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Teaching philosophy

My CV summarizes the courses Iíve taught and the research Iíve done. Here Iíll comment on the origins and evolution of my teaching style. In short, my approach is heavily informed by my own experiences as a student, but also attempts to incorporate data-driven insights into student learning.

"Back when I was a studentÖ"

I chose to attend Williams College as an undergraduate in large part because of its reputation for outstanding faculty teaching. I benefited enormously from close interactions with many Williams professors, and I still strive to emulate them in many ways. Among the lessons I absorbed from them were the importance of being available to students and the power of extended one-on-one conversations to identify and address points of confusion.

I was an undergraduate in the pre-PowerPoint era and took notes based on what the instructor wrote on the blackboard or overhead projector. Much learning occurred in my creation and review of these notes, yet copying complex diagrams was a challenge. For that reason, I tend to lecture with an "open outline" style, in which the students and I start with an outline and difficult-to-reproduce graphics but otherwise write out our notes in real time. This keeps the pace of lectures reasonable. Sometime after adopting this approach, I discovered that my uncle, a chemistry professor at Carthage College, lectures in the same way for the same reasons!

I was initially a tentative, nervous, self-conscious laboratory student in high school and college. Because of this, my style in lab is to maintain a friendly atmosphere in which students do not feel pressured to perform procedures quickly or perfectly.

A final memorable aspect of being a student was the emphasis that I (and many others) placed on grades. Like it or not, this is what many students will care about above all else. This has at least two implications for teaching. First, one should strive to be exceptionally fair, providing grading criteria up front and apprehending cheaters if necessary, because fairness in grading is so important to students. Second, the points that are given out for different activities should mirror the effort that students should devote to them. A more cynical way of saying this is that students will only do something if their grade depends on it. An extension of this point is that my tests are cumulative. Obviously I want students to retain the week-2 material later in the course; repeatedly testing them on the week-2 material provides an incentive for them to meet this goal.

From "sage on a stage" to mentor

When I was a full-time classroom instructor in 2002-03, I taught in a fairly conventional style, with two main exceptions. First, I highlighted examples of primary literature in a series called "Great Moments in Biology." In some cases, students read these papers, or portions of them, and discussed them with me and with each other. This focus on helping students appreciate how we know what we know Ė the experiments and analyses underlying the textbook explanations Ė remains central to my teaching. The approach is applicable to courses for non-majors, provided that the source material is selected and annotated carefully.

My other unconventional tactic as a rookie instructor was that I frequently sang to my students about science. I got LOTS of feedback on this, most indicating that it was engaging and useful.

As I team-taught Biological Frameworks for Engineers between 2003 and 2006, my classroom style moved toward more of an "active learning" approach. The assumption underlying the Frameworks classes was that engineering students learn best via hands-on activities and simulations. Of course, a similar stance can be taken with regard to any student group, and similar strategies can be applied. And although the Frameworks classes were small (10 to 20 students), weíve seen in recent years how active-learning strategies (e.g., clicker questions, turn-to-your neighbor discussions, minute essays, flipped classrooms) can be deployed even in large lecture halls. I look forward to expanding my explorations of such strategies in the near future.

One criticism of student-centered learning used to be that less content could be covered in comparison with standard lectures. Iíve known since my student days that this was a silly concern, since I forgot most lecture material shortly after it was delivered and most other students did likewise. In any case, the NSF/AAAS "Vision and Change" report has come down on the side of depth over breadth, and I happily concur.

Since 2007, much of my teaching has been done as a laboratory research mentor. This has been fulfilling in and of itself, but has also helped me redefine my classroom priorities. I now see my role in both contexts as one of guiding and supporting studentsí inquiries, regardless of the exact topic at hand. Helping students find their own answers to questions not only helps them learn more, but helps me learn more from them.

Do I still sing to my students? Indeed I do, but, consistent with the principles of active learning, I now encourage them to sing about science too. This remains a work in progress.