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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 suggestion, I 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 expectation.

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 students, and similar strategies can be applied. Among the many ways that active learning can be incorporated into courses, my current favorites include the following:
Students answer questions after conferring with a neighbor. This reduces the stress of speaking for shy or uncertain students, and also improves the quality of the answers.
Students do frequent low-stakes exam-like problems (e.g., as clicker questions or short quizzes). This encourages them to stay current with the material while they practice the tasks on which they will ultimately be judged.
Students engage in iterative "writing to learn." That is, they write not simply to report their understanding, but to identify areas of confusion and receive actionable feedback.
Students sing content-rich jingles sometimes accompanied by kinesthetic movements. This offers a complementary way of learning content while fostering esprit de corps and conveying the message that science is worth singing and dancing about.

Since 2007, much of my teaching has been in the role of a 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.