Teaching Philosophy

Statement of Teaching Philosophy (from UC Berkeley pedagogy course)

One of my deepest beliefs about teaching is that everyone is capable of learning: individual aptitude, disabilities, and past education change the difficulty level, but everyone is fundamentally able to learn if they apply themselves. This belief grows out of my personal experience as a teacher.

In teaching subjects with significant quantitative content, I have frequently seen students become easily discouraged when mathematics enters the picture, so my goals for students include not just teaching them the subject matter but also building their self-confidence in it. I frequently use myself as an example: after the students have had time to gain confidence in my knowledge of the course material, I explain to the students who are having difficulty with it that though I have degrees in physics and seismology, I have always been slow at math. I tell them that I have found that if I just have the patience with myself to take my time, I will get to the right answer – even if it takes me longer than some of my classmates. My hope is that this breaks their ideas of stereotypes and allows them not only to have confidence in themselves, but also to realize that not everyone who does science or math is a genius. I also do my best to remember what it was like to learn a skill such as programming and to come from that point of view when teaching those skills. Rather than let students feel judged for a perceived lack of ability, I want them to learn that in real life speed and aptitude are not as important as careful reasoning and hard work.

Based on my experience that learning can be easier for some students and harder for others, especially due to differences in the way we perceive and understand the world, I frequently explain things in several different ways (often with visuals and/or hand gestures) and use analogies and metaphors as well as concrete examples. In an effort to teach biology students in a physics class the concept of wave propagation in electromagnetic radiation, I invented a kind of ‘disco move’ using my arms as the electric and magnetic fields, walking in the direction of wave propagation. I probably looked ridiculous, but I think it was a memorable way of illustrating the concept for them. I find that humor, other than simply being memorable, also breaks up the lecture and shifts students’ thinking patterns, sometimes catching them by surprise.

This philosophy that learners are all different but ultimately capable also means that I seek out hands-on, personalized teaching situations as much as possible, especially when assessing student learning. In any course I would teach, I would create as many opportunities for this kind of instruction as would be feasible for the format of the class. Examples might include labs, in-class exercises in small groups in which I could check in with each group, and an accessible office hour environment to facilitate one-on-one instruction. In this way, I make it possible to more individually assess how the students are progressing and can personalize my explanations to the particular place in the subject material at which they are having difficulty. Often this is not the place I would expect, so I also strive for flexibility in teaching. I believe this is important not only in adapting to unexpected points of difficulty, but also particularly important in assessment of understanding. I typically vary my methods of assessment; for example when the students are working in groups, sometimes I let the students approach me when they have a question, while sometimes I go from group to group, soliciting questions. Sometimes when a specific point is important, I will ask each group or student a key question in order to make sure they have a good grasp of that point. When teaching a smaller lecture, I sometimes encourage students to answer each others’ questions.

Most importantly, I try to project an informal, approachable atmosphere. I believe that this kind of environment is more encouraging for students of all levels to feel more comfortable in talking with me or with their classmates. Interactions with students are key to what motivates me to teach: my greatest reward as a teacher is an enthusiastic student who grasps the material and shares their excitement with me.