Teaching Statement


Present, Personal and Purposeful

Whenever I step into a classroom I aim to be present, personal, and purposeful. Those three words, the “3 P’s” describe my approach to teaching and learning and represent the tone I strive for in each of my teaching experiences. This approach applies in all courses, whether it is a more advanced laboratory based ecology course, a field-based course, one-on-one research mentoring, or an introductory biology course for majors and non-majors. This approach was informed by coursework resulting in the Certificate in College Teaching  and  was recently captured on video by the Duke University Graduate School as part of the recognition for the 2016 Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.[1]


I fundamentally believe in the “Pedagogy of Presence,”[2]. I expect my students to arrive prepared and actively participate throughout the class and I do my best to set this tone on day one. As the instructor, it means being aware of students’ body language and reacting and smiling throughout the class. It is about knowing and using the students’ names (even in larger classes), moving around during small group discussions, and asking questions to check in on their mastery of the content. It also manifests itself in learning about students’ interests and learning styles and adapting to fit students’ needs. Many of these behaviors are collectively called “instructor immediacy[3]” and have been shown to reduce student resistance to innovative or active learning techniques.

This pedagogy of presence also means teaching in the present. I encourage students to use devices in class to “Google” answers and put their learning into perspective. I have students use these devices to respond to Poll Everywhere questions so I can check in on mastery of content and get quick feedback. I also teach in the present by beginning class with social media, pop culture, and news updates related to course content. In a recent evaluation, one student wrote, “Love the news articles, social media stuff, etc., makes it fun and relevant.”


I had a conversation last year with a faculty member about how my students appreciate the personal connections I use in my classes.  These range from simply including stories, pictures, and videos that a colleague or I had taken, all the way up to Skype sessions with authors of scientific papers that are part of the curriculum. One student wrote, “It’s really cool interacting with the actual people responsible for the content we’re learning.” The faculty member agreed that personal connections were a great way to get the students interested in the material but asked if it was also helping them learn. In an evaluation, all of my students agreed that the personal connections to the course material helped spark their interest for the topic and 96% agreed that the personal connections also helped them understand course content.

I make my classes personal to help them put learning into action and to show the faces behind the science. My hope is that this might help them picture themselves in biology and ecology, or any STEM field and more generally help them as lifelong consumers of scientific information.  As a woman in STEM and a girls/women STEM advocate, this is an important part of my teaching. One student wrote, “You are fantastic! I love having all these female role models in the animal sciences!!” I try to provide a diverse set of examples and make my class as inclusive as possible by implementing techniques informed by research.[4] For example, one of these strategies is creating opportunities for students to become active experts and teach each other. This is important to gender inclusivity and retaining diversity in the STEM fields because it allows students to feel like they belong there.  I also try to personalize the course by utilizing a variety of different teaching techniques to make the class accessible to a diverse student body including different personalities (e.g. extroverts and introverts) and different types of learners (e.g. visual, aural, read/write and kinesthetic learners).  One student wrote that this “variety of teaching methodology” was the most valuable part of his or her learning experience in my class.


I try to be purposeful in all aspects of my teaching. I am committed to using high-tech, innovative, and active learning techniques in my classroom. For example, I use the jigsaw[5] as a way to expand on course readings, reduce social loafing, promote fairness in group discussions, increase accountability, and create active expert roles. In a lecture on penguins, I assigned students to one of four open access papers about emperor penguins published over about four years. First I gave students time to meet with the students that read the same article and then split them up so they joined a group with all articles represented. The students shared the major results of the paper, filled out a timeline of the research, and discussed the fate of the emperor penguin with climate change.  During activities such as these, I circulate between the different groups, answer questions, and add explanations when necessary. I also use other assessment techniques like memory matrices, a table that they should be able to fill in after the lecture, often taking the time in class to work through it together. I also provide students with other memory matrix examples to help them summarize knowledge and study for exams.

I also try to align the course learning objectives and the activities and techniques with the Framework for 21st Century Learning[6].  Since not all students in my class will ultimately pursue STEM fields, I focus on objectives that build confidence in STEM skills as lifelong consumers of science whether or not they choose a STEM related career. These objectives include the ability to communicate clearly, collaborate with others in diverse teams, and think critically and creatively. For example, I gave students a portion of the acoustics data I use in the marine mammal class and had students generate and answer a research question with those data.

I am also purposeful about getting feedback from my students throughout the course to make improvements and gauge responses to different techniques. It is important to give students a chance to reflect on their learning and take responsibility for it by thinking about what is working best and what I can do to improve their learning in the course.

I believe service learning can also enrich the student’s learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities. I would like to incorporate service-learning in my classes by having students work with local K-12 classrooms to develop materials and activities.

[1] https://gradschool.duke.edu/about/news/heather-heenehan-2016-dean-s-award-winner

[2] http://chronicle.com/article/Waiting-for-Us-to-Notice-Them/151255/

[3] http://www.lifescied.org/content/12/4/586.full.pdf+html

[4] http://www.asee.org/public/conferences/20/papers/7150/download

[5] http://www.readwritethink.org/professional-development/strategy-guides/using-jigsaw-cooperative-learning-30599.html

[6] http://www.p21.org/storage/documents/P21_Framework_Definitions.pdf


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