Teaching Philosophy

I embrace a pedagogy of student-centered and reflexive learning towards the development of students’ mastery in the areas of research methods and policy analysis, the two main areas I teach in. Drawing on the cognitive pedagogy[1]approach, I focus on facilitating a process of critical, contemplative, social justice-oriented learning that draws on students’ own professional and personal experiences. I am particularly interested in employing cooperative group approaches to learning both in and out of the classroom and use immediate feedback and metacognition-related activities to guide this process[2]. I aim at providing students with the knowledge and analytical problem-solving skills that allow them to become active, critical thinkers for success in the professional world.  I support students’ efforts to achieve these goals by assigning individual and group work that applies course materials to a real world problem that students are keen to engage with. I am committed to a teaching practice that includes the following tenets of cognitive pedagogy in each class: organized instruction, single single, coherent representations, the linkage of new material with what is already known, recognition of the limits of attention to a challenging topic, the provision of opportunities for verbal and visual encoding as well as a variety of in-class practice opportunities.

Over the past fourteen years, I have observed students to enter my courses with emotions that range from anxiety to disdain. Often, students refer to policy and research as areas of “mystery” about which they are not curious.  I have come to value the importance of a humorous, relational and down-to-earth teaching approach in such courses. While my students do not always share my humor, my assessment approaches suggest that they do respond to my efforts to support them in ‘demystifying’ what can seem like the ‘different languages’ of research and policy for themselves. Key in this effort is the facilitation of a constant and individualized ‘translation’ process that interprets these ‘languages’ into more accessible terms that students can embrace during skill development activities. As the semester unfolds, my assessments suggest that these efforts result in a ‘demystification’ of sorts.  At the conclusion of the semester, I gather qualitative data from students about their experience in the course as a closing exercise – and it often reflects a number of ways in which successful ‘demystification’ occurred.

Engagement:A guiding credo in the profession of social work is to “start where the client is” in order to begin the process of building rapport with clients. As a result, much of my work involves taking a supportive, “coaching” approach at the start of the semester as I seek to validate students’ feelings of anxiety or disdain for the topic while simultaneously supporting their movement in a more positive direction.  The use of immediate feedback is key to this process.  First, I assess students’ feelings about the course (as a rapport-building tool). Generally, students indicate that they are “anxious,” “fearful” or “upset” about the course. Second, I use these responses to frame my introductory lecture about the measurement of feelings in research.  For example, I might ask students “how do you measure anxiety?” and follow that up with a discussion of how researchers have operationalized this concept, noting positives and negatives to the approaches. Key to this process is the use of humor to quell anxiety and begin to help students to build their competencies. Third, I initiate a group conversation involving working with each student in front of the class to think about the ways in which research impacts their lives and how they conceptualize research. Fourth, I provide a detailed narrative of the syllabus and course requirements, focusing on how each topic or task relates to social work practice. Finally, during class, I spend time helping students to identify areas of passion in their internships, both positive (“what type of clients do you love working with?”) and negative (“what bothers you most in your work?”).  These areas of passion are translated into options for major course assignments.

Translation:Much of the pedagogical literature on teaching research and policy to social work students supports the use of applied projects that make these topics relevant to social work practice[3]. In policy courses, I have students examine the context of their internship in 4 parts. First, I have students identify the Federal, state, local and agency policies that govern their work. Students are often surprised to find that the ‘mysterious’ world of policy is actually related to their day-to-day work.  Second, I have students choose a policy from their first assignment in order to conduct an implementation analysis.  This assignment is designed to teach the lesson that the letter of the law is not always how the law is carried out in practice.  Third, students are asked to complete an assignment that analyzes the impact of the policy on clients, inclusive of recommendations for policy change. Fourth, building on the third assignment, I am able to walk students through the many ways social workers can engage in policy advocacy for policy changes.  This culminates in a final project in which students engage in mock legislative testimony during an in-class exercise.  As part of this process, I encourage students to attend our professional organization’s legislative advocacy day at the State House, after teaching them how to prepare and present a five-minute advocacy speech in support of a particular legislative agenda item.

In research courses, I have students engage in the conduct of actual short-term projects (e.g. 30-minute ethnographic observations, assessments of screening tools used in agencies).  The use of such projects allows me to ‘prime the pump’ for discussions. At the end of the semester, my students generally comment that while “it was a pain” to conduct such projects each week, they felt that they had engaged with the material in a more in-depth manner, and that they achieved more mastery of the concepts taught. I also teach about data analysis through hands-on exercises related to social injustices, which I have published on[4]. Semester-long research projects (e.g. research proposal development and/or project implementation) are focused on students’ experiences with clients in their internships. These assignments are key to the process of ‘translation’ and over time, they allow students to interpret the ‘language’ of research on their own terms. Early in my teaching career, my assessment efforts suggested that students tend to do better on these larger tasks if they are not functioning on their own. In summary, my role as a teacher is that of a translator and ‘de-mystifier.’  I have found teaching to be very rewarding— my enthusiasm for teaching (and for continually improving my teaching) is reflected in the student evaluations I have received over the years.

[1]Yilmaz, K. (2011). The cognitive perspective on learning: Its theoretical underpinnings and implications for classroom practices. The Clearing House.  84:2014-212.

[2]Garrett, K. (1998) Cooperative learning in social work research courses: Helping students help one another. Journal of Social Work Education, 34(2).

[3]Sells, S. & Smith, T. (1997) Teaching ethnographic research methods in social work: A model course. Journal of Social Work Education, 33(1).

[4]Slayter, E.  (2017). By Any Means Necessary: Infusing Social Injustice Content Into Statistics Courses.  Journal of Social Work Education. 53(2), 1-8. See Appendix A.