I view teaching as an integral and rewarding part of an academic career. As such, I have worked to develop my teaching skills and to broaden my teaching experience in a number of ways (e.g. by working as an instructor and teaching assistant, by taking courses on university instruction, and by offering guest lectures and informal student advising). Based on all of these experiences, I have identified several principles that inform my approach to teaching.
First, I embrace the idea of active learning . Although formal lectures form an important part of most courses I teach, I try to engage students as active learners rather than passive recipients. I use techniques such as small group discussions (and have students report back to the class), group brainstorming, and question and answer periods to include students and encourage them to reflect on course material. I value student participation as an important aspect of active learning, but have learned that it must be cultivated. In seminar-style courses or discussion sections, I require that readings be completed prior to class and that students share questions and responses as a means of initiating discussion. Electronic tools can facilitate such interactions (e.g. e-mail or wiki/chat functions on course management systems such as Blackboard or WebCT). Giving students the opportunity to reflect on concepts before class enables them to participate more fully during in-class discussions.
Where possible, I also have students link the concepts discussed in class to experiences outside of the classroom (whether events reported in the news, students' personal experiences, or data gathered through field trips associated with the class). As a field instructor for a course in Australia , I taught students about environmental values and wildlife conservation. By volunteering at a wildlife sanctuary (building a feral-proof fence - see photo), interviewing the staff about controversial issues, and reading newspaper reports on activities at the sanctuary, the students experienced firsthand the different values and perspectives that inform conservation and were able to critically evaluate their own values and opinions. (Click here to read a description of the volunteer project in the local newspaper).
Second, I try to consciously incorporate both lower and higher order thinking processes into course assignments and evaluate students on both oral and written presentation skills . For example, in the course I taught on “International Conservation and Development”, I had students participate in a debate on the merits of ecotourism (click here to see assignment). The assignment was broken down into three parts: (1) debate preparation - collection of background information and preparation of a ‘position statement'; (2) the debate itself; and (3) post-debate critique. This required students to: gather information and references; identify arguments relevant for their position and their opponents' position; put together a coherent position, based on multiple arguments and counter-arguments; and finally, to step back and assess the merits of all of the various positions in the debate in their final written report. This assignment included both individual and group work (as part of the debate team) and required both written and oral communication.
Third, I try to cultivate a sense of mutual respect, accountability and responsibility in all of my interactions with students. I challenge students and expect them to participate fully in all aspects of the course. I also expect them to respect other students' opinions, to avoid plagiarism and other forms of cheating, and to maintain a professional demeanor in class. In return, I respond to student inquiries promptly, offer clear and specific expectations and course outlines, return graded work as quickly as possible, and offer students feedback on their work prior to giving them a final grade, in order to give them the opportunity to respond to critique of their work. I also encourage students to get to know me and one another so that they feel comfortable interacting and sharing ideas. In smaller classes, this can include having each student introduce him/herself to the class; in larger classes, they may do this in smaller groups. I find students most likely to engage when their work is valued, when they are acknowledged as individuals, and when expectations are high but transparent.