Teaching Philosophy

Several values comprise my teaching philosophy and below I outline each with specific examples of how I have tried tried to adopt them. I have developed into a strong advocate for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) and have supported over 15 instructors over the past 7 years in improving their teaching practice by running evaluation experiments within courses. These ideals have formed over the past 10 years based on my experience teaching courses, leading tutorials, and working as a teaching assistant. I have used technology to enhance my teaching in every every class I have taught, from small tutorials of 50 students, to medium class with 250 students, and even large multi-section courses with over 900 students enrolled. I have personal experience implementing every example described below.

Student learning is vastly improved through active learning

Active Learning is typically defined as any student-centred teaching method or technique that engages students in the learning process [1]. Use of clicker questions, guided worksheets, group work, frequent testing, videos, and demos are all examples of techniques that keep students engaged and allows them to construct knowledge and understanding. Considerable research has demonstrated that there are clear learning gains after instructors have switched to active learning techniques [2–4].

There are many flavours of active learning, and I am a big proponent of the flipped classroom approach. This is best defined as “events that have traditionally taken place inside the classroom now take place outside the classroom and vice versa” [5]. Ideally, my students will arrive to class after already having some exposure to the material through a short pre-reading assignment. This typically includes reading a key section of the textbook, watching a video, and attempting a short reading quiz. Admittedly, it is difficult to get 100% of the students on board as it requires considerable preparation for students, often over the weekend. As part of the three-person course team for Physics 117 (a course I helped create from scratch), we got student buy-in using several strategies. First, a small amount of marks were assigned to the weekly pre-reading quizzes. Second, quizzes were made a focal point of the week’s content because we reviewed all questions that more than 20% of the students struggled with. Third, the last question of the quiz was a reflective question asking students which concept they found most challenging. Fourth, to lighten the mood and create a collegial environment, one or two of the funniest comments were anonymously highlighted in the Quote of the Week section. Students actually looked forward to this slide and many students expressed their desire to be funny enough to “make it” on the weekly slides. I believe that learning is only effective if students are prepared, have sufficient motivation, and are engaged in the classroom. Small - but deliberate and strategic - techniques go a long way to creating an inclusive classroom, which has a large impact on student preparation and engagement.

Learning technologies must be leveraged to scale instructor effort across multiple classes.

Transforming a course from a traditional lecture-based style to one incorporating active learning techniques is actually quite arduous. Having done it at least three times in different contexts, there is a fairly significant amount of up-front and ongoing investment required from instructors. The up-front cost is unavoidable but the on-going load increase from grading and administering additional course activities can be greatly reduced with learning technologies. For example, “scantron on steroids” tools like Remark, AMC \LaTeX, and IF-AT cards make automatic grading feasible in large classes. Where manual grading is necessary, collaborative tools like Crowdmark and Gradescope are new tools that can make it slightly easier to coordinate marking with multiple graders. Learning Analytics tools such as OnTask can be used to send personalized feedback messages regularly in large classrooms. While the tools by themselves do not improve teaching, buoyed by a strong pedagogical underpinning, learning technologies can make short work of some of the most mundane and menial tasks associated with teaching. After 7 years of tweaking and experimenting, I have developed considerable skills in using technology to improve teaching. I hope to continue exploring this space and find ways to further optimize my teaching, and students’ learning.

Exploring the connections between different disciplines is an extremely powerful motivator

There is a growing realization that twenty-first century problems, such as our ageing population, climate change, and development of alternative energy sources, are becoming increasingly more complex and require approaches that span beyond traditional scientific disciplines. In fact, my disciplinary research in medical physics spans medicine, biology, and physics. When teaching the sciences, I strongly believe that instructors have a responsibility to expose students to the interplay between disciplines. Interactions and exposure to these topics must be meaningful and deliberate. While I was still a student, to showcase examples of interdisciplinarity, a guest speaker was brought in to speak to my class about biomedical imaging in the Science One program. This experience was a springboard to the next 15 years of my life and career. To deprive students of these experiences will only serve to limit imagination, creativity, and progress more “siloed thinking”. Exploring interdisciplinary problems helps students expand their “zone of proximal development” [6] - or, the tasks they need guidance from an expert to succeed in.

Teaching is three parts preparation, two parts classroom management, and one part execution

I believe that teaching is three parts preparation, two parts classroom management, and one part execution. Preparation is multi-faceted and in addition to being ready to teach the content, it is also important to 1) know your students, 2) create a positive learning environment, and 3) anticipate and plan for pitfalls. This level of preparation is necessary so instructors can change tack right in the classroom, and provide supplementary materials including videos demos.

Knowing your students goes beyond simply knowing their names or faces. While this is important, it is arguably more important for their learning to know their academic backgrounds, motivations for taking your course, and whether they have the necessary prerequisite knowledge (completing a course is neither necessary nor sufficient to demonstrate knowledge). My experience has been focused on introductory Physics classes, but this idea extends in general. As an example, diagnostic tests that examine arithmetic, algebraic, and theoretical mathematics are often used to eliminate students who are unprepared for Physics 100. As conscientious instructors, we should go beyond administering tests and delisting students that do not meet the minimum threshold. I provide additional resources such as supplemental assignments, additional office hours, referrals to tutoring services to try and get struggling students up to speed. We often do not know too many details about student backgrounds and it would be a shame if a bright and diligent student was set back a term or even a whole year because they were unaware of the resources and support available to help them. Once you know your students, you can prepare content accordingly and run your classroom confident that a large majority are equipped to learn. This can be facilitated in large enrolment courses as well, using learning technologies. I typically start my distance education classes by asking students to post on the discussion forum (usually Piazza) an interesting fact about them as well a picture of them or their favourite activity. Historically, this is usually a pretty successful initiative and students engage with their peers as well as their instructor in a more relaxed atmosphere. Knowing about future career aspirations usually helps me select content that they might find more interesting, or engage more with.

Classroom management can actually be a lot more effective when co-teaching either with another instructor, or with a more junior position such a lecture TA. This is an excellent way to distribute course responsibilities and have a second pair of eyes in the room. With two instructors in the room, it is often easier to do a bit more reflection on your teaching and take things in as an observer. That perspective allows you to make adjustments on the fly and effective communication can really raise the teaching quality of both instructors. An additional benefit of pairing instructors is the cross-pollination of ideas and practices that will naturally occur with different teaching styles.

Effective teaching is inclusive teaching

While the performance gains in active-learning classrooms are certainly persuasive, the mechanism by which they occur is not yet well understood. One hypothesis that I find very compelling is that the observed performance gains from active learning may arise simply due to the use of mix assessment methods and a combination of formative and summative assessment techniques [7]. This idea resonates with me and aligns with both my teaching philosophy and my practice. I have made a concerted effort to assess students in multiple ways and provide useful, timely, and frequent feedback. Typical course designs rarely permit instructors to provide meaningful frequent feedback. In most cases, feedback takes the shape of summative assessments but it is no surprise that high-stakes assessments induce test anxiety in students. In Physics 100, I was instrumental in overhauling the assessment model in the course. Rather than a single midterm and weekly homework assignments, we shifted to five smaller, lower stakes online timed-tests spread out over the course. In an evaluation of the change through a survey and focus groups, we found that students generally preferred more frequent tests. Simulating final exam environments lowered overall student anxiety and stress levels, leading to overall improved learning measured by final exam performance and retention of key concepts. More frequent testing also permitted more frequent feedback, and allowed students to stay on track with course content. Group exams are another way to create community and increasing a sense of belongingness. During the group portion of the exam, nearly every student is engaged, feedback is direct and immediate, and learning occurs in a reflective, and collaborative way [8,9].

Recent work out of the University of Minnesota has shown that mixed assessment methods make biology classes more equitable and reduces performance gaps between male and female students [10]. Acknowledging that gender identity is complex and non-binary, I think it is essential for instructors to carefully look at data from their own courses to assess whether their teaching practices disadvantage subpopulations within their courses. This work can often be very political, controversial, and fraught with challenges in interpretation, but I think that actually increases our moral, ethical, and social responsibility as academics to reflect on our own teaching and aim to reduce inequities in our environments. There is mounting evidence that switching to active learning techniques does not disadvantage any subgroup, and actually eliminates performance gaps in under-represented minorities [11] and in women [10]. I strongly believe that effective teaching is inclusive teaching.

Large Advancing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Post Secondary Education

In my role as a Learning Scientist for the UBC Learning Analytics project, I have had an opportunity to look at teaching and learning institution-wide with a broader lens. Learning Analytics involves the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about learners and their contexts to optimize learning. As part of our efforts, we have uncovered a systemic bias in the performance (GPA) of individuals identifying as female across a variety of courses in STEM - most notably physics, computer science, mathematics, and chemistry. This result is consistent with other recent findings in the literature [12] and require some uncomfortable and delicate conversations. At UBC, buoyed with data, I have just started having these conversations with various stake holders on campus, starting with the Equity and Inclusion Office.

The above is my experience advancing equity and inclusion at an institution level. I have developed several strategies to embrace and incorporate equity, diversity, and inclusion into my own teaching practice. In the weeks prior to teaching a new course, I prefer to conduct a preliminary analysis of the course. Meeting with the former instructor(s) and especially graduate student teaching assistants is an essential part of that process. I try to identify any structural problems that might lead to inequities, such as questions or assignments that require contextual information (for e.g., “In an average ice rink”) that may not be readily available to all students. In the distance education courses that I have taught, I push all students to share a little bit about their motivations for taking the course. To encourage a more social atmosphere, I ask them to share their favourite activity and food; this has a dual benefit of allowing me an opportunity to get to know students (and vice versa), and the students developing some habits related to online forums.

If the data exists, I would also do a gender and home-faculty analysis of the students to check if there are any historical inequities that could be addressed in a future version of the course. It is important to understand here that if a bias or discrepancy is uncovered, it is likely an unconscious and unknown bias arising from how the course has been structured historically. No one individual is responsible for these inequities; rather, the inequities exist systemically and we should attempt to bridge them course-by-course.

Summary and Conclusions

In the teaching philosophy above, I have attempted to distil my teaching practice into core values, and some examples of the activities and initiatives I pursued. It is undeniable that active learning techniques offer significant performance gains in an effective and inclusive manner. Instructor burden is certainly a key concern during a course transformation, but I believe learning technologies have a major role to play in (at minimum) reducing the day-to-day administrative tasks associated with running a course. To bring out the best in students, instructors have to be engaging, and interesting while the course has to be relevant and meaningful. To make courses more meaningful, exploring the connections between different disciplines is an extremely powerful motivator for students. At least 50% of teaching is about preparation for the unexpected and instructors need to be adaptable enough to adjust their lesson plans on the fly. Finally, I believe that Teaching and learning is an evolving experience: educators should constantly be reflective in their practice, and constantly evaluating the efficacy of their teaching. I will endeavour to continue experimenting, evaluating, refining, and disseminating teaching techniques.

References

  1. Prince M. Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education. 2004. pp. 223–231.

  2. Freeman S, Eddy SL, McDonough M, Smith MK, Okoroafor N, Jordt H, et al. Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2014;111: 8410–8415.

  3. Haak DC, HilleRisLambers J, Pitre E, Freeman S. Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology. Science. 2011;332: 1213–1216.

  4. Armbruster P, Patel M, Johnson E, Weiss M. Active learning and student-centered pedagogy improve student attitudes and performance in introductory biology. CBE Life Sci Educ. 2009;8: 203–213.

  5. Lage MJ, Platt GJ, Treglia M. Inverting the Classroom: A Gateway to Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment. The Journal of Economic Education. 2000. p. 30.

  6. Chaiklin S. The zone of proximal development in Vygotsky's analysis of learning and instruction. Vygotsky's educational theory in cultural context. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.; 2003

  7. Cotner S, Ballen CJ. Can mixed assessment methods make biology classes more equitable? PLoS One. 2017;12: e0189610.

  8. Wieman CE, Rieger GW, Heiner CE. Physics Exams that Promote Collaborative Learning. Phys Teach. American Association of Physics Teachers; 2014;52: 51–53.

  9. Ives J. Measuring the Learning from Two-Stage Collaborative Group Exams. 2014 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings. 2015.

  10. Ballen CJ, Salehi S, Cotner S. Exams disadvantage women in introductory biology. PLoS One. 2017;12: e0186419.

  11. Ballen CJ, Wieman C, Salehi S, Searle JB, Zamudio KR. Enhancing Diversity in Undergraduate Science: Self-Efficacy Drives Performance Gains with Active Learning. CBE Life Sci Educ. 2017;16.

  12. Matz, R. L., Koester, B. P., Fiorini, S., Grom, G., Shepard, L., Stangor, C. G., McKay, T. A. (2017). Patterns of Gendered Performance Differences in Large Introductory Courses at Five Research Universities. AERA Open.

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