Approach to Teaching
My approach to teaching was greatly influenced by work with my graduate advisor, Lynwood Clemens. Lyn, nearing the end of his academic career, discovered new methods of instruction shown to increase student learning. He did not hesitate to reformat his course, knowing that these changes would promote student success. Lyn introduced me to education research and demonstrated the importance of incorporating evidence-based practices into my instruction. My current teaching methods have built upon this strong foundation and center students and their learning by creating an inclusive classroom and basing pedagogy choices on evidence.
Inclusive Classroom Environment
My courses are structured to rely on student-student and student-instructor interaction; it is imperative, therefore, to create an environment that is trusting and open. Students from marginalized groups often feel disconnected, alienated, or oppressed in typical college classrooms. As Pacansky-Brock, et al1 state, “Learning environments are not neutral; rather, they often operate to reinforce a worldview that minoritizes some students.” Being inclusive recognizes that each student brings their own viewpoint, experiences, and social identity to the classroom. My goal is to create a learning environment where all students feel supported and can succeed academically. I accomplish this through humanizing, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and equitable grading.
By humanizing my classroom and my pedagogy, I am letting my students know that they are welcome just as they are, and I will trust and respect them. I humanize my course first by introducing myself as a person. I share details about who I am and what I enjoy outside of teaching (at an appropriate level). I then ask students to share information about themselves, so we can begin to form a community. I provide a social presence during the semester through announcements, check-ins, and private messages, and I recognize that the language I choose and the tone I convey matters. Flexibility and empathy are also critical components of the humanized classroom, and when issues arise, I support students without judgment.
I also design course elements with the UDL framework in mind. Content is provided in multiple forms; for example, textbook readings, videos with captions, supplemental readings, illustrations, and/or animations allow students to engage with the content in different ways. Additionally, I try to be transparent with the reasons behind by pedagogy choices, telling the students how this class and the content is applicable to their lives and career choices. Allowing students to have some control over how they learn and explaining the relevance of the content to their lives increases motivation for learning2.
Equitable grading practices are the final piece of my inclusive classroom. Traditional grading can have unwanted outcomes such as students avoiding risk-taking since all mistakes lead to penalties or students focusing on grades because of extrinsic motivation instead of focusing on learning3. Equitable grading focuses on summative assessments only, allowing mistakes during the formative periods of class. Additionally, equitable grading allows students multiple chances to succeed, decreasing the high-risk and anxiety-producing aspects of exams. In my class, written exam questions are graded as strong, satisfactory, or weak, and students can revise after receiving instructor feedback.
An inclusive classroom created through humanizing, UDL, and equitable grading provides students with the best opportunity for learning by removing obstacles that would normally exist. Students feel safe to take on new challenges, feel respected and have a sense of belonging, and are motivated to try their best.
Using evidence-based practices in the classroom creates a powerful learning environment where students can improve skills needed to succeed after graduation. I accomplish this by creating learning goals that focus on science practices outlined in the National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education publication4 and that focus on skills employers look for in college graduates according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE)5. I then create authentic assessments aligned to these learning goals6.
Work from Framework for K-12 Science Education4 has been adapted for higher education. The approach aims to foster in-depth understanding of the sciences. The NACE Job Outlook determined that three of the most important skills employers look for in college graduates are a) problem solving, b) teamworking, and c) communication5. I place these skills at the forefront of my learning goals. In my course, students engage in science practices such as analyzing and interpreting data, constructing explanations, communicating information, and engaging in argument from evidence. Students use primary literature data to construct new knowledge and then predict outcomes to novel experiments. They collaborate and communicate their work. I want my students to be confident and capable in their abilities as they move forward in their education and future careers.
For the assessments to align with these goals, they must be authentic, meaning they should ask students to perform tasks similar to those scientists actually accomplish in the workplace. Using claim-evidence-reasoning questions4, my students must predict results to new experiments (the claim). They must then list the information and data from course materials that led them to this decision (the evidence), and finally, explain how that evidence supports the claim (the reasoning). Additionally, students engage in collaboration during the exam since scientists are not independent, isolated professionals, and collaboration is a critical component of success in the science field. These pedagogical choices increase student motivation because the work has clear value, so students are willing to dedicate time and effort to the material.
“Student success” was not a concept I had encountered before Lyn showed me that pedagogical changes could improve student learning. Many years later, I have built on the foundations laid in graduate school and take pride in my goals for learning in my classroom. Through creating an inclusive class climate and using evidence-based pedagogy, I believe I am successful at creating welcoming digital and in-person spaces that promote student engagement and motivation, leading to improved student learning and success.
1Pacansky-Brock, M., Smedshammer, M., & Vincent-Layton, K. (2020). Humanizing online teaching to equitize higher education. Current Issues in Education, 21(2).
2Tobin, T. J., & Behling, K. (2018). Reach everyone, teach everyone: Universal Design for Learning in higher education. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.
3Feldman, J. (2019). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin, a SAGE Company.
4National Research Council (2012). A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press
5National Association of Colleges and Employers (2020). Job Outlook 2020 at naceweb.org.
6Wiggins, G. P. and McTighe, J. (2005) Understanding by Design. Alexandria, Va, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Brown, Peter C. (2014). Make it stick: the science of successful learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Eyler, J. (2018). How humans learn: The science and stories behind effective college teaching. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.
Gannon, K. M. (2020). Radical hope: A teaching manifesto. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.