Return to writing a philosophy statement

Philosophy of Teaching
Monali Chowdhury
Graduate Teaching Associate
Department of Psychology
Winner of the 2011 Graduate Associate Teaching Award

My approach to teaching builds on a deep personal regard for its inspiring and transformative power. Reflecting upon my academic career, I am taken back to the time when I had enrolled in a teaching seminar to prepare for independently teaching classes. It struck me that the seminar was comparable to studying someone’s internet dating profile. As if “teaching” was my prospective “date,” and I had  been given access to a vast array of background information that was rich in details but sadly, impersonal in experience. Soon after, time came for me to teach in a classroom and I bravely went on my “dates” with “teaching” – cautious but curious. I was taken by surprise! I was unprepared for how the inanimate words that I had heard so many times – active learning, facilitating discussions, student rapport – would suddenly spring to life and become an interactive sensation-rich experience. I did not expect to find an intimate relationship that would continue to excite me year after year! After countless rendezvous with my “date,” today when I reflect on my pedagogical journey, several overarching goals stand out for me – goals that form the foundation of my teaching philosophy.

Developing and sharpening critical thinking skills

My research and teaching form a mutually informative symbiosis. For example, in my class on research methods in psychology, I draw on my own research in autism to highlight the importance of critical thinking. I describe the growing popularity of several autism “treatments” available in the market that though compelling subjectively are completely unsubstantiated scientifically. In that context, I have students find current news stories based on “research” published in X journal by Y researcher of Z University. Students then trace back to the actual research article cited to examine (a) if the findings have been accurately interpreted in the media or used out of context to sensationalize a news report, (b) if the research methodology used warrant conclusions that can be generalized or used to indicate causality. My ultimate goal is to help students evolve into intelligent and astute consumers of information, who make judgments not based on what “seems reasonable” but on critical scientific thinking.

For my introductory psychology class, I like to take a myth-debunking approach. I often start the lecture by citing common misconceptions related to the day’s topic, and throughout the lecture engage students to use what we are learning in class to explicitly refute the cited misconceptions. On that note, introductory psychology is one of my favorite classes to teach as it gives me a chance to work with diverse students coming from a range of academic backgrounds. For several, that might be their only psychology class and this further reinforces my motivation to utilize psychology in making them better educated and responsible citizens in everyday life.

Applying psychology to real life

I aim to make psychology more immediate and personally valuable to students. To encourage independent thinking I press students to find examples of psychological concepts from their own lives. I also try to relate current world events to psychology topics, challenging students to seek the psychological roots of contemporary issues. For an assignment in my class on lifespan development, I have students interact with an individual from each of the time periods in the lifespan, reflect on the experience, and submit a write-up. I structure the interaction around developmental milestones typically associated with each period (testing Piagetian tasks for childhood years, identity development in adolescence etc.). This firsthand experience makes the developmental concepts and research discussed in class more meaningful to students.

As I see it, when students appreciate the relevance of what they are learning, they are intrinsically motivated to be engaged in class. When this happens, several of my pragmatic objectives for students – develop writing and oral presentation skills, be able to read, interpret and discuss scientific articles, gain a command of psychological theories – are more readily achieved.

Making it memorable

I want the class material to leave an impression on students’ minds and I strive to make the classroom experience interactive by using active learning demonstrations that help students “see and  feel” the material. To illustrate concepts I carefully select videos and images for my lectures that are both attention getting and information producing. A recent activity that I have incorporated is borrowed from the Japanese presentation method PechaKucha. The student is shown six images, each for 30 seconds, depicting various types of human behavior. The images forward automatically and the student has to talk along relating the image to psychological concepts learned in the course.

Fostering appreciation for Social Diversity

I strive to instill in students a sense of respect and open-mindedness towards people who are different from them. In this context, I use my international background to its fullest advantage by drawing examples from my own life, whenever relevant/appropriate. For example, when discussing how cultures differ in “display rules” of affection, I share that while in western culture it is commonplace to openly hold hands with one’s husband, my grandmother who lives in a small town in India would be utterly shocked if she saw me holding hands with my husband in public! My goal is to have students discover for themselves the central role of diversity in moderating human behavior and thought. To nourish such awareness, I have my introductory psychology students find scientific articles examining the influence of an aspect of social diversity (e.g., ethnicity) on any psychological concept, and write a reflective paper on how those research findings might inform/alter their own behavior. Further, I am deeply mindful of the uniqueness that each of my students brings to class and I value these individual differences in enriching the classroom environment.

Creating a collaborative atmosphere of learning

It is very important for me to create a personable and safe learning atmosphere in class where students know that I am genuinely invested in their academic advancement and can ask questions freely. I use humor to liven up a dry topic, I model scholarly debate, and I press students to contribute to class discussion. I strongly believe in a two-way exchange between students and instructor; I tell my students ‘I need not just your physical presence in the classroom but also your intellectual presence.”

I learn student names quickly and require them to visit me at my office in the first weeks of class. A sense of individual rapport with the instructor, I believe, makes students participate more actively and seek assistance more readily. As evidenced in the examples above, I place considerable emphasis on developing writing skills, be it in writing empirical research papers, argumentative papers, or reflective pieces. I comment extensively on papers and urge students to work with me on a one-on-one basis to improve areas of weakness. This individualized approach to instruction is a defining feature of my classes more generally.

In my attempt to make classes optimally designed to meet the diverse needs of students, I frequently seek student feedback and tailor my classes accordingly. Implementing some reasonable student suggestions helps promote a sense of ownership of the course and also strengthens the connection and energy between my students and myself. I believe my demeanor in the classroom exudes my passion for teaching and I work towards transferring my enthusiasm for the subject to my students. Ultimately, I want what they learn in psychology to create a ripple effect in their lives such that they can apply this knowledge to their personal, academic, and professional pursuits.

In conclusion, I will say that my “date” has charmed me into what has been the most rewarding relationship of my graduate career. I look forward to exploring this partnership further as I progress in my academic life.

Return to writing a philosophy statement