My experiences as a student, a teaching assistant, and an instructor have shaped my evolving philosophy on teaching. Central to my philosophy are active learning, building capacity, and encouraging risk taking.
Teaching should be an ongoing, interactive process between the students and the instructor as opposed to a one-way transmission of facts. For this reason, active learning is a common thread in my teaching, regardless of class-size or audience. For deep learning to occur, students should engage meaningfully with the material (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). I employ active learning with the intention of inciting student curiosity in the subject, giving students practice with the skills defined by learning outcomes, and placing value on teamwork. I orchestrate a hands-on soils lab in a lecture hall with 90 first-year students, have students practice creating research proposals in groups, and give students a chance to safely experiment with radioactivity using M&Ms. Active learning leads to increased student engagement and higher student achievement of learning outcomes (Prince, 2004).
Students learn in a variety of ways, and the emphasis on active learning provides opportunity for students to demonstrate their learning strengths and work on areas of weakness in a low-risk environment. To paraphrase Kolb’s experiential learning cycle (1984), this means providing students with opportunities to reflect (e.g., brainstorming), to think (e.g., develop proposals), to do (e.g, lab activities), and to experience (e.g., interpret data).
In my view, an objective of university education in the natural sciences should be to emphasize skills that are essential for any university graduate: problem solving, critical thinking, and making connections. These skills need to be taught, not just assessed. For example, many students in my Introduction to Physical Geography class had difficulty answering midterm questions that required application of course material or connecting concepts. I took a two-pronged approach to address these skills before the final exam. First, we practiced connecting concepts in class with large-group brainstorming sessions and simple organizational charts. Second, I administered practice questions online so that students could receive detailed and individualized feedback about the strengths and weaknesses of their answers. Subsequently, the short answer questions were better handled on the final exam. This lesson has carried through my teaching experience; students need an opportunity to practice and demonstrate the skills we expect upon graduation. My course of action is to be diligent in creating alignment between the learning outcomes, teaching and learning activities, and assessments. Initial attempts at problem solving are unmarked so students can feel confident in taking risks and see the benefits of their creativity and collaboration. For example, in my 3rd year Environmental Change course, students are assessed on their ability to create a proposal outline in response to a research problem. For an initial attempt, groups of students create their first proposals, with step by step guidance, and then receive feedback from other groups.
This emphasis on developing skills that rank higher on Bloom’s taxonomy of learning is related to building capacity; can students navigate new information and misinformation about the environment, health and society and establish informed opinions? My 3rd year Environmental Change students find that discussions in class are relevant to their own lives. They are regularly confronted by conflicting information about environmental issues in social media feeds, the media, and in the opinions of those around them. A focus on building capacity means it is not enough to simply teach students the current state of science on contentious issues like recent climate warming. Rather, my objective is to give students practice investigating sources, interpreting data and engaging in dialogue. This kind of open atmosphere is facilitated by a classroom culture of collaboration and discussion. I also model critical thinking by bringing in news and media items for discussion and encouraging students to bring or tweet their own.
My main motivation as an instructor is to get students excited enough about course topics that they will be inspired to explore and discuss material on their own. I want my students to think independently, be proactive, articulate their views with confidence, and recognize the strengths of their peers. Early on, I discovered that instruction is far more effective when students detect the genuine enthusiasm I have for the natural sciences. My role as an educator is my most rewarding responsibility and privilege, as I enjoy interacting with students, fostering their interests, and providing them with tools to rediscover their world from a natural science perspective.
“I would like to see her continue to teach her class with enthusiasm and spark. Her love of geography rubs off on the students of the class making going to class much more enjoyable.” – Introduction to Physical Geography (GEO 1300b) student, anonymous survey.
Bloom, B. S.; Engelhart, M. D.; Furst, E. J.; Hill, W. H.; Krathwohl, D. R.(1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Company.
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93 (3), 223-231.
Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.