Elements of a Philosophy of Teaching

Over the course of my career in the academic world, I have noted a number of elements that characterize effective instructors: knowledge, organization, enthusiasm, consistency, and rapport. Instructors who demonstrate excellence in these areas succeed in creating an environment in which students can learn and integrate course material, as well as to become more prone to think critically about issues in their everyday lives.

To say that knowledge is the cornerstone of effective teaching should be redundant. Clearly, professors must have a much deeper grasp of the course material than what is required of their own students. Sufficient knowledge of the course material is a prerequisite to effectively organizing lectures and lab activities, answering students' questions, engaging students' interest in the content of a course, and providing a unique spin on the material.

Organization is also crucial to students' understanding and integration of course material. Effective professors communicate course-related information in an organized fashion. For example, the outline of topics and expectations in the syllabus gives students a coherent overview of how the course will proceed, and hence gives them a sense of what they may expect during the semester. I also provide lecture outlines for my courses throughout the semester. This gives students an idea of what to expect during the session, and aids them in organizing their notes.

The third element present in effective instruction is enthusiasm. Students truly appreciate professors who, in addition to being knowledgeable and organized, have a passion for their subject matter and for teaching. Enthusiasm has a way of rubbing off on students, who are in turn more likely to learn and critically examine course material than they may have been otherwise. By communicating an enthusiasm toward one's subject matter and to learning, the effective professor models a positive orientation toward learning that will have a positive impact on students' approaches to learning. A professor's enthusiasm is most critical in methodological and quantitative courses, since those are simultaneously among the most important courses students will take and are the ones students are often least interested in at the start of the semester.

The element of consistency is concerned with fairness. Students have every right to expect that they will be evaluated and treated consistently during the semester. In particular, they want some reasonable assurance that there is a rational basis for the grades they receive, and that the same criteria were applied to all students. A professor can most successfully address students' concerns by carefully following the course syllabus and by sharing with students their grading criteria. Sharing grading criteria may be accomplished either by providing a written outline of the criteria (I do this regularly for the Experimental Psychology course) or by taking a few moments of class time to discuss grading criteria when passing back assignments or quizzes.

Developing a good rapport with students is equally important to the above elements in facilitating learning. Part of rapport building consists of demonstrating a concern for students' learning. Concern may be expressed overtly (e.g., inviting students to utilize office hours if they have questions about the course), or subtly (e.g., scheduling several office hours per week, being friendly when approached by students after class or during office hours). I also consider honesty to be an important part of rapport building. Students know where I stand when we go over material in class – especially when our subject matter goes into applications to social issues. At the same time, I also do my level best to respect perspectives that may be a good deal different from my own. As a professor, I merely acknowledge that I do not hold the world by the tail, and that although I will make no bones about playing the role of advocate as needed, my perspective is not the one right perspective. To me this is crucial since psychology is a very “human” profession, and one of the roles which my students will one day hold is that of guiding therapeutic clients to “get real.” If I’m not being real with my students, I cannot expect them to be real with me, or with anyone else. In sum, students appreciate an instructor who is approachable, respectful of their concerns, readily available, honest, and above all personable.

If I had to boil all of the above down to one sentence it would be this: class doesn’t have to suck. I’ll do everything I know how to do to make my students’ experience as rewarding as possible. I only ask that they put themselves 100% into their coursework.