I have often defined learning for my students as a relatively permanent change in the strength or pattern of connections between neurons as a result of experience that cannot be attributed to fatigue. While mechanistic, this statement effectively describes my philosophy of learning. The assimilation of new knowledge produces an alteration in the very fabric of the brain which by its very nature must change the manner in which we interact with the world. The definition also implies that learning is an active rather than passive process. Students that are engaged and actively rehearse and explore new concepts display enhanced memory storage and retention. At its best, this exploration and elaboration of new information promotes the establishment of links with old knowledge, allows for the refinement of concepts, and facilitates the acquisition of future knowledge. In effect, learning begets a more facile mind.
I firmly believe that humans, especially the young, are essentially learning machines. My use of the word “machine” is not meant to impugn individuality but rather to emphasize that we are born into this world with a nervous system whose very circuitry is designed to be shaped and sculpted by experience. As a teacher, it is my goal to excite or in some cases re-excite this process. Perhaps William Godwin, the famed English philosopher, best characterizes my view of how this task should be accomplished in The Enquirer, Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature (1797). In this essay, Godwin states, “…I desire to excite a given individual to the acquisition of knowledge. The only possible method in which I can excite a sensitive being to the performance of a voluntary action, is by the exhibition of motive.” Teaching then must be presented with great enthusiasm. I must convey to the students my fascination and enthusiasm for the subject. I must relay thematic and factual information in an organized and coherent manner, all the while emphasizing why I feel this material is important and how it will foster the growth and expansion of the individual. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I must convey to students that I enjoy watching them learn and that I also greatly enjoy learning from them.
On a practical level, I believe that teaching should encompass all of the sensory modalities. Each student has a preferred mode of learning. For some, it will be visual. For others, it will be auditory or tactile. So, to the extent that I can present material visually, orally, or tactilely, I will facilitate learning in the greatest number of individuals. Also, it is my belief that such cross-modal presentations foster the development of multiple representations (engrams) in the brain that enhance retention and recall.
I also believe that is necessary for students to “own” their education. They must be able to express their doubts, their questions, and their insights. They must be able to propose changes to the course content and to the teaching style. To foster this type of discourse, I encourage students to ask questions or make comments both during and after class, in office hours, and in special study sessions held by me at various times during the semester. I also host a web-based “Forum” in which students are encouraged to express their ideas, opinions, and questions to fellow classmates. Often, they explain a concept or process to each other better than I can. They can be great teachers themselves. I must also admit that I often “mine” this “Forum” for lecture ideas or simply to gauge the level of understanding within the class. In small classes, I have experimented with letting the students devise the class syllabus and grading method. In cases of personalized instruction, such as that which occurs with research assistants or independent study students, the student and I always sit down together to discuss the relevant literature and to devise an individual experiment that the student can claim as their own territory.
I also believe that I should hold my students to high standards. In my admittedly short history of teaching, there are always students that not only meet but exceed my greatest expectations. I believe it is part of the human condition to take great satisfaction from a challenge that has been surpassed. The material that I teach is often very technical and there are always a few students that fail to meet my, and I believe their own, expectations. For these students, I try to use plenty of examples, analogies, and metaphors or anything that will make the topic “real” for them. I encourage them to use office hours or to attend special study sessions. I often engage in one-on-one tutoring. Frankly, I am not always successful. I am, however, constantly trying to devise new strategies to reach this troubled student.
Assessment of student performance is central to teaching. While my requirements differ from class to class, my expectations and grading policies are clearly described in the course syllabus, on the web, and in personal discussions. I do not “curve” exam grades as I believe that practice fosters grade inflation and an unrealistic assessment of achievement on the part of the student. I do, however, provide opportunities, in the form of extra credit, for students to raise their grades. This extra credit generally takes the form of extra writing assignments, creative projects (e.g., artwork), and/or participation in ongoing research projects at the university. All are activities that I believe can enrich the student and add to their knowledge base.
Finally, I believe that in order to be a successful teacher, I must be current in my knowledge of the field. I am an active scientist. I publish my findings and I present my work orally at national and regional conferences. I often review or perform editorial work for other scientists in my field. I keep abreast of the major advances. I collaborate with scientists at UWM and other universities. I also invite undergraduates to work with me. During any given semester, I generally have at least half a dozen students, often more, working under my guidance in the lab. This “hands-on” experience lends the students insights to the field and the general profession of science that cannot be garnered through any textbook or lecture. I also believe that this personalized experience makes me a better teacher and scientist. It teaches me not only how to relate to students individually but also constantly reinforces my opinion that to advance as a teacher and scientist I need, always, to remain a student myself.