Teaching Philosophy

When I was in elementary school, I watched a PBS home video titled, “The Creation of the Universe.” I learned about the four fundamental forces and the search for the grand unified theory. From that moment, I have been in awe about the way that observable reality follows a few universal laws. My passion for teaching comes, in part, from sharing that spark of discovery, that moment of epiphany when a person suddenly understands a concept previously foreign to them. My philosophy of teaching starts with treating students with respect, engaging with them authentically and compassionately in order to create an environment that fosters learning, challenges students to gain scientific literacy, and encourages positive interpersonal relations.

To create that supportive environment, I strive to exemplify the skills and qualities that I want my students to gain. I interact with my students in the way that I would like them to interact with myself and with each other. I listen to their perceptions and viewpoints and accept them as authentic and worthwhile. In turn, I am genuine and compassionate with them while acknowledging the authority vested in my position. I make this explicit, starting with a section in my syllabus [1]. This encourages intellectual risk-taking, which is vital to the learning process. For people to be comfortable playing with ideas, they must be confident that their mistakes will not be held against them, and that their difficulty with learning physics is not abnormal and not because of their background or culture. I often commiserate about how counter-intuitive some concepts are, the misconceptions I have had, and the trouble they have caused me. In fact, I value the students’ missteps, as they represent intellectual effort, and they show me where their misconceptions lie, so that I can more easily address them with guiding questions that help stretch the intellect. In a second-semester laboratory course for science majors, on an end-of-semester survey, a student wrote, “You don’t just give us answers to our questions, but challenge us to learn and understand concepts. [emphasis in original]”. Learning new concepts and unlearning misconceptions is uncomfortable, and I guide the students through that discomfort to gain new understanding and confidence that they can, indeed, learn about subjects that seem at first to be impenetrable.

Once the environment is set up to encourage learning, I help the students improve their scientific literacy. For me, this means that the students learn how scientists create knowledge, what that knowledge actually is so far, and hopefully some of the beauty and awe that brought me into this field. All of this is achieved by having the students actually do science in the classroom. This means that during demonstrations, students are predicting what will happen, observing the demonstration, and evaluating their prediction compared to what actually happened. In the lab, students are working together, learning from each other to figure out how to solve problems, make theories about how something works, and come to conclusions regarding natural phenomena. Even during the lectures, students are engaged in active learning, thinking and reasoning with the concepts. For example, I often use multiple-choice conceptual questions in a “think-pair-share” exercise, where students get to have multiple attempts at solving conceptual physics problems, first individually and then after consulting with their neighbor. In addition to waking some students up, this sort of formative assessment directly encourages risk-taking, gives practice communicating and teaching scientific concepts, and provides instant feedback with a chance to try again. Instant feedback and repeated trials in an online homework system, in particular, has been shown in studies to help level the playing field between men and women in the introductory physics course [2].

In upper-level courses, many of these techniques still apply. While I haven’t yet taught such a course, there is one thing that I plan to do in particular. In my Methods of Theoretical Physics course, every Friday during class, we worked on homework instead of listening to a lecture. The professor randomly assigned us to groups of three, and we assisted each other in the week’s problem set. Then the final version was due that Monday. This not only provided peer feedback and teamwork opportunities, but it also provided an opportunity to meet other students and more easily form groups on our own. This is great for people who are either not used to working on homework in groups (especially international students) and for those who may not feel comfortable approaching others to form groups, either because of shyness or because they are a member of an underrepresented minority group. Institutionalizing support structures are integral to serving those students.

As a relatively new teacher, I am excited about both studying and contributing to the Physics Education Research literature and learning from colleagues about how students best learn physics. As part of the Certification in College Teaching Program at MSU, I have taken a class on how to teach college science, attended a series of workshops, and presented some of my research in student learning at a national conference [3]. The way I evaluate my teaching is by assessing whether the students learn. I could create a beautifully elegant explanation of a theory, but without connecting the material to the students’ prior knowledge and experiences, the students probably won’t connect with it. Then the explanation is worse than useless – my students have just become at best, less responsive, and at worst, more frightened of the subject or angry at me, neither of which aid the learning process. Exams are a major source of summative assessment for me, and the homeworks are a formative way of letting me know what problem-solving skills or concepts the students are struggling with. Beyond that, I use a group project and paper to help the students connect the material in class to their own world, and they also gain experience in working as a team. In my Art of Physics course, the students form small groups to write a paper and give a presentation on a topic of their choosing. For example, one group chose skydiving. Initially they chose it because one of the group members had gone skydiving, and they thought it would be easy and fun to talk about. They were surprised to find out how much physics was really involved in the whole process. During a feedback session on the last day of class, many students agreed that the project and paper really helped solidify the material for them. For me, it was a great way to assess their understanding of physical principles and, with a peer evaluation, their interpersonal skills as well.

When it comes down to it, I teach because I want to help make the world a better place. For me, that means helping people to better interact with each other, personally and politically. On the personal level, I try to model compassionate and authentic communication. Politically, a democracy relies on a well-informed electorate. When people become more scientifically literate, they are able to make better decisions about the well-being of our shared resources and of our planet that we call home. With these methods, I hope to help make that happen.

1. In the syllabus for my Art of Physics class, I state this: “I want to make the classroom an educational space conducive to student learning, where we interact consensually and compassionately. If we agree on expectations about how we will act, then we all will probably be happier and more productive. We will mutually agree on these expectations the first day of class, and they will form an amendment to this document. ”

2. D. A. Kashy, G. Albertelli, E. Kashy and M. Thoennessen, Teaching with ALN Technology: Benefits and Costs, Journal of Engineering Education, 89, 499 (2001).

3. Specifically the 2012 Winter Meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers

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