I am fortunate to to be able to draw upon experiences both as a student at a small liberal arts college and as a teaching assistant and instructor at a major research university where I have lead numerous class discussions and lectures. As a teacher, my primary goal is to inspire students to become engaged in the debates that cloud our society. To do this, students must be encouraged to think critically and must be able to bridge the empirical world with the real world. My job as a teacher is to make it easy for students to achieve these objectives.
Often times students take a class either because the class sounds more interesting than others offered or because it is required. Students enter the class with the "so what?" question--why is this class important to their education and future? A successful class depends on the student leaving the class with an answer to this question. As an instructor, one of the ways I can do this is to help students bridge the theoretical and empirical world with the real world. In my class on campaigns in elections, I accomplish this by asking students to analyze the outcome of an election. Students in this class write a paper where they explore what effect the outcome of a recent election will have over the next few years.
Getting students to bridge the theoretical and empirical world with the real world means that students must be taught and encouraged to think critically and analytically. An example of how I encourage students to think critically from an upper level course on campaigns and elections is by requiring students to keep a blog where they follow and analyze a campaign, reflecting on what they have learned in class. Most weeks students are free to write about a topic of their own choosing. However, on the week preceding the election, students are required to make a prediction on their blog for who will win the election, which forces students to connect everything that they have been learning. Another example from an introductory American government course is by exploring different scenarios using Duverger's Law and asking students to think about why we only have two major parties and why their policies sometimes appear very similar.
Encouraging critical thinking is also reflected in my teaching style, which revolves around classroom discussion. As Saroyan and Amundsen (2004) note, classroom discussion is a well-suited method for helping students achieve higher order thinking skills, such as critical thinking. The authors go on to say that classroom discussion helps students understand the material while at the same time teaching them to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize material. Classroom discussion can pose challenges, especially when there are students who are shy or unmotivated. However, there are some useful tricks that help get everyone involved in the discussion, such as the ``hat for of quotes'' or ``circular response'' (Brookfield and Preskill).
I also realize that the ability to achieve my teaching objectives on a regular basis will depend on reevaluating courses and strategies for achieving objectives. In addition to using course evaluations, I have several other methods of evaluating my courses. The first method that I use to evaluate my courses are exams. By reviewing exams, I am able to see where students' weaknesses are and use this information to improve future lessons on the topic.
Since classroom discussion is an integral part of my teaching style, I also find it important to evaluate my role as discussion leader. I have two methods that I find useful. First, I occasionally ask students at the end of class to summarize what they learned during the discussion. Not only do I get feed back, but students also have the added benefit of synthesizing what they have learned. Second, I ask for peers to critique my courses and use this information to reevaluate how I approach discussion on a particular topic.
In the end, I hope that my philosophy of teaching inspires students to be good citizens--to be engaged in the political debates that cloud society. While my immediate concern it so ensure that students leave my courses having achieved the course objective, we must also keep in mind that students are a representation of our department and school and that they go out into the world prepared for their future. I believe that the objectives set forth in my teaching philosophy will accomplish this.
Brookfield, S. and S. Preskill. 1999. Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for University Teachers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.
Sayoyan, Alenoush and Cheryl Amundsen. 2004. Rethinking Teaching in Higher Education: From Course Design Workshop to a Framework for Faculty Development. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing.