It’s not unusual for faculty or teaching assistants to hear students murmur, “this class is pointless,” or “why do I even need to take this class?” Too many teachers view this sentiment as an inevitable and immovable road block. I view this type of student response as a challenge. I believe teachers can transform the ways students approach learning. Through my experiences interacting with students as a lead instructor, teaching assistant, guest lecturer, and tutor, as well as by observing a variety of faculty and reviewing educational literature, I have come to learn that this transformation is rooted in effective communication between instructors and learners. By listening to students, having an open mind toward teaching strategies, working to make complex concepts relatable, and yet holding high standards, educators can inspire students to engage in the pursuit of knowledge and embrace critical thinking. To do this my teaching philosophy centers on creating a positive learning environment that motivates student engagement, respects and adapts to diverse attitudes towards learning, and a fosters commitment for learning in both students and myself.
Students are more likely to excel in the classroom when they are engaged in the material. To engage students in the material I attempt to teach in ways that connect topics so that students are not tasked with memorizing a list of facts, but instead are required to work their way through logical chains of concepts. Erickson (2002) has previously described facts as isolated, single-entities that can be overwhelming to learn, whereas concepts are sensibly sequenced and connect ideas that make learning more manageable. For example, while lecturing to students in a live session of the online graduate course, “Foundations in Health Education and Behavior,” I outlined the criteria for each of the four types of functional social support and provided “ripped from the headlines” examples from the recent 2016 Rio Olympic Games, such as the United States “Final Five” gymnasts talking about the importance of emotional support or the idea that their teammates are able to listen, relate, and offer solutions to problems that the gymnasts encountered on the road to the Olympics. Students were then asked to join private chats with other members of the class and work in groups to provide examples of each type of feedback in an exercise context and then return to the large group session and share their examples with the class. This approach emphasizes comprehension of material beyond rote memorization and uses active learning strategies to engage students and assess student learning. In end of semester evaluations, students often highlight my commitment to demonstrating concepts and using examples that resonate. One student noted that I “explained all concepts well and thoroughly, encouraged students to think and asked questions that aided understanding.” This student also appreciated my “[g]ood video examples to clarify points and help relate” coursework to current events.
I also seek to promote a positive learning environment that emphasizes respect for one another. Thus, I strive to develop positive relationships between myself and students. One of the best ways I have been able to achieve this is by walking around the classroom in the moments before class starts, introducing myself to individual students and asking about interests inside and outside of the classroom. In an online setting I have also been able to do this by having introductory ice breakers as well as reaching out to students over email when they performed well on an assignments or exam or shared particularly relevant personal experiences in Adobe Connect live sessions or discussion forums. From these activities I learn the career aspirations or current occupations of students and then connect course concepts with examples that resonate with students’ particular career goals. Taking this initiative allows me to develop rapport with students, which helps to facilitate open communication between us. Students often mention these strengths in my end-of-semester evaluations, saying that a main strength was my “time and genuine concern for me as a student. Dr. Maher was always available, but not just available; I have never in my time as a student felt so cared about, which encouraged me to want to continue, do better and learn all I could.”
By getting to know students I am able to better recognize learning strategies that work best for particular students and adjust my lectures, recitations, and office hours to facilitate different learning styles by using alternative teaching devices and methods. For example, as a guest lecturer in the introductory course “Biophysical Basis of Kinesiology,” I noticed, after asking students follow-up questions, that many students were having trouble understanding the similarities and differences between arousal and anxiety. To address this, I used a Venn diagram to better describe the distinctions and similarities between these two concepts. Additionally, when I guest lecture I create slides with one main point per slide and visual aids, not text, as supporting evidence of the main point (i.e., assertion evidence format). For example, when guest lecturing about patterns in physical activity behavior I presented a slide with the assertion, “Physical activity is highly variable within-people over time.” I supported this assertion with figures from a daily diary study of Penn State students that showed significant variability in students’ physical activity across the study. As a result, students are not scrambling to copy all the text on the slide, rather they are able to focus and think critically about what the lecturer is saying and form mental connections between what is said, the image, and the key point written on the slide (Alley, 2013). Student evaluations emphasize this point stating, “Lessons taught by Jackie and her lecture format were very easy for me to pay attention to, learn from, and understand. Even though she presented a lot of research, she explained it in a way that I could understand. Pictures and diagrams were helpful.”
Through all of these techniques and strategies, above all I aspire to facilitate a commitment to learning, both within students and myself. I believe that helping students succeed in the challenging environment of higher education is my primary role as an educator. I challenge students to approach learning and the work they produce with critical thinking. Thus, I am constantly applying concepts learned in class to real life settings and challenging students to recognize the implications that concepts learned in class have on their future as health professionals. Projects are one way to emphasize this commitment to linking course concepts and real life scenarios. An example of a class project I will implement when teaching my own exercise psychology course involves students selecting a client (e.g., athlete, rehabilitation patient, sedentary individual) and implementing psychological skills (e.g., efficacy building, arousal regulation) taught in the course to help the client achieve their goals (e.g., lose weight, improve performance). This project would allow students to critically engage in the material and experience how concepts learned in class can be applied in their professional careers.
The tenets of my teaching philosophy have also informed the ways I plan to assess students. Prior to each class, I will have students briefly write about their prior knowledge of an upcoming lecture topic (i.e., one minute paper). This approach allows me to adjust the content presented in class and provide supplementary materials and assignments needed to bring all students up to speed. Additionally, I will expect students to complete the assigned readings prior to class and will administer brief quizzes on a regular basis. The more frequently information and concepts are recalled and applied the more likely it will be held in long term memory (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). This allows me to gauge students’ understanding of material and prepares students for the level of mastery and depth of understanding required for exams. Throughout the class, I will pose questions to students regarding the critical application of course content. Students will be asked to develop an answer on their own, then discuss with another student, and finally share their thoughts and reasoning with the class (i.e., think-pair-share). These discussions and activities engage students, allow them to apply abstract concepts to real life scenarios, and allow me to assess student learning. Students are then asked o demonstrate their knowledge of course content through exams and projects. I also make sure to obtain as much constructive feedback as possible, using mid- and end-of-semester student evaluations to refine or, in some cases, redesign my teaching methods and overall approach.
I am committed to promoting an academically rigorous and respectful learning environment through personal engagement. The core principles I outlined in this teaching philosophy illustrate how I foster a positive learning experience for students while allowing me to hone my skills as an instructor. Because of this, I earned the Graduate School Teaching Certificate and my tutoring certification through the College Reading and Learning Association while completing my doctoral training at Penn State. My commitment to excellence in my teaching roles was recognized by Penn State in 2014 when I was awarded the Harold F. Martin Graduate Assistant Outstanding Teaching Award. Ultimately, I am dedicated to exploring new ways to further cultivate students’ knowledge and to improving my skills as an educator so that I can continue to have a meaningful impact on students’ lives.
Alley, M. (2013). The craft of scientific research presentations (2nd ed.). New York: Springer-Verlag.
Erickson, H. L. (2002). Concept-based curriculum and instruction: Teaching beyond the facts. Thousand Oaks, CA: Crown Press Inc.
Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17(3), 249–255.