Rebooting my Teaching Philosophy

After teaching data science for several years, and through a global pandemic, I have decided to reboot my teaching philosophy. Here’s draft one… Comments/feedback welcome.

As a result of my experiences, I have come to believe the most important things that an educator can do to facilitate learning in their students is to provide motivation for what is being learned, provide scaffolding and guidance for the building of a respectful and supportive community for learners, as well as embody responsiveness in their teaching and classroom management. In prioritizing these three aspects of my teaching I hope that I inspire curiosity in the subjects I teach, create a safe and collaborative learning space, as well as reduce friction and barriers to learning.

I believe that motivation is important for successful learning, as it can energize, direct, and sustain learning. One way I motivate students in the classroom is by presenting real-world, problems that they will be able to tackle when they master the content and skills we are embarking upon learning. The problems I choose are modern, and relevant to the real world, which I often draw from the Master of Data Science Capstone projects. I also choose accessible problems, however, that do not require too much domain expertise so that it distracts from the data science aims or goals of solving the problem.

Another motivational tactic that I use are live demos of the data products they will build to solve the problems we are learning to solve - I show them the finished product (e.g., a beautiful data visualization, a data analysis pipeline, an R/Python package), illustrate how it is used, and then pass the product to the students and let them use it. I choose demos that are beautiful, or that clearly would take a long time to run, or that would be very brittle, if not programmatically automated. I also provide story-like narration with the demos, describing the need for the data product, the intended audience for the product and why creating the product in such a way as we did (usually using reproducible and transparent methods) has advantages over creating it in other ways. Once this motivation is in place, students are curious how to learn to solve the problems I present, or create the products I demonstrate, and their brains are primed for learning.

From my experience, building of a respectful and supportive community for learners is fundamental for leveling the playing field across a group of heterogeneous learners - which is essentially any group of learners. In a classroom where a respectful and supportive community is not built, only some learners who have certain privileges are likely to succeed. In such an unsafe environment, many learners lacking these certain privileges will become demotivated, frustrated, and feel alone. Their learning will suffer because of this, no matter how well the content is delivered by the teacher. Thus, for each group of learners I teach, I strive to provide scaffolding and guidance to enable the building of a respectful and supportive community for learners using several strategies.

One thing I do is to provide each group of learners a code of conduct that clearly outlines what behaviors are not acceptable in our learning spaces, and a process for reporting if a code of conduct violation is observed. Importantly, I provide contact details for a secondary reporting person, other than myself, in case I was the one to (unintentionally) violate the code of conduct. Another example of how I try to create a respectful and supportive community is through the use of group projects and assignments. I use randomly assigned groups to encourage learners to interact with others that they might not typically interact with (due to unconscious biases). To facilitate groups working well together, I have them draft a teamwork contract together in their first co-working session. Additionally, students are made aware they will receive a teamwork grade that is in part, informed by their teammates reports on how well they worked together. This social scaffolding around a typically challenging task (group work) helps facilitate the building of collegial and social relationships between learners, and strengthens the community beyond the work done in the group project.

I also believe that responsiveness in teaching is critical to supporting learning. Each group of learners is different - even two sections of the same course being taught at the same time. Furthermore, the world around us is constantly changing. I am writing the teaching statement in the midst of the global pandemic of 2020 - which was the greatest societal shift I have ever lived through. The amount of required flexibility and responsiveness to policies and procedures, technological tools, student capacity, and teacher capacity from March 2020 - onward, when our university shifted to teaching online in less than a week’s time was incredible. Embracing responsiveness and flexibility as a teacher in this situation clearly helped support my students through this extremely challenging time. And in reflection, I see that responsiveness in teaching has always been critically important, however I am only now growing enough as an educator to see this and place the right amount of emphasis on it.

Tiffany Timbers
Assistant Professor of Teaching in Statistics & Co-Director of the Master of Data Science program (Vancouver Option)

I am an Instructor in the Department of Statistics and an Option Co-Director for the Master of Data Science program at the of Univerity of British Columbia. In these roles I teach and develop curriculum around the the responsible application of Data Science to solve real-world problems.