When I started my scientific career, I soon realized that research does not make any sense if you cannot clearly explain to someone what you are investigating. After reflecting further about the nature of the learning process, I concluded that teaching and learning cannot exist without each other; they go side by side. If I want to be a teacher I must remain a student at the same time. The only way to be an effective instructor is by understanding how and under what conditions your students learn.
During my career, I have had many amazing teachers and instructors, but I particularly remember those who not only taught me fundamental concepts, but also helped me gain confidence in my skills and ability to push my scientific understanding to more sophisticated levels.
In my own teaching, I try to mirror this philosophy – I not only teach learnerscontent, but I also help them build self-confidence and encourage their curiosity to explore the boundaries of their own knowledge. The only way to learn a concept is by being engaged in the subject matter. I find it useful to create interesting frameworks for the students to apply concepts, rather than just explaining the concepts themselves. This is especially suitable in the physics courses that I have taught so far, as the applications that you can find are infinite.
It is my firm belief that physical concepts cannot be taught or learned only through lecturing to students and/or assigning reading. These concepts demand non-verbal examination and practice – thus using an entirely different part of the brain (than the part used for language).
My teaching up to now has involved instructing undergraduate students in general physics concepts, as well as more specialized topics like nuclear physics, atomic physics and quantum physics. Each of these courses (and the related topics & student abilities) presented different challenges to me.
My freshmen courses included groups of 275 students with very different backgrounds. I made a huge effort to understand the groups I was working with and challenged the students in ways that engaged the largest number of learners. When working with such big groups I pay special attention to creating an inclusive learning environment to promote deep learning on the part of all students regardless of background. I try to promote the participation of the students as active learners and not just as passive listeners. To achieve this I often use clickers or create small discussion groups to work together to address conceptual problems I am introducing. This approach not only helps the students achieve a deeper understanding of the physical concepts, but it also helps them develop other skills in demand in the “real world” like team-work, leadership, and communication skills.
The more specialized courses (nuclear, quantum and atomic physics) and lab sessions, involved teaching groups of 15-20 students; this is my favorite set-up. In these situations you can really explore a whole new way of teaching. In the first session of a class I try to get an idea of student interests and backgrounds, and then try to structure the course accordingly. Lately I have starting introducing a new learning approach that has been very successful: the inquiry-based learning model. In this case the students explore a problem in a very scientific way. They have to use their previous knowledge, establish clear goals, develop the methods to reach the goal and finally achieve it. To prepare these inquiry activities I use “backward design”: I first find a goal that I think a specific group of students may find interesting. I then select several variables that can help me assess the learning process then I design an activity to help the students both achieve the goal and collect evidence to do the assessment. With this approach I put myself in the role of facilitator. The students find their own way with a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage”. Even though the inquiry based learning is more time consuming than preparing a typical lecture, it has been a more effective and satisfying approach with my smaller classes of students.
A second, but no less important component of my teaching, is my own mentoring of undergraduate and graduate students. Under these circumstances, I really enjoy the Socratic method, working together with the students and challenging their own knowledge and capabilities. I also use this approach when training graduate and undergraduate students in the laboratory. We spend a great deal of time discussing derivations, designing experiments, and analyzing data.
In my opinion, these are the moments when the most long-lasting learning takes place. When a student sees the way that scientific concepts relate to his/her own work, the concepts then become an integral part of how they perceive the world from that point forward. I consider having this impact the most important contribution I can make to a student’s learning and development. In summary, I have worked with big groups of students in introductory courses as well as smaller specialized courses and labs. I have mentored graduate and undergraduate students. All these situations have enriched my teaching experience and I enjoy teaching in all of these contexts for different reasons. Each situation presents different challenges and opportunities to facilitate the best possible learning experience for the students. I try not only to be a solitary story-teller – I strive to make students partners in the teaching and learning process so they can best integrate their learning into the rest of their lives.