Gregory J. Smith
STATEMENT OF TEACHING PHILOSOPHY
Upon completing one of my courses, I hope my students take with them lessons that they can apply broadly in their lives. I want my students to feel confident in themselves and their abilities and to use that confidence to build the necessary professional relationships and skills to succeed in any career. I strive to bridge cultural and socioeconomic gaps that inhibit the learning process, making the geological sciences relevant to students from all backgrounds. To achieve these goals, I believe it is critical as geoscience educators to use our discipline as a tool to teach transferable life skills while empowering our students to develop into worldly citizens. I endeavor to design student-centric courses that employ an active learning pedagogy to develop students’ skills in critical thinking, written and oral communication, and self-agency. Because students in my classroom are building new understanding through activity and inquiry, they are mimicking true scientific inquiry and building scientific habits of mind. To help students develop these skills, the courses I design incorporate a mix of diagnostic assessment, collaborative learning activities, and demonstrable end products, and my classrooms promote a warm social and emotional climate to ensure all students are given the intellectual space they need to succeed.
To determine the extent and quality of students’ prior knowledge on the subject matter, I find it useful to administer diagnostic assessments on the first day of class as well as before beginning any new activity throughout the course. The first-day assessment may take on various forms depending on course context, but one of my tried-and-true favorite methods is to have students complete a concept map representing everything they know about the course topic. These concept maps consist of smaller concepts comprising a larger topic, with links between concepts to show how they relate. I devote the first 15 minutes of the course to letting students flesh out their concept maps as far as possible, then collect the maps as their first assignment (based on completion and not accuracy). I use these maps to determine gaps in students’ knowledge and to identify any lay terms or ideas that may indicate the presence of naïve theories or preconceptions, and then revise my course schedule accordingly to ensure that students have opportunities to build off their prior knowledge. Before beginning an activity in my course, I administer a set of “initial ideas” questions designed to assess students’ prior knowledge or misconceptions about the topic we are covering. These questions are designed to address both declarative knowledge (knowing facts or concepts) and procedural knowledge (knowing how or when to apply various procedures or methods). I give students a chance to answer the questions on their own before discussing them with a small group, then I check in with the class to address any misconceptions that may hinder learning before moving forward. While the specific activities my classes engage in differ depending on class size and course content, I find that beginning with these questions helps students to frame their thinking and prepares them to activate their appropriate prior knowledge.
Research has shown that students are more motivated to learn the material and retain knowledge better when they are learning by doing. To that end, I incorporate at least one collaborative learning activity into each class I teach. I use think-pair-shares to break up lecture, where students are given time to ponder a question or problem on their own (‘think’), then discuss and refine their ideas with a partner (‘pair’) before reporting back to the class (‘share’). For a lengthier or more involved concept, I often turn to a jigsaw. In a jigsaw, students begin in a ‘home group’ before splitting apart into ‘specialist groups’ to focus on a specific aspect or topic. After mastering their specialty, students return to their home group to tackle a complex problem collaboratively with representatives from each specialty. I use jigsaws when introducing students to invertebrate fossil identification, asking each specialty group to become the ‘master’ of one phylum (Brachiopoda, Echinodermata, Porifera, etc.). Once back in their home group, it is the job of each ‘master’ to explain the relevant morphological attributes of their phylum to their other group members, helping them to develop agency and independence. Each group is then asked to use what they learn to classify a group of mystery fossils into the appropriate phylum. I am always nearby to help clear up misconceptions, and the jigsaw ends with a class discussion of each phylum, ensuring students have become familiar with each group before they are asked to learn the specifics of each clade.
Demonstrable end products empower students to develop a sense of agency, see the ubiquity of the natural sciences in their everyday lives, and take pride in their work. I believe in the ‘students as producers’ model of teaching, and as a result often design assignments that ask students to create a product for an authentic audience. For example, I have had students create podcasts for ‘amazing fossil discoveries’ or ‘important events in geologic time,’ which asks them to use their own creative devices to explain a novel organism or significant geological event to a general audience. Additionally, students in the Life through Time lab I taught were tasked with giving public presentations at a local Civil War fort as part of a community-engaged outreach event (see Service and Outreach tab). Because they were giving their presentations outside of the classroom, they felt a sense of ownership to their presentation topic and were motivated to give a better presentation than if they were just giving the presentation to their instructor and classmates. I have also given my students the chance to practice presenting their work in an academic setting by hosting a poster session as the end project in my Ecological Statistics course. As the course progresses, I give students increasing autonomy in designing a scientific study. First, they are given the experimental design, hypothesis, methods, results, and inferences, and are asked to make a conclusion based on these. Subsequent assignments strip away the inferences, results, and methods as students learn how to apply the scientific process in various scenarios. Finally, they are tasked with designing an experiment, coming up with a hypothesis, and collecting data in a novel project, which they then present at an open poster session. At the poster session, students grade one another as well as themselves on everything from experimental design to presentation ability – an exercise in metacognitive reflection, giving students some authority in deciding how well they did and empowering them to develop a realistic sense of agency.
I recognize that students enter my classroom with a variety of life experiences, a breadth of relevant subject-matter knowledge, and different goals for what they hope to get out of the course. Diversity is vital to the success of the classroom and the institution, as diverse backgrounds facilitate varied opinions and approaches to learning, all of which are crucial in the creation of a well-rounded environment. To that end, it is critical to support students that come from historically underrepresented racial, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds by establishing a respectful, compassionate and empathetic dialogue culture in my classroom. To accomplish this, I: 1) establish transparent learning goals, provide opportunities for students to learn one another’s names, and model inclusive language, behavior, and attitudes; 2) use multiple and diverse examples on each topic covered in the course to help students feel connected to the content; and 3) incorporate, as much as possible, materials written or created by people of different backgrounds and/or perspectives so as to not marginalize my students. I recognize that the classroom is as much a social and emotional environment as an intellectual one, and use the above strategies intentionally to shape my course climate and, consequently, student learning.
I see teaching in my discipline as an act of social justice. The geosciences are naturally positioned to discuss topics of global concern (i.e., climate change, invasive species, sustainable societies); thus, geoscience students should be given ample opportunities to consider ways to improve the world around them. My courses implore students to seek more than just a few credit hours, to fully engage in the material presented, and to reach beyond the classroom to better understand the world around them.