Esteban Fernandez-Juricic Lab

at Purdue University





Teaching philosophy


I really like teaching, because it gives me the opportunity to help students understand various exciting ecological concepts and motivate them to think. My teaching goal is to promote critical thinking with a sound content knowledge. I adhere to the following definition of critical thinking: the ability to analyze carefully and logically information and ideas from multiple perspectives. Approaching a problem from different points of view helps students bolster their creativity and problem-solving skills, which become very useful in any area of biology. However, thinking critically is not enough. Students should also develop writing and oral communication skills, which will increase their ability to communicate at different levels, thereby making ideas more accessible to others.

When students become deeply involved in developing these skills, they learn more on a subject because they need to understand thoroughly a topic before challenging it or explaining it to others. In the end, two goals can be achieved simultaneously: comprehensive knowledge and the ability to improve that knowledge.

Critical thinking is difficult to develop if content is boring. Thus, I spend as much time as possible selecting contents, planning classes (usually 70% traditional lecturing, 30% active learning activities), and figuring out problems and questions. I first provide students with updated knowledge and a profound understanding of the scientific method, presenting the big picture and then addressing controversial issues. Then, with proper guidance, I let them arrive at their own conclusions with constructive criticism. As a result, problems are solved both creatively and rigorously. Presenting novel ideas or current debates is more appealing because they are more subject to inquiry and because students are more likely to witness developments in these topics in the coming years. This approach heightens their curiosity and encourages critical analysis.

Since students have different learning strategies, I employ several procedures besides traditional lecturing to accomplish my teaching goals, such as, deeper questioning, challenging assumptions, finding new strategies to solve problems, recognizing circular reasoning, answering thought-provoking questions, etc. I make use of different teaching resources, namely Power Point presentations, group projects, computer simulations, Internet, student debates, classroom presentations, and field observations when feasible. I usually set up websites for each of my courses with information about course requirements, objectives, assignments, and tips to complete them successfully.

In some courses, I ask students to develop short-term novel research projects to integrate theoretical and empirical knowledge. Research projects are approached through a guided inquiry process, which is similar to the steps involved in the scientific method (making observations, posing questions, examining the literature, planning research, using different tools to gather, analyze and interpret data, discussing the results, proposing answers and explanations, and communicating the results), but requires active supervision of the instructor. I allow students to come up with their own research ideas or in some cases I propose research questions. These studies may be field or lab based. However, I particularly like field projects, as they increase students’ appreciation of local biodiversity.

Novel short-term research projects challenge students, because they cannot find the answers to the research questions in the literature. This engages them actively in the guided inquiry process. I have noticed that these projects increase students’ self-esteem, since they eventually feel that they have been able to generate new knowledge and reach independent conclusions that are indeed valuable to science. Some of these in-class projects have led to posters in scientific meetings and even to papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

I am respectful of my students’ opinions, which is essential to promoting self-confidence and intellectual development. I value their suggestions regarding the classes, since I truly believe their comments improve my ability to serve their education. I usually get feedback from them in the middle of the semester through informal surveys, which I carefully analyze to make the necessary adjustments and improve my teaching performance.

For my students to pass my courses, they have to: (a) attain “fluency” in the course topic, which means that they have to explain key concepts in different ways (using words, graphs, and math); (b) generalize knowledge, which means that they have to connect concepts from different lectures and labs and seek synthesis (with my guidance); and (c) demonstrate the use of critical thinking skills.

Three evaluation methodologies let me assess students’ accomplishments. First, I follow students during classroom activities to ascertain their overall level of preparedness and involvement in a subject. Each group is different; thus, I put emphasis on adjusting my teaching approach so that the group as a whole has common expectations. Second, I use regular standardized evaluation forms to get an idea of the knowledge of basic topics. Third, final exams generally consist of papers that are the result of research conducted during the course or open-book, take-home problems. In both cases, students have to demonstrate integration of knowledge.

This teaching approach allows students to acquire life-long skills and explore the process of reasoning by themselves. Fulfilling these goals soothes the transition between the student and the professional, and increases the chances of success in multi-cultural professional environments.





Last update October 30, 2013