Educating others requires a strong commitment, the ability to communicate, and resourcefulness. Upon entering graduate school, I started my work as a teaching assistant and considered it as a potential career. Nothing compares to the feeling of satisfaction from a former student expressing gratitude for helping them reach their goals and having made a positive contribution in their lives.
Following are several components that outline my teaching philosophy:
A Clearly Delineated but Flexible Pedagogy
Starting on the first day with the course syllabus, a teacher should have a logical order of topics that cover an appropriate breadth and depth for a course. While this provides structure to the course, it should also be subject to review and modification as needed. Frequently I have observed students struggling with a topic that needs further explanation or perhaps due to an inappropriate scaffolding structure (perhaps the topic would be better suited later in the course after building up more material through other topics). Based on student feedback, additional explanation may be needed to fulfill student needs. I have found it important to constantly question my plan of attack, and simulate seeing the material for the first time in order to assess its difficulty from a student’s point of view.
Additional feedback can also be obtained from other instructors and students through discussion and feedback forms. I have always valued discussing pedagogy and difficulty structure with professors to get a feel for what they think works best, as well as making and receiving suggestions for improvements. Student feedback at the start of the class (asking students what their expectations for the course) as well as mid-term and end-of-course evaluations are very beneficial for feedback on teaching and course material, and can offer improvements and optimizations for current and future courses.
Incorporating Scaffolding and Appropriate Difficulty Structures
In my first few semesters of teaching, I observed a pattern with large and infrequent assignments. Most students waited until very close to the assignment deadline to work on the project. Large projects caused student headaches, panic, and supported cheating and negative attitude towards the course as assignments seemed extremely large and difficult. Usually the night before an assignment was due I was very busy answering questions and trying to help students that did not know what to do.
After a few semesters I proposed a different assignment structure, in which assignments were more frequent. While this meant more grading for me, it encouraged a more gradual scaffolding structure, in which each assignment was just slightly more difficult than the previous. In addition, it encouraged students to more frequently practice their skills. This frequent use would benefit students understanding through practice, so that they could overcome their weak spots much more easily (rather than discover them the night before a huge assignment was due). This drastically improved students’ attitudes towards the subject matter and built their confidence, and I overheard fewer discussions about students changing their major. Anything that can be done to improve student attitude towards the subject is key for their success in the course and the field.
Timely Feedback and Constructive Criticism
Email has also become a great source for answering students’ questions. I check email daily, even on the weekend, to ensure that students receive help quickly to get on the right track with their assignments. The students appreciate the quick feedback and the exchange of emails helps me monitor their progress. Previously I encouraged assignments to be submitted via email, so that I can respond in a timely fashion with constructive feedback on their work. I make it a priority to grade all assignments within a week of their deadline. Well-timed feedback is important to student development (before moving to other topics), and it is not fair to penalize a recurring mistake that could have been avoided by quick feedback.
Replacing Negative Attitudes with Positive Experiences
Sometimes I have had students visit me frustrated at their inability to complete an assignment. I feel that it is my role to be comforting by staying calm and assertive, and finding a solution to the specific problem they encountered. Focusing on what a student already knows is essential in building confidence and progressing through problems. In most situations, I have students show me their work, and after some discussion, try to get them excited about solving the problems that stumped them.
Professional Guidance and Approachability
I do my best to present myself professionally, and in a manner that is friendly and approachable. I do not want students to hesitate if they have questions they would like me to answer. Often, students have extenuating circumstances, such as accidents, computer problems, or family issues. I try my best to be supportive and encouraging to students in their times of need while maintaining deadlines to be fair to other students in the course.
Information Presentation: Clear and Readily Available
My web development experience has helped me to create websites, each semester, in order to make sure that relevant information is always available for the students. I have had experience with students progressing at different paces, so having online information allows them to take each step in an assignment at their own pace. In addition, I provide examples for assignments as well as detailed assignment requirements. When lecturing, I make sure that notes are available online. I find it to be an additional aid that can help guide students through their learning process, and student feedback has suggested that my work in maintaining a website was much appreciated. I have several examples of previous course websites at www.situatedgaming.com.
It has been my philosophy to spend as much time answering the students’ questions, as time allows, so that the student can leave class able to complete their assignments with confidence. Students have access to one-on-one time with me to ask additional questions or receive help when needed. I listen intently on students’ questions and try not simply answer a question, but encourage students to think about what they are asking. I try to teach critical thinking and logic skills so that students can figure out the answers to future questions. Often, simply giving a direct answer to a question allows students to move on, but I prefer to help students figure out why they got stuck in the first place. Typically, I help build up a student’s confidence by focusing on what the student already knows, and extend that knowledge to what appears to be their weak spot. My role is to question students and then listen to their responses. Often this process of simply thinking out loud will reveal the answer they are looking for. This allows students to work through their problems and improve their critical thinking skills, and helps build confidence as they can take ownership of the solution to their problem.
Making it Fun
All in all, this is what it all comes down to! Part of my job is to let the course experience live up and exceed expectations. Many courses can involve tedious work, and the teacher needs to be creative in presenting the material in a way that encourages enjoyable interaction. Each student has the ability to go out and change the world and our future. I do my best to allow students to develop a passion for the subject while having fun; this is what makes teaching so rewarding!
Dr. Matthew J. Sharritt