Teaching philosophy

My teaching philosophy: try to motivate and show the joy of research despite uncertainties of us never knowing the final truth

 

Early classroom experiences

Autumn 2009, I am lecturing around 20 Masterstudents, the topic is the neurobiology of memory, quite complicated with lots of long molecular names to keep track. Still, the 2h were quite interactive.

Autumn 2013, I was again asked to volunteer giving the neurobiology of memory lecture, again around 20 Masterstudents. I start with the “what you should know after the lecture” slide. I use the blackboard for a stepwise showing of the complicated molecular cascade. The students are not curious. I do not have the feelings that these students are interested in my topic – a downer.

Autumn 2014, same request from a colleague. Took her a bit more persuasion but yes I volunteered. The way I started to teach was more or less the same as last year. But this year I met a bunch of engaged and active students. I got interesting questions and even spent the break between the double hour answering and explaining more to some of the most active students. That was fun!

So is it true, as Biggs (1999) claims that we can motivate all students to become deep learners, become active and engaged?

Assumptions about today’s students

I do teach at the university level, not like my cousin at school. University students can and shall choose their topics and field of interest. They voluntarily educate themselves in a specific field. We are living in a time where nobody has to study XY because one’s parents insist on it and studying something contrary to one’s motivation is seriously strange nowadays and a switch in topic should be clearly signaled. So, why are some passive like a stone and hard to rock and others do show an intrinsic motivation – a question which I will not answer here. But a related one: Can I change the passive crowd to become a more active crowd?

 

It is more rewarding to interact with motivated students – open minds, curious and asking questions instead of giving a monolog in a bored classroom (Mann and Robinson 2009). And I do not count teaching as a challenge if I get no challenging responses from the audience (Halliday, 2014). I am just not the person enjoying myself in a monolog for hours.

Multiple teacher courses versus sole responsibility

So far I was only once (and shortly) responsible for an entire course, seeing students regularly, i.e. once per week, and having more or less full control over the course content. The example given above was from one of those courses where each topic is taught by a “specialist” and as such a course has many lecturers. In this case, I see the students once and have no time to find out their motivation to study, to study cognitive neuroscience, to take exactly this course. Without knowing their expectancies, having no control about the course curriculum, or knowing what they know from before, it is very hard to rock a stone. The students should see a thread, a goal for why this and that matters, which is easiest supplied by a common style of teaching, lecturer and regular feedback and interaction opportunities. This said, I am not entertaining by default – although I may use all multimedia support to provide breaks from monologues, visualize complicated material or concepts as well as multimedia clips can serve as an attentional refresher.

In such “many teachers” courses I am not bound to but strongly advised to give just a formal talk as this is the meaning of lecturing (Mann and Robinson 2009). And this is notably not the most efficient way to make students receptive for deep learning (Biggs, 1999). And I suspect that most of my colleagues are aware of that. Saying that this traditional way of teaching is easier is just half the truth. There are also external constrains. Students are often first quite surprised if they have to be overtly active as is required for functioning colloquia and seminars. By default most of us prefer to be cognitive misers and invest the least possible effort. Receiving questions during a lecture provides an immediate feedback. However, it requires a certain experience and background knowledge of the teacher to provide good answers as well as linking it up with the topic without losing too much time. There are topics I am less of an expert and hence structure my lectures also more like the traditional way. In other topics, I can allow more spontaneity. In sum, I am aware that even my teaching philosophies do slightly differ depending on whether I am sole responsible for a course or whether I am just a jigsaw in a course. In the latter, I focus mainly on the pensum and my joy of researching the topic, if there is some overlap. Mostly, on such one-shot lectures I was far more pragmatic – mainly because I have so far not gotten any credit for it. When I am course organizer and teaching most if not all of the lectures, my aim is to provide a coherent story, envisage cross-connections to other fields and applied topics / working environments. I think the two ways of teaching will come closer together the more I teach, the larger my experience and repertoire becomes.

Overcoming constraints

External constraints are: a) the “pensum”, b) so and so many hours per credit points, and c) an “objective” exam at the end. This is all but supportive for any constructive alignment style teaching. Sure, I do provide clear statements of the desired outcomes in my very first slides of the lectures (Hattie 2011) even in such “one-shot” sessions with the students. And I do connect the new material with familiar material, use blackboards and powerpoint/Prezi where appropriate, ask questions and stimulate elaborative thinking. But I have to “manage” the pensum as the students’ knowledge gets most often assessed with help of a written essay. Again, I have provided essay questions that connect my topic to other topics, intentionally to assess a more holistic understanding – knowing very well the weaknesses of essays (Biggs 1999). I also make cross connections between topics – in the lecture but also in the exam questions I provide. This is facilitated when I know what topic they had the weeks before or even talk to a colleague and tell him or her about my topic. In this sense, I apply many of Biggs (1999) TLAs (teaching and learning activities). My goal is always to have a discussion going as such an invitation to joint thought is also beneficial to my research. Such mutual exchange of ideas may provide me with new experimental ideas and improvement of teaching next time, respectively (Hattie 2011, Aloni 2014).

Why do I still not manage to engage a passive student to do theorizing? I use multiple teaching strategies (Hattie 2011, Biggs 1999) but learning is a gradual process! First I have to provide an environment where students feel encouraged to “demand reasons and justifications for what is being taught” and can challenge the topic (Siegel, 1985). My aim is “to raise a student to his/her fullest potential” (ibid). Accordingly, and so far reasonably successful I think, I convey respect and openness to the students. In turn, this provides the possibility to understand and appreciate the comment or question a student has. In the case of a simple question, I try to help the student finding the answer her-/himself instead of me providing it directly (Socrates method). In the case of a deeply scientific question that I cannot answer immediately, I encourage a literature search as well as I try to find the answer and come back to the student. Needless to say, repeated student-teacher interactions greatly facilitate these fruitful interactions and dialogues. A one-shot session lacks the time to convey the supportive environment, and shy students may be perceived as passive. These one-shot sessions are problematic for students and the teacher, a bit like grandparents caring for their grandchildren. All want the immediate best but that is not necessarily the best in the long run. Students need some time to “tune” into a teacher, and me teaching in all but my mother language may add a subtle higher threshold than does a lecturer teaching to the students in his/her native language. I, as lecturer, need to get a feeling for the audience as well, smaller groups are easier to engage with than larger groups, some topics make it easier to interact than other dryer topics.

Future educational goals

So far my teaching is and will remain under construction. I am continually reflecting on how I teach and how I think about students (van Woerkom 2010). Last semester I was discussing how my lecturing went with my former supervisors, but I also regularly talk over this with my family, as most of them were or are teachers / lectures at university.

As there are no stupid questions, so is there no totally unmotivated student. When one has found out the true motivation of the student studying, one can support her or him in performing the right actions to achieve those goals (Stanovich 2001, Halpern 2001). When being responsible for an entire course, I can provide a stimulating environment for discussions and even have ad hoc seminars, group work and small problem-based learning activities. This is at least how I could set up one of my courses this spring. I am as curious as the students to see how we will work together. In sum, such a course allows me to test Biggs assumption that every student can become a deep thinker – a goal I set for my own teaching as well, i.e. get students fascinated, curious and critical!

When it comes to supervision, my philosophy is similar to the teaching context. Everyone has his or her strength and weaknesses. My task is to minimize the academic weaknesses and even more enhance the strengths of a student. In such 1:1 conversations my feedback starts with what is good before I criticize the work, but never the person. I have not received a similar feedback from two Professors I have worked for but I have experienced this style of feedback from two colleagues who have been my former supervisors. They, together with my mom’s attitude of treating everybody with respect and trying to find out what the person knows, not what the person does not know (she was a university lecturer) strongly influenced me – I am grateful to have had this training.

References:

Aloni, N (2014). Dialogic education, Encyclopedia of educational philosophy and theory, retrieved from http:eepat.net on 30.10.2014

Biggs, J (1999). What the student does; teaching for enhanced learning. Higher Education Research & Development, 18(1), 57-75

Halliday J (2014). Popper and the philosophy of education. Encyclopedia of educational philosophy and theory, retrieved from http:eepat.net on 30.10.2014

Halpern, D F (2001). Why wisdom? Educational psychologist, 36(4), 253-256

Hattie J (2011). Which strategies best enhance teaching and learning in higher education? Empirical research in teaching and learning: contributions from social psychology (ed. Mashek D, Hammer Y E)

Mann, S, and Robinson, A (2009). Boredom in the lecture theatre: an investigation into the contributors, moderators and outcomes of boredom amongst university students. British Educational Research Journal, 35(2), 243-258

Stanovich K E (2001). The rationality of educating for wisdom. Educational psychologist 36(4), 247-251

Van Woerkom M (2010). Critical reflection as a rationalistic ideal. Adult Education quarterly, 60(4), 339-356

… and many discussions with colleagues including the PEDUP course sessions