Philosophy of Teaching

Effective learning must be active, collaborative, and reflexive, students learn by doing and I create learning experiences that allow students to engage in a collaborative and positive environment. With the abundance of complex scientific topics in the news such as cloning, stem cells, vaccines, and climate change, one of my primary goals is to inspire students to seek current information to be knowledgeable citizens. I promote scientific literacy for all students, so they can make informed decisions in their daily life.

As an undergraduate student, I recall a devoted teacher who gave me the best insight into what it means to be a great instructor based on his own actions. At the time, this instructor was a doctoral student who happily stayed late on multiple occasions to address my technical questions which often were beyond the scope of the class. In addition, he offered mentorship by sharing opportunities such as internships and assistantships that I did not know were even available. I think back to those conversations and how important his patience and kindness were to me as a student and that is why I always provide time and mentorship for my own students. The importance of teachers extends well beyond the delivery of course content and it is my resolve to create an ideal learning environment to establish a foundation for lifelong learning as a thoughtful, informed, global citizen.

As a teacher, I have three overarching philosophies: 1. I strive to give students a passion to want to learn in a collaborative class structure and memorable methods to encourage critical thinking; 2. I verify the transference of knowledge and passion. 3. To serve as a good teacher, I must be a student first, I learn from my students by asking for feedback and then I change components of my classes based on reviews and student/ instructor dialogue.

A collaborative class structure to enhance learning. Learning results only when the student is fully engaged and truly wants to learn. The teacher can only advance learning by influencing what that student does to learn.[1] To give students a passion for biology, I believe in the self-determination theory in which students feel relatedness with the subject matter and their peers, they are more likely to engage and want to learn more. Creating a collaborative class environment is essential because students have their own best resources, friendships and peer-study sessions enhance both the learning environment and phycological wellness. I start the semester by having students introduce themselves to neighboring classmates and have them work together to answer some questions related to background knowledge. This collaborative approach continues through the semester with many opportunities for peer instruction and small group work. Further, students are motivated by autonomy and when they feel competent. I give students the resources, assessments, and feedback needed to retain new knowledge. Memorable methods to encourage critical thinking include gamification, distributive learning, and humor.

Gamification takes elements from games and integrates them into instruction, making learning fun. Learners who have fun and are engaged in the learning process have better content retention.  PowerPoint Presentations provided a simple but powerful platform to create games with prebuilt templates like Jeopardy, Family Feud, and Who Wants to be a Millionaire which integrates animations, illustrations, tables, quizzes, and embedded videos to reinforce concepts. I often have students team up and create fun team names to use on a leaderboard. While teaching at George Mason University, we incorporate an audience response system, the “iClicker,” in which a hand is held remote with buttons with options A-E to answer a multiple-choice quiz question. Because the iClicker is registered to the student, instructors can grade and monitor the progress of the students in real-time. Additionally, I’ve extended this gamification to introduce students to iNaturalist, a network developed by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, to map and share observations of biodiversity across the globe. Students make meaningful contributions to the platform while competing to see who will make the most quality contributions before the end of the semester.

With distributive learning, studying a little bit of content at a time over a long period of time helps learners avoid learner fatigue, as well as mixing up the content they are trying to learn. I give students more responsibility for learning and the opportunity to apply what they have learned to authentic problems. I incorporate pre-reading assignments, in which students read assigned sections of the textbook and/or other resources prior to coming to class where they complete a short quiz. In my longer lectures, I incorporate short quizzes within my PowerPoint presentation which integrates “Poll Anywhere” technology which allows for me to immediately assess students’ understanding of course content. Learning the individual needs of each student and making sure they don’t fall behind is my top priority.

Integration of Online Learning Management Systems facilitates learning. I have used both Blackboard and Canvas, which allows many useful features including announcements, an online grade book, quizzes, file storage, and discussions/collaborations. For most of my courses, when applicable, I provide lecture slide files to the students, because I notice that it helps students study for exams. In my lecture courses, I make the slides available to the students before the class, so they can bring them to class to take notes on. When students do not feel like they must frantically write down every word on the slide, they tend to be more attentive, ask more questions, and circle or make notes about key concepts. I use Canvas to post quizzes and practice quizzes which helps students prepare for class. Additionally, I use Canvas to facilitate group projects by having groups create Collaborations using Google Docs and Microsoft Office 365.

Humor can be a powerful tool in the classroom, since it helps direct people’s attention, and improves their ability to remember the material. When used occasionally and appropriately, humorous stories and anecdotes help create a positive atmosphere. [2]  The subject, tone, and intent are always considered and used to facilitate learning. For example, if the topic of discussion is the scientific method, I may share an anecdote about feeling a need for coffee to wake up. Then introduce conflicting conclusions regarding the risks and benefits of drinking coffee as an introduction to the scientific process.

The transference of knowledge is assessed frequently, and content delivery is adjusted as necessary. I start each semester with clear learning goals and assess student progress within lectures, standardized exams, and assignments are all important factors to track the overall progress of the student over the course of the semester. By assessing progress over time, the delivery of course content can be adjusted to improve any areas of confusion. I strive to get students to the point where they not only understand the material, but then become eager for a chance to participate, ask questions, and contribute to the conversation. At the end of the semester, I review results on cumulative and common final exams to make sure students achieve the general education competencies and course outcomes.

I qualify the transference of passion when students demonstrate critical thinking that extends beyond the scope of the class. For example, after teaching microscopy in a general biology lab, a student had started growing spirulina at home and he was curious to see what spirulina looked like under the microscope and how to determine if it was growing. I made time outside of the classroom, so the student could bring a sample. We were not only able to view the sample, but I showed him how to take pictures, make measurements, and determine viability using the microscope. Transference occurs when I can go from being a teacher to becoming a mentor and now that individual is a research assistant and student at the University of Florida’s Department of Surgery. I love to help establish a foundation for lifelong learning, mentor students and hear about student success.

Teaching as a practice requires reflection and feedback with an open dialogue between students and instructor. To be the best teacher possible, I approach the practice of teaching as a student; wherein, I learn from my students by maintaining a welcoming open dialogue and specifically asking for feedback. With this feedback, I see what improves the learning experience and what needs adjustment. This sampling allows me to improve the class experience for the students every time I teach the class. To be successful in this task, I implement evaluative measures such as using quarterly anonymous surveys, evaluation questions at the end of exams, and directly dialog seeking feedback with the students during and after class. By integrating formal and informal feedback in the form of student feedback I improve my teaching-related practices and better engage students in their development of expertise.

Professional development to improve teaching activities is an ongoing endeavor. I continually seek to improve all aspects of my teaching work. I am committed to staying abreast of new technologies and teaching strategies. Professional development courses provided by educational institutions are insightful and help me integrate insight and methods into my philosophy. For example, training as a Shell Ambassador and collaboration with the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, Sanibel Island has provided additional knowledge and relevant content to incorporate into my courses. I created a shell display for the classroom along with a dichotomous key activity. I participated in a 10-day marine conservation expedition arranged by the non-profit, Innoceana. During the expedition, I discovered the most rural parts of Costa Rica and lived in the Caño Island Biological Reserve working with the rangers. We evaluated indicators of the marine ecosystem health and created a 3D map of the coral reef while logging 10 dives. With this experience, I was able to share relevant current research, photos, and 3D modeling with my class. The most important aspect of my professional growth is to connect with students, identify with their interests, and share my experiences so I can help them develop and prepare for their future careers as well-informed citizens.

[1]Ambrose, S. A., Lovett, M., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching.

[2] Powers, T. (2005, December 1). Engaging students with humor. Association for Psychological Science – APS. Retrieved March 10, 2022, from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/engaging-students-with-humor