Statement of Teaching Philosophy

Physics is the study of the universe, from the smallest elementary particles to galaxies and the universe as a whole, and everything is between. Is is taught to all scientists and engineers, and forms the underlying basis of other branches of science and engineering. In short: physics is important. My teaching philosophy has grown and changed over the years, always with an increasing emphasis on how students learn and how lectures as well as teaching outside the classroom can benefit from a better understanding of the learning process. What it comes down to is a focus on engagement, accessibility, conceptual understanding, practical skills, and continuing to evolve as a teacher.

During lectures (and outside of them), I strive to keep students engaged, interested, and motivated. Whether through interactive examples, peer instruction, or just calling on students by name to ask a question, I encourage students to think during class time. My ideal lecture is fully collaborative, with students taking an active part in the class — and therefore taking an active role in their own learning. That's a key point: students must take ownership of their learning. Try as I might, I can't force students to learn; they are ultimately in charge of that.

But most learning, of course, happens outside of the classroom. This makes well designed homework and assignments a necessary part of the learning experience, as well as encouraging students to read before and after lectures. Most importantly, though, it means being accessible — having frequent and well-timed office hours, email availability, and just being there to give the students a push in the right direction when they need it. Accessible also means making sure all student can be included fully in all learning activities, including those with disabilities which might otherwise limit their participation.

A focus on a conceptual understanding of physics is important at all levels; research in this area is clear: students come into first year physics courses with a variety of misconceptions of how things work — concepts like motion, forces, and energies are typically misunderstood (see, for example, Halloun & Hestenes (1985), among many others). Understanding the concepts first pays off in problem-solving and learning more advanced concepts later. It furthermore helps students — particularly those not pursuing physics further than first year — see how physics fits into the other sciences and engineering. For upper year students, conceptual understanding is absolutely critical. I frequently run into a problem which I call the "forest for the trees" issue — students get so caught up in the individual steps of a larger problem that they lose sight of the overall concept. So, the big picture must be stressed here as well.

But students also need practical skills, both for their course work as well as for their eventual careers (whether in physics or not). These include the ability to research beyond what is given in classes, to write clearly and concisely on scientific matters, presenting difficult concepts to their peers with clarity, applying advanced mathematical techniques to solve problems and gain deeper understanding, and the ability to use numerical and computational techniques to solve otherwise unsolvable problems. These skills are of course necessary for a physicist, but furthermore are important in any science profession, and translate very well to other professions; finance, for example, is a field rather famous for employing physics and math graduates.

Finally, it's important to recognize the scholarship of teaching and learning. As my understanding of how students learn grew over time, my teaching methods evolved as well. To be an effective teacher, I must continue to learn — and contribute to — the scholarship of teaching and learning.



Teaching Strategies

My teaching philosophy is rooted in engaging students, emphasizing the need for learning outside the classroom (and being accessible to help this along), and focusing on conceptual learning and practical skills. Here's how I try to implement this in and out of the classroom.

Engagment

I use a variety of tools and ideas to keep students engaged, interested, and motivated to learn physics. I'll separate things broadly into two categories: student engagement at the first year level, where students might be biology majors or engineering students, and engagement in the upper years, where typically the students are already motivated to learn physics. But there's a general theme of interactivity and collaboration across all levels; some things work regardless of student background.

When I arrived at UOIT in 2007, I was thrust into eight courses, none of which I had any experience in teaching. My lectures were, unfortunately, what you might expect: Powerpoint slides consisting mainly of information found in the required textbook and a few examples. At least we had tablets; I could write out the solutions to the examples in real time for the students so they could see the thought process behind it. Today, my lectures are very different. I still use Powerpoint (along with other software), but there are very few slides with theory on them. Most of them are ConcepTests, a tool developed by Eric Mazur at Harvard (Crouch & Mazur, 2001), and are used in a teaching method called Peer Instruction (similar methods use other names; all include an interactive peer-based feature). Peer instruction forms the majority of class time; the rest is brief overviews of theory (which they had to read about before class on their own) and some in-depth examples.

There are other ways to increase student engagement as well. Classroom demonstrations typically play a major role in first year physics lectures, and, although I have in the past done one here and there, we have not had much in the way of resources for good demonstrations at UOIT. That changed this summer, when I (along with the other teaching faculty in the physics group) was awarded a Teaching Innovation Fund to develop and create appropriate lecture demonstrations.

Another way to keep students interested and motivated is to make them aware of current research and news in the field of physics. One of the first changes I did to my lectures was to include a section I called "Physics for Breakfast." (The name comes from the fact that I first included this in a term when I taught at 8:10 am; it stuck since, as I tell my students, physicists don't like to change.) I'd spend ten minutes or so every couple of weeks detailing some exciting new research, or explaining physics that shows up in the popular press; Nobel prizes are explained, big experiments like the Large Hadron Collider are covered, and so on. I wasn't sure if it was working as an engagement tool until a student — now graduated — told me that he switched into physics from engineering after seeing me explain spontaneous symmetry breaking (winner of the Nobel prize in 2008) and relate it to the early universe.

Upper year courses are quite different from our first year ones; they're much smaller, for one thing, and they consist of students already interested in physics. That doesn't mean it's easier to get them engaged, though; the subject is much more difficult, both conceptually and mathematically, and it's easy to lose a class with an unengaging lecture. My underlying goals for upper year courses are the same, though — have the lectures as interactive as possible, and as collaborative as possible (peer instruction coming up again, but slightly disguised). The tools, though, differ widely, and I'm still searching for the perfect lecture tool; I've tried a variety: Wikipages, OneNote, Blackboard, Google Docs and Google+, Evernote, Livescribe Pens, and more. I even visited the Teaching and Learning Centre on campus for their advice. Ideally all my students would have tablets and pens, and we could all edit the same set of class notes in real time and work collaboratively on examples … but not yet.

Instead, here is how I currently conduct my PHY 4020U Quantum Mechanics II course. It might change next year, but this year I'm experimenting (after a few other failed experiments) with student note-taking. The class might begin with a quiz, either written (rare) or oral (more common), based on either previous material or an assigned reading. After discussing the quiz and making sure we're all on the same page, we'll go over the important theoretical points: maybe a derivation of the WKB connection formulae. For a topic like this, the white board is a better tool than a tablet; I need more space to draw graphs, keep everything separate yet visible all at once. This is near impossible on the small screen of a tablet, so I hand off note-taking duties to a student (everyone gets a turn) and use the available white board. Note-taking can be done either with a tablet and pen, or a Livescribe pen (which digitizes the notes) or regular pen and paper and then scanned. Using the white board is a bit freeing after using the tablet; I can walk around more easily, ask a student to come up and contribute, or have all the students come up and work together (see the photo). It makes collaboration and student engagement easier, and facilitates student group work.

But there are other things I do to keep upper year students engaged, too. I mentioned oral quizzes at the start of class; I do that in every upper year class, and it's currently included in the syllabi of three of my four courses as worth between 5% and 10% of the overall mark. Class participation follows naturally from this; I continue to throw questions out to the students as the lecture progresses. I've also taken students on a field trip (to the Automotive Centre of Excellence for a tour of the wind tunnel and other facilities); this was a great success and tied in nicely to the course (Fluid Mechanics).

Learning outside the classroom and accessibility

The majority of student learning happens outside the classroom; students must have a clear idea of what is expected and what must be done. That means a strong homework or assignment program, being accessible to students outside the classroom, and making sure that all students can access the tools necessary for learning.

At the first year level, my typical "outside the classroom" work includes assigned problem sets, homework exercises, and reading assignments. The problem set assignments are delivered through the web: we use Masteringphysics.com for homework delivery in all first year physics courses. This software is actually pretty good; it can offer directed hints, accept algebraic answers, and has various tools to prevent cheating (pooled question sets, for example). Most importantly, it allows me to give frequent and numerous targeted assignments based on topic rather than "an assignment every two weeks," which is how I used to do it. Now I attempt to convince students to keep up with the material we cover in class by having them complete problems based on that work soon after it's covered (one of the dangers of university versus high school, I think, is that it's easy to fall behind and then keep falling further and further behind; the pace of a first year course is pretty relentless).

In addition to frequent targeted problem sets, I also assign frequent conceptual exercises (from our textbook's companion Student Workbook), which are done by hand and handed in at the start of class. I'll also ask students to read the textbook to prepare for class, and devote the first five minutes or so of most classes to a reading quiz, both to encourage them to do the reading and to check their conceptual understanding.

At the upper year level, I also give frequent assignments (at least weekly); as I mention all the time, you can't learn physics without doing physics. And although we go over problems in class, it's critical for students to do problems on their own or with their peers as well.

But students will need assistance from me, too. I strive to be as accessible as I can; in addition to hosting regular office hours (about six hours a week), I encourage students to come by any time they see my door open — and if I'm in, my door is always open. I'm also accessible through email and Blackboard, and return emails quickly.

This year, I've tried something different with the bit of new office space I have. I have a table and a large white board (about 6 feet by 5 feet; it's a tacky sheet that I've stuck to the wall above the table), and I've told my upper year students they can make use of the space any time I'm in the office; they can work in small groups on assignments, and I'm right there if they need assistance.

Finally, I wanted to address another aspect of accessibility — making sure every student is included in the course, both inside and out. I had a visually impaired student in my courses (I taught him seven, I think). It was difficult, at times, to make the course fully accessible to him -- lectures were a particular challenge, finally conquered with Skype screen sharing -- but it was worth it. I saw

Focus on conceptual understanding

My teaching method at the first year level — the use of Peer Instruction — is ideal both for engaging students and for allowing an increased focus on conceptual understanding. Peer Instruction begins with a short lecture on a key topic — for example, two dimensional motion — and then a ConcepTest is presented to the class. The ConcepTest is (typically) a multiple choice question related to the previous material; see the image on the right for an example. After some time to think on their own (say, a minute or so), students input their response using ResponseWare, which connects to my Powerpoint slideshow via software called TurningPoint. Students can access ResponseWare either through the web (www.rwpoll.com) or through apps on their smart phones. After seeing the initial responses, I ask them to discuss their answers with their nearby neighbours — this is where the "peer" part of Peer Instruction comes in. After a sometimes heated discussion, during which I will walk around the room, listening to arguments and asking students questions, I'll re-poll the ConcepTest. Sometimes this results in a majority now choosing the correct answer, sometimes not. I can follow up by asking students to defend their choice or by going over the answer and explanation myself. Lecture then proceeds; another brief topic, another ConcepTest, and so on.

This extra focus on concepts in the classroom is not wasted — research shows that an improved understanding of concepts in motion helps with problem solving (Leonard, Dufresne, & Mestre, 1996). In addition, conceptual questions are included on midterms and exams, so that students understand at the outset that concept questions like those covered in class are an important part of the course.

At the upper year level, the focus on conceptual understanding continues. Other than the oral quizzes mentioned above, which focus exclusively on concepts, concept questions are included on both assignments and exams. I demand from my students not just knowledge of how to solve difficult problems, but why each step is important and what the implication of the solution is.

Focus on Practical Skills

Although conceptual understanding is a large focus of my lectures, students need to be able to apply their knowledge in problem solving and research. To that end, I also emphasize practical skills.

At the first year level, this consists mostly of being able to apply concepts to solve problems; in fact, problem solving is traditionally the largest focus in a typical first year physics course (although over the years I have gradually shifted that focus to an even mixture of concepts and problem solving). I stress the importance of a systematic approach to problem solving, and teach (and use myself during examples and solutions) a four-step process: (1) Model, in which the student will consider what physics model we have covered in class to apply to the problem, (2) Visualize, where the student sketches the problem, including a coordinate system, as well as free body or other relevant diagrams, and defines variables; this step is by far the most important and time-consuming, (3) Solve, where the student applies the model to the system, using the visualization as a guide, and solves the appropriate equations for the answer to the problem, and (4) Assess, where the student judges if the answer is reasonable, as well as making sure the correct units and significant figures are in place. This problem solving process is outlined in detail in Knight (2013).

For upper years physics courses, the emphasis on practical skills takes on a broader range. Here, I want students to gain an idea of the wide variety of skills important to physics; although this includes problem solving, it also includes basic research skills, scientific writing, and presentations, as well as more specialized tools like numerical techniques.

Basic research skills are critical in graduate school and industry, and I frequently include in a course a research paper or presentation; in either case, there is an expectation to perform research beyond the class material (that is, use more than our textbook), either using UOIT's library and services provided, or by searching journals for appropriate articles. Then, whether orally with a presentation or in a written paper, they must present their research in a clear and concise way, making sure to properly reference their sources. This has been a particular focus this year in my Modern Physics class — taught at the second year. This class is an important step up from the first year level, both in terms of content and workload, and I have two projects devoted to research — one consisting of a paper, properly typeset using Latex (or similar) and using properly referenced sources, and the other a presentation. I grade the projects not just on an understanding of the topic (although that's clearly important too), but also on its presentation — written or oral.

Specialized problem solving tools are introduced in lecture, tutorial (if available), and assignments or projects. I've held workshops in some classes to cover certain numerical techniques (simple numerical integration of Newton's laws for Mechanics I, for example, or numerically solving the Schrödinger equation in Quantum Mechanics II). In addition, the use of specialized software (e.g., Maple) is encouraged at all levels.