“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
In lieu of a holistic teaching philosophy, allow me to indulge you with some of the basic principles that inform the way I teach (in no particular order):
- There is very little I can actually teach a student; I can only create an environment that is conducive to students’ learning.
- By and large, universities have a very advanced system of learning – for the seventeenth century. I endeavour to be progressive in using twenty-first century tools, teaching twenty-first century skills, and catering to a twenty-first century audience.
- Nowadays, data is ubiquitous and the amount of pure information in the world doubles every five years. Instead of communicating information, I try to help students connect the dots and teach them the skills they need to create new knowledge from extant information.
- The ultimate value of a degree in the social sciences in the twenty-first century, in my view, is the ability to think critically, reason dialectically, read and distill large amounts of text and information in limited amounts of time, write and communicate effectively, that is, to be able to turn information into useful and relevant knowledge.
- Many of my students may eventually go on to graduate or professional school, but most of them will not go on to do a Ph.D. So, at the undergraduate level, I do not teach pretending they were; rather, I try to teach them the skills they need to thrive in the modern workplace.
- Research consistently shows that students fare better and are less likely to plagiarize when they have a personal relationship and rapport with their professor. Whether in a class of 3 or 300, I make every effort to learn every student’s name.
- Grades should not be like a Christmas present from your grandmother: You don’t know what’s in it, but you’re pretty sure you are not going to like it. To this end, I make every effort to ensure that my criteria governing the evaluation of assignments and exams are abundantly clear. You will find my Criteria Governing the Evaluation of Assignments in this Course appended to the enclosed syllabi.
- Research shows that three-quarters of people have trouble with executive function. That is, they have ideas but have trouble articulating them, organizing them, expressing them coherently, and so forth. To improve, students need regular feedback. Instead of a term paper and a final exam, depending on the size and nature of the class, I try to have students produce a short piece of writing of one form or another every week – a critical response to the readings, a quiz, whatever it may be, that I strive to turn around to them by the next class. Not only does that vastly improve student performance, but it also ensures that they actually do the readings.
- I think exams are unavoidable in first- and second-year courses but I much prefer to use cumulative evaluations in upper-year courses. When I do have exams, I tend to test understanding by testing the ability to apply what students have learned, rather than how good they are at rote memorization.
- I do not generally assign research term papers. In the age of the Internet, the temptation to plagiarize is just too great. Instead, I give them three readings, usually taking quite different positions on the same issue, and a question or problem around which they then have to write a short paper.
- In senior seminars I assign research papers, but I divide the paper into multiple steps and deliverables that the students need to produce along the way so they learn how to frame a problem, develop a proper hypothesis, annotate a bibliography, learn to weigh, assess and apply models etc.
- I refer to Bloom’s taxonomy and Gardner’s theories of multiple intelligence and learning styles in the way I structure my courses. I am quite sensitive to making sure that my courses cater to different personality and learning types. Much of the way we teach tends to cater primarily to aural learners, less to visual learners but little to kinetic learners. On the one hand, I try to strike a balance among different types of learning. On the other hand, I find that most undergraduates learn best when they have an opportunity to put into action what they’re learning. To this end, in most of my undergraduate classes I run a simulation, usually one that requires significant primary-source research and preparation on the part of each student. I also make regular use of break-out syndicate groups, usually in combination with a particular case study or problem-solving activity. In first- and second-year large-enrolment courses I temper that with some ex cathedra lecturing which is necessary to help them paint a bigger picture. But retention rates for lecturing are so notoriously low that I use it as one tool among many, rather than as my default way of instructing.
- I find most first-year students have to learn how to succeed in university. That’s because the way they have been schooled thus far is the exact opposite of what we expect in university. In school, the teacher discusses the material, then the students get homework to exercise what they have learned. In university, we expect students to do much of the work before coming to class. First- and second-year students struggle with that and so I build my course and syllabus around explaining to them, teaching them, and practicing with them how the system works and how to succeed, rather than just assuming that they know.
- I treat my syllabus like a contract. It contains everything students need to know about my course, including details instructions on every assignment, every due date, every expectation and the consequences for not meeting expectations. As a result, my syllabi are quite long but students know from the outset for what they are signing up.
- I have a rigid no-extension policy that I enforce rigorously, with the exception of students who can document highly extenuating circumstances. Students regularly comment that mine is the fairest “extension” policy in this regard that they have encountered. Inter alia, university should teach students time-management skills and how to take responsibility for one’s actions. Students know all assignments and their due dates from the first day of class; in return, they have an obligation to turn in their submissions on time. This system works very well, in part because research consistently shows that students perform best when expectations are both clear and high from the outset. My no-extension policy also has the advantage that students never perceive favouritism as it takes the inherent subjectivity out of having to assess whether to grant an extension, for how long, and at what penalty.