Teaching

I won't bore you with a litany of why teaching is important; you came to this part of my site, so you probably already have plenty of reasons of your own. So I'll jump in and talk about my own teaching. With the pages linked in this part of my site you can see how I've taught classes in the past. Each environment is different and requires a different approach, so please feel free to peruse. Also, please feel free to borrow anything you want from my materials; attribution would be appreciated, but feedback even more so. (You might want to get in touch with me before using a given item as I'd be happy to fill you in on how it worked and anything you might want to know about it.)

In other pages, you can learn my teaching interests and my interests in teaching methods.

Teaching and Learning Philosophy

It's important to articulate what you believe and why you are setting out to do something as major as teaching. Here is what

  1. As an instructor, I should review my goals before putting together the course – Before even writing a syllabus or choosing a textbook, I write down my goals for the course I will teach. Rather than teaching whatever material is in the textbook, I believe it is necessary to first decide what I want my students to learn in the course. Very often, particularly in introductory courses, the goal is not to for the students to learn a collection of facts and theories that represent where science is now. More often, my goal is for them to learn how science works, that they can apply the scientific method in their own lives (even as non-scientists), to learn how to write a persuasive paper based on data, and to appreciate that science is an ever-changing entity as new theories rise and fall as our picture of the universe improves. After I have articulated these goals (which I place in my syllabus for my students to read as well), I start to prepare my course with these in mind.
  2. Most students learn more from "doing" than from listening, but "doing" can mean many different things – I freely admit that as much as I think my lecture style is fun and interesting for students, most of them will not learn much from that teaching method. So I require my students to read the textbook in advance of class (I often back this up with a short reading quiz at the beginning of class) and then I spend only about one-third of the class period lecturing, hitting the important points or the difficult ideas. I spend the rest of the class period engaged in a variety of activities with the students. Since different students will learn more or less depending on the type of activity, I try to prepare a variety of activities. Some activities might be a straight-forward application of an idea or an equation. Others involve them making judgments about data or theories. Still others involve creative work, such as producing a cartoon sketch of planet formation. Experience and student feedback tell me that often a fraction of the class will find a given activity unhelpful, but at the same time another fraction of the class will profit greatly by that same activity. This supports my idea that variety is vital.
  3. Students should learn to write scientifically – There is a widely-held idea that in sciences, you do not need to write. As a scientist, I recognize this as utterly false. Students should come to recognize that it is not enough to have data or a theory, but they must also learn to communicate their ideas to others persuasively. Thus, I require essays in my classes. Most of the essays I require are short, roughly two pages, and cover questions of scientific opinions. I also try to work with students to help them improve their writing abilities, both specific to the style data-based style used in science and generally.
  4. Command of facts is not the same as real learning – As teachers, we often find ourselves writing homeworks, quizzes and exams that are based around facts and comprehension of the facts. This is natural, as the facts are the obvious part of a given subject and the easiest thing to test. Alas, studies show that learning facts, theories, and formulae does not cause the students to actually really understand the material. Most students have learned well before college how to temporarily memorize these things, without stopping to really consider the underlying concepts. I try to write my homeworks and quizzes to focus them on these concepts more than on the simple facts. However, I have also learned through experience that students do need a reasonable command of the basic facts of a field before they are prepared to discuss the underlying concepts. This is an area where I am currently experimenting to find the right balance of fact and concept in my teaching and student exercises.
  5. Teaching should no more be static than is science itself – As scientists, we recognize that what we now consider our "best idea" will probably be replaced in a little while with a better idea. Teaching should be the same way: we should always be trying to improve our teaching. There are several ways I try to do this:
    1. Reading the literature – I try to spend some time reading the various literature on teaching, particular in the sciences. I can learn from others’ experiments.
    2. Workshops and talking to other teachers – I have found that simply talking with other teachers leads to exchanging ideas and even creating new ideas. I have also learned that I shouldn't just talk to other science teachers, there is much to be learned from teachers in very different fields. At first glance, it is difficult to see how the methods used in, say, theater are useful to my discipline. But I have discovered that if I pay attention, I can often adapt their methods to help my students learn.
    3. Experimenting – This is probably the most important way I try to improve my teaching. Every time I teach I try some new things and try to improve some older ideas. This means each time I teach, I’m teaching a different class (even if the course title is the same!) and I have to put in more work than I would if I just reused old methods. However, by experimenting, tinkering and discarding things that do not work, I feel that my teaching gets better with every step. I also have found that it keeps me from being complacent with the material and it makes teaching far more fun for me.
    4. Getting student feedback – Students are often the best gauge of whether a particular teaching method is working or not. One must take their comments with a grain of salt at times, since they often do not see the big picture until after the course is over. But their comments are usually helpful. Moreover, their comments should be responded to, either by adjusting the teaching when the possible and advisable, or by explaining to the student (or the class) why I am doing things a specific way.
  6. Grade what is important, not what is easy – As instructors, we have finite time to devote to teaching. In particular, we do not like to fritter away the already rare resource of time on grading. Thus, it is easy to fall into the habit of grading student work based on “correctness” of responses or, with a bit more effort, validity of their solution method. However, since my course goals include other things, like ability to communicate clearly, I feel it is necessary to grade these aspects of the submissions. At the beginning to the term I explain to students exactly how their work will be graded with rubrics I hand out to them. The rubrics usually include points for accuracy of their answer and validity of their reasoning. The rubrics also contain points for legibility of their submissions, quality of their thought organization and completeness of their reply, as well as other fields specific to certain assignments.
  7. Science should be fun and creative – Going hand-in-hand with my earlier philosophy that science is not a static entity, I feel that students should see that science is really in many ways a creative endeavor. The best way to show this to students is by being creative in my teaching and by offering them creative assignments. Not only does this appeal to a large segment of the student body who think of themselves as "creative, non-science" types of people, but it is a great way to help them synthesize material. Additionally, both the students and I find that creative work makes the class more fun. And why is fun important? There are several reasons that I see. The first is that I've found that students are willing to work quite hard if they have fun in the class and are generally happier with the course. Having fun also keeps them alert and involved, as opposed to tuning out the class out of boredom. Finally, there is a selfish reason: I want students to walk out of my classes seeing science as something valuable and worth supporting as a society. If they look back on my course as a terrible experience, they are far less likely to be supportive of my subject as future voters and decision makers.
  8. Students will rise (or fall) to the level of our expectations – My experience so far indicates that students will rise to the level of our expectations, provided the expectations are reasonable and we are willing to work with them to meet those expectations. So it is alright to have high expectations, even at a large, public university, because students will usually work to meet them. Conversely, students are normal human beings and therefore they tend to prefer to do as little work as they can get by with. So setting standards low means that students will meet those low standards and generally go little further. Therefore, I advocate setting reasonably high standards for students.

  9. John Weiss