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Understanding, modeling and taking the focus off grades: My teaching philosophy

March 12, 2013

I’m working on a job application and I thought it would be a good idea to include a teaching philosophy. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far. I’d appreciate hearing any comments or suggestions you may have upon reading it.

Teaching philosophy

In the Information Age, students are no longer limited by the accessibility of information. My teaching objective is, therefore, to go beyond the presentation of information and encourage the development of real understanding in my students. More specifically, I intend to facilitate the understanding of (1) the relevance of information, (2) the relationships among different pieces of relevant information and (3) the applications of different sets of related information. Along with facilitating the development of a real understanding of course topics, I also believe it is important to teach students tools for evaluating their own understanding, because increasing understanding is far easier when knowledge gaps can be identified.

Science continually strives for a better understanding of nature, partly, if not exclusively, to increase our predictive capacity of the complex dynamics of the natural world. Predictive capacity is generated through the construction of models that seek to reduce the complexity of nature down to the components with the strongest influences. The construction of predictive models requires putting each of my teaching objectives into practice. Modeling requires the identification of the relative relevance of different pieces of information and an understanding of relationships among these pieces of information. The information is then applied for a particular predictive purpose and evaluation and validation of the predictive capacity of the model constitutes a tool for demonstrating our current level of understanding of a system. I intend to develop a strong understanding of course material in my students through the development, parameterization, and validation of predictive models that are applied to course concepts. I believe that many students studying environmental sciences do not receive enough training in modeling and are therefore uncomfortable with making and using models. I see this as a major problem. I believe that providing students with training and experience in constructing predictive models will enable students to apply a modeling perspective in their other courses and, eventually, in their future careers.

Students are often grade-focused, which can get in the way of understanding. Poor grades can discourage students from engaging themselves, as they find little reward for their effort. Good grades can also discourage students from trying harder than the minimum level that will result in a good grade. Because of this, I employ teaching methods designed to take student focus away from grades. (1) I prefer to give more descriptive feedback and fewer grades. This feedback consists of written comments and individual feedback sessions, in addition to self-evaluation and peer-evaluation techniques. When giving feedback, I believe it is equally important to provide students with recognition of things done well in addition to providing suggestions for improvement. (2) Whenever possible, I assign projects that can have real-world impacts that students can become engaged in.

Virtually anything that students could wish to learn about is available over the internet, if not for free then usually for a fee much smaller than the cost of a university course. I hope that my teaching provides value added learning experiences for students, such that it is worth students’ time and money to learn through taking my course than by independent online learning. Accomplishing this requires that I (and the content I present) be engaging and accessible and that I take full advantage of the capabilities for in-class activities and discussions that are currently more difficult to achieve online.



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  1. Leanne permalink

    I really like how you’ve taken the concept of how you do research and applied this to a classroom setting. I think it really shows you’re commitment to your methods. I have a couple of suggestions that might or might not be useful (seeing as my teaching philosophy has never gotten me any jobs). 1) This feels abstract and not very memorable to me. I think it could be improved by some more concrete examples. Something like: what manner specifically would teach students to evaluate their own understanding? Or a personal story related to how you developed your teaching philosophy, something that says “I’ve actually taught classes in this manner, and it was effective for these reasons”. 2) Demonstrations of a commitment to learning about teaching seem like they could add some substance to this. Possibly citing a few sources about teaching strategies.There’s lots of research about teaching at the university level, and I think they would be happy to know that you are interested in teaching philosophy beyond your own personal experiences. 3) All classes are not equal. How would you approach a large introductory class as opposed to an upper year or graduate level course with a dozen or less students. 4) This is not really a suggestion. I can’t imagine not giving students marks, maybe that’s just me. They freak out if they don’t know exactly where they stand. I’ve found that giving them lots of constructive feedback, along with grades and opportunities for improvement worked for me.

    • Thanks for the feedback Leanne,
      1) I’ll do my best to see if I can find space to mention some examples of how I’ve successfully put my philosophy into practice. One good example would be a class project that I developed and oversaw for an introductory environmental science class. I arranged for the students to collect, analyze and interpret data for a greenhouse gas assessment for the town the university was located in. The students had to decide what information was most relevant for the assessment, they had to develop models for estimating components of the assessment that they were not able to measure directly, and they had to discuss the precision of the assessment before it was eventually sent to the town council. I believe that this project gave the students an excellent real world understanding of the processes and problems associated with the environmental monitoring and management of greenhouse gases. I also believe that the real world application of this project took the focus off of the grade and resulted in the students being more intellectually engaged and invested in the project. I’ll see if there’s anything I can cut out and replace with this example…
      2) I guess I didn’t really see anything in there that really needed a reference and I’m not a fan of superfluous referencing. I’ll definitely have a closer look though.
      3) You’re right, all classes are not equal. I might even go so far as to say that every class is unique. I think that specific teaching techniques should be considered on a class-by-class basis. That being said, my teaching philosophy was definitely written with small to medium sized classes in mind. For a class of 250 students, there’s no question that I would have to scale back some of the techinques I described and revert to a more lecture-based approach. I believe that this is unfortunate but unavoidable. As class size increases an increasingly small fraction of my attention can be devoted to each student individually.
      4) Although part of me would like to not give students any grades at all and only give feedback, I recognize that I occasionally need to give some grades. The thing I’m trying to avoid is students being able to tally up their grades and then decide “I don’t need to work very hard on this assignment. As long as I get a 50% I’ll be guaranteed a 75% in the class.” I actually think it can be constructive for students to have a minor freak out about getting comments and no grade. It forces them to reflect on the comments since that is their only way to evaluate where they stand.

  2. Your teaching philosophy seems really good. I agree with Leanne’s reply. I like that you apply your scientific method to the classroom. It makes sense, since your method is a way of understanding the world; it’s not limited to “the field”.

    As for the way it’s written, again I agree with Leanne. It’s really well articulated, but seems like it reads a little slow. The sentences are precise, but some are a bit chunky. Maybe if you geared it to a student’s realistic reading level, it would serve as a sort of example of your style. Like, you’re almost trying to teach your reader how you teach… so why not show them how effectively you can clarify complicated ideas. I guess I’m saying there may be room to put the same message across in more colloquial terms.

    I don’t really know your teaching philosophy beyond what you’ve described. But if your philosophy contains this concept, you may want to include it: making students enjoy your presence, using humour, or light-hearted examples to make the material relate-able (i.e., making learning fun, without losing its potency).

    Love the new blog’s title.

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