Teaching Philosophy

 


Teaching is not a philosophy, nor a paradigm, nor a pedagogical approach.  When I teach I do not seek a pre-defined frame-of-reference to guide nor limit how I teach.  When I teach I do not subscribe to pre-conditioned styles for when one particular style may be appropriate in one situation, the same style may be completely inappropriate in another. 

To teach is a state-of-being.  Teaching is from the heart.  Teaching is instinctive.  When I teach I respond to the student(s) needs the best way I can.  Most teaching situations require different approaches; each approach requiring a custom designed solution for the moment in time.  Sometimes I have to be positively creative to address a particular situation.  Sometimes I have to be downright cold to press the message home.  Am I successful all the time?  No.  But when a student visits me a few years later to offer gratitude for what I taught – outside of the course content – I know I did something right. 

When I teach I strive to create challenges and the means to meet those challenges.  As long as the student is willing to put the effort in, I will always work with the student no matter.  I hope that when a student looks back on their experiences they can take pride in what they’ve accomplished – independently from where they started, and independently from where they ended.  I am a facilitator to this end.

Word on the street is that my courses are tough and my standards are high.  To help students succeed I put considerable effort in developing and presenting course content.  After all, if I’m not willing to put the effort in, how can I ask students to do so themselves?  Lead by example, earn the students trust and respect - most students I find will reciprocate in kind.  Efficient delivery of content is one part of teaching (a measurable entity partially reflected in the final grades); caring, and compassion are the other parts (a measurable entity partially reflected in the course evaluations).  To this end I believe I am somewhat successful.

If I were to characterize myself I can say Bloom’s Taxonomy most closely parallels my approach to teaching.  Bloom’s taxonomy divides educational objectives into three domains:  affective, psychomotor, and cognitiveAffective objectives are objectives that target awareness in personal growth and attitudes.  The process begins at the Receiving level – whereby students passively pay attention while I define content language and narrate necessary background theory.   The next stage is Responding.  In the Responding stage I introduce students to labs/and or field work (depending on the course) where theory is put into action.  None of my labs I design so that the expectant results naturally occur.  Instead, students collect/generate original data often leading to conflicting results, and or interpretations.  This leads to the 3rd stage, Valuing.  In Valuing the students synthesize their work in the context of current peer reviewed journals – not in the context of pre-established results.   With the experiences gained students enter the 4th stage, Organizing.  Within Organizing students either write and design their own lab (e.g., final labs in Biol. 1005 Introduction to Quantitative Methods in Biology; final lab in Biol. 2600 Introduction to Ecology) or develop and write their own Research Proposals (e.g., Biol. 3605 & 3606 Field Courses; Biol. 4908 Honours Thesis).  Once the data is collected and the final papers are submitted I find students naturally enter the final and 5th stage, that is, Characterizing.  In Characterizing students generate particular values that exert influence on their subsequent behaviours.  In my situation, this is reflected in the students’ increased confidence towards experimental design, statistical methodology, scientific writing, and the desire to pursue biological research as a whole. 

The second domain of Bloom’s Taxonomy is psychomotor.  Psychomotor is the ability to physically manipulate tools.  Without hesitation I claim that manipulating tools (i.e., the “doing”) is a central tenet to all my courses.  Each course I teach includes a full lab component for which I design and write.  The content of each lab necessarily coincides with relevant classroom content for pedagogical reasons.  However, my drive behind each lab is not to reinforce course content per se, but rather to help students gain confidence in how to “do” statistics (Biol 1005); how to “do” ecology (Biol 2600); how to “do” research (Biol 3605/3606/4908).  With practice one gains confidence.  To this extent I’ve designed and teach Biol. 1005, Introduction to Quantitative Methods, so that both the lectures and labs are fully psychomotor oriented.   Lectures, for example, are taught live on the computers with each student navigating their way through Excel and SPSS statistical analyses in real time.  

The third domain of Bloom’s Taxonomy is cognitive.  The cognitive domain centres on knowledge, comprehension, and critical thinking.  I believe the cognitive domain is more of what the university environment is meant to represent, and therefore is the most likely organizational principle behind most courses we teach.   I offer three examples of how I use the cognitive domain – each taking place during the final exams.  For Biol 1005 (Introduction to Quantitative Methods) students write the exams live on the computers.   Specifically, I offer the students numerous research questions and associated data sets from which the students analyze the data and interpret the results using the statistical packages available.  To do so correctly requires strengths in all facets of knowledge, comprehension, and critical thinking.  For Biol 2600 (Introduction to Ecology) I use a multiple choice exam format whereby the choice (e) is always blank.  Students use (e) to defend their choice answer from (a) to (d), or to write their own answer and defend why their own answer is appropriate.  Albeit such an exam format increases my marking involvement considerably (150 questions X 120 students) the outcome I find is worthwhile for I can observe how students interpret my questions, how much they’ve comprehended from the course, and how well they can apply knowledge to ecological situations they’ve never come across before.  My third example is from Biol 3602 (Conservation Biology).   For this course I give students a list of exam essay questions a month in advance prior to the exam.  Some of the questions will be on the exam, from which they have a choice of which ones to address.  Key to this format is that the answers to the questions cannot be found from a single lecture, textbook chapter, lab, or research paper.  Instead, to do well on the exam requires a synthesis of all course components, a synthesis that requires an understanding of the material across lectures and labs, and a critical evaluation of their content.

Following my research into the various teaching philosophies I am pleasantly surprised to find that some of the more difficult teaching styles (e.g,. problem-based learninglearning by teaching; inquiry-based learning; multimedia learning – in particular using the modality principle and refraining from the redundancy principle) are techniques I use common-place throughout my courses.  Problem-based Learning is a student-centred instructional strategy whereby students collaboratively solve problems.  Such a strategy is integral to my field courses.  Students spend the first week working together in small groups to develop and refine their search image relevant to their species group of interest.  Depending on the species group, students are responsible to learn 10’s to 100’s of species within those first few days of the field course.  To do well necessitates:

  • independent student observations of joint assemblage structures,
  • a comparison between students of species identified and abundance counts observed,
  • research and dialogue to resolve differences obtained. 

Only when students are 95% similar to each other in their recorded assemblages do I permit the second phase of the field course – that is, collecting data for each student’s targeted research question

Learning-by-Teaching is an approach to teaching that allows students to prepare and teach relevant content.  It has long been a belief of mine that the acid test towards understanding complex material is how well you can teach the content to someone else.  Implicit within this context are the exams I hold for Biol. 4901 students (Independent Reading).  Students under my supervision are tasked with learning advanced statistical software designed to help the community ecologist analyze complex data sets.   For the exam, each student teaches me how to use this software, identify the software’s strengths and weaknesses, and provide working examples of its application through a one-on-one 3 hour oral exam.   Such requirements have become a necessary prerequisite for those students who wish to perform their 4908 Honours Thesis under my supervision. 

Inquiry-based Learning is an approach to teaching whereby the core premise is learning through the student’s questions.  Pedagogy and curriculum development requires students take the initiative, rather than receiving explicit direction from the Instructors.  Within limits I do create such an environment in my Ecology course (Biol. 2600) where students are responsible to design and carrying out their final lab, and in my field courses where students develop their own research proposals a month prior to the start of the field course and then subsequently carry them out when they arrive to the field stations.  Upon return home from the field course the students are then responsible for their own statistical analysis and write-up of a final paper to be submitted a month later.  My role in these environments is:

  • to ensure background logistics are addressed,
  •  to ensure that the proposed research projects are tangible within the context of time and the field opportunities available,
  •  to help students generate statistical solutions to their proposed research questions,
  • to be a mentor when needed, and a facilitator the rest of the time.

Multimedia-based Learning is a style of teaching not driven by the latest in multimedia technologies (e.g,. clickers, podcasts, CUTV) but rather it is a term given to a body of cognitive theory  that encapsulates multimodal instruction.  In its simplest form, students are thought to better understand complex issues when the information is presented both visually and verbally simultaneously (the Modality Principle).   The most efficient and difficult application of multimedia-based learning, however, is not narration with on-screen text, but rather narration with animation – that is, with no text (the Redundancy Principle).   The effort required to design lectures based on narration with animation is significant.   A single PowerPoint slide built properly on the foundations of narration with animation may take hours to design; a single lecture may take a week to develop.  To make the lecture successful, the lecturer must be intimate with the logic of the animation as there is no text to be guided by.  I find in a regular teaching environment such a teaching strategy engages students’ attention longer, and contributes to maintaining higher student attendance throughout the course.  Students appear to embrace this method of delivery, and often wonder what programs I use to generate the slides.  They appear surprised when I say it is all within PowerPoint.

To this end, although I find my teaching philosophy and styles are not new they indeed are recognized as fundamental teaching approaches that work, inspire students to do well, and coincidently parallel leading educational theories currently available.