In today’s guest post, Sam Richardson generously shares his statement of teaching philosophy. Sam is a graduate student in the department of Health Policy, and recently participated in the Bok Center’s Designing the Course of the Future seminar.
I see each new student who comes into my classroom as an intelligent novice. My mission as a teacher is to guide these novices towards expertise. The great challenge—and the joy—of teaching is that the path from novice to expert is different for each student.
To be successful, I need to know the answers to three big questions:
- Where are we going? What constitutes expertise in the course content and in the field more broadly? What capacities and mental habits do I want my students to retain after the details of my course have become a distant memory?
- Where is each student starting from? What knowledge, experiences, and interests can I build on? What content and connections are missing from students’ intellectual schemata, and what misconceptions do they have?
- What guidance do my students need? What breakthroughs does each student need to achieve in order to gain the expertise we’re seeking? And how can I best help my students to achieve these breakthroughs?
The answers to these questions motivate every teaching decision I make, from overall course design, to lecture content and use of technology, to my evaluations of student learning.
1. Where are we going?
This is the most fundamental question guiding my course design choices, and the answer depends critically on the subject area of the course, its intended audience, and how it fits in with the overall teaching goals of the department. In any case, these goals should address higher-order cognitive skills: I want students in all of my courses to develop the ability to analyze complicated questions thoughtfully, to evaluate economic and policy arguments, and to create novel arguments by synthesizing disparate strands of knowledge.
In an introductory economics course, one (of several) concrete goals would be for students to gain the ability not only to understand, but also to evaluate, economics-related news items. For example, they should be able to write thoughtful responses to pieces in the finance and economics section of The Economist. An intermediate microeconomics class should develop students’ analysis and problem-solving skills, as well as their ability to apply economic concepts to a variety of market settings. In an advanced game theory course, I want my students to develop the ability to design and evaluate new theoretical models of real-world strategic interactions.
In teaching health economics, I would make substantially different course design decisions based on whether or not the course is targeted to economics majors. An education in economics should include learning to analyze theoretical models of economic behavior; for example, economics majors should grapple with the workings of Grossman’s model of health capital. On the other hand, a health economics class for non-majors or a health policy class should spend more time on economic analysis of particular health policy options; the modeling, per se, is secondary to a general understanding of the concept of scarcity and other aspects of the economist’s policy perspective.
2. Where is each student starting from?
To successfully motivate and guide each student, I need to know her strengths, weaknesses, interests, and preferred learning style. I need to be able to build on the skills and knowledge she already possesses, and to demonstrate that I am committed to helping her succeed. This is best achieved through one-on-one meetings, so in smaller classes, I meet individually with each student early in the semester. Even in larger classes, I strive to get to know every student, and give surveys to solicit written feedback at the beginning and midpoint of the semester. In all classes, I stay afterwards (and sometimes bring treats) to encourage casual conversation.
It is my job to know what a student is confused by, even when the student himself doesn’t know. One anonymous student commenter wrote, “[Sam] has a remarkable talent for figuring out what it is that his students are struggling to understand.” When a student asks a question in class, my knowledge of the student not only helps me decipher what lies behind the question, but to know what combination of spoken, written, graphical, mathematical, and kinetic response is likely to best help the student.
This analysis of where students are starting from is not a one-time exercise: students’ knowledge and skills need to be reassessed throughout the course. In class, I am constantly probing my students’ conceptual grasp of the material, and modify my teaching to address any shortcomings. And the purpose of more formal evaluation is not grade assignment, but analysis of students’ progress towards expertise. Evaluations reveal what material students have mastered, and in what ways they are still confused. The purpose of evaluation is to guide my instruction through the rest of the course (and to help me reevaluate how to approach material in future offerings of the course).
3. What guidance do my students need?
Some of the least effective teachers I’ve had have been extraordinarily accomplished in the field they were teaching: the material came so naturally to them that they had trouble understanding why their students didn’t just “get it” the same way they did.
One of my strengths as a teacher is being able to view the course material through the eyes of my students, a quality I think of as “academic empathy.” For example, Edgeworth boxes have always been intuitive to me, but the mechanics of representing two consumers’ preferences and consumption bundles in the same plane are often baffling to students at first. When I present the material, I don’t immediately draw a box, as my professors have done; instead, I first graph the consumer problem for consumer 1, then separately graph the problem for consumer 2, rotated by 180˚. When I then place the graphs on top of each other, even the non-graphically-inclined students tend to grasp where the box comes from, and how to work with it.
In a broader context, by knowing where students struggle, I can target assignments and readings to allow students to struggle constructively in those areas where they need the most help. I generally believe in assigning a small number of well-targeted readings, and building a strong expectation that students dig into those readings (I have no problem with cold-calling, if done respectfully), rather than assigning a large number of readings that students will invariably skim (if they read them at all). Furthermore, I believe in providing any necessary guidance on how to approach a text constructively; for example, by interactively annotating the text using Acrobat® shared review.
For me, the classroom is a sacred space, and teaching is a passion. My job as an educator is to engage and inspire each student, and to deepen each student’s ability to think critically about her world. Nothing could be more fulfilling.
 See “Reading in the Course of the Future: Using Adobe® Acrobat® Shared Review to Engage your Students through the Text,” by Samuel S. Richardson. May 2011.