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Teaching philosophy

My CV summarizes the courses I’ve taught and the research I’ve done. Here I’ll 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 student..."

I chose Williams College as my undergraduate school mostly because of its reputation for outstanding 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. Then and now, these basic elements of personalized instruction go a long way toward meeting the diverse needs of diverse learners. Sometimes helping students attain a goal is as simple as asking them what they need to succeed, and then meeting those needs to the best of one's ability.

One of my biggest insights as an undergraduate was attributable not to a professor, but to a postgraduate teaching assistant, who once remarked that I might want to review my handwritten lecture notes after class and "clean them up" as needed. This was my introduction to metacognition – the practice of thinking about how we learn, and tweaking our study habits to maximize learning. Recalling how much I benefited from the TA's modest suggestion, I now encourage my own students to engage in metacognition too.

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, lectures in the same way for the same reasons!

My approach to labs is also traceable to my experiences as a student. In high school and my first two years of college, labs made me nervous and self-conscious. What if my hands-on work was inferior to my conceptual understanding? These days, I try to reassure students like the former me by accentuating the positive (e.g., a nice calibration curve), prioritizing understanding over technical perfection, and giving ample time for complex procedures.

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 awarded 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

In my first year as a postdoctoral instructor (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 – the experiments and analyses underlying the textbook explanations – 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 the lecture material. 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), we've 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 larger lecture halls. In my recent (2013-2014) teaching assignments, I've started to implement some of these strategies in various settings. I've become especially interested in the "writing to learn" approach, in which writing is not simply an exercise in reporting one's understanding, but a diagnostic tool for identifying areas of confusion and opportunities for further study.

One criticism of student-centered learning used to be that less content could be covered in comparison with standard lectures. I’ve 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” document 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 students’ 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 too. This remains a work in progress.