Statement of Teaching Philosophy
Science and physics in particular are an integral and substantial part of contemporary education. In our dynamic world, where technology and science have an ever increasing role even in everyday activities, we are trying to keep up in our understanding of the surrounding world. I see my role of an educator as a mediator and hopefully a guide between the students and the inspiring and beautiful realities of Nature and civilization.
To the students who have chosen Physics as their profession, it is important to provide special knowledge and skills – from general concepts (laws and principles), through theories and models, to technical calculation skills and mathematical tricks. To the students of non-physics (and often non-scientific) majors the task is at first glance quite different – they need to gain a general view on science and how physics is connected with the other sciences and technology, to get acquainted with the scientific way of thinking, as well as to acquire some special knowledge and skills concerning their specialization. It is my belief though, that the common feature of teaching Physics to any audience is to try to help the students reach to and feel the harmony and beauty of the scientific description of the Universe. This often requires going along the whole path from the appearing of an idea, through the construction of models and then sophisticated theories, and checking of their validity through experiment, but to me seeing the students get a glimpse of this harmony and get at least a little more enthusiastic about Physics, is the most rewarding part of the teaching process.
During the years of my own education I had several great teachers, and several not so great ones too. I am trying in my classes to apply the approaches that had positive impact on my colleagues and myself – teach to the concept and not to the test, keep the audience interested and active during the whole class, encourage participation and discussions, ask questions and encourage the students asking questions, present challenging material and prepare challenging assignments, and admit mistakes. It is my hope that my classes will help them prepare for a life-time of self-learning, which became such an important part of our lives.
How to achieve these goals depends of course on the size, composition and level of the class. With the usually small classes for physics majors I normally go from the general concept to the examples – first stating the law, principle, or equation in its full and most general expression, then provide specific cases of applicability and then solve a small number of relatively detailed and of medium to high difficulty examples. Students from Physics majors after their first or second year in my opinion are prepared to face an abstract idea or concept and then apply it into practical situations and problems. In these types of classes we usually have discussions and a lot of questions from both sides, and with time the students often manage to arrive to a solution or a conclusion with the help of only a few hints, thus building their analytical skills and confidence in the scientific approach. At this level presenting short summaries of modern research topics or exciting articles and discussing them is also beneficial for the students in building general scientific culture and in developing critical and independent thinking.
With an introductory class of predominantly non-physics majors (which have been average to large in size in my experience) I usually start with a set of examples from known everyday situations but from a new and unusual perspective, which on the one hand gets the students attention (many of them take the class as a requirement), and on the other hand prepare them to go to the general concept by seeing and analyzing the common features of seemingly unrelated phenomena. After the concept acquires a certain shape, I make the general statement in the necessary precise math language (the law, or equation, the units, the realms of applicability, etc.), and then finally go through several examples and problems with increasing difficulty. I also find the approach of working with practical worksheets, or tutorials1, when students work along with me on the examples, extremely useful. The tutorial approach also provides the best substitution for a discussion in a large class when real discussion proves impossible. Using different approaches (tutorials, discussions, quizzes, problem-solving sessions, etc.) helps accommodating the needs of more students, as different students learn better in different ways. As a general rule in introductory classes I give about eight to ten in-class quizzes, short in duration and focused on the most important concepts and equations, which I believe helps new university students keep up the guard and study during the whole semester and not only the few days before the midterm or final exam.
I consider developing critical and independent thinking one of the major goals of scientific education. Every detail has its importance in this respect – from the way a Physics law is stated (as an universal and never-changing truth or as a conceptual generalization subject to experimental verification), from the manner we interpret our and other people's results and statements (how to resolve the contradiction between Galileo's statement about the independence of a pendulum's period on the amplitude and the result of a humble first-year undergraduate student who finds in the lab that the period does depend on the amplitude), from a point of view of integrity and research ethics (I have found the examples I have learned from my research experience very useful and even entertaining for all levels of students). I am trying to deliver to the students the confidence resulting from a thorough and critical analysis, the beauty of scientific honesty resulting from our persistent effort to find everything we can about a phenomenon without finding more than really exists (by over-interpreting our results). Ways can be found to teach critical thinking even using examples from movies or literature. In fact I have used short episodes with scientific contents of popular movies in small and medium classes, with a following discussion about the possibility or impossibility of the observed episode. I hope this not only encourages critical thinking, but also educates a sense of self-consistency and reasoning. I also try to communicate to the students the sense of amazement and excitement, connected with the understanding of the most intimate mechanisms governing our causal world, which I experienced as a student and which decided my choice of being a physicist.
Having taught about a dozen classes and labs of all undergraduate levels and varying in size from two to over a hundred and twenty students, I learned several valuable lessons, some common for all of them and some applicable to a particular type of class only, and I am constantly learning new ones. I learned to keep the right pace for the level of the class, and while trying to keep it challenging for the best students, focus on a core of tasks that can be successfully solved by the average student, and provide a chance for even the not-so-well prepared students to catch up and succeed (unfortunately, some do not). I learned to state the goal of the class and the grading, attendance, etc. rules in a brief but comprehensive manner during the first lecture. I learned how important it is to have all material very well organized and problems solved to the smallest detail. I learned to take care of specifics that are easy to deal with but may make students' concentration and comprehension really difficult – such as write clearly and in an organized way on the board with large enough letters (or have a Power Point presentation with font sizes clearly visible from the last rows), talk in a loud enough voice in large classrooms, slow down enough for the students to take notes when necessary, and draw clear diagrams with all necessary notation and explanations. I learned to read the feedback from assignments, quizzes or lab performances and to adjust accordingly, and if this is not sufficient (which happens at times with a new class) I ask the students to give me written feedback on what they dislike (and like) about the class, what they want to see more (and less) in class, and any other thoughts. The comment sheets in previous student evaluations are also a useful source of feedback and often contain valuable suggestions.
For most of my classes I use live demonstrations when possible, or physics demonstrations movies, or simulations and animations of physics experiments, with which many textbooks are accompanied nowadays. I should admit that unfortunately many of these movies and animations do not present concepts clearly and tend to concentrate on the amusement effect (which is important for drawing the attention) rather than the scientific contents and value. I believe these tools are getting better with time and will soon become a substantial part of most Physics classes. I also use the web for all sorts of communication (which is especially useful for large and medium-size classes) – posting notes, outlines, solutions, sample problems and exams, etc.
In most Physics classes the lab and problem solving sessions are an essential part of the class and help students have hands-on experience, which I hope has lasting influence on their understanding of the scientific method and problem-solving abilities. Making a connection between the material covered in class and in the lab provides another way of active and long-lasting learning. Problem solving sessions seem to be out of most undergraduate curricula. Time does not always allow the development of a proper procedure for solving all sorts of problems for all interesting cases (which is after all the way students will be tested) in class, so I have tried organizing separate voluntary problem-solving sessions, which proved to be useful. Unfortunately, in my experience, they are usually attended by the students that least need them. I have not yet given up the idea, and currently I am trying to achieve the attendance of those who most need these sessions.
I believe I am giving the students a sense of what the scientific way of reasoning is, helping them build analytical and critical thinking, and providing them with the basic special skills they need for their further education and profession. In the process I am learning too, and the student evaluations (improving and encouraging) that I receive confirm that I am making progress in my teaching skills and methods. Teaching is difficult, but exciting and rewarding. It is a mission, and keeping that in mind helps me cope with all the technical work required for a class, it helps me appreciate the time spent with students during office hours, and it helps me accommodate and have a fair attitude to students with varying skills and knowledge. I can only hope that my classes will not only help the students with the knowledge and skills they acquire, but also with deeper understanding of the general picture of our dynamic and high-paced world, with becoming reasoning and thinking beings, and this I believe is a goal worth all efforts.