Teaching

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

When I entered graduate school, I had lofty notions about what the teaching experience is like – I expected to stand at the front of a large lecture room imparting my wisdom unto a throng of excited undergraduates keen to pursue a career in academia, just like me. Not every student is like me, however – not all students go on to pursue careers in academia, fewer still pursue careers in academic psychology, and only a fraction go on to pursue graduate degrees related to the topic of a given course. Not all students have the same identities, backgrounds, and learning preferences (e.g., some students may struggle to engage with lectures). As a new graduate student, I had considered none of this, focusing instead on what I hoped to gain from the teaching experience. Now, having actually stood at the front of that large lecture room filled with all kinds of different people from different backgrounds with different learning preferences, I realize a student-centered approach is more effective. In other words, my teaching philosophy is this: it is important to meet students where they are and to understand where they are going. More specifically, one of my key responsibilities as a teacher is to facilitate students’ development of knowledge and transferable skills relevant to and important for three broad domains:  1) the subfield(s) of psychology or neuroscience comprising the focus on the course, 2) the field(s) of psychology and/or neuroscience more broadly, and 3) the world outside of psychology and neuroscience.

In all classes I teach, I strive for every student to leave with an improved understanding of the subfield(s) of psychology or neuroscience reviewed in that class. I use a suite of complementary approaches to this end. In my “The Origins of Morality”* course, for example, students are provided with a litany of open questions in the study of morality for which they will seek tentative answers through lectures, assigned readings, reflection essays, presentations of empirical papers, and class discussions. I introduce difficult concepts with empirical papers and book chapters and expound on them in lectures. I revisit these materials during class discussions and encourage students to ask questions, and I give students the opportunity to think back on what they learned with reflection essays that I evaluate and on which I provide feedback. Finally, in order to provide students with evidence of their learning, they spend part of their first class writing an essay that answers the following question: “What is morality?” Students revisit this question in their final essay and focus on how their understanding of morality has evolved over the course.

Importantly, however, teaching styles that are well suited to smaller seminar-style courses, such as the paper presentations in my “The Origins of Morality” course, may not be efficient in larger classrooms settings. In my experience, teaching well requires flexibility – an alternative to individual student presentations, for example, might be to break students into small groups to discuss papers and to float between groups to monitor and facilitate discussion. Although graded assessments are important markers of student performance, I also think teaching well means supplementing with ungraded activities that provide students with a safe space in which to share and critique each other’s ideas. For example, when co-teaching “Sociality and Communication: Evolutionary Perspectives,” I designed a seminar in which students broke into small groups to develop novel moral dilemmas pitting competing ethical concerns against one another. I also encouraged students to consider how responses to their dilemmas might vary as a function of cultural background. This ungraded, collaborative, hands-on activity encouraged students to reflect on their cultural values and facilitated later classroom discussion regarding the methodological limitations to current research in moral psychology and neuroscience. Activities such as this also allow me to identify promising, enthusiastic young scholars who might benefit from my mentorship and may be interested in working as research assistants in my laboratory studying how people make moral judgments in response to similarly complex scenarios.

I wish to share my passion for psychology and neuroscience with my students in hopes of motivating them to consider pursuing graduate degrees in these fields. In lectures, I work to contextualize theory and research within the field of psychology more broadly. In my “The Origins of Morality” course, for example, I review the influence of guilt on moral choices before discussing how guilt influences moral choices in patients with depression, in whom guilt may be excessive or overgeneralized, and in patients with psychopathy, in whom guilt may be impaired. My goal in doing this is to stimulate students who have clinical interests but may not realize the relevance of moral psychology and neuroscience to clinical psychology and neuropsychiatry. Importantly, although lectures can critically aid learning, I find they are most effective when coupled with activities aimed at students with various learning preferences. Group discussions represent one such activity, and acting as a facilitator for such discussions is one of my preferred approaches to teaching. I witnessed the value of this approach while serving as a teaching assistant to my mentor, Professor Jean Decety, on his “Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Morality” course. After a short lecture, class time was devoted to student presentations and discussion. Not only did students get firsthand experience synthesizing material to construct persuasive arguments they then communicated to the class, but Professor Decety and I were able to evaluate students’ understanding of the material, to guide classroom discussions, and to embed the research papers within a broader research context. Activities such as these help students to develop critical thinking and communication skills, to understand how to evaluate arguments and claims for their relative strengths and weaknesses, and to learn to synthesize information in order to construct cogent arguments. These skills are useful for all students, whether they plan to pursue a graduate degree in psychology or will do something else entirely.

In order to maximize the value of my classes for all students, not just those interested in pursuing graduate degrees in psychology, I ensure each course fosters the development of transferrable skills that will serve students well in many areas of their lives. Aside from developing critical thinking, evaluation, synthesis, and communication skills, I am for all students to expand their understanding of the world around them and learn to participate in it more effectively. My commitment to helping students develop transferable skills is highlighted by my work as a graduate teaching assistant on a “Psychology Work Placement” program. Students who completed this program drafted curricula vitae (CVs) and cover letters they then used to apply for summer internships both inside and outside of psychology. I reviewed students’ CVs and cover letters and provided extensive feedback and also researched the positions for which students were applying and conducted mock interviews based on this information. The majority of students who completed the program were successfully placed into the internships for which they applied.

Although my motivations for adopting a student-centered approach to teaching stem largely from a desire to help my students succeed, I also find teaching intrinsically rewarding. Teaching represents an opportunity that might not otherwise be available to me to deepen my understanding of core psychological concepts. This is particularly critical in view of the replication crisis currently facing psychology that has called into question the validity of concepts that the field has up to now taken for granted (e.g., the facial feedback hypothesis). Furthermore, lecturing and leading seminars has undoubtedly improved my ability to communicate clearly and concisely to both lay and expert audiences about complex academic concepts. Relatedly, assessments of background knowledge conducted at the start of semester and student evaluations conducted at mid- and end-of-semester have been an essential tool for improving the quality of my instruction, for fostering dialogue with students, and for improving my pedagogical skills more generally. Aside from this, there is little more satisfying than finding ways to engage otherwise unmotivated students, or helping motivated students master difficult materials. I have been most successful at this when teaching with motivation and enthusiasm. Indeed, this is reflected in the student evaluations I have received: “[Dr. Workman was] so enthusiastic! He got me excited about aspects of the course I didn’t really find that interesting,” and “[Dr. Workman] was enthusiastic and put ideas forward in a very interesting and engaging way. I felt that he was approachable if I needed to ask him questions and/or needed him to clarify something. He made the seminars fun.”

As a teacher, I feel one of my greatest responsibilities is to determine where students are and to help them get where they are going. I want all of my students to not only understand the course material, but also how this relates to psychology and neuroscience more broadly and how what they have learned can be applied to benefit society at large. I also want all of my students to further develop their analytical abilities and communication skills, among others. Whether they intend to become moral neuroscientists, to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology, or to leave academia entirely, I want my students to leave my class feeling more prepared to pursue their goals.

*Syllabus available upon request.