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Philosophy of Teaching
Leslie Wade
Graduate Teaching Associate
Department of Psychology
Winner of the 2005 Graduate Associate Teaching Award

I love being a student. There are few things that thrill me as much as learning new ideas and stretching the bounds of my knowledge of the world. Throughout my student life, I have always admired teachers because I saw them playing an invaluable role as facilitators in the process of learning. As the daughter of two teachers, I was always proud of my parents and the role they played in the lives of their students. I always assumed it was the combination of their dynamic personalities, their knowledge, and their humor that made them wonderful teachers. Because I am similar to my parents, I always assumed that teaching would come naturally to me. When I was eighteen, I led my first class at an academic summer camp and I was literally overwhelmed with the difficulty of teaching. I had no idea how much preparation goes into a one-hour lecture or how much patience it takes to manage a classroom. This experience was important because it taught me that I love teaching, but it also gave me a healthy respect for the work that goes into creating both the materials for and the environment of a classroom.

I believe that my skills as an instructor are constantly evolving. Over the past two years, I have watched at least six other instructors teach. I enjoy going to watch other instructors because I believe that all other teachers can teach me something through their skills and strengths that are often different from my own. A fellow instructor asked me why I still observed others, as this is typically something only done by new instructors. I struggled to respond to this question because I think experienced teachers, as well as new teachers, can benefit from watching others. I believe that my surprise at the other instructor’s question really illustrates my general attitude toward teaching. I do not think of teachers as “good” or “bad”; for me, the measure of a teacher’s success is whether or not he or she is working to improve. One of my goals as a teacher is to never take my teaching skills for granted. To that end, I treat each group of students as a new set of teachers who can help me learn how to better meet the needs of students in the future.

There are several overarching goals that I have for my classroom, all of which are based on my beliefs about how students learn. First, I believe that students learn the best when they feel comfortable. As a result, I always try to create the kind of classroom where students know I am excited to teach them and an environment in which students feel encouraged to participate. I am genuinely interested in the lives of my students and I try to express this to them. For instance, I like to arrive to class fifteen minutes early and play music while talking to my students about their week. Many students have commented that such conversations put them at ease. I also believe that it is important to be explicit about my desire to make sure they are having a good experience in my classroom. I invite them to share their concerns with me at any time and I stress the importance of my mid-term evaluations as an opportunity for students to help me tailor the class environment to their needs. I begin my class each quarter with a discussion of the importance of respect in our classroom, which enables me to facilitate discussions in such a way that students are more likely to be respectful of each other. Another way in which I empower student participation is by providing positive feedback wherever appropriate. Finally, I know that students have a variety of learning styles and not all students are comfortable with making comments in class. Thus, I try to create many opportunities for a variety of types of participation; I conduct in-class experiments, do demonstrations and take frequent in-class polls to encourage less-verbal students to participate.

Second, I believe that students will retain more of what they learn in a course when they have some ownership over their learning. To that end, I focus on active learning and the use of examples to give students the tools to apply the knowledge that they learn in my course. I never want my students to feel like passive receptacles for knowledge because I believe that there is more learning achieved when students can learn from both the instructor and each other. For example, I typically begin class by having students brainstorm about the topic of the day and I reference specific student’s comments by name throughout the lecture, to build in a sense of ownership. I have found that with a series of leading questions, I can often get students to intuit most of the major theories that we will discuss in a given lecture and this seems to enhance student learning (e.g., students will often intuit all six of the major motivational theories when presented with the question “what are some reasons people might get a tattoo?”). I really focus on the use of examples in my classroom and for each major topic covered, I try to reference well-known movies that demonstrate each concept. I also try to use common experiences to describe phenomena. For example, using the fact that high school students often get treated badly at restaurants because the server thinks they will not tip as an example of self-fulfilling prophecy. By seeing examples that connect what they know to what they are learning, students learn concepts more completely. Another reason that I use examples is to show students how to see Psychology in their everyday lives, which means that their learning can continue long after my class is over.

Third, I believe that critical thinking skills are important to student success and that teaching critical thinking through course content can improve student learning. In addition, I believe that teaching students scientific writing must be conducted with a focus on critical thinking and the logical placement and progression of ideas. Many of my assignments in the form of quizzes, tests and papers require students to answer questions with no “correct” answer. Rather, I prefer to ask my students questions that force them to synthesize the topic and defend a position. This allows me to build practice for critical thinking into my classroom. By forcing students to fully think out ideas, and not just to take notes on my lectures, I am able to promote critical thinking skills, which I believe to be integral to future academic success. When I have students write papers, I give detailed grading criteria and long paper prompts so that students can develop the logical structure of their argument in both written and oral communication. In addition, I teach students the background of the scientific method, so that they can become informed consumers of knowledge; instead of relying on intuition, they will have a flexible strategy for answering a myriad of questions in psychology.

Fourth, I believe that students learn better when instructors model behavior that they seek to promote in their students. I think that students learn from more than just the lectures and the textbook; an integral part of learning is watching the behavior of the instructor in a variety of situations. As an instructor, I try to model appropriate classroom behavior, the role of constructive criticism and affirmation, and a love of Psychology. I have found that students tend to get more positive in their verbal and non-verbal feedback to other students as the quarter passes and I like to believe that they are modeling my reactions to their classmates. Because I have a passion for both psychology and teaching, I find that most students see me as very enthusiastic. I believe this enthusiasm to be contagious and I have had many students go on to take more courses in psychology and become research assistants in the department.

When reading my mid-term and end of the quarter evaluations, it seems that my students perceive the practices related to these goals on my part. Students consistently comment that the class environment is comfortable, that I am genuinely interested in their learning and in them as people, and that the class activities are helpful. I usually try to include at least one active learning activity in each lecture and I try to incorporate some discussion in every class. These activities range from group work to create advertisements for different parts of the brain to an in-class experiment in which students determine the effect of candy on memory as a way of learning the components of the scientific method. Former students have told me that these active learning methods stay with them after the course, which attests to the effectiveness of such activities in promoting ownership of learning, even after the conclusion of the class.

Teaching psychology is my passion. There is nothing else in my professional life that brings the same joy and exhilaration to me as giving a lecture where students are learning and engaged. While I am fortunate to have found something I am so passionate about, I feel that I have a responsibility to work hard for my students. It is a great gift and a great responsibility to share the subject matter I love with others. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to teach Psychology and I only hope that I am always doing a service to my students.

Because I want to improve my teaching, I have participated in a variety of development activities to continue growing as a teacher. I have attended workshops for instructors on managing the classroom, leading a discussion, creating classroom goals and assessing progress, preparing a teaching portfolio, and engaging students. In addition to these workshops, I was selected as a Psychology Department representative for a university-wide Writing Across the Curriculum workshop. I have also been selected to facilitate workshops in the Psychology Department for other instructors on leading classroom discussions and grading papers. This summer, I was selected by the Psychology Department to serve as the graduate TA for the practicum component of the summer teaching course in psychology (Psychology 852). In this role, I will provide feedback to new instructors on their lecture preparation strategies and presentation style. At the university level, I participated in the Office of Faculty and TA Development’s New TA Orientation in the fall of 2004. At this university-wide program, I led sessions on managing the classroom, developing effective presentation skills, preparing for the first day, and teaching for an inclusive classroom. I will participate in this New TA Orientation program again in 2005 as both a facilitator of individual sessions and as the keynote speaker. I have found professional development opportunities very helpful in my own teaching, and feel strongly in giving back to those programs whenever I can.

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