I have developed my teaching philosophy over my years at Pratt, which can be summarized by the following pillars upon which I base my courses:
I focus on conveying conceptual understanding of various phenomena in my courses and try to minimize the number of facts, equations, formulas, etc., that students have to memorize. I always provide multiple means to understand each topic and make any equations that I use in class available when taking exams, since I am familiar with the wide variation in mathematical background and proficiency of the Pratt students. I use visualizations and design assignments and activities with the goal of giving students different ways to access and understand each concept, as I explain in more detail below.
I believe it is the responsibility of every teacher to provide a productive educational environment for their students. Additionally, I think it is important to recognize and be aware of the power imbalance inherent in the typical classroom structure.
My general view is that the ethical and responsible way to wield power in any context is through maintaining transparency and providing opportunity for feedback, which is then thoughtfully considered. Rules governing any system should be made clear to those subject to it by whoever is in the position of authority.
I employ these ideas by reviewing my syllabi with students the first day of each course, which contain all of my rules, policies, expectations, and grading criteria. The course syllabus and more detail on the specific way the course is run are continuously available on the course Learning Management System (LMS) website for students to access whenever they want to revisit them. Additionally, I use the grade book feature on the LMS so that everything I grade is visible to students as soon as I grade it. Additionally, I grade all minor assignments within a few days of submission and major assignments within a week.
Finally, I make the exact expectations for major assignments—as well as the grading rubric with which the assignments will be assessed—available on the course LMS site from the first day of class. Examples of a major assignment and its grading rubric can be seen below. By having constant access to these documents and information, students know exactly what is expected of them and how they are doing in the course as it proceeds.
Multiple Learning Styles
Since it is important to take into account the fact that students have different learning styles, I always incorporate multiple ways for students to comprehend the material in my courses. The first experience students have with each topic is comprised of readings or video from textbooks, articles, or other sources online that have been selected to be of an appropriate level for the typical Pratt student. For most of my courses I have found online readings that they can access free of charge. The readings are paired with reading response questions that the students must answer (and that I review) before class. The student then experiences the material in the classroom via my lectures and class discussions. My lectures contain visualizations that they can access after class for review. And in most of my classes I have the students engage in class activities so that they actively participate in the learning experience instead of just passively listening. These visualizations and activities are described in more detail below.
In order to make my lectures more engaging to students, I employ visualizations that assist and accompany my verbal explanations. This entails finding the graphs, images, diagrams, videos, and animations that I think best explain the material. To the greatest extent possible, I make these visuals available to the students using the course LMS website so that they can access them when reviewing and studying the material. For example students in my astronomy class can explore the orbital dynamics in the solar system, and my Science of Light students can learn how the temperature on an object affect the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation that it emits, while my Physics of Music students are observing how a string can vibrate at multiple frequencies (harmonics) simultaneously.
Another way that I engage students with course material is by having them participate in class activities so that they actually practice the science or mathematics that they have been learning about.
For example, in my Science of Light course, students make images with lenses and curved mirrors and analyze the spectra of common light sources like incandescent light bulbs and low-pressure sodium vapor lamps (the orange-yellow lights that illuminate many of our streets). In my class on music, they use computers with common software (Garage Band, Audacity, or Audition) to record and analyze the sounds made from simple instruments like slide whistles, sonometers (a basic string instrument with only two strings), and their own voice. And in my mathematics course, they do many in-class calculations and use spreadsheet software (MS Excel or Google Sheets) on computers to make calculations such as projecting their retirement nest egg if they make regular contributions to a 401K with matching funds, the full costs of owning a car, and the total cost of an item bought on credit when paid off over a year.
In most of my courses, I employ a classroom polling system (commonly called a “clicker” system) as another method to encourage students to be active in class. I display multiple choice review questions and allow the students some time to answer with their clicker. If my computer (which receives and tallies the responses) indicates that most of the students have the correct answer, I tell the class they got it right and ask them to explain why the selected answer is correct. If most of the class chooses incorrect answers, I take time to review the material so that the answer becomes clear. In many cases some students have the correct answer while others do not. In that case I have them “pair and share,” where they discuss with their neighbor(s) the answer they chose and why. After giving a couple minutes for discussion, I have them answer again, which usually results in a convergence on the correct response.
General Education Objectives
As I have continued to develop my courses, I have increasingly emphasized activities and assignments that address the general education needs of my students. Since I began teaching at Pratt, I have required my students to do research for final projects and communicate their research results in written form, but I have enhanced the focus on communication and research in several ways in recent years.
I developed a program with the Writing Center to get my students (most of whom are upperclassmen) back into habit of written communication by having them write three reflection papers over the course of the semester. During a one-hour session in class for each paper, they review and critique each other’s work in small groups, along with a tutor from the writing center. I circulate from group to group in order to address content issues when necessary. This program culminates in the writing of a final paper for their research project, which students are required to take to the Writing Center for improvement before submission. This has the double benefit of improving the students’ writing skills while allowing me to focus more on content and not be distracted by poor writing when grading final papers. I have been spreading the word about this strategy to my colleagues, several of whom have now incorporated it into their own courses. The Writing Center has obtained funding from the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program to support an expansion of the tutoring program that we created.
In addition to this collaboration with the Writing Center, I also have my students formulate written responses to short answer question on their weekly readings, and the majority of my exam questions require written response as well.
I have also incorporated oral presentation into my classes. In addition to writing a final paper on their research project, students are required to present their findings in front of the class. While watching other students present, I have each student take notes and submit critiques of the presentations they observe. Beforehand, I review the common mistakes presenters make and give them suggestions on how to make their presentations more compelling in order to prepare them for the task. Once completed, I give each student a written assessment of their presentation that incorporates the reactions of their peers.
The most recent general education addition to my courses has been to incorporate a session at the library once students have defined the research topic for their final project. During the session one of the librarians reviews the best ways to find valid and relevant sources of information electronically using search engines and the Pratt library website and databases.