Physics is a broad field, ranging from quantum information to cosmology, and it is impractical for a student to be taught everything about the field in classrooms. My main goal as an educator is to give students a space to learn how to teach themselves, an ability I consider to be the most important skill that a physicist can possess. By giving students the tools and support to be inquisitive and to explore the field, they learn how to ask questions, make predictions, and find answers. Therefore, the most important quality a student can possess is the motivation to learn and go beyond the boundaries imposed by limited time with their teacher. In order for the student to get the most out of this limited time, it is important for there to be a working partnership between them and their teachers.
The key to a strong foundation for a working student-teacher partnership, whether between a mentee and their advisor or between a student in a course and their instructor, is open and transparent communication. The primary purpose of open communication is for each party to make their expectations about the relationship clear and to define paths to success. Another benefit of maintaining transparency and openness is that it helps address the different educational backgrounds that students come in with. Our students come from a wide range of educational environments and it is our job as educators to make accommodations for accessibility. We also have to realize that students, as individuals, have individual ideas of what success looks like. Biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering students may all have different opinions about what it means to be successful in a course. And, of course, we as instructors will have our own opinions about what constitutes success. It requires regular communication to make sure that everyone is on the same page, and that all students know what the path to their own goals looks like.
One-on-one (or one-on-few) instruction is unique in that it allows for the student and teacher to engage in a dialogue where both parties share the time equally. In this situation, information flows both ways, giving the student the opportunity to receive immediate feedback and to ask followup questions. It also gives the teacher a much better sense of the student’s understanding, which allows for more personalized, helpful advice. Coming to an agreement with a mentee is also a dialogue. By keeping this specific dialogue open during the student-teacher relationship, and by introducing explicit mentoring agreements (similar to a co-authored mentoring syllabus), both sides can maintain a healthy partnership where neither side is surprised or unsatisfied by the actions of the other.
We can draw a lot of inspiration for teaching one-on-many classes from the one-on-one relationship described above. Ideally, a classroom course could be handled the same way as a mentor-mentee relationship, with lots of opportunities for significant individual interaction and personalized feedback. Unfortunately, this often isn’t possible depending on the size of the course, but by embracing modern, evidence-driven educational methods, classroom teaching can benefit from some of the best qualities of the mentorship dynamic.
Two of the most exciting modern teaching methods are active learning and flipped classrooms. Active learning techniques give students the opportunity to process the material in their own way, leading them to develop their own mental models, another key skill for physicists to have. Flipping the classroom fits very well into my teaching philosophy because it gives students a safe way to learn to interpret information on their own before class time, while still giving them the support during class to shore up misconceptions. Flipped classrooms also have more time to talk about the nuances of physics or to go over particularly challenging problems in class, rather than leaving the hardest parts as an exercise for the student in problem sets or exams.
Another teaching tool that I look forward to implementing is alternative grading methods, such as standard-based grading, specifications grading, or even ungrading. A growing body of work suggests that transparent alternative grading methods can reduce student anxiety and improve motivation, and may improve the equity of the course by giving students who have had fewer educational resources a chance to succeed at the same level as students who had more previous opportunities. The emphasis can be put on improvement and eventual mastery, rather than test taking skills and immediate understanding.
My primary teaching experience was with the Advanced Lab at the University of Michigan. This was a capstone class required for the physics major, where the students reproduced eight experiments over the course of two semesters. The students turned in lab reports in “journal article” format. My main job was to help students learn to do their analysis and write their reports. This gave me lots of time learning what concepts advanced undergraduates struggled with and how I would want to teach to address these crucial concepts, such as statistics and mathematical methods. Thinking about how I would teach physics to undergraduate majors helped draw me into STEM education reform.
My experiences in STEM reform began with my participation in the REBUILD and DIALUP projects at the University of Michigan. My specific focus was on designing and piloting new labs for the intro physics series for engineers. During the DIALUP project, we completely redesigned the intro labs using the principles of backward course design. The labs were designed to incorporate programming and simulation into the experiments, expanding the relevance of the lab course to a wider base of students. I would like to continue this work of modernizing physics education to improve the outcomes of STEM education, especially in core physics classes that are required by so many majors. Of particular interest to me is developing open resources for both students and instructors to improve educational quality, accessibility, and equity in a way that is available to everyone.
There is a lot of overlap between my teaching philosophy and the importance of communication and accessibility I discuss in my diversity statement. Overall, this is my teaching philosophy: a teacher cannot be rigid in their approaches. They have to be willing to constantly learn, reassess, and change tacks based on evidence they collect of student learning. A teacher needs to be flexible within reason, while maintaining a safe, equitable, and professional environment where students can flourish. I look forward to the chance of helping my students flourish.
Last updated 18 October 2022.