Teaching Philosophy Statement

d.w.rowlands [at] gmail.com

The following is the teaching philosophy statement I wrote at the end of the spring 2014 Kaufman Teaching Certificate Program at MIT. During this semester-long series of workshops, readings, and assignments, I learned about a variety of topics relevant to teaching science and engineering at a college level, including course, syllabus, and exam design, the use of interactive and technology-based teaching methods such as "flipped classroom," and inclusive teaching.

The principles of physical chemistry are a fundamental part of technical literacy for scientists, engineers, and citizens in general. Teaching a subject to a variety of students with different interests in the material and different end goals for their education is inherently challenging, but I believe that it is one that I can succeed at. Doing so requires a focus on three specific challenges: making sure that students are able to maintain interest and feel involved in their learning and the material; providing unifying frameworks that will enable students to understand course content as part of a larger, comprehendible pattern rather than as an inventory of disparate facts; and setting and effectively assessing clear learning goals so that students will understand what is expected of them.

Maintaining student interest and involvement is a teacher’s first challenge: if students do not take an interest in the material, they certainly will not learn it. What it takes to interest students will obviously depend on their educational goals. Students who intend to continue on in the field will be most interested in the material that they believe is likely to be useful in more advanced classes. Students in other fields, however, may be drawn in by a demonstration that the material is more broadly relevant or, if one is lucky, by being convinced of its intrinsic elegance. I will try to always provide examples of how topics I’m covering are applicable elsewhere, as appropriate to the interests of the class. I’ll also try to provide some context for how results fit well into our general structure of knowledge in the field, in the hope of conveying some sense of the elegance of the physical derivation of chemical behavior.

Convincing students that material is interesting in theory is not enough, however, if the presentation drones on until they go to sleep. By breaking up lectures into smaller segments of ten or fifteen minutes, I will give students who have lost their place a chance to catch up, while alternating different presentation styles—traditional lecture, demonstrations, student-participation—and different topics that may interest students to different degrees.

Furthermore, it is important to ensure that all students will feel involved and supported in the classroom. I will try to achieve this in several ways. In my experience as a recitation TA, I have always made a point to call on all students during discussions, not just the ones who always raise their hands. I’ve also tried to make a point of praising students whenever they make a good point in in-class discussions to encourage them to speak up more often. While it is essential to criticize student errors and signs of misunderstanding, doing so can be made less alienating if it is combined with discussion of what has been done well. It is also important to avoid making students feel singled-out or different, especially about identities that may be associated with negative stereotypes.

The literature on how students learn indicates that students construct their own knowledge based on the mental frameworks they have available, sometimes in very different ways than the instructor understands the material. Furthermore, expertise in a subject is generally achieved by developing highly hierarchical mental models of the material. This means that it is very important to try to guide students into constructing mental models that are both physically meaningful and practically useful for problem-solving.

Recommending specific mental models of systems and organizational frameworks for ideas has a definite and important role. However, it alone is insufficient, both because my mental models may not work for everyone, and because just presenting a model will not always be enough for students to construct their own version of it. Having students create their own concept maps will help somewhat to alleviate these problems, by allowing students to share ideas and allowing me to notice and correct misunderstandings before they become deeply embedded in their understandings.

Along with abstract models, I will make an effort to select examples that are specifically targeted to help students find the right model for themselves. This requires providing as broad a sample of examples as possible without focusing on irregular special cases. I will also be careful to ensure that the patterns my examples reveal are meaningful and not incidental. An optimal selection of examples may take some time to develop, however, since it is necessary to use assessments to determine whether the patterns that I think the examples reveal are the ones they actually reveal to students.

Having well-considered, clearly articulated learning objectives and making sure that both the material taught and the assessments taken reflect them is essential for teaching in an organized and consistent manner. Making sure that students are aware of these objectives will help them recognize the purpose of lesson material and ensure that they have clear guidance in what they need to study and whether they understand the material that they are expected to be able to use. This should reduce student frustration, and also help reduce students’ anxiety about exams.

Reducing anxiety about exams and assessments is itself an important goal, since the purpose of assessments is to determine whether the course’s learning objectives have been achieved—and whether some topics require additional instruction—not to stress-test students to see how they fail. Furthermore, anxiety from uncertainty can combine with stereotype threat to have a particularly detrimental effect on students from underrepresented backgrounds.

Techniques such as “backward design”—the process of constructing lessons in anticipation of planned assessments to evaluate learning objectives—serve an obvious role in making sure that students are and (hopefully) feel prepared for the assessments that will be given. However, they are not sufficient. It is also important that assessments be structured so that they provide a useful learning experience: for students on how to approach problems on this material, and for the instructor on what topics students need additional help with. Therefore, it is best to assess student progress throughout the term, with various low-stakes assignments, such as homework and in-class problem solving. These assignments should be as similar in form to exam material as possible, so as to better prepare the students, while also being worth a significant enough fraction of course credit that they somewhat reduce the intimidation factor of the exams.

During my time as a graduate student at MIT, I served as a recitation TA three times: twice for honors freshman chemistry and once for undergraduate thermodynamics. My TA work helped me learn to write up useful lecture notes to distribute—even students in other sections clambered for copies of my write-ups—and gave me experience in running classroom discussions and problem sessions that students seemed to find useful. However, it also helped me develop an appreciation for the challenges of the tasks I wasn’t responsible for: designing the course curriculum and writing assessments. I hope to weave these skills into classes that will help students of different interests and backgrounds successfully learn physical chemistry.