My teaching philosophy is grounded in these core principles:
The over-arching goal of teaching is to build understanding of important ideas and concepts
Knowledge is not knowing facts. Facts — pieces of information — are indispensable accessories to knowledge, but to actually “know” something requires mastery of ideas and concepts. How are “ideas and concepts” different from “facts”? Well, ideas and concepts express understanding of how things work and/or why things exist: they explain phenomena. Facts tell us what exists, and in my estimation simply knowing what exists is not all that interesting. Perhaps this is because the subjects I teach — ecology and evolution — are about explaining pattern by identifying crucial processes: the why and how of nature. My courses are all designed to help students to understand the processes that produce the patterns we see in nature, and while my students learn a fair amount of content (a fancy name for “facts”) my main focus is on ideas and concepts. As such, I never assess students solely on the facts they know: my assessments focus on determining whether students have gained a conceptual understanding of the subjects we are studying.
Twenty-first century education should be about finding, validating, and interpreting information, not remembering information
Since the Fall 0f 2014, all of my courses have featured what I call the Open Information Environment policy: students are allowed to access information in their assigned readings, from their notes, and on the web at any time during the course (including on quizzes and exams). I instituted this policy after realizing that the challenge of modern students was how to find, validate, and interpret — rather than remember — information. Now that most people carry web-enabled devices with them at all times, there is no reason why anyone needs to remember anything. But with all this information “at our fingertips”, what is crucial is locating and understanding the information that gives us the “answers” we seek. Because I allow my students to have access to all information at all times in my courses, all of my assignments force students to interpret, explain, and synthesize information rather than simply regurgitate it.
Teaching should be accessible
Being a good teacher is the teacher’s problem. While we should expect that our students devote significant attention and effort to our classrooms, our work should not be predicated solely on this devotion. If motivated students are struggling, we as teachers need to find ways to help students work through that struggle. This is particularly true in the non-majors (general education) classroom, but I think it also applies to all classrooms: too often teachers present material in a confusing, overwhelming, and/or disorganized manner and then expect students to make sense of the resulting mess. I try to make my classes accessible to all of my students by selecting informative background material, presenting key ideas and concepts in a variety of ways, and providing my students with frequent feedback. I also pay close attention to the level of each of my courses, providing information that will help each student find the course that matches their needs. When students are not learning, I make it my problem to find novel ways to reach those students.
Reading material and other assigned media should support – not guide – classroom teaching
Students need to read; increasingly students also benefit from experiencing video, audio, and interactive media. Every course needs a required reading and media list, and the classroom is only functional when students consistently complete their readings before coming to class. The classroom presents different opportunities than home study: in the classroom, both students and their teacher have the chance to synthesize ideas presented from multiple sources, to consider the validity of different points of view, to apply ideas from read sources in new contexts, and to experiment with concepts that emerge from the readings. I believe that what goes on in the classroom is the most valuable part of each student’s education, and so readings and other assigned media should support what goes on in the classroom. This means that each of my courses is designed around what I think is important to learn, not what a particular textbook author values (I rarely use a textbook, and none of my courses relies on a single source text). It also means that I use my time in the classroom not to reiterate what has been established in the readings, but to dissect and reassemble the explanations of the readings and to apply these explanations in new contexts. Students find this kind of classroom challenging, but it is the kind of classroom students need in order to understand key concepts and ideas.
Didactic lecture is best used sparingly
The easiest way to teach is to stand at the front of the classroom and lecture at your students. Unfortunately, what is easiest is not always best, and didactic lecture fails to provide many of the opportunities students require: the chance to develop critical thinking and communicating skills, to test what they know by expressing what they know, to pursue their own curiosity, to receive feedback on their current quality of work, and to enjoy a dynamic, fun, and engaging classroom. The shortcomings of didactic lecture have prompted me to avoid its ease except when absolutely necessary: at the very least my lectures will be peppered with questions that students must weigh in on before we proceed, and increasingly I am trying to move away from lecture altogether. In a world where there are many opportunities to listen to and/or view lectures given by world-class scholars online, the goal of the classroom teacher (even one who might post his own amazing didactic lectures) should be to use the real live analog location of the classroom to create learning opportunities that one-way lecture can never provide.
To reach all students, key ideas and concepts must be presented in multiple ways
Not all students learn in the same way. Some students really need to talk about the ideas they are processing, some need to write, and others need to diagram their understanding. Some students learn best by reading, others need to see visuals. Listening to explanation works for many students, but others need to discover their own explanations via exploration. All of these students take my classes, and it is my job to serve them all, so I never present important ideas and concepts in only one manner. Within a particular class meeting and over the course of the semester, students encounter ideas in a variety of forms and are asked to express their understanding in equally diverse ways. I also provide students with a fair amount of choice in many of their assignments, allowing each student to demonstrate what they know in their own way.
The classroom should not be focused solely on learning a particular subject: it is also a place to learn how to read, speak, write, think, and collaborate
I am the product of a liberal arts education and I believe in liberal arts education. Undergraduate education should not be solely dedicated to learning a particular discipline; some students may not even be well-served by pursuing a “major”. What students really need to learn as undergraduates is how to read, speak, write, think, and collaborate. These skills transcend discipline but can also be taught in any discipline; these skills assure that wherever life may take the college graduate, she will be adaptable enough to gain new expertise and fill new niches. In my classes I ask that my students exercise all of these skills. Weekly readings emphasize the importance of decoding argument and explanation. Frequent discussion gives my students the chance to speak. Assignments, quizzes, projects, and papers all focus on intensive writing. Questions and activities require students to think. And work in groups allow students to practice skills of collaboration. The subjects I tackle in my classes are only a few of the many paths of inquiry through which students can gain critical skills: I just happen to be passionate about these paths and excited to collaboratively read, speak, write, and think about ecology and evolution.
Students must be constantly challenged to express their understanding
A passive student does not learn. One of the chief concerns of an instructor should be to present students with frequent opportunities to actively test and express what they understand. In my classroom I try to make these opportunities as diverse as possible: students respond to reading on the Learning Management System before coming to class, answer questions posed by me or by other students in class, work through problems presented in various laboratories and other activities, and complete quizzes and exams. Sometimes the understanding students must present is verbal, sometimes visual, sometimes mathematical, sometimes written: understanding can be conveyed in many ways, and students should become proficient in as many of these channels as possible. Many students are not comfortable with, experienced with, and/or motivated by a challenging classroom; I find that the trick to reaching these students is to also make the classroom a safe space.
Students learn best when allowed to conduct their own inquiries
Although certainly all students need some initial direction and many require foundational understanding in a particular topic area, the ultimate goal of the classroom should be to equip students to conduct their own inquiries. When students take ownership over what they want to know, they not only learn critical research skills, they also feel investment in what they are learning; this investment fuels student effort and enthusiasm. In my courses, I provide opportunities on many scales for students to direct their own inquiry. I ask students to frame the important questions that will guide our discussions. I design activities that require that students decide what they will investigate. And the vast majority of my major assignments require students to decide what topic, problem, or scientific question they will pursue. The best student work produced in my courses emerges from student-directed inquiry.
The major assignments and assessments of a course should reflect the goals of that course
What defines a course? Is it the readings? Is it the material discussed in class? No: I would instead suggest that what defines a course is how we ask our students to perform. The major assignments and assessments of a course reflect priorities: if you give students an exam that only requires them to memorize random facts, your class is about random fact memorization (regardless of what you might hope the class was about). I am very careful in how I select and design the major assignments and assessments of my courses, and I think a lot about how to optimize student work to produce the course outcomes I desire. Each of my courses presents students with unique demands that reflect the unique goals of that class, and I make sure that what I demand of my students reflects what I want them to learn.
Students require very frequent feedback in order to improve the quality of their understanding
Human beings are cognitively advanced beyond all other animals, but we are still animals. Despite our rather impressive cranial capacities, we are not capable of assessing our own progress independent of outside feedback. Like other animals, we are constantly reading our environment — particularly the social environment — for cues about how well we are doing. We tend not to modify our behaviors until we have received some signal that a particular pattern of action is failing us: in the absence of feedback, we rarely change behavioral course. Students need frequent and consistent feedback on their current work in order to build efficient study habits and eventually produce exemplary work. Skills come from practice followed by feedback on that practice. In all of my classes my students receive weekly feedback on their work; there is no limbo state of uncertainty in my classroom. I also make use of the Learning Management System to provide students with up-to-date summaries of their current achievement and resulting grade in all of my courses.
Students thrive best in a classroom that is safe, fun, diverse, and challenging
There are four qualities that I never want to characterize my classroom: scary, boring, monotonous, and easy. Scary classrooms discourage students from taking the risks that are necessary to learning something new. Boring classrooms stifle student enthusiasm and curiosity. Monotonous classrooms become so predictable that students lose focus. And easy classes are like junk food: initially they may be pleasurable, but in the long run you suffer for not learning enough. My first priority is to create a safe classroom, a place where all students feel comfortable presenting their ideas; the scared student is a silent student, and the silent student misses out on countless opportunities to learn. I also strive to make my classes fun; a fun classroom emerges both from topic (interesting topics are fun to learn about) and tone (light-hearted, humor-infused classrooms are enjoyable to spend time in every week). While I would be the first to admit that I like my routines, I make sure that students are presented with a diverse classroom; each week should include some new way of approaching a topic or a novel activity. And I like to push my students pretty hard as well, challenging them with difficult-but-engaging tasks. I see my classroom as a community, and during our brief time together I try to make this a vibrant community.