Those Who Can, Teach: And Why I Want To

Welcome to the Chaotic Misadventures of Professor Kovach.

I never wanted to be a teacher. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a paleontologist, a forensic anthropologist, a journalist, and eventually went on to become a neuroscientist. I always wanted to learn new things and keep going. And those who can’t, teach. Right? When I entered college, I realized this was not only an antiquated way of thinking, but an ignorant one as well. I took classes I wish I could teach, took classes I had to teach to my peers, and took classes about how to teach. As a result, my teaching philosophy stems from a fervent desire to learn and centers on the ever-evolving nature of academia that best suits students.

With a background in psychology and neuroscience, and as a student myself, I have learned that memory is generally unreliable at best and total fiction at worst. Education as a discipline is intricately dependent on this process, yet regularly fails to utilize the current research well. Cumulative end-of-term exams, in particular, grate against current research. These finals inundate students with semester’s worth of information from multiple classes that they must remember, review, and recite. Not only does this prey on shoddy memory, but it leads to burnout and stress-related conditions (Stoliker & Lafreniere). Understanding students are only human and need breaks too is pinnacle to my teaching philosophy because it allows them room to make mistakes without sacrificing the integrity of their learning.

As a professor, one way I would combat this academic burnout is by eliminating semester-long exams as a way of gauging knowledge acquisition, instead opting for non-cumulative exams and projects that highlight a specific concept from that semester, depending on the content of the class. Given the use of more creative assignments that require critical thinking, students can be original in their work on subjects typically deemed calculated. It can be the jumping-off point that takes them from just regurgitating knowledge to actively analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating material – the way Bloom intended (1984).

Another critical part of my teaching philosophy is that teachers, myself included, should talk to students, not at them. While this may seem trivial, I believe it is the difference between students listening to a lecture and hearing it. This crucial dichotomy spotlights my commitment to creating a wholesome class climate conducive to higher learning. It is my belief that students respond better when they feel they are part of the conversation in an environment that makes them feel safe. My main goal, besides disseminating necessary information to students, is to foster their interest and engage their unique thoughts and perspectives to create a diverse and accepting class atmosphere. Whether I am teaching cellular neuroscience or a freshman seminar, I find that immersing students in a course climate that encourages critical thinking and active listening gives students the opportunity to express themselves in an otherwise fixed curriculum.

One of the biggest mistakes I have seen professors make throughout my academic career is a propensity to value their status and personal successes over their students’ overall success and understanding. I have seen plenty of my peers discouraged by the teaching and attitude of a professor only to excel in the same courses taught by a different instructor. The way we talk as instructors, at any level, informs students as much as the material we are talking about. Stanton and Knox (2018) showed that undergraduate apathy diminishes the more students find their professors approachable. By mentoring and being generally pleasant with students, we as teachers can excite students about learning. Students decide if they will come to office hours to seek help from us based on how we present the information we have to offer. It is vitally important to be dynamic.

I keep this in mind as I teach to maintain perspective not only on how I teach my students, but also how they learn from me. I think teachers should be one of the first points of contact for students and as such, we need to be accessible resources. I will encourage my students to ask questions in lecture – “What questions do you have for me” – if they don’t understand something and to talk to me individually regarding questions they may not have asked in lecture. This, of course, will be done by balancing student voices to make sure everyone remains engaged in the material. This will help foster their communication while also reinforcing materials learned in class. I will also try to utilize different types of teaching methods to engage different types of learning styles. I find that worksheets involving questions, summary objectives, and concept mapping promote students’ critical thinking while reinforcing what they learned. Further, I believe in utilizing group work so that students may also learn from each other’s experiences and learn to work together. I find that supplemental videos and animations are also valuable resources to disseminate information about pathways and processes that may not be easily conveyed otherwise. This, of course, must be balanced since a class cannot be taught exclusively with animations or group work.

I think it takes time to hit a stride in the beginning, because it is easy to get bogged down in one resource or fall into a monotony of the same. Teaching is a balancing act, constantly trying to reach an equilibrium between teaching students and learning from them. As such, I find student feedback incredibly valuable. Teaching with the students’ needs and learning styles in mind is necessary and oftentimes fruitful because it can create new opportunities to teach students and bring forth new ideas for the class.

While I do not have official teaching experience, I have been a resource for my peers and undergraduates in my lab. I taught them lab techniques, psychopharmacology, developmental processes and they taught me to be patient, to be flexible around different learning styles, and to above all else, talk to them without making them feel inadequate for asking questions or getting confused. After seeing the insecurity bred by arrogant professors, I make it a habit to evaluate my classes both from a student perspective and a teaching perspective to inform what kind of professor I want to be. It helps me think about how I would teach a given class, address the questions that my peers have, and reinforce the material that is so easy to forget. Just like the biochemistry that helped inform my philosophy, teaching is all in the dynamic equilibrium.

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