Teaching is among the most exhilarating, challenging, and gratifying endeavors I’ve ever undertaken, and I believe it is also among the most important. My primary goal as a teacher in the biological sciences is to empower students with the tools they need to think critically about the natural world and interactions between organisms, including human ‘animals’, and their environment. Through my experiences as an educator, I have had the pleasure of working with a wide variety of students, ranging from Kindergarten and grade school through high school, undergraduate, and post-baccalaureate. Despite the diversity inherent in these groups, there are certain undeniable similarities among students that transcend age and background, and these have shaped the core principles of my teaching philosophy. I describe these principles below and provide examples of how they are incorporated into the classes I teach at the college-level.
Learning is a partnership between the instructor and the student. My attitude and behavior in class have an acute impact on the receptivity and motivation of my students. There is good reason for the saying, “enthusiasm is contagious”; I believe that my enthusiasm as a teacher can stimulate students’ interest in a topic, and once students become interested they will eagerly learn. While the subject matter of a course may not inspire every student, it is human nature to enjoy learning something new, and I openly exploit this fact. Since few things are as exciting as scientific discovery, I base assignments and activities on exploring the natural world and tie in ecological theories and concepts that may otherwise seem obtuse to some students. Another aspect of the partnership is simply that it is a partnership; knowledge and experience do not flow one-way. One of the most rewarding things about teaching is the opportunity to learn from my students through their questions, observations, and challenges. Indeed, ideas born of class discussions have, at times, caused me to re-evaluate my perceptions and provided me with new insights into my research.
Learning is risky for students; teachers must be supportive. Classes that challenge students’ dogmatic thinking and encourage them to take learning risks are often the most successful. In order to develop students’ cognitive skills, motivate them toward further learning and allow them to apply information to new situations, I strive to create an environment that is both emotionally and intellectually supportive. Students’ background and learning history can greatly affect their perception of the student-teacher dynamic; therefore, I work hard to teach inclusively and respect student diversity. As part of an in-class writing assignment on the first day of each course I ask students to tell me about themselves, what they expect to learn in the class, and what they expect do with what they will learn. This simple exercise provides me with valuable insight into each student’s point of reference, and in turn, helps to invest the students in their own learning outcomes. Approachability and accessibility are also critical and I make an effort to develop a rapport with students early in a course. It is no accident that students frequently cite my friendliness, sense of humor, and availability for extra help as factors that contribute to their learning. Since it is not often possible to interact individually with students in a large classroom, being available (literally and figuratively) encourages them to seek me out and demonstrates my interest and investment in their success.
There are as many ways to learn as there are students in a classroom. Thus, a successful teacher must be responsive to the needs of students by accommodating multiple learning styles (e.g., active/reflective, sensing/intuitive, visual/verbal, and sequential/global). While I readily employ a number of techniques in the classroom that appeal to a cross-section of learners (e.g., lecture, in-class writing, cooperative learning groups, demonstrations, and case studies), I am aware that pedagogy is not static and new approaches, especially those involving technology, are evolving rapidly. Consequently, I try to be adaptive in my teaching strategies to ensure success in the classroom. I have worked closely with the staff of Catalyst at the University of Washington to incorporate web-based tools, such as EPost (a threaded online discussion board), into my courses. An online discussion allows students to communicate their thoughts and ideas with each other and with me outside of the classroom, which gives them more time to process what they’ve learned. Online surveys, questionnaires, and quizzes are also useful ways to assess learning and get feedback on teaching techniques that students find helpful, as well as those that require modification.
Knowledge of facts should not be the endpoint of learning. A successful teacher must encourage students to go beyond recitation and regurgitation of informational details. I frequently use questions to guide thinking as well as test understanding. Case studies and simulations are valuable as well because they present students with choices and constraints that reflect real-world problems. These activities force students to expand their thinking and incorporate information from other sources and disciplines. While rote-memorization of facts and definitions is often important, it is imperative that students be encouraged to use that information as the basis for analyzing concepts, synthesizing complex relationships, and evaluating new information. After all, my goal is to train students to think scientifically, and the process of scientific inquiry does not end at the library. By teaching the stepwise progression of the scientific method, from initial observation to empirical examination of hypotheses and the development, testing, and refinement of theories, I show students that profound scientific achievements do not occur in isolation. Instead, they evolve from accrued knowledge and the analysis, synthesis and evaluation of ideas. Emphasizing this process encourages students to utilize these skills outside the classroom and equips them to formulate their own ideas based on the information they receive from the world around them.