I developed my approach to teaching, beginning in graduate school, by pursuing diverse pedagogical experiences. Besides acting as a teaching assistant, my early training included participation in a science outreach program (www.gpse.asu.edu) targeting at risk middle school students, which I later directed for two years. As part of this directorship, I developed a science communication course for graduate students. My classroom experience is broad and diverse, as I have taught at two community colleges, an online college, a small liberal arts school, and large state university. I also have extensive training in teaching laboratories, having taught labs on general biology, cadaver dissection, human anatomy and physiology, vertebrate zoology, and cellular biology – including a surgical laboratory (on rats) at Colgate University. From the beginning, I have applied modern learning theory, rooted in neuroscience and constructivism, to the classroom.
Constructivism is individual and active. It posits that individuals create knowledge and meaning, and that for students to learn they must build new knowledge structures into prior conceptions. Students experience deep learning when this knowledge stretches across their discipline specific boundaries, so they synthesize biology material with what they’ve learned in physics, chemistry, mathematics, and even history and psychology. A fundamental premise of constructivism is that each student must take responsibility for creating this knowledge, which places the teacher in the role of facilitator, providing a scaffold, the course curriculum and objectives, by which she can reach her learning goals. Scaffold aside, a good teacher is a guide, providing students with motivation, feedback, and encouragement on their journey through the course.
I am pragmatic. The course learning objectives are my goal, and I will use any system, device, or technology that will help me get my students to them. In order to ensure that we don’t lose sight of these objectives, I use backward design; constructing summative assessments based on objectives, then formative assessments from summative, and lesson plans from formative; creating a strong line that connects daily activities to long-term goals. I build a lesson plan around the frame provided by the 5 e’s (or now 7 e’s), making sure that each one has exercises that engage students, develop metacognitive skills, and aid in transference. My classroom is noisy and dynamic; I like it filled with the sounds of questions.
Teaching is connecting. Studies have shown that personal contact, a feeling of someone caring, is arguably the most important factor in a student’s successful completion of an academic program. In each course, I strive to build these connections, learning names, asking about hobbies, talking about background and family. I don’t connect with every student, but I listen to every student, and at the end of the semester I hope that each one knows that I cared about them, and that their success was my only goal.