My goal as an instructor is for students to leave my courses with improved subject mastery, communication and teamwork skills, and passion for the topics at hand. This goal is made from a perspective that courses should create lifelong learners, imparting both immediate knowledge and an aptitude for critical thinking and continuing self-education as they move forward into their careers. While I believe that I have a natural aptitude for teaching, my experiences have taught me that I must practice what I preach; that I, myself, must be a lifelong learner as I seek to improve my effectiveness as an instructor. To capture my current teaching philosophy, I have distilled six core values and instructional priorities. This teaching philosophy statement is, in essence, a summary of my approach to achieving my goal; it is ever evolving as I continue to learn from each new experience.
Build Around Student Outcomes
Perhaps the most important question to ask is how we hope our students will change as a result of our teaching. In answering, we begin to prioritize the myriad possible outcomes we hope students will take away from our courses, bringing clarity to what can be an otherwise abstract aim. In practice, clarifying student outcomes at the onset of course design allows for lesson plans and activities to be built as scaffolds to help students achieve those outcomes, maximizing the likelihood of meeting our goals. It also becomes easier to align courses with the overall curriculum and to plan alternative strategies for difficult topics in advance. In preparation for BMEN 420: Medical Imaging, a curriculum-level need was identified that junior-level students required further coding practice. Because the specific course outcome that students must be able to use the 2-D spatial Fourier Transform to process images had already been identified, a MATLAB project was created that satisfied both aims. I have found that students also greatly appreciate having their expected learning outcomes shared at the outset of the course and each section of material – they seem to become more attentive to developing rich understandings of a topic when they know why it is important for them to do so. I’ve found that with this backwards-design approach, assessments naturally align with expected outcomes, allowing them to be useful in evaluating both student learning and the effectiveness of various teaching strategies over time.
Value each student
Students come into our classrooms from every walk of life, bringing with them a diversity of experiences and perspectives and also a range of ways in which they learn. While this presents an obvious instructional challenge, it is also an opportunity to inject new life into our teaching as we test presenting material in a variety of ways. One of my favorite questions to ask students in office hours is how they learn best. I might ask them whether they like to work from the big-picture down or from the details up, or if we are going over a mathematical problem, I ask whether they tend to understand things better mathematically or graphically. This allows me to be effective in reaching each student, and it is important because it is one of the ways that I show that I value students as individuals, that I do not expect them all to be the same. It is incredibly important to me that students feel accepted and welcome enough in my classes to be able to focus on their own learning. My goal is simply that every student in my classes knows that I value them both as a person and as an engineer.
Set high standards
Setting high standards is another way I can show that I value my students. I hope that students finishing my courses will say, “That class was challenging, but it pushed me to become a better engineer. I would recommend it to my peers.” I hope that by holding high standards I am able to teach engineering to students at a high level and to challenge them to grow and develop as people. My aim is not to be mean or superior; it is to set high standards and expectations, then give students the support they need to achieve excellence. At times, holding high standards may require being strict with students who have not met expectations, but I believe that doing so also shows value for students because it upholds the integrity of the education they receive, prepares them for their careers, and allows them to learn through either their successes or failures.
Continuously maintain engagement
Most people can empathize with the experience of sitting through unengaging classes. I can remember explicitly deciding that classes in my own undergraduate education just weren’t worth the effort it would take to get a good grade. I don’t think I was lazy; I simply had many other priorities vying for my attention. That, and the class was profoundly boring. It is an illustration of how crucial student engagement is for learning, and it shows that even good students may not be inherently engaged all of the time. To me, it is essential to give reasons to care about material and to present content in engaging ways. Pedagogical research indeed confirms my appreciation for the central role of student engagement in learning, with numerous data-driven strategies shown to keep students involved in the learning process1. I have tried several of these methods in my own classes, and my favorite technique is to simply divide each lecture into sub-sections with short breaks for peer-discussion interspersed between each. Another popular addition I recently added was to set an alarm on my phone for the 50-minute mark during long lectures, giving students a “60 second stand-up and stretch” break whenever it goes off. This allows them to move physically and better re-engage mentally when we resume. As a whole, I believe that we as instructors must blend these types of methodologies with due consideration of the specific course to achieve improved outcomes.
Establish and use a feedback cycle
While preparing for BMEN-420: Medical Imaging, I reached out to several students I knew who had previously taken the course. As I asked for their memories and impressions of the course, I found that their reflections contained a common theme, that one topic in particular was especially confusing and they hadn’t retained much of that information. Based on this feedback, an additional week was built into the schedule to cover spatial Fourier transforms and image quality; a decision that yielded encouraging grades on the following quiz that typically students have difficulty with. I believe that getting varied feedback is a crucial part of pedagogical improvement as it allows us to gain perspective. Using that feedback is part of how I continue to be a lifelong learner myself.
Extend learning beyond the classroom
Engineering is fundamentally about problem solving; problems that exist as real challenges in the real world. Whether we use these challenges as in-class case studies or as the foundation for hands-on learning, I believe that all engineering courses should seek to extend learning beyond the lecture hall. Being both a student and instructor of design-centric courses, I know firsthand how valuable hands-on experiences are for preparing students to succeed in their future roles, as they not only make learning more memorable but also give opportunities for the development of communication and other soft skills. By using their newly acquired knowledge to solve real-world problems, students inherently become aware of the potential impact of the content and reinforce their learning with memorable experiences they can draw upon as they move forward into their engineering careers.
Conclusion The time that I’ve spent both as a teaching assistant and instructor of record has been profoundly fulfilling and affirms my desire to continue as an instructor in my career. I know from experience that teaching can be both very challenging and immensely rewarding, and I look forward to continuing my ongoing development as a lifelong learner while teaching in the future.
- Smith, K. A., Sheppard, S. D., Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (2005). Pedagogies of engagement: Classroom‐based practices. Journal of engineering education, 94(1), 87-101.