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My Teaching Philosophy Statement (WIP)

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This document outlines my teaching experience, approach, and goals for the future.
Author

Dylan Spicker

Published

November 14, 2021

Note: This is a work-in-progress, but I figured: “Why not work in the open?”. If you have any thoughts, or feedback, I would of course appreciate that!

It is my belief that learning occurs not through the actions of a teacher, but through the actions of students. My role as an instructor is not to impart facts to students. Rather, my job is to facilitate and guide the students through a process of active learning. Practically, this requires capturing and directing students’ attention, aligning their personal objectives with the corresponding course objectives, and creating an environment which is supportive for all learners. In addition to these pillars, I believe in personalizing education for each student, and that feedback and iteration are essential to effective instruction. Although I have had a fair amount of teaching experience in traditional and non-traditional settings, I recognize that I am still in the nascence of my teaching career. Accordingly, I have tried to ground my philosophy not only in what my teaching experience has taught me, but also in the experiences that I have had watching teachers that I admire, and in a voracious consumption of pedagogical research. While this philosophy has served me well so far, this statement also serves as an aspirational standard, and is subject to change as I continue to learn as an instructor.

My initial experience in teaching to a diverse group of students began in a non-traditional setting: YouTube videos teaching programming. While the online medium is certainly distinct from a classroom setting, the experience provided me with several important lessons. First, in the online video format, attention and entertainment is key. You have to attract and keep students, which requires selecting interesting topics, framing them in interesting and applicable ways, and doing so with an effective presentation style. For my online teaching, this meant selecting useful and employable topics with insufficient existing coverage online, and then grounding these lessons in real-world, full-scale projects. The idea was to teach the important concepts by building functional applications, keeping the students interested and engaged, and allowing them to build useful portfolio items for themselves. Many individuals showed me projects that had started as a lesson in a video, which they expanded beyond the presented scope, using what they learned for their own purposes. This project-grounded content only became truly successful when I began to polish my presentation skills. Early commenters noted that, while my explanations were clear, I lacked enthusiasm. I worked on the “soft” skills, which shifted the feedback to commending both my presentation and my clarity.

While in a traditional classroom we do not need to attract attention in the same way, I believe that entertaining content encourages students to partake in active learning. If we tell compelling narratives through the course content, students will enthusiastically engage which fosters learning. In statistics there are plenty of ways to catch and hold the attention of our students. During lessons, I try to use topical, relevant examples. For instance, I used COVID-19 vaccine trials to teach statistical research frameworks in the Winter of 2021, to great success. During office hours I deeply connected with some students who had an interest in sports by showcasing methods on data from the National Hockey League (NHL).

I have applied the same philosophy to creating assessments. At Queen’s University, I worked with two professors to design and implement a cross-discipline course. In the course, groups of business and computing majors worked to build an app-based business. The students demoed and pitched their completed apps to real-world entrepreneurs. This unified all the course concepts in a fun and applicable project. In an upcoming, fourth-year, statistics course I am giving freedom on the “standard”, problem-set assignments. For the advanced material, students can opt to take a theoretical or applied view, depending on their ultimate goals. These techniques have generated considerable, excited feedback from students, who are eager to engage with the topics.

After attracting a student’s attention with the goal of directing it, the natural question is “at what”? I believe that it is important to have clear learning objectives, both at a macro (course) level, and at a micro (lesson or assignment) level. These objectives should be comprehensibly presented to students, and consistently aligned with all aspects of the course. For instance, when introducing marginal linear models, my lesson begins by looking at the structure of the data that we wish to analyze. This states a clear objective: analyze these data. Then, I ask the students to consider why we need new methods to analyze these data. I ask them to think about why the knowledge that they currently have (linear regression) is insufficient for this task. This leads to them considering the ways that they need to expand their knowledge to achieve the outlined goal. Here, discovery and the synthesis of new concepts with existing knowledge form the center of the lesson. I try to use this approach wherever possible. Based on student feedback, this framing has been effective at getting ideas to stick. However, course objectives are not the only relevant objectives for my teaching.

For better or worse, each student enters the classroom with objectives of their own. For most students, learning the course material is a means to an end. Their true interest is in, for instance, obtaining a specific job or getting into graduate school. These goals are not the primary consideration for us as instructors, but we must recognize that they are the primary consideration for our students. Doing so allows us to leverage an important resource: intrinsic motivation. Students are more likely to put in the deliberate effort required for learning, if it is in service of their goals. For instance, many of the students in my cross-discipline course expressed interest in start-up work. The project served as an important portfolio item for those students, providing direct experience in the field. Further, it introduced the students to industry contacts, building their network. This led the students to invest significant time and effort into their projects, and benefit from the learning that took place alongside it. Additionally, the students expressed satisfaction with the course and with our assessment format. I intend to take a similar approach with the final project in my upcoming longitudinal data analysis course. The cumulative project will give students a chance to apply the course concepts, producing work that can range from a data science portfolio piece through to an academic research poster. My hope is that the students will use the work they are doing in the course to advance their aspirations in a way which is more useful than a simple, numeric grade. In doing so, their intrinsic motivation should help carry their efforts, and promote deeper understanding.

This strategy of marrying course objectives and student objectives comes with two additional benefits. First, it provides the opportunity for personalization. I have tried to do this through personal surveys, soliciting interests of students, to use in tutorial lessons or lectures. The choice afforded to students in their projects and assignments also serves to tailor the experience. Enhanced personalization remains a focus of mine moving forward. Second, there is ample evidence that extrinsic motivators (such as grades) are not conducive to learning. Providing assessments that have value beyond their contribution to a final mark minimizes the importance of grades. This has benefits in the ability to keep a student interested and motivated. Additionally, it assists in creating a healthy learning environment, the third pillar of my teaching philosophy.

The environment created in a course sets the tone for a student’s willingness to engage, which in my view, is a key factor in their ability to learn. To me, the learning environment needs to be welcoming and safe for all individuals, with specific attention paid to mental well-being. The environment should also be relaxed and feel low-stakes, and encourage mistakes. Some of this can be achieved, passively and by example. For instance, I include my pronouns of “they/them” on the course syllabus, and in my signature when emailing students. This is a simple practice which garners grateful messages, particularly from students in marginalized groups. In my YouTube teaching, I keep mistakes (with a discussion of the correction) in the final videos. This teaches the skill of debugging, but also lessens the sting a student feels when making a mistake. Doing this has led to substantially more discussion of the students’ mistakes than was present before I started including mine. Other techniques for creating a positive environment require more deliberate action. For instance, in an introductory statistics course we provided the students with a flexible grading scheme, dropping their worst marks from their final grade. This helped alleviate the stress of any individual assessment. Additionally, we provided a mock exam, alongside a video lesson of me solving the exam, and discussing my thought process throughout. Students indicated that this reduced their exam anxiety. This has positive benefits for learning, despite the fact that the mock exam had little bearing on the true final exam. In my fourth year longitudinal data course, I allow students to re-submit corrected assignments alongside explanations of what their mistakes were, for partial credit. This policy reinforces the idea that mistakes are an integral part of learning, and will not be punished. Participation is an effective technique to have students actively learning. However, “random call” and “forced participation” both create high-stress settings for many students. Anonymous participation methods allow for a similar level of direct engagement, without the high-stress drawbacks. I have had success using “iClickers” and “TopHat” when teaching in person, and “Kahoot!” when teaching online. Students have been almost universally thankful for the accommodations I provide them and for the environment I create. While these principles have served me well in my teaching thus far there is room for growth in my abilities as a teacher. My non-traditional start to teaching provided one additional lesson: feedback is key. Hundreds of thousands of individuals have seen my videos, and thousands have left feedback on them. This feedback has ranged from comments regarding my presentation, to suggestions about ways of clarifying particular topics. It has included positive feedback about the framing devices used, the narratives I create, and the projects I present. This feedback improved my videos over the course of my online teaching, and it has made clear to me how important feedback is to effective teaching. Going forward, I intend to make generous use of feedback from students, both through anonymous surveys during the term and official teaching assessments, as well as from my colleagues.

I have enjoyed success as an instructor. I have made meaningful connections with my students, received plenty of praise, and have been recognized for this with several opportunities to continue teaching. However, the core component of my teaching philosophy is that I can always improve. And I look forward to continuing to learn, grow, and practice my skills as an instructor.