Statement of teaching philosophy
I believe a critical part of my role as a teacher is to promote higher order thinking, so that new information can be understood and applied instead of memorized. Students often do not immediately grasp the conceptual structure of a discipline and thus may not understand how new knowledge fits into the “big picture” of the discipline. Thus, students may not appreciate how knowledge and skills that are acquired in each course can be transferred to future problems or integrated with existing knowledge. Furthermore, students sometimes equate grades with intelligence and mastery of the subject. As a result, some students may study until they can memorize enough to make a good grade on a test without achieving any higher-order understanding.
I believe that when students are shown how the individual pieces of knowledge fit together, they will understand science better and will therefore find it easier and more enjoyable to learn. As new knowledge is introduced, students should be taught how it will be applied. Thus, I try to give a brief summary of the “big picture” whenever a new chapter or a new concept is introduced. I also create lists of objectives for each course, and these are made available to students at the beginning of the semester; these lists can help students organize their thoughts and focus on the key objectives as they study. In my courses, I try to emphasize how concepts, problems, or reactions are related to real-world examples. For example, in my biochemistry class I use the example of cyanide poisoning (via inhibition of cytochrome c oxidase) to illustrate how the regulation of oxidative phosphorylation, the citric acid cycle, and glycolysis are interrelated. In a non-major course, I have utilized extra-credit assignments that involved students looking for everyday uses of the compounds we discussed in class.
In addition to learning specific knowledge, students should also develop general problem solving and critical thinking skills as part of their science education. These skills are developed by practice; therefore, science classes should include both qualitative and quantitative problems to be solved either individually or in groups. I teach a second semester of biochemistry that focuses on metabolism. In this course, I have begun to utilize a written assignment in which students are paired in groups of two or three to research a "product" such as an herbal remedy (e.g. Echinacea), supplement (e.g. creatine), additive (e.g. aspartame), or drug (e.g. Lipitor®). Generally, one student will gather all of the "pro" claims of the product's effectiveness and safety, while another will gather all of the "con" claims that the product is unsafe, ineffective, or inferior to a competitor. Students are encouraged to gather all information they can find without editing; the students then share information and have to reach a conclusion based on a proper analysis of the information. Students are allowed (and encouraged) to work together and consult other people who might be familiar with the product, but they must reach individual conclusions. I have found this to be an excellent way of engaging students in an understanding of scientific and medical research and the controversies surrounding certain well-known products.
Laboratory courses are also an ideal environment for problem solving and group activities. In the biochemistry laboratory, we have incorporated a two-week chromatography assignment in which students gather data one week and use their data to design the experimental procedure for the second week. Students seem to gain a better understanding of chromatography as a result of the two-week process.
One of the best opportunities to teach students about science and critical thinking comes when students do independent research projects in the laboratory. My research interests are somewhat diverse, and I have projects that are designed to be easily divided into small sections that can be completed by undergraduate students who have limited hours available each week to spend in the laboratory. I have found that even students who spend only a few hours a week working on an independent project find that they learn more about chemistry than they did in most formal lecture or laboratory classes. Thus, I tend to welcome all interested students to talk to me about research opportunities. Most students have the opportunity to present their research results, and several will become co-authors of peer-reviewed papers. Thus, in addition to learning about science, students can become involved with and make a contribution to the scientific community.
I have designed my grading practices to encourage an emphasis on learning instead of grade anxiety. In upper-level courses, I try to utilize homework and test questions that involve higher-order thinking. The tests are designed to assess understanding instead of rote memorization; for example, in biochemistry class we generally discuss the steps of an ELISA assay, and on a test I sometimes ask students to determine what would happen if two steps of the assay were inadvertently switched. In order to lessen test anxiety, I tend to utilize grading methods that prevent a poor performance on one single test from seriously damaging a student’s grade (in some courses, the students can use the final exam to partially compensate a poor test grade). In my upper-level courses, I sometimes utilize a bonus question that allows students to create and answer their own question; I have found this to be a popular means of alleviating students’ frustrations regarding material that was studied but not included on the test.
Some students struggle with the sciences because they believe the material is too difficult to understand. I believe it is my responsibility as a teacher to welcome questions during class and to be available to students outside of the classroom. I typically have an “open door” policy so that students who might have schedule conflicts with my office hours can come by my office whenever I am available. I sometimes ask students to evaluate the course (formally or informally) shortly before the middle of the semester so that I can adjust my teaching style to accommodate the needs of a specific class. When students are motivated to learn and feel comfortable asking for help, they will be more likely to learn and to enjoy the learning experience.