My views on the nature of teaching and learning are built in part on the research base of physics education research and are supported by my own powerful excitement for teaching. My approach to teaching attempts to move beyond merely “art,” enthusiasm and reflective practice to include the use and development of scholarly materials and methods.
Teaching involves creating environments in which students build their own understanding with respect to content as well as to the process of learning itself. This requires leveraging principles of learning with application to the topical area and student population at hand. One guiding principle for me is building on an understanding of student thinking, including ideas and habits of mind. There is research investigating student understanding, both of topic and of epistemology—their understanding of what it means to know something. A second principle I follow is that one must develop a base of examples, representations and analogies—tools to provide concrete connections to the concepts being taught. A third principle is that students need to be active participants in their own learning. A broad body of research demonstrates that passive learning is often inadequate—students need to be involved and responsible. A fourth principle focuses on “meta” skills—thinking about our own thinking. Solving a problem is one thing, but helping students articulate why, where they are headed, what principles are involved and what arguments they use takes them beyond rote or procedural activities. There is a final principle, based not on educational research but on a core part of what teaching and learning is all about for me—physics classes should be fun and personally meaningful. I delight in conveying my enthusiasm for the topics we are learning about and for the process of learning itself.
My classes incorporate “formative assessment”—frequent, low-stakes evaluation of understanding. This can take the form of concept tests where students apply ideas to a novel situation, articulate their reasoning and focus on deep conceptual elements. Students get feedback on what I value, how they are doing and on the quality of their arguments. If you don’t understand, you cannot teach someone else. I get live, rapid feedback—with opportunities to build on their understanding and assess my pedagogical choices on the fly. Outside of lecture, “just-in-time” activities encourage community-building even in large 600-plus student classes. In recitation, I introduce tutorials where prepared learning assistants provide Socratic questioning to small groups using research-based worksheets. In every class, I also find or develop a validated, reliable pre-post conceptual instrument to assess learning. I have done this consistently for a decade and have convinced many colleagues to do the same to help inform our instructional choices.
Early in the process of leading course transformation at the University of Colorado, I helped build our Colorado Learning Assistant program. We hire undergraduates right out of the courses, and these students facilitate interactive learning environments while taking a course in learning theory run by colleagues in the School of Education. Our tutorials provide an ideal setting and are a hub of the program. At the University of Colorado, we impact hundreds of learning assistants, and they in turn impact many thousands of students in the courses they assist. I have been extremely fortunate to find a research area that allows me to share my excitement, enthusiasm and insights into student learning in and beyond my classroom.
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