In careers, PhD/Postdoc Blog, teaching

PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Check back every Wednesday for new blog posts!

Current Position: Postdoctoral Fellow in Craniofacial Biology

Program Start Date: January 2016

Institution: University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus

Dear Readers,

I recently attended a BEST workshop called “Learning How To Teach”. We developed our teaching philosophy through “backward design”1; this requires identifying learning goals first, then planning “active learning” techniques, and finally assessing learning outcomes in order to determine if goals were met. Active learning, introduced by scholar R.W. Revans, Ph.D., refers to directly involving students in various activities to enhance learning. Overall, the workshop was very beneficial for those interested in a faculty position that requires teaching, in part because a statement about your teaching philosophy is usually required as a part of the teaching application package, but also for the obvious reason of aiding you to become a more effective teacher.

Forming a teaching philosophy is comparable to writing a combined resume and grant application. This is because it is a convincing proposal that conforms to the institution’s policies and defines the applicant as the best candidate. We learned that “grace” enhances the essence of a teaching philosophy2. A teacher can demonstrate grace to students by appropriately recognizing their work and valuing them as human beings irrespective of their scholastic performance. Encouragement inspires students and significantly impacts their lives. Hence, an application for a pedagogical job can stand out among others based upon the way grace is incorporated into the teaching philosophy because it reveals the teacher’s unique personality.

Gracefully, we proceeded to introspection exercises for analyzing our perceptions of best teaching practices. Our current teaching ideas are informed by our past experiences as students; we draw upon teaching styles of our previous instructors. We were asked to remember a teacher who positively impacted our lives and thank them if possible. We discussed how our former teacher impacted our core values, influenced our teaching philosophy, and affected our perception of the appropriate classroom and its culture. We were then guided to envision classrooms as inclusive learning environments that retain students, prevent dropouts, and are safe from bias.  Collectively, we discussed ways of optimally utilizing academic freedom to develop teaching philosophies that respect both our institution and our students.

In order to explore the three steps of backward design3, we first identified the learning goals of classes which we intended to teach. We determined that the goals were teaching the students seminal concepts, ensuring that they become skilled problem-solvers, and motivate the students to learn. For the active learning portion, we incorporated various types of concept-focused activities in the learning trajectory designed to achieve the goals. We matched different course materials with appropriate learning techniques to assemble a well-rounded lesson plan. As I chose to teach facial development, I introduced its key concepts through lectures and planned out labs for hands-on training, self-study to write reviews on facial pathologies, debates and cooperative (group) learning for collaborative journal club presentations. Most of us incorporated the Think-Pair-Share technique for cooperative-learning. Here the teacher asks a question, the students get time to think independently prior to discussing the answer with their peers either in pairs or in small groups. This is followed by a class discussion where the “reporter” from each group delivers a collective answer.

In the third step of backward design, we covered various methods of assessing student outcomes. One way to determine whether teaching goals are met is to use the “whip around” method. The unusual name is given because each question acts like a whip that makes all students actively participate at the same time. Each student gets a limited time to answer the same question posed to the entire class at once. This is typically done using in-class polling devices but may also be paper based or verbal. The type of questions asked are usually the ones having various probable answers, like case studies. Our BEST program implements another method where pre- and post- event evaluation questionnaires for each workshop session gauge the participants’ knowledge acquisition.

The workshop culminated with each of us teaching a desired unit or “tidbit” to the group. This was followed by valuable feedback from the “students”, as well as the workshop instructors, for improving different aspects of our teaching. The workshop taught us how to better communicate, lead, and manage; skills you will recognize as “transferable”. It re-shaped my core values on education. Do you think you could benefit from learning these techniques? Please feel free to share learning methodologies you use and their effectiveness.

  1. Tyler, Ralph W. 1949. Basic principles of curriculum and instruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  2. Su, Francis Edward. “The Lesson of Grace in Teaching.” Web Blog Post. The Mathematical Yawp, 18 January 2016. Web. Also published in The Best Writing on Mathematics 2014, editor Mircea Pitici., Princeton University Press.
  3. J. Handelsman, S. Miller and C. Pfund, Scientific Teaching © 2007 by W.H. Freeman and Company.


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