Updated: 7 March 2011

My Teaching Philosophy *

by Kathy Cooksey

I teach for many reasons. One of which is to constantly improve my teaching skills and to learn new techniques for new situations. This actually improves me more broadly and generally. What I have learned about science education theory has also influenced how I conduct my research. This makes sense, since I firmly believe what I teach will help my students become better scientists; it surely must do the same for me. So I try to keep my goals in mind as I go about my research, and I assess whether what I am doing is moving me to accomplish my goals. I also teach because I want to train future scientists; it is beneficial for the field and for myself. Lastly, and most importantly, I teach because I enjoy it immensely.

The majority of my formal teaching training has been through the Center for Adaptive Optics Professional Development Program (CfAO PDP; [8]). in which I actively participated from 2004 to 2008 (see teaching assessment #1, section 6.9). Through the PDP, scientists, engineers, and/or educators learn about science education (e.g., [5]), inquiry-based teaching techniques, and issues of diversity and equity in the sciences. The PDP also organizes various teaching venues where the participants practice their teaching.

For me, "inquiry" is the process of learning science as science is done—with self-motivated, hands-on investigation. The use of inquiry-based teaching techniques enables students to take ownership of their learning; to practice science research skills; and to learn scientific content. A typical inquiry format is to first motivate the students to study a physical phenomenon, with a few demonstrations. Then they work in two to three-person groups to investigate a question of common interest. With time and facilitation, the groups solve their problems and present the results, where "facilitation" is teaching by guiding students through the learning process. This whole process is a miniature research project, which brings with it a sense of accomplishment and ownership of the learning, to the students, and, by going through the inquiry, they practice their research skills, if not also learn new ones.

I have facilitated three inquiries, each geared towards a different student body. I co-facilitated the "Light & Shadow Inquiry" at the 2005 PDP Workshop, where the new participants learned about inquiry by doing. In 2004 and 2005, I co-facilitated the "Color & Light Inquiry" for a physics/engineering lab at Maui Community College. I also co-facilitated high-school students in the "Optics Inquiry" [12] in 2005 and 2006. As a facilitator, by design and by implementation, I was responsible for progressing several small groups through the inquiry process. I eavesdropped on their conversations and stepped in with questions or suggestions constructed to further or re-direct their efforts, when there was need. For example, if a group were aimlessly playing with the equipment, I would ask them to articulate the question that they were investigating and how what they were currently doing was helping them find the answer.

I also co-facilitated a professional development activity for educators, called "Three Kinds of Hands-on Learning" [10]. I was a discussion facilitator at the 2006 PDP Workshop, and I co-facilitated the whole activity for a UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) undergraduate education class in 2007. This activity enables the participants to experience three points along the continuum of hands-on learning: a guided worksheet, a challenge activity, and an open "play" time. After the activity, we facilitators guide the participants through a productive conversation on the purposes, uses, pros, and cons of the three versions of hands-on activities. The final discussion is the most important part of the activity; it is when the participants, who are educators, begin addressing the idea of "matching approaches to learning goals," as the final handout states. I have learned (and taught) that lectures, worksheets, inquiries, discussions, etc. are all teaching tools and are appropriate for different situations depending on the goal(s).

This is the essence of "backward design," which simply means being goal-oriented when developing and teaching curricula [13]. Once I can articulate the aim of a class or activity, I can identify the learning stages through which the students must pass. Then, the necessary components of the curriculum design itself become apparent and form a skeleton for the class or activity. As I flesh it out, I evaluate each new component in terms of how it will help the students meet the goals. The constant focus on the goals also leads to them being refined and developed. When the design is finally implemented, I use the well-defined goals to emphasize the important points, to guide the students through steps, and/or to make decisions on-the-fly, as the need arises.

I practiced backward design when I developed and taught an introductory astronomy course for UCSC undergraduates in a five-week summer session in 2008 [4; also see course evaluation summary in section 6.9]. I first set the broad course goals. For example, I aimed for the students to learn the common astronomical objects, the general evolution of the Universe, and how astronomers learned all this. I designed the whole course to start and end with broad topics. By teaching them the big picture first, I gave the students a conceptual scheme around which to organize the new knowledge. In addition, I knew that cosmology and the Big Bang would best capture the students' interest. This worked exceptionally well, and we had animated discussions about the big picture topics.

The stars and galaxies sections in the middle of the course were when I concentrated most on teaching math skills, as required by UCSC. I learned from my predecessors that the students typically were fourth-year non-science majors, fulfilling their last requirement before receiving their bachelor's. Thus, many, if not most, students might not have taken a quantitative course in several years. I had the goal to grade the students partially on how much their math skills improved. I tried giving equivalent quantitative tests early and late in the course. However, I did not know how to construct such tests and grade them. As I have learned about the introductory physics course at MIT [6], which I am teaching this spring, I have learned about proper pre/post-concept tests and the "Hake factor" [7], which is a measure of actual gain versus maximum possible gain. In the MIT course, a student's Hake factor affects his/her final grade.

For the UCSC class, I designed a galaxy inquiry with two postdocs (also in the PDP), for the first week, to help the students less comfortable with science. My primary goal for the inquiry was to introduce galaxies/astronomy in a very hands-on, accessible way so that students who were leery of taking a science course or were comfortable with science would both have something to learn. I also intended the students to learn content and skills that I would rely on throughout the course. My goals were fulfilled for most students. For example, a content goal was for them to understand information in an astronomical image. I assessed whether we accomplished this by having the students tell me what they learned from an image of a new object, throughout the course. Many students correctly utilized what they learned about projection effects and the relationship between color and temperature from the inquiry. Were I to teach this course again, I would design follow-up activities specifically for those students who did not understand as well as I wanted.

From 2004 to 2007, I taught for the California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science (COSMOS), which is a four-week residential academic and enrichment program for high-school students, those entering 8th grade to those just graduated. During the four weeks, the COSMOS students attend program-wide events (both academic and recreational) and their course "cluster" activities. Each cluster is a union of two science-based courses and has about 17 students. I worked with the astronomy course [2]. Most of our cluster time was devoted to small-group research projects, which were designed like extended inquiries. In 2004, I was a project advisor for the Variable Stars Project [3]. Our PDP-affiliated cluster found great success through our dedication to the small-group research projects, as evidenced by the quality of our final presentations as well as by the students' own assessment. They all raved about their research projects and groups in their evaluations, and when I talk to previous students today, they fondly remember project time more than the lectures and activities that preceded it. My experience as a project advisor—witnessing the enthusiasm, motivation, and dedication my students had for their work—made me a strong supporter of project time when I was the astronomy lead instructor from 2005 to 2007.

As the astronomy lead instructor, I adjusted the curricula to accomodate the evolving situation of our cluster (e.g., partner course changes) but also because I saw areas where we could address course goals better. Some changes were successful and worked out as planned; others were not, for various reasons that I can now identify. In both cases, I learned and improved as an educator. For example, in 2006, I organized a new whole-cluster discussion about what it means to be a scientist. I wanted to address directly any misconceptions the students held about scientists. I have devoted a good portion of my teaching time to the high-school age group through COSMOS because my cluster targeted and recruited students typically underrepresented in the sciences. I care about inclusion, diversity, and patching the "leaky science pipeline" [1,9]. The gradual attrition of American students at all stages of the path to a science-related career is commonly called the "leaky science pipeline." The pipeline must be fortified at every step: kindergarten through 12th grade, undergraduate, graduate, and professional.

In addition, women and non-Asian minorities "leak out" at higher rates than other U.S. populations [11]. Science thrives as a discipline when it attracts the most talented and dynamic minds. If bright people are prevented from entering science by factors unrelated to their ability, it is unfair to them and science as a whole. Effectively excluding entire sub-populations excludes the perspectives, interests, and talents of those groups and hinders scientific progress. It also handicaps wide-spread support for publicly-funded science, since groups who are not included in the scientific research are not inclined to support it.

One way that is known to help women and minorities stay in the science pipeline is to tell them about the issues, which was my intention for the "what is a scientist" discussion. The activity was partially successful, but it was not carefully designed. After a few more years of PDP training and a better-developed teaching skill set, I actually want to design a course partially dedicated to informing young women and minorities about the issues and equipping them to persevere and succeed. This is part of the education and outreach that I will do in partial fulfillment of my NSF Astronomy & Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Another change I implemented was in choice of inquiry in 2007. I chose to have our main one be the "Color, Light, & Spectra Inquiry," newly redesigned for high schoolers. My goal was for the students to better, more fundamentally understand the properties of color, light, and spectra and their importance in astronomy. Also, from a conceptual perspective, this inquiry content allowed the students more flexibility in how they understood the physics, whereas the old "Optics Inquiry" content predominately relied on all the students learning ray-tracing. The students definitely learned the properties of color, light, and spectra, and they actively applied this knowledge when researching their astronomical phenomena during project time.

This spring I am a section leader for the technology-enabled active learning (TEAL) physics course at MIT [6]. I will be teaching introductory electromagnetism to ≈50 undergraduates; between the eight sections, there are over 700 freshman enrolled, since all MIT students must take this course or the equivalent. The TEAL format, used and improved since 2003, is designed so that students spend most of their class time working problems with their group of three. I will be introducing a new physics concept, perhaps working a brief example problem, but then presenting the groups with a problem. They will have 15 or so minutes to work on it, while I, and the other instructional staff, facilitate. Then the process repeats one or two more times each class period. I come well prepared with the facilitation skills, and I look forward to training my teaching assistants. The largest challenge—and the reason I chose to teach a section of this course—will be working with college students with strong science backgrounds, an experience I have not yet had.

Of all that I learned about pedagogy, "backward design" has become my most important and useful teaching tool, and I work to be goal-oriented whenever I develop curricula and teach. As a graduate student at UCSC, I had numerous opportunities to practice designing courses and activities, as well as teaching them. I value my current position as an NSF Fellow in part because there is an education and outreach component, which gives me the freedom to continue teaching and developing my skills, as I will be doing in the TEAL section this spring.


[1] Atkin et al. 2002, Journal of College Science Teaching, 32, 2, 102.
[2] Cooksey et al. 2010, ASPCS, 436, 395.
[3] Cooksey 2004, http://guavanator.uhh.hawaii.edu/~kcooksey/COSMOS/varstars04.html.
[4] Cooksey 2008, http://guavanator.uhh.hawaii.edu/~kcooksey/teaching/AY5.html.
[5] Donovan & Bransford, eds., 2005, How Students Learn, National Research Council of the National Academies.
[6] Dori & Belcher 2005, Journal of the Learning Sciences, 14 (2), 243.
[7] Hake 1998, American Journal of Physics, 66, 64.
[8] Hunter, L. et al. 2008, http://cfao.ucolick.org/EO/PDP/CfAO_Prof_Dev_Program.pdf.
[9] Hurtado et al. 2010, Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.
[10] Institute for Inquiry. "Comparing Approaches to Hands-on Science." http://www.exploratorium.edu/IFI/workshops/fundamentals/comparing/index.html.
[11] National Science Board, 2010, Figures 3-27 and 5-14 to 5-16, NSB Pub. No. 10-01.
[12] Raschke et al. 2010, ASPCS, 436, 143.
[13] Wiggins & McTighe 1998, Prentice Hall.

* This was originally composed for a faculty application with Stockholm University (January 2011). An early version, focusing more on the CfAO's PDP is available here.