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A General Philospohy
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on forming a philosophy

 

           You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself. — Galileo Galilei

At the University of Virginia, I have taught three different courses, two calculus courses (APMA 109 and 111) for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a chemistry laboratory course (CHEM 181L) for the Chemistry Department.  Both calculus courses, intended for first year engineering students, were multiple section courses managed by a Course Coordinator.  The Course Coordinator developed the syllabus which described the course policies and goals, the textbook, the grading criteria, and the homework assignments.  The Coordinator also constructed the exams and prepared the exam solutions.  My teaching responsibilities were limited to covering section x in the textbook and preparing the students for the daily assigned homework.  Of course, I had freedom to teach the topics anyway I saw fit.  I gave clear and concise lectures, I illustrated the topics with the most compelling example problems, I came up with the most cogent analogies, I described the most interesting applications, and I devised the best learning activities possible.  Everything seemed great – my students scored better on most of the exams than the other 4-6 sections, and I received good overall end-of-course evaluations from my students.  Near the end of the third calculus course I taught, however, I asked the students to construct a concept map tying together the different topics covered over the course of the semester.  While a handful of students identified the one central theme (the derivative) and understood how the entire semester was spent developing and expanding on that theme, the majority of students clearly saw the course as a set of disparate topics.  At that point, I vowed to never again teach a course designed solely for the purpose of covering content. 

While I was teaching that third and, unknowingly to me at the time, last calculus course, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop by Lendol Caldor (Associate Professor, Augustana College and Carnegie Scholar, the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning) titled Beyond "Coverage:" Teaching Disciplinary Thinking in the Introductory Class.  The question he posed was, “What happens when a professor abandons ‘coverage,’ declares independence from textbooks, pares down lectures, and sets out to "uncover" for students the distinctive epistemology that makes the field a discipline for knowing?”  Coincidentally, there was considerable buzz about a new book by L. Dee Fink (Director, Instructional Development Program, University of Oklahoma) titled Creating Significant Learning Experiences.  Within Fink describes his Taxonomy of Significant Learning and incorporates it into a course design strategy.  The nexus of these two teaching epiphanies was an offer to redesign one of the introductory chemistry laboratory courses.

I was given virtually free reign over the course content, as well as the teaching and evaluation methods.  My only mandate was to align the lab component with the corresponding lecture course.  Armed with Caldor’s and Fink’s ideas, I set out to design a systematic, integrated course which had one overriding goal:  Move the students toward understanding how to think like a scientist.  My objective was to set a foundation for scientific inquiry, motivate and emphasize scientific writing, explore chemistry through computation and experiment, and expose students to current research and literature in a variety of chemistry-driven fields.  My hope was that students would get interested and excited about chemistry, understand how chemistry affects their private and public lives, make connections between chemistry and their academic interests, and attain skills which would help them to continue learning about the subject long after the course was over.