The following reflection note summarises the development of my approach to teaching and supervision in view of basic pedagogic principles.
What is good teaching?
Or better asked: What is good learning? My answer to this question has substantially developed while preparing and giving lectures over the last 15 years on different levels ranging from school children to Ph.D. students with the planning of my own course in solar and stellar physics (AST5770) being a pivotal experience. Likewise, my public outreach and supervision activities were also helpful in forming my pedagogic philosophy, which I illustrate in Fig. 6.2. I note that my own academic education, too, created an important basis for understanding which teaching concepts work well and which do not (cf. Bruner 1997). I realised early on that traditional unidirectional lectures, despite still being the basic setup of many courses, ignore essential key components of an optimal learning process. Rather, learning should be a meaningful, active and guided process that is optimised for individual needs and abilities and thus results in an intrinsic motivation to learn and develop. An example that inspired me is the teaching approach by J. Ruhl (see Pratikno et al. 2018), summarised as Choice , Cooperation, Communication, Critical Thinking (and problem-solving), Creativity, and Caring (“the 5+1 C’s”). This approach touches on basic human needs such as free will and being social and aims at creating a good learning environment and a professional personal relationship with the students. My corresponding approach to teaching can be described as student-centred or learning-oriented (cf. Kember 1997) and builds on the essential points summarised below.
Central points of my teaching philosophy
Motivation, relatedness, inspiration, e.g., via examples from current research and news.
- Individuality – Account for varied abilities/backgrounds for individually optimised learning.
- Dialogue and feedback between teachers and students to ensure high quality education.
- Iterative learning cycles, which allow for try-and-fail as an opportunity for development.
- Critical thinking and encouragement to create and try out own solution strategies.
- Learning by doing – In-depth understanding through practical exercises.
- Explain to others (peers) to gain deeper understanding.
Motivation through relevance.
What is motivation? As Ryan & Deci (2000) put it: “To be motivated means to be moved to do something.” Self-determination theory (SDT, see, e.g., Deci & Ryan, 1985, 2008) provides a more detailed answer and fundamentally distinguishes between autonomous motivation and controlled motivation. Autonomous motivation requires that a person can identify with an activity’s value or even is truly convinced about the value in her/his inner self. This form of motivation results in optimal learning, higher creativity, better psychological health and long-term performance outcome as it triggers will power and the commitment to engage with the activity (Ryan & Deci 2000). Controlled motivation, on the other hand, is due to (external) pressure factors such as reward or punishment with the aim to carry out an activity merely for its instrumental value. A typical example in the context of learning, is the motivation of students to learn only to pass an exam, while the learned material will be quickly forgotten afterwards. However, for a teacher to trigger a high level of autonomous motivation and internalisation requires that basic human needs such as competence, relatedness, and autonomy are satisfied for individual students (Deci & Ryan 2008). Students can obtain the necessary sense of competence if they clearly understand that they possess adequate skills to achieve the set goal. A teacher can help the students by making sure that they understand the challenges with respect to their skill level, adjusting the challenges to a feasible level, and by clearly communicating the feasibility of the given task. In this regard, Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET, Deci & Ryan 1985) suggests that interpersonal events and structures such as rewards, communication, and feedback are positively contributing to fulfilling the psychological need for competence. Another essential factor is relatedness to the teacher, which requires that the students feel respected and cared for (Ryan et al. 1994). Last but certainly not least, autonomy is key to a self-determined and efficient learning experience. In this respect, intrinsic motivation, personal endorsement, a feeling of choice and opportunity for self-direction are closely connected (Zuckerman et al. 1978). Good teachers serve these needs by being generally supportive of autonomy.
Developing competence, relatedness, and autonomy are integral parts of my teaching and super- vision strategy. I emphasise relevance by using examples from current research in lectures and group classes. If possible (like in in my course AST5770), I present examples from my own institute as it is a great opportunity to show the students what kind of research is being done in their close proximity.
Individually optimised learning.
People are different. And so are their motivation and ways to think and learn. From my experience as supervisor I understand that it is essential to adjust the learning process to the different needs and abilities of the individual students. This conclusion also follows from the central idea of constructivism, namely that human learning is constructed and not innate or passively absorbed and thus needs to occur in the individual (cf. Piaget 1968). New knowledge is built on the basis of previous learning and the interaction of existing and new knowledge (McLeod 2019). One consequence is that the individual learning experience is based on the student’s knowledge and values including the social and cultural background. The same teaching can therefore lead to different learning outcome for each student, while still creating common knowledge (Fox 2001). Individual differences can also result in challenges for supervision4 of which a good teacher/supervisor should be aware of (Dysthe et al. 2006).
While individual adjustments are important for good learning, it is in practice challenging to accomplish for courses with a large number of students like, e.g., the course AST1010 with often around 300 registered students (autumn 2019) with extremely varied background.
Iterative learning cycles.
Learning is an active rather than a passive process (McLeod 2019). New information might be received passively but understanding is an inherently active process. Following Piaget’s theory of cognitive constructivism (or cognitivism, Piaget 1968), learning as dynamic process occurs via successive stages during which individuals actively construct new knowledge by generating and testing their own theories as it is needed to amalgamate new with existing knowledge. Successful teaching strategies are therefore student-centred and ensure that the students have a sufficient knowledge framework as a basis that is needed to accommodate the new information. The latter requires the teacher to be aware of the students’ prior knowledge, which then allows for assessing how far the knowledge can be advanced during a course. In this regard, the Cognitive Apprenticeship concept by Collins & Kapur (2014) provides useful methods such coaching, reflection, articulation, and scaffolding (i.e. providing support for the students’ tasks). As astrophysics relies on knowledge from other subjects, several repetitions are needed to create knowledge for the next learning cycle at a higher level. This requires a very thoughtful curriculum across the related subjects with clear connections and interfaces – a challenging task that can only be accomplished in close co-operation with teachers across the faculty. For the design of my course AST5770 I have therefore analysed the contents of other relevant courses and talked to the respective teachers and students.
While repeating a task over and over again helps to learn and improve a skill or knowledge, the level of mastery achievable by these iterations alone is limited. Raising the level of mastery with each iteration re- quires reflection and feedback – internally and/or externally. This insight, which applies to learning in general, motivates the principle behind the Feynman technique (Reyes et al. 2021). It consists of four simple steps that can be repeated in a loop: 1. (Self-)study 2. Teach 3. Fill the Gaps. 4. Simplify.
The first step is about (self-)study and practicing. Typically, a student would write down everything they find important and try to distill the core components in order to understand. Such a learning process is also at the heart of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) as the systematic study of teaching and learning (Dewar et al. 2018, Boyer 1990). It is here that an adequate knowledge framework is needed, which I provide in form of overview lectures and carefully selected literature in my course AST5770. A teacher must ensure that students have acquired basic knowledge of sufficient quality before moving to step 2, namely explaining/teaching the newly acquired knowledge to others. This step is crucial as it requires to reflect how to best explain the topic to somebody else depending on the background knowledge of that person (cf. social constructivism, Vygotsky 1978). This teaching step can and should take place in different forms like, for instance, (student) peer learning groups, discussions as part of a course with other students, teachers and assistants but also by writing a consistent and comprehensive text that summarises the content gathered in step 1 (as done for AST5770). The essential result of step 2 is the identification of gaps in the own understanding. This process can be substantially improved by feedback from the receiving audience in the form of, e.g., questions during a discussion and also written or oral feedback on a text composed by a student. I encourage students and post-docs to give presentations whenever possible and also to make it a good habit to consistently write down results and learned content in their own words. In lectures, I ask the students to discuss a given question in small groups for a short time, which makes the students reflect more and ask relevant questions afterwards. The teacher must ensure the quality of this process in order to avoid that incomplete or wrong understanding is taught to others. The teacher must also create a safe environment where sharing is cherished and failure seen as an opportunity for improvement because some students might be hesitant out of fear to expose or embarrass themselves – very much to the detriment of their own learning process.
The third step is to fill the found knowledge gaps and shortcomings by studying and practising. In contrast to the first step, the learning can now occur focused on the found gaps with the explicit aim to fill the gaps and weaknesses. Finally, after substantially improving the level of understanding and mastery in the previous step, it is necessary to simplify the learned content. As Albert Einstein put it: “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” This step requires to declutter the learned content, identify the essentials and breaking them down into simple components and their fundamental connections, namely the cohesive unit. For instance, instead of using a technical term or field-specific jargon, a student must be able to express a concept in own simple words. This step might appear surprisingly difficult at times but it is the ultimate milestone for accomplishing true lasting understanding. At this stage, I frequently encourage students and offer feedback and assistance.
Skills versus content.
It is important to find a good balance between breadth and depth, starting with an initial framework that can be populated with more detailed knowledge with each learning cycle. Students should have a broad overview of the subject but complemented with a deep understanding of some central, carefully chosen topics that manage to highlight the context. This is also in line with UiO’s core values regarding high-quality professional breadth. I consider it important that the students not only gain theoretical knowledge, but also practical skills relevant to the field of study (e.g., data analysis and scientific writing as in the course AST5770). Truly essential, however, is to train the ability to self-dependently (autonomously) acquire and develop own knowledge and skills in order to enable students to develop beyond the curriculum.
Learning by doing.
Many topics in astrophysics are complex and often not very intuitive. It is only when a student has to work on a problem in detail that deeper understanding can be achieved. Therefore, I consider it of central importance that the students apply their theoretical knowledge in a practical way. Project work (i.e. a comprehensive task during a semester with a final report as implemented in my course AST5770, see Sect. 7.2), ideally in small groups, promotes creative thinking and can create a personal sense of ownership for the achieved results. Such challenge-based active learning has been proven to produce better learning outcome (see, e.g., O’Mahony et al 2012, Freeman et al. 2014).
The teacher as guide and role model.
In contrast to the traditional teacher-centred setup with the teacher as the all-knowing authority (cf. Kember 1997), a teacher should rather provide a suitable cognitive apprenticeship environment for the students (Collins & Kapur 2014), which includes application of the aforementioned scaffolding method for support. A good teacher manages to step aside and rather acts as an inspiring and motivating mentor and relatable role model who shares the enthusiasm and joy of the subject and guides the students on their individual learning paths. This changed role of the teacher is clearly preferable in view of the principles of SDT and constructivism, namely letting learning occur as a self-driven active process. In order to be perceived as a natural and authentic role model, a teacher needs to understand the own mindset and personality, but also how it is perceived by others. Hence, I often use examples of my personal development and conclusions regarding learning and problem-solving strategies.
Perspective – future development.
Implementing the principles outlined above for the design of my new course AST5770 already led to a high satisfaction among the students but I have more ideas for how to further develop the course. In particular, I want to optimise the course material and the connection between the different components such as lectures, practical exercises, and student-driven project work. My plan is to make even more use of collaborative and creative learning forms including discussions and small preparatory team projects for the group sessions. As social and cultural aspects influence the basis for the individual learning process and as also the scientific knowledge in the field evolves, I will continuously update the course for which a constructive dialogue with the students is important. Furthermore, I plan to further work with my colleagues on the interfaces between the different relevant courses in order to make the whole education from the first to the last semester more consistent and meaningful for the students but also to create connection points with neighbouring subjects.
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