Media, Technology, and Education
Design ForwardInstructional DesignTeaching

Teaching Philosophies

In June, a group of Plymouth State University faculty members, including me, participated in “a month-long emergent exploration about the intentional design of teaching and learning,” called Design Forward. At our last meeting, we talked about statements of teaching philosophies and who they’re for. And then we decided that it would be interesting to post the statements that we are required to write and invite annotations as a way of having conversations about teaching. So that’s what I’m doing in this post. I will say that this activity is making me feel quite vulnerable but also curious about what others might think about what I’ve written at various times in my career.

There are specific times when we are asked to write and share our philosophies of teaching. I’m going to share three of those moments, in reverse chronological order. I wrote the first one just a couple of years ago when I was nominated for an award. The second is the statement that was in my portfolio for promotion to full professor. And the final one is the statement that I submitted when I applied for tenure and promotion to associate professor. My thoughts about teaching have changed a lot in the nearly 20 years that these statements span. But I can see the glimmers of my current thoughts about teaching in the earliest statement that I’m sharing here.

One thing that we talked about in Design Forward is what a statement written for students would look like. The statements here were all written for peers and people higher in the academic hierarchy. I’ve been thinking a lot about how the statemetn might change if/when I write one for students. Doing so is on my task list for my Fall syllabi.

I hope this post inspires conversation about our teaching philosophies.

Here’s my most recent statement:

My teaching philosophy is characterized by my belief that education should be truly learner-driven, which means moving the focus of the class from me to the students, giving them as much power I can. To do this, students must have as much control as possible in the classroom and they must do (at least some) work that matters. My ultimate goal is to get students to take ownership over their educational journey.

I believe that a teacher’s primary role is to be a designer of learning experiences focused on what we know about motivation. Much of what I know about motivation comes from my scholarly work in game studies where questions of what motivates a player to keep playing a game is a significant area of inquiry. I think there are two related ideas from studies of player motivation that we can apply to any classroom experience for our students: control and work that matters.

Player motivation studies teach us that players need to feel that they have some sense of control over the outcome of the game in order to be motivated to continue to play. A sense of control comes when the player is presented with meaningful decisions, decisions that result in significant outcomes, in order to remain engaged with the game. For example, in my Creating Games class, no particular activity for earning points is required. Instead, students are presented with an array of activity options, each with a certain number of points assigned to it. Students decide which activities they want to engage in in order to reach their desired goal of a particular letter grade. This kind of decision-making helps students to determine their own set of short- and long-term goals, giving them a sense of control which motivates them to learn. A nice added benefit to this approach is that if a student does not perform well on a chosen activity, they can choose another activity to earn additional points. This means that the students who would most benefit from additional engagement with the course material are exactly the students who engage in additional activities.

The second idea from player motivation studies that I use is the idea of engaging in work that matters. Players are motivated to keep playing a game when the game activities they are undertaking help them achieve their short- or long-term goals. If the activities appear unrelated to their goals, the players will likely not engage in those activities at all or engage in them half-heartedly. This observation about player motivation has led me to rethink every class I teach so that I try to avoid assignments that only I will see (which are called “throw-away” assignments). Instead, I try to design learning experiences that allow students to do work that contributes in some way to the world. For example, in the past, students in my Intro to Media and Cultural Studies class typically wrote papers about media studies, submitted them to Moodle where I graded them, and then that work disappeared. With this in mind, when I last taught Intro to Media and Cultural Studies , I asked the students to work on material that would help students in future sections of the class. The students were particularly interested in the cost of the textbook we were using and so we decided that they would work on chapters for an open educational resource (OER) about media studies instead of writing traditional papers. They had the choice as to whether the final products would or should be included in the OER. The level of engagement in this work was high and students made comments on my course evaluations like: “The best part about working on the OER besides the fact that we will become published authors and have worked on something really rewarding, was that I really understood everything we read. There was no way we could write a section on something we didn’t understand. This is probably one of the only classes where I understood everything and everything made sense.” Doing work that matters motivates students and that motivation helps them to understand the content better.

Ultimately, my goal in teaching is to provide a set of experiences for students that will increase the likelihood that they will become engaged with the course material and take ownership of their own learning.

Here’s the statement from when I was applying for promotion to full professor.

I have recently moved from the Computer Science Department to the Communication and Media Studies Department where I teach classes related to the study and production of digital media.  My background in computer science serves me well in the teaching of digital media.  For many years, I have been interested in how we might improve the quality of technology education.  The move to Communication and Media Studies has allowed me to think about technology education in new and surprising ways and I believe this has been positive for me, my students and my new department.  Since the move, I have found new ways to teach some of the content from my Computer Science courses.

My main area of focus in teaching since my move has been game studies.  I believe one of my strengths has been the creativity with which I have approached the teaching of games studies.  The two games studies classes that I have regularly taught since the move are Creating Games and Introduction to Game Design and Development.  The two courses are very different from each other and serve quite different purposes although at their hearts, they are both introductory game studies courses that serve both the department and the university well.

Creating Games is a general education course that fulfills the Creative Thought Direction.  Although I consider this course to be a digital media course, it is not a course about developing video games.  We do not design and develop computer games.  One of the main skills a game designer needs is the ability to pull a game system apart to examine the individual components and determine how the system works.  In fact, this skill is valuable for anyone who wants to develop content using technology.    In creating the course, I had to examine many of my own assumptions about teaching students about systems.  For example, I had been worried about teaching game design and development as a general education course because of the steep learning curve for the technology skills required for computer-based games. The issues are two-fold.  First, creating computer games requires programming which requires a significant understanding of some fairly significant mathematical concepts.   To teach programming concepts, mathematical background and game studies concepts in a 1000-level general education course is probably impossible.  Second, even if I was able to teach all of these concepts in one course, the technology required to teach the programming is limited.  That is, our department has a single computer lab with 20 computers.  The lab is nearly fully subscribed already with other digital media classes.  In Creating Games, students focus on the analysis and development of non-computer-based games (board games, card games, and so on).  I made this choice because the principles underlying the creation of good games are the same whether those games are computer-based or not and so students are able to learn about game systems without the technological and mathematical barriers.

Developing the Creating Games course took me out of my comfort zone in many other ways as well.  Probably the biggest challenge for me in teaching the course is the fact that it is a Creative Thought course.  Thinking about creativity and systems and technology has been a new experience, one that led me to participate in the National Science Foundation’s first ever funding process for the CreativeIT program which I will discuss more in my research statement.

Although students sometimes complain about how hard they work in Creating Games, they are almost all successful and are very proud of their resulting games  I typically teach two (or even three) sections of Creating Games per semester and I have a waiting list of students trying to get into the course each time I teach it.  I think this course fulfills the general education goal of providing students with classes that teach them important skills in the context of topics that they can relate to their everyday lives.

Introduction to Game Design and Development is designed for Communication and Media Studies majors and Digital Media and Game Design minors.  In this class, students learn to design and develop computer games using a tool called Game Maker.  Learning to create computer games requires algorithmic thinking.  When I taught Computer Science and Information Technology majors, I could assume they had a strong foundation in algorithmic thinking from their computer science and math classes.  There is no math or computer science prerequisite for Introduction to Game Design and Development and so the first time I taught the class, I thought seriously about the kinds of information the students had to know in order to succeed in the class.  I was able to provide all of this information (including some basic mathematics) but I significantly underestimated the amount of time it would take for the students to really learn this material.  As a result, the class requirements were far too ambitious for the students.  The students and I engaged in many long conversations about how to rectify the situation in a way that held them to reasonable standards.  Using critical thinking and questioning, we were able to come up with a solution to the situation together.  Although I felt badly that some students experienced significant stress during this class, I think it was valuable for them to see me struggling with a serious question of fairness and equity.  In the end, we were all satisfied with the results and I was able to use my conversations with the students to revise the class for the next offering which went smoothly.

I think students are most likely to develop critical thinking skills in an environment in which they are engaging in activities rather than simply listening to someone discuss a particular topic.  Although I believe that lecturing is sometimes necessary in the classroom, I lecture sparingly.  For example, in Introduction to Game Design and Development, students are required to complete 8 game assignments.  I give them a lot of time in class to work on each assignment but there are certain concepts described in the assignment instructions that need special highlighting and explanation.  The strategy I use for the assignments is to give the students time in class to work on the assignment.  Once they have gotten a sense of what the assignment is about, I spend about 20-30 minutes discussing the new concepts they need in order to really understand how to complete the assignment and then I give them more time in class to complete the assignment.  This strategy seems to work well because by the time I lecture about the necessary concepts, students understand why they need to understand those concepts.  The application of the concepts is immediate and reinforces their understanding.  Since Introduction to Game Design and Development is listed in the group of classes for our majors that provide students with the opportunity to produce media, I think this class meets one of the needs of our department.

As my regular teaching of Creating Games shows, I have been a strong supporter of PSU’s general education program since the new curriculum was implemented.  Another way that I have shown that support is by regularly teaching a section of First Year Seminar.  For the past several offerings of the course, my question has been: Why do people believe weird things?  In answering this question, we must first address the question of What makes a belief weird?  Using topics such as Bigfoot, alien autopsies, and so on, students learn to think critically about anecdotal evidence, eyewitness evidence, the nature of memory and so on.  The topic is a popular one, with my section regularly being one of the first to fill.  I am currently teaching the course and I am impressed by the willingness of my students to engage in deep discussions about metaphysical topics concerning the nature of reality and how the brain shapes our perceptions.  This is my favorite class to teach.

Recently, I have been expanding my horizons within the field of Communication and Media Studies by teaching Introduction to Communication.  I taught the class for the first time in Spring 2008 and I am currently teaching a section.  The class is required for all Communication and Media Studies majors and many Business majors also take it.  I found this class challenging to teach.  The textbook (like all of the introductory communication textbooks that I have looked at) for the course contains a lot of material, most of which is covered very superficially.  Since the students have spent their lives communicating, they think they already know everything in the textbook. This combination of superficial coverage in the textbook and perception that the topic is easy (maybe even stupid) provides an excellent breeding ground for lack of motivation.  I do a number of things in the course to help motivate the students.  First, I do not lecture in the course.  Instead, I assume that students will read the textbook and provide in-class activities that allow them to apply the content.  The activities give the students opportunity to determine for themselves whether they have understood the material.  Second, since I understand that students do not always read the textbook, I encourage them to do so by giving in-class quizzes on the readings.  Third, I assign a semester-long research project in which students are required to investigate one communication theory (which they get to choose) in depth.  I break the research project in a number of smaller steps (thesis statement development, bibliography development, writing of a literature review and so on) to prevent students from waiting until the end of the semester to work on the project.  This regular work on a topic of their choice helps to keep them motivated to learn some of the other material in the class because I try to apply the course material to their own research.  Finally, I use peer-review to help motivate the students.  At regular intervals, each student has his or her work reviewed by one or more of the other students in the class.  For example, the students review each others’ research paper outlines and provide feedback about whether the argument presented in the outline is clear or not.  When their peers are going to see their work, students seem to take it more seriously than if I am the only reader of the work.  My student evaluations indicate that I was successful in trying to make the course content interesting and relevant while also maintaining high standards so that students learn what they need to know in order to succeed in subsequent courses in the major.

I have further agreed to expand what I teach in the Communication and Media Studies department.  I have two new classes in the Spring 2009 semester.  I will be teaching Introduction to Cultural and Media Studies, another course required of all Communication and Media Studies majors, and Advanced Game Design and Development, an elective for our majors. In addition, I am coordinating an offering of Women and Their Environments, an Integration Connection course that is taught by six faculty members, each of whom receive one half credit overload.  I have taught this class twice before and find it to be extremely rewarding.  I look forward to continuing to challenge myself in developing and teaching new courses at Plymouth State University.

And finally, here’s the statement that I submitted in my application for tenure and promotion to associate professor. I have removed several paragraphs that itemized the courses that I had taught up to that point.

The main goal of our curriculum is to teach our students to think like computer scientists.  A student graduating with a degree in Information Technology or Applied Computer Science must be able to understand a problem stated in a non-technical manner, translate the problem into a technical realm, determine a method for solving the problem, implement the solution (probably as a series of solutions to smaller problems), integrate the solutions to the smaller problems so that the larger problem has been solved, and then explain to a non-technical user how to use the solution.  The set of skills required for these tasks is large and difficult to master.  The courses that I teach are focused on this set of skills.  Programming in Java and Client/Server Programming provide the foundation on which students build these problem-solving skills.  Of course, students will also learn the Java programming language, but this language is simply a tool for implementing solutions to problems.  Therefore, a critical piece of every computer science student’s education begins in these two classes.

I have been very excited about the new Computer Security class.   I see that class as an indication of the direction that our Information Technology major is heading.  We have been looking for ways to give Information Technology students the conceptual knowledge and skills necessary to deal with the problems facing today’s society.  Computer security is one of the hottest, most difficult topics graduating students are likely to face.  I think we’d be doing our students a disservice if we do not prepare them to tackle security issues head-on.

My main area of interest is the impact of technology on society.  This interest has informed all aspects of my academic career.  Each class that I teach sheds new light on this interest and the things I’ve learned about this topic from other classes that I’ve taught helps me whenever I teach a new class.  Although my research area in graduate school was artificial intelligence (machine learning, in particular), I have not taught in this area at Plymouth State.  My interest in the impact of technology on society has been the link between my graduate research and the courses that I’ve taught here.

I think my interest in technology’s impact on society is one of my strengths as a teacher.  This interest forces me to keep up with technological developments so that I am constantly learning new things myself.  My own continued learning reminds me of how intimidating it can be to show others that I don’t know something.  I try to let my students know that I don’t know everything and that I am constantly learning new things, sometimes even from them.  My attempts to constantly remind myself what it feels like to not know something help me to be open to student questions.  As evidenced in the comments on my student evaluations, most students feel very comfortable asking questions of me and I feel that quality in my teaching is the thing that makes me an effective teacher.

In my classes, I provide a wide variety of activities through which students are able to learn course material and demonstrate that learning.  For example, I typically give a lot of quizzes.  In the early stages of their college careers, students should begin to understand the kinds of habits that are required to be a successful student.  At any point in their careers, frequent quizzes provide incentive for students to keep up with the course material.  I typically drop one or two quiz grades from the semester grade calculation.  By dropping a grade or two, students are able to miss a class or come to class unprepared once in a while without being horribly penalized for it.  These policies represent my attempt to provide an encouraging, flexible learning environment in which I recognize that students have lives outside of the classroom while also letting them know that taking a class requires work and discipline from them.

In my lower level classes (Programming in Java, in particular), I sometimes sense that many students have struggled with a particular quiz.  When I see that situation, I often allow students to take the quiz a second time, immediately after finishing the first quiz.  The second time, however, the students will take the quiz in small groups that I have formed.  I try to create groups in which at least one student has not struggled with the quiz.  The rule in the group quiz is that everyone must understand the answers before handing it in.  While students are discussing the answers, I walk around the classroom to ensure that the exercise is proceeding as expected.  Students who struggled with the quiz benefit from having one of their peers explain the material to them.  Students who did not struggle with the quiz benefit from having to explain the material.  Sometimes, a student who struggled with the quiz can explain something to the student who didn’t struggle.   I think those moments are the most beneficial of all.  During the first semesters that I used this exercise, one of the criticisms on my student evaluations was that these group exercises sometimes end without finality.  With this criticism in mind, I have incorporated a wrap-up discussion with the entire class to these exercises and I have had no further complaints.  In fact, a glance at the comments from the CS237 evaluations shows that students feel they are learning a tremendous amount of very challenging material.

I believe my evaluations show that students view me as a competent, caring instructor who has their best interests in mind.  I am constantly trying to improve my teaching skills, looking for ways to better address the needs of my students as individual learners.

Image Credit: Reflection taken by me on July 6, 2021 in Campton, NH

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

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