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Statement on Teaching Philosophy

In this day and age we are all striving to change our teaching styles in an effort to create an active learning environment. The techniques used to achieve this goal are varied, but usually match the individual's personality. As a facilitator, it is important to use techniques that are comfortable for us, yet effective. Additionally, we need to know what our goals are so that we can measure our effectiveness. I believe that a curious or motivated student will continue to learn well beyond the classroom. Hence, my first priority is to stimulate interest in the subject area. Once the students are motivated, they need a little guidance in order to find proper material to continue learning. The role of the facilitator is to be a basic source of information and leads to additional information.

A few of the techniques that I use to achieve my goals are modifications from former professors of mine. For example, I like warming up my audience before jumping into the current day's material. Students typically run from class to class and really need a few moments to clear their heads before they can dive into a new topic. To get them focused, I like to open my lectures by asking for questions. This allows the students to set the pace for how quickly we start the class period off. They may be having a rough day and are thinking about their previous class, in which case, I need to spend an extra few minutes easing them into today's lecture. Sometimes, usually when they are working on a long-term project, they are all fired up and eager to jump right in to the next topic. When this happens, I know I have motivated them, and sometimes have to slow the pace down so that subtle details are not glossed over.

A second benefit of starting the class off with questions is that it serves as a metric of how effective the last class period was. Students who can formulate directed questions about specific problems, understood the last lecture. Nonsensical questions or incorrect use of terminology tend to be warning flags of misconceptions or gaps in understanding which can easily be covered during the current class period.

If there are no questions, it could mean that everyone understood all of the material, they didn't understand any of it, or they are having a rough day and are not focused yet. I tend to assume that they are not focused, and as a facilitator, it is my responsibility to get their minds on topic. To do this, I always have a few questions of my own prepared. For instance, in a digital circuit design class where we learned about MUXes during the last lecture, I might ask how many select lines are needed to control five inputs. This is a rote knowledge question that will start to turn their attention to the material and set the tone. To follow up, I will usually have a simple practical situation that will be of more interest to them. The purpose of this "real-world" problem is mostly to engage them and start them thinking. I could mention that I want to start installing a new security system in the dorm, and need some help designing it. Of course, the design will require a full understanding of MUXes and so I am back to a point where they will ask questions or I know that they understand the material and it is time to move on to the next challenging topic.

To the reader, this probably sounds very idealistic. What if students have dozens of questions? What if the last lecture was a complete bomb? I have had both of these situations happen. Again, I fall back on my role as the facilitator in the class. It is my responsibility to motivate the students and then to answer their questions to the best of my ability. When I am bombarded by questions, I take comfort in knowing that I have accomplished the first goal of motivating the students. I usually know when a lecture did not go well because it typically ends with dozens of questions, or worse, puzzled looks. That evening, I go back over my notes and rework all of the examples. I try to come up with analogies to better explain difficult concepts. Sometimes, I recognize that I was going a little too fast and will split the lecture material into two parts and completely redo it. I use this time before the class when I'm expecting dozens of questions to prepare as much as possible so that I can achieve my second goal, student learning/understanding. In the past, I have completely skipped the lesson plan I had prepared because the students were driving the class along with their questions.

This may sound like a lack of control on the part of the facilitator, but with sufficient preparation, it is possible to use the students' questions to spring into topics that need to be covered. It is more important that students are motivated and actively learning the material than the number of topics covered in the lecture. Since the students may be trying to learn more on their own, it is important for the facilitator to provide leads to additional information. The Internet is an exceptional tool for accomplishing this goal. Links to related information, references, and practical examples that are available at any time from any place is a powerful freedom for active learners. All relevant topics from the course should be available on the Web for students in addition to more advanced material so that active learning can continue beyond that course.

Last Modified: July 10, 2002 - Barry E. Mapen