Statement of Teaching Philosophy

Teaching becomes more and more difficult with the advance of information technology. With easy and permanent access to the internet, students have instantaneously all facts at their disposal. Today this is done through handheld devices, but we can easily imagine a future when devices are worn, or even implanted, and perhaps it will be considered a basic right of the individual to have access to the internet. In such a society, the student may well wonder why one should bother making an effort to remember a bunch of facts in order to pass an exam. Facts are accessible at any moment from the internet, so why do we need to put them in our brains? More and more we become aware of the important distinction between regurgitating facts, and having a fundamental understanding of a topic.

This difference between “information” and “understanding” has always been recognized by the best teachers. For example, in my own experience as an undergraduate, our professor of General Relativity permitted his students to bring into the examination room a crib sheet with anything at all written on it. In his opinion, a sheet of “facts” was not going to help a student pass the exam, and only a good understanding of the topic would result in a top grade. Some students went to the extreme of using photocopy reduction to fit their notes onto a single page, but as we were not permitted to bring a magnifying glass into the examination room, this technique had its limitations. Ultimately, the effort gone into the preparation of the crib sheet turned out to be an effective way to study for the exam. It required surveying all the material of the topic, deciding which elements were the most important, and summarizing each to use the minimum space possible. In particular, the effort to summarize a topic requires a fundamental understanding in order to recognize the main points.

My approach to teaching has always been to try and convey the fundamental principles of a topic. The student’s attention must be engaged, and this means that lectures should be entertaining, and interactive. The entertainment aspect can easily be overdone, and a lecture should not become a comic monologue. Similarly, the interactivity should be balanced. Some students are always ready to answer or ask questions, while others shun the spotlight, but public speaking is an essential requirement to a career in research, and this must also be mastered by students.

Ultimately, instructing students might not be the most difficult part of teaching. Students must be evaluated, and they have the justifiable concern about passing exams. Their eligibility for continuing higher education and acceptance to postgraduate studies depends largely on their grades. Unfortunately, especially for undergraduate teaching, it’s not possible to evaluate large numbers of students with one-on-one interviews. This would be the best way to evaluate a student’s real understanding of a topic. Until we can devise a better system for evaluating students, teachers and students are stuck with exams, and teachers have an obligation to prepare students for exams, but exams need not be the only means of evaluation, and some portion of the grade should be based on the student’s performance during the term in the classroom, for example, working out problems, answering and asking questions in class.

All these considerations need to be somehow balanced. I try to tailor my lectures to the class composition and size, and try to find the right level of entertainment/interaction/instruction. Conveying the basic principles is my highest goal, but I keep in mind the practical aspect of preparing a student for formal evaluation. Ultimately, the future careers of our students tell us how well we’ve done as a teacher, and while many teachers are involved in the education of an individual, I still feel a personal sense of accomplishment when I see the publications of a former undergraduate. I’m looking forward to watch the success of other students!

Steve Torchinsky, October 2016

last update 2017 May 22, 20:53 UTC by Steve Torchinsky. See changelog.