Teaching philosophy

As a zoologist and conservation ecologist, a vital aspect of my work is education – instructing and learning from a diverse group of stakeholders: the general public, students, colleagues, managers, resource users and peers.

Teaching goals

My primary teaching goal is to equip students for a future in a global society that is rapidly and continuously evolving and often uncertain. Secondly, I wish to engender in students an interest in and excitement about ideas and concepts, and to extend students to higher cognitive levels of analysis, synthesis, evaluation and creativity [20, 13]. I want to help them become citizens and professionals who can assess the quality and veracity of information, and understand complex issues through both reductionism and holism [21]. Finally, I wish to help them develop the capacity to tackle problems by drawing together (sometimes disparate) threads or concepts into cohesive and creative solutions. For students to prosper in uncertain futures, they need to think both critically and creatively, they need to communicate effectively, and they need to exhibit exemplary ethics. I hope to role-model these virtues and skills for my students and engender them through my teaching and mentorship.

A mind is a fire to be kindled, not a vessel to be filled – Plutarch

Teaching role

My role as a teacher is multi-faceted and includes mentoring, facilitating discussion and analysis of issues, and providing exposure to broader topics. It is important for me to foster an environment in which the ownership of student learning is shared. Students should be able to guide discovery, and should feel that debate, scrutiny and divergent thinking are encouraged. I strive to provide a role model of dedication and professionalism. Students must be comfortable approaching me for help and guidance and my care for their interests must be readily apparent [14]. Further, learning is bi-directional and I know that I can learn something valuable from student participation. I also need to pursue impactful scholarship through my own research programme. This allows me to provide students with first-hand experiential  opportunities to participate in learning through active discovery.

Educators at all levels, particularly those at universities, have a crucial role in promoting social justice and bringing about societal transformation. One of the key facets to this is in facilitating learning across all segments of the population, especially for those people for whom educational access is constrained by a variety of factors (including geographical, financial, historical, cultural, and prior learning opportunities). Mitigating these constraints necessitates innovative approaches to helping students with a diversity of needs and abilities. Fortunately, a combination of open education, distance learning, and face-to-face interaction shows promise for meeting these challenges.

Setting an example is not the main means of influencing another; it is the only means – Einstein

Teaching methods and style

Recent trends in pedagogy have suggested a dichotomy between two broad teaching approaches (teacher-centred versus student-centred). Within a given approach are a number of similar theories and methods of nuanced distinction [17]. Thus, the teacher-centred approach is considered traditional and considered to involve passive learning, or a didactic method — essentially a one-way transmission of information from teacher to student. The student-centred approach, is considered to involve constructivism, constructionism, active learning, experiential learning, and a dialectic method — students discover information or reconstruct it by engaging experientially with the material [11].

Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand – Chinese proverb

I favour an approach that combines elements of both teaching philosophies. While extreme teacher-centred approaches contain pitfalls and can lead to reduced engagement and performance relative to student-centred approaches [22, 16, 3], extreme student-centred approaches can also diminish the role of the instructor, lead to inefficiencies in learning opportunities, and lead to deficiencies in student understanding within certain contexts. A combined approach, sometimes called “scaffolding” allows the instructor to play the leading role in structuring learning opportunities, selecting relevant content, and providing necessary direction to student engagement [9]. Thus, active and student-centered learning fills the space within, and extends beyond, a well-structured framework.

I also favour a blended learning approach, whereby I try to use a diverse suite of strategies, technologies, and media. The recent blossoming of information and communication technologies, especially in the social and educational realms has made a blended approach possible. Not only is this a dynamic format that today’s students can engage with, but it also represents the social and cultural landscape that students will have to enter and prosper in, during and after leaving university. Finally, the blended approach provides a means to reduce barriers of educational access related to geography and time, by facilitating asynchronous and distributed learning. Unfortunately, it does require access to the necessary hardware (such as smartphones and laptops) and access to suitably fast data connections. These issues may introduce new barriers for many students and thus a creative compromise needs to be found in applying a true blended learning approach. There are also aspects of certain curricula which require some inter-personal contact for reasons of mentorship or pedagogical suitability.

The forms that scaffolding and blending take, are determined by several factors, including the class size, the subject matter, the course level (e.g. first-year versus honours), and the available resources and infrastructure (e.g. teaching assistant, interactive whiteboard, laptops, smartphones, clickers, cloud-based wikis and chat groups). Generally it would take the following form: (a) Readings are prescribed and read at home (usually primary literature accessed from the university library). (b) Face-to-face and live cloud-based sessions start with interactive feedback or spot quizzes [12] on the prescribed material (this formative assessment helps with class and online attendance, and provides real-time feedback to me and the students about their prior level of engagement with the material). (c) A period of student-led reflection and questions on the material follow. (d) I then challenge their thinking with higher-order [20, 13] and critical thinking questions [18], case studies [15], and examples, following the Socratic Teaching Method [6]. (e) I stimulate their metacognition [5] related to the prescribed material (are they aware of what they do and don’t understand, and how they think through the concepts). (f) I provide traditional instruction on any areas the students are not grasping or complex concepts not covered in the readings. (g) Students break into groups (real or cloud-based) for discussion or problem solving [15], returning with feedback to the whole class. Student feedback may be self-assessed or peer-assessed, as appropriate for further formative assessment. (h) Steps f and g are repeated or extended as necessary. (i) The class ends with more metacognition, new prescribed readings, and some guidance on where the next class is headed. Much of this approach can be replicated for truly asynchronous and distributed cloud-based courses.

Men must be taught as if you taught them not, and things unknown proposed as things forgot – Alexander Pope

I think that a large portion of learning can occur during assessment, especially in assignments with tangible and useful outcomes [10]. I try to use formative assessment frequently to allow for timely feedback to students and to facilitate a learning programme that is responsive to evolving student needs and abilities. I like to assess students using essays or verbal presentations in which they are forced to approach an issue critically, synthetically and creatively. For projects and presentations (often at the end of a module or course), I encourage peer- [4] and self-assessment [19, 7] as part of the summative assessment. For capstone courses, I believe that students must develop a synthetic and outcomes-based product to form part of an integrated assessment. My goal is for assessment to be as much a learning opportunity as any other part of the course [8, 1].

My teaching, mentoring, and communication styles fall predictably in line with my personality type (ENFP, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator). This style complements the scaffolding approach, although it will prove more or less effective with individual students depending on their own varied communication styles [2]. Ultimately, I think that successful teaching relies on enthusiasm. Students are highly perceptive and can see when we are going through the motions or are unsure of the subject matter. If I can remain honest and enthusiastic about a topic, I believe that enthusiasm will lead many students to higher learning goals of their own volition.

Any genuine teaching will result, if successful, in someone’s knowing how to bring about a better condition of things than existed earlier – John Dewey


[22] Armbruster, P., Patel, M., Johnson, E. and Weiss, M. 2009. Active learning and studentcentered pedagogy improve student attitudes and performance in introductory biology. CBE-Life Sciences Education 8:203-213.

[21] Bergandi, D., and Blandin, P. 1998. Holism vs. reductionism: Do ecosystem ecology and landscape ecology clarify the debate? Acta Biotheoretica 46:185-206.

[20] Bloom, B. (Ed.), Engelhart, M., Furst, E., Hill, W., and Krathwohl, D. 1956. Taxonomy of educational objectives: the classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. David McKay, New York.

[19] Cassidy, S. 2006. Learning style and student self-assessment skill. Education and Training 48:170-177.

[18] Duron, R., Limbach, B. and Waugh, W. 2006. Critical thinking framework for any discipline. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 17:16-166.

[17] Eberlein, T., Kampmeier, J., Minderhout, V., Moog, R., Platt, T., Varma-Nelson, P. and White, H. 2008. Pedagogies of engagement in science. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 36:262-273.

[16] Fata-Hartley, C. 2011. Resisting Rote: The Importance of Active Learning for All Course Learning Objectives. Journal of College Science Teaching 40:36-39.

[15] Handelsman, J., Ebert-May, D., Beichner, R., Bruns, P., Chang, A., DeHaan, R., Gentile, J., Lauffer, S., Stewart, J., Tilghman, S. and Wood, W. 2004. Scientific teaching. Science 304:521-522.

[14] Jones, B. 2009. Motivating students to engage in learning: The MUSIC model of academic motivation. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 21:272-285.

[13] Krathwohl, D. 2002. A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An overview. Theory into Practice 41:212-218.

[12] Lee, W. and Jabot, M. 2011. Incorporating Active Learning Techniques into a Genetics Class. Journal of College Science Teaching 40:94-100.

[11] Lord, T. 2008. We Know How to Improve Science Understanding in Students, So Why Aren’t College Professors Embracing It? Journal of College Science Teaching 38:66-70.

[10] Marzano, R. 1994. Lessons from the field about outcomes-based performance assessment. Educational Leadership 51:44.

[9] Mascolo, M. 2009. Beyond student-centered and teacher-centered pedagogy: Teaching and learning as guided participation. Pedagogy and the Human Sciences 1:3-27.

[8] McDaniel, M., Anderson, J., Derbish, M., and Morrisette, N. 2007. Testing the testing effect in the classroom. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology 19:494-513.

[7] McMillan, J., and Hearn, J. 2009. Student self-assessment: The key to stronger student motivation and higher achievement. The Education Digest 74:39-44.

[6] Shah, M. 2008. The Socratic teaching method: A therapeutic approach to learning. Teaching Philosophy 31:267-275.

[5] Tanner, K. 2012. Approaches to biology teaching and learning — Promoting student metacognition. CBE-Life Sciences Education 11:113-120.

[4] Topping, K. 2009. Peer assessment. Theory into Practice 48:20-27.

[3] Travis, H. and Lord, T. 2004. Traditional and Constructivist Teaching Techniques: Comparing Two Groups of Undergraduate Nonscience Majors in a Biology Lab. Journal of College Science Teaching 34:12-18.

[2] Weiler, C., Keller, J., and Olex, C. 2012. Personality type differences between Ph. D. climate researchers and the general public: implications for effective communication. Climatic Change 112:233-242.

[1] Zipp, J. 2007. Learning by exams: The impact of two-stage cooperative tests. Teaching Sociology 35:62-76.