assessment is a prominent element in the course. Activities and assignments are designed to allow students to apply the content and receive feedback about what they are learning where there are gaps. My observations are consistent with Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education.
“Active participation” best describes the kind of environment that I hope to create in my classroom. Many students struggle with concepts related to research methods and statistics. I also struggled until I had instructors whose teaching methods allowed me to apply the material in ways that made meaning for me. My confidence in the content increased with every activity and opportunity for formative assessment. I hope to find ways to encourage learning among all students, particularly the students who are traditionally less successful. I want to create a safe environment where students feel that their opinions and responses are valued, even if they aren’t sure whether they have the “right” answer. Learning is all about understanding what you know, and it’s difficult to assess what you know if you don’t have opportunities to articulate your knowledge. I want to use the same strategies to help my own students make meaning in the courses I teach, whether they relate to research methods or higher education.