My philosophy on teaching has evolved from many years of experiences, courses, and research in engineering and education. Reflecting on how those have shaped my views of teaching and learning, I found that a few central themes summarily describe my goals as an educator:
When students are respected, actively engaged, and autonomous in their learning, they develop and appreciate their responsibilities for it. Constructive learning is achieved best through critical thinking and cognitive dissonance, not memorization. It is my job to create and sustain these conditions, through careful course and curriculum design, well-structured assessments, and by improving my teaching reflectively.
In the sections that follow, I will discuss how I constructed this philosophy and provide some evidence of how I realize it in my teaching.
In How People Learn, Bransford, et al. (2000) talk about two important ideas that influenced my teaching philosophy. The first is that motivation is necessary for learning to take place, and therefore students cannot learn if they are not actively engaged in it. Creating cognitive dissonance is a powerful way to build motivation for learning, making critical thinking an important teaching tool. The second notion is that students retain a very low percentage of the specific content of a course, making “coverage” an ineffective way to administer a course. Putting these two together, I believe that a course should be taught with more depth into central topics, such as design and problem solving, engaging students with critical thinking exercises rather than presenting many topics and emphasizing memorization. I had the opportunity to spend a day with Drs. Richard Felder and Rebecca Brent, who teach faculty development seminars for engineering educators. One of the points they discuss in their seminars is how some faculty attempt to cover many topics with no depth, "an inch deep and a mile wide," which is largely ineffective. Instead, I use active learning and critical thinking to motivate students, also helping them to enjoy their education and become lifelong learners.
Additionally, when students start working - whether for an internship or after graduation - they will need to make decisions on their own. Thus, it is imperative that we engage students in as many real-world learning activities as possible. In these activities, we hold them to high expectations, play various roles to challenge them, and emphasize the connections between course topics and real-world issues. This is optimally achieved by bringing in authentic, challenging topics of the field and emphasizing critical thinking. One example of how I put this into practice is when I taught ECE4205, Advanced Circuit Design, and gave students an oral final exam in which they presented project findings to me as if I were a project manager and asked them tough questions to probe their true understanding.
Motivation, Engagement, and Responsibility
I studied motivation theory in the graduate course Motivation and Cognition, and it became the foundation of my teaching philosophy. From the course, I saw the importance of fostering autonomy in my students, instilling in them personal responsibility while maximizing their intrinsic motivation to learn. As well, I extended the topic of intrinsic motivation into my dissertation study after exploring it for a class research paper.
There are two major ways I work to instill personal responsibility in my students: by example and through transparency. First, by taking on the same responsibilities that I expect of my students, I am able to "practice what I preach" – a notion that is of the utmost importance to me. For example, I am implementing a new policy in my labs for spring of 2010 where I have the same amount of time to return papers as students had to complete them; not only is providing timely feedback essential, but I thought it was unfair to be strict with submission deadlines when I was not being diligent at returning their papers. Second, providing a clear purpose for learning activities and being transparent with policies and decisions gives students the opportunity to develop meaning and become more autonomous and self-disciplined in their studies.
To maximize intrinsic motivation of students toward learning, I aim to reduce the focus on grades and attend to the needs described by self-determination theory. First, I believe that some grades should be based on effort and participation as students are learning via assessments, which help students evaluate strengths and weaknesses on their own. In these, students practice with the course learning objectives and are tested later by authentic performance assessments to measure their true command of the topics; these constitute the other portion of their grade. Second, self-determination theory says that learning is a natural, intrinsic motivation and that it can be nurtured in students by attending to their needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 2000). I work toward this in various ways, such as giving students maximal say in their course administration, using learning assessments to build self-efficacy, and working in cooperative and competitive teams, respectively to the three needs.
Retention, Course Design, and Assessment
Student retention is a huge challenge for engineering, and is especially important for populations that are already underrepresented in the field like women and minorities. Seymour and Hewitt (1997) identified teaching quality issues as the main complaint that students provide when leaving engineering, and minimizing student-faculty distance as an important factor in mitigating attrition. That is why I strive to connect with my students by learning their names, meeting with them in small groups or individually at least once per semester, and using various assessment methods to get feedback on my teaching and students' learning. I put these into practice in ENGE1024, Engineering Exploration - a class I have taught three times as a GTA - especially in the Sustainable Energy Design Project that students work on in teams.
The retention issues related to teaching, at least on a large scale, can be addressed through effective course design and use of formative assessment. I use a goal-oriented approach, as prescribed in Understanding by Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005), planning a course by working from learning objectives to assessments to class activities and assignments. By this, the content and assignments of a course directly prepare students for assessments and exams, which directly evaluate students’ attainment of learning objectives. This way, students can see clear purpose in what they are doing, and professors can easily connect tasks to the big picture goals; these are essential aspects of motivating students, especially women and minorities.
Best Practices and Conclusion
Beyond these central elements of my teaching philosophy, I always try to employ best practices of pedagogy and enjoy learning more about them. For example, there are many simple active learning techniques that can be used in a class, regardless of its size, that take only a couple of minutes. Another practice I use is discussing and referring students to the various academic and personal support services that the school offers, as there are so many great services available to help students beyond what I can do alone. Further, I am interested in exploring more about the learning theory constructivism and how it can be implemented in my teaching, as it has potential to maximize student motivation for learning while creating an optimal learning environment for each of them as individuals.
Being in a unique program like engineering education has afforded me an excellent opportunity to develop this perspective on teaching, as I’ve not only studied my engineering discipline but also education topics like ABET accreditation, how to teach design, and how to do electronic assignment submission and grading (see third document here). In closing, I hope this statement has come through honestly, as I want to find the right opportunity at an institution where I can make significant contributions to the academic community. Then, I can continue pursing my passion for teaching at a place where I hope to connect with students like those that I have here at Virginia Tech.
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., Cocking, R. R., Donovan, M. S., & Pellegrino, J. W. (2000). How People Learn (Expanded ed.): National Academy Press Washington, DC.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The 'What' and 'Why' of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227.
Seymour, E., & Hewitt, N. M. (1997). Talking about leaving : Why undergraduates leave the sciences. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.
Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Chapter 1. Backward Design (J. McTighe, Trans.) Understanding by Design (Expanded 2nd ed., pp. 13-34). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.