Teaching Philosophy and Teaching Approach
My teaching is grounded in a constructivist learning theory. Constructivism posits that new knowledge and new skills cannot be imparted from one individual to another, i.e. the instructor does not simply transfer his or her knowledge or expertise. Rather the learner re-constructs new knowledge and integrates it in his or her existing knowledge system thereby not merely adding to, but changing what has been acquired previously. Constructivism sees the teacher as a facilitator to this process of building and transforming the learner’s mind. Active and interactive learning activities are an essential part of this learning theory and its realization in educational institutes, such as universities. Currently, my lectures build entirely on this learning theory, as I structure and organize the students’ learning through active and interactive learning tasks exclusively.
The design of specific learning tasks in my courses is strongly influenced by R. Mayer’s theory of multimedia learning (Mayer 2014) and its derived principles.
(Image of Mayer’s model from http://mathewmitchell.net/multimedia/mml/ (with permission))
Meaningful learning happens when the learner engages in five cognitive processes:
- selecting relevant words for processing in verbal working memory
- selecting relevant images for processing in visual working memory
- organizing selected words into a verbal model
- organizing selected images into a pictorial model
- integrating the verbal and pictorial representations with each other and with prior knowledge.
A key idea underlying this model is the limited capacity of working memory (Baddeley and Hitch 1974) and cognitive load (Paas and Sweller in Mayer 2014). There is a limit to the amount of information that can be held at one time in working memory (up to 7 items for approximately 20s, Miller 1956). Information in sensory memory disappears in less than a second and information can be stored in long-term memory for many years.
The limitations of working memory make it necessary that the learner selects information in real time and decides what seems to be important. The selected information is organized and integrated with knowledge that is retrieved from long term memory to construct new knowledge. Finally, (some of) the new knowledge is transferred back to long-term memory.
The learner develops increasingly sophisticated ‘schemas’, which are cognitive constructs that organize information for storage in long term memory. Learned procedures are transferred from controlled to automatic processing. I think of this as algorithms that an expert can invoke when classifying a problem question as an “energy-question” or “Newton’s 2nd law-question”. Automatic processing frees capacity in working memory for other tasks.
In Mayer’s model, twelve evidence-based principles are grouped based on the three types of cognitive load):
- reducing extraneous processing (extrinsic load) – coherence, signaling, redundancy, spatial contiguity, temporal contiguity
- managing essential processing (intrinsic load) – segmenting, pre-training, modality
- fostering generative processing (organizing and integrating information) – multimedia, personalization, voice, image
These principles together with a few more advanced principles from Mayer’s book inform the design of my courses. Generally, the goal is to create activities that reduce cognitive load, help the learner during essential processing and encourage deep processing during learning.
Before going into more detail, I just mention here that the ‘flipped classroom’ format that I am using makes a lot of sense from the perspective of Mayer’s model. Students will be much better at selecting relevant information to be processed in working memory during class time if they have some prior knowledge. This knowledge could come from pre-class reading or other pre-class activities that help students decide what to focus on during class.
The twelve main principles and advanced principles are summarized below.
People learn better…
Coherence Principle –…when extraneous material is excluded rather than included.
Signaling Principle – … when cues that highlight the organization of the essential material are added.
Redundancy Principle – … from graphics and narration than from graphics, narration, and printed text.
Spatial Contiguity Principle – … when corresponding words and pictures are placed near each other rather than far from each other on the page or screen.
Temporal Contiguity Principle – … when corresponding words and pictures are presented at the same time rather than in succession.
Segmenting Principal – … when a multimedia lesson is presented in user-paced segments rather than as a continuous unit.
Pre-training Principle – People learn more deeply from a multimedia message when they receive pre-training in the names and characteristics of key components.
Modality Principle – … from graphics and narration than from graphics and printed text.
Multimedia Principle – … from words and pictures than from words alone.
Personalization Principle – … from a multimedia presentation when the words are in conversational style rather than in formal style.
Voice Principle – … when the words in a multimedia message are spoken by a friendly human voice rather than a machine voice.
Image Principle – People do not necessarily learn more deeply from a multimedia presentation when the speaker’s image is on the screen rather than not on the screen.
Self-explanation principle – People learn better when they are encouraged to generate self-explanations during learning.
Worked examples principle – People learn better when worked examples are given in initial skill learning.
Animation and interactivity principles – People don’t necessarily learn better from animation than from static diagrams.
Cognitive aging principle – Instructional design principles that effectively expand the capacity of working memory are particularly helpful for older learners.
Collaboration principle – People learn better when involved in collaborative online learning activities.
Guided-discovery principle – People learn better when guidance is incorporated into discovery-based multimedia environments.
Navigation principles – People learn better in environments where appropriate navigational aids are provided.
Site map principle – People learn better in an online environment when presented with a map showing where they are in a lesson.
Boundary conditions that can determine the effectiveness of some of the principles.
Expertise-reversal effect, which states that some instructional methods or principles may be more effective for low-knowledge learners than for high-knowledge learners.
Individual differences in working memory capacity can determine the effectiveness of instructional design principles.
I also seem to remember reading that there are individual differences in the processing of spatial information. This can potentially make a big difference in understanding diagrams and graphs.
Mayer 2014 (“The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning”, 2nd edition, edited by R. Mayer, 2014).
Baddeley and Hitch (1974) Baddeley, Alan D.; Hitch, Graham. Gordon H. Bower, ed. Working Memory. The psychology of learning and motivation. 2. Academic Press. pp. 47–89, 1974.
Miller (1956) Miller G. A., “The magical number seven plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information”. Psychological Review. 63 (2): 81–97, 1956.
My Approach to Teaching Interactive Lectures
Worksheet-centered approach with embedded clicker questions for large lecture classes. (I use fewer clicker questions in a small class with a cohort of international students, i.e. UBC’s Vantage College).
Description: The worksheets contain the entire lecture, including a brief summary of the physics concepts that are relevant for the class. A mix of conceptual questions and problem questions is used to build up students’ understanding of concepts and procedural knowledge. Students interact with their peers and TAs during the activity. Questions often ask students to explain their answers. We usually provide numerical answers on the worksheet (confidence, or avoiding incorrect solutions).
The class starts with a brief reading quiz and an introduction. In the introduction I briefly discuss the answers to the reading quiz, which lead into a summary of the relevant concepts for the class. The session thus builds on what students have seen in their reading assignments. The introductions often contain motivational elements such as demos with predictions and discussions of real-world applications.
Students will then work on the worksheets, often interrupted by conceptual clicker questions and/or discussions of shorter problem questions on the board/doc cam.
I finish each session with a discussion of the most complex questions, which represent the main goals of the session. The worksheet-centered learning cycle is summarized in the diagram below.
Why this works: Following Mayer, the following principles are at work:
Worksheets: Coherence principle (no extraneous materials), segmenting principle (user paced), spatial contiguity (all relevant info in close proximity), signaling principle (highlighting and organizing cues), personalization principle (conversational style), self-explanation principle (frequent sense-making activities and ‘explain’ prompts on worksheet).
Follow-up on doc cam: multimedia-principle (dual channel: words and pictures), worked example principle (initial cognitive skills learning).
Pre-class reading or other – pre-training principle (vocab and key components, may also be viewed as segmenting principle).
Clicker questions – self-explanation principle.
In the following paragraphs I will illustrate how my teaching evolved and how interactive learning tasks are implemented in lectures, labs and distance education modules.
The development of my current approach to teaching and organizing lecture-based courses started in 2009. After hearing a talk about Just-In-Time Teaching, I had a discussion with Jim Carolan and Carl Wieman about pre-class reading in my large Physics 100 lecture course, which resulted in introducing weekly pre-class reading assignments into all my courses. This also started a thinking process in which I carefully considered the role and purpose of each course element more carefully. I have formulated learning objectives for each course element and design materials or activities that support these objectives.
Consequently, I no longer cover terminology or basic definitions in lecture; I have realized that students can easily learn these things on their own from a pre-class reading assignment. These assignments contain specific instructions that focus students’ attention on key concepts and the flow of ideas. If they make an effort to follow these instructions, they have a much better sense of why the topics covered in class are important and where the discussion is going next. Referring back to Mayer’s model, students will be much better prepared to select key information during class time.
I do not expect that my students will understand new concepts just from textbook reading. In my approach, this is what the lecture time is for: making sense of the concepts, addressing misconceptions, and solving difficult problems that show applications of these concepts in real-world situations. The students work in small groups on worksheets and clicker questions, which permits the instructor to visit several groups during the activity, listen in on their discussions and provide hints or help if necessary. These interactions are an important aspect of my teaching as I learn more about the students’ prior knowledge and the difficulties they encounter when learning physics. The design of effective learning activities crucially depends on this information. My lectures are therefore never static and evolve as I am learning more about my students. My worksheet-based approach is featured in a CWSEI video (https://blogs.ubc.ca/wpvc/intro-physics-active-class/).
I see the main role of the first-year physics course elements in the following way:
- Pre-Reading Assignments – new content, prepare mind (‘advance organizer’)
- Lectures – sense making, motivation
- Tutorials – problem solving skills and strategies
- Homework (online) – problem solving practice, checking of understanding
- Labs – Experiments, skills, concepts.
It is important to mention that the tutorials in my courses are distinct from the homework although both course elements address problem solving. When I started at UBC, most tutorials where in the form of a few textbook problems that students would try to solve on their own or in pairs before a teaching assistant would go over the solution. This has now evolved into a much more focused approach in which modeling, making approximations, and thinking about solution strategies are tasks that the students perform in small-groups while working on difficult problems on whiteboards. The teaching assistants provide guidance and hints during the activities and discuss the solution at the end. The tutorials aim at increasing students’ problem-solving skills, while the homework is meant for practicing these skills.
After my conversation with Carl Wieman and Jim Carolan in 2009, I joined the reading group of the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative and I later served as department director of the CWSEI. This involvement has not only led me to adopt evidence-based teaching strategies, but also convinced me to measure the impact of any new approach. The interactive approach to teaching lectures has led to significant learning gains in my classes, as is evident from lower failure rates on exams and improved scores, as well as from improved student attitudes towards physics (improved CLASS attitude survey  scores). In addition, my own course evaluations have improved and students often comment that the in-class worksheets and clicker questions are helpful for learning. I did not invent using worksheets in class, but I believe that I found an effective way of implementing worksheets in large courses and integrate them into a coherent course experience. To my knowledge, I was the first instructor in Physics and Astronomy at UBC to systematically use pre-reading assignments and in-class worksheets in a large lecture class with over 100 students. Pre-reading assignments and worksheets are now also implemented in other large first-year physics courses at UBC such as in Physics 101, Physics 117, Physics 118 (Physics 102), Physics 107, Physics 108, Physics 157, and Physics 158.