Teaching Philosophy: Jeffrey A. Reimer


“A teacher hasn’t taught until a student has learned,” educator Henrietta Mears once said.  This is the essence of my teaching philosophy. I envision my classroom as a laboratory where instructors and students conduct experiments in learning. It is my special role to craft this laboratory as a space that not only instructs all my students in chemical engineering, but also grants them the chance to explore their unique relationship to the world in which they will live and conduct their profession. I design these learning experiments for my “classroom laboratory” with two fundamental principles in mind. First, all students do not learn in the same way and that it is possible to enumerate and assess many different styles of learning. Second, a student's approach to learning can be both holistic and deep as opposed to atomistic and surface.  When students learn holistically, they integrate information in relation to the whole and can apply it to new problems and situations, whereas students who approach learning atomistically reduce information without regard to the whole.  I design and execute my courses to accommodate varying learning styles and emphasize integration over simple reduction.  

My awareness of deep learning increased greatly during my years of service with the Graduate Division's GSI Teaching and Resource Center.  For example, I participated with the Center in hosting many faculty seminars on Teaching with GSIs, where I became familiar with some of the modern literature on deep learning, such as the text by Paul Ramsden* and the more popular (and controversial) books by Howard Gardner.  In the spring of 1995 I took the content of the faculty seminars and used them to develop our own departmental 300-level course on teaching engineering. This course is well received by our graduate students, both those new to the GSI experience and seasoned teaching veterans.  With the exception of one year, it has been required of all our first-time GSIs.

Properly crafted outcomes provide a way to measure, and thus foster, deep learning. While letter grades are usually regarded as the supreme metric for student learning, I believe that it is possible to devise tasks within courses to have more timely measures of student learning.  For example, I call on students by name at the beginning of each lecture and ask them to stand up and review, in their own words, what they found important from the previous lecture. In this way I am conducting an experiment in reflective learning, helping the students organize information in such a way as to put it in perspective. Their answers tell me a great deal about the preeminence of surface learning in their current and previous studies. I also call on students randomly during the class, asking about definitions, calling for specific numerical calculations or estimates, and inquiring about extensions or analogies of concepts. In some cases, posing the question to the whole class and giving them time to "buzz" with neighbors precedes calling on a specific student.  Student responses to these questions reflect the whole spectrum of learners--visual learners who think of graphs and/or pictures, global learners who see analogies, etc. Their answers also reflect how their learning exceeds the repetition of examples in their text or from my lecture, i.e. deep, as opposed to surface, learning.

Deep learning can also be encouraged by design of course work that goes beyond the written examination. I have implemented, for example, “capstone” tasks in every course that I teach. These tasks call for student integration of knowledge and presentation of original thinking. In recent semesters capstone projects have included design projects, design games, student portfolios, and term papers (yes, even in a technical course!).  In my Applied Spectroscopy course I ask the students to prepare a portfolio that describes a research endeavor, identifies key technical issues within this endeavor, and integrates the course material with proposed solutions to these issues. Finally, I encourage critical reflection as a motif for deep learning by showing students that I do the same. In Chemical Engineering Separations I began a course home page that included a written summary of my previous lecture, including critical reflection.  The students were able to see how I used reflection to better both my teaching of materials and my own understanding of it.

My awareness of the need to appeal to a variety of learning styles began while reflecting on the performance of students in Chemical Engineering 140, our introductory course in chemical engineering.  ChE 140 had been taught traditionally as a course in stoichiometry and analysis of chemical process flowsheets; it emphasized rote analytical calculations associated with the production of commodity chemicals.  In my first decade of teaching, I became concerned that this approach did not appeal to a broad spectrum of students.  Student success rates were shockingly low--it was not unusual for 25 to 30% of the students who took this introductory course to eventually drop the major. At that time these numbers were regarded as a positive measure of the chemical engineering program; that is was a “tough” major that weeded out the weaker students.  My maturation as a teacher, and broader awareness through readings of Ramsden and others, forced me to rethink these values, and surmise that the singular appeal to the analytical thinker was part of the problem. I became convinced that student retention and success depended upon a complete redesign of the course.  With my friend and colleague Mike Duncan of Cornell University, I undertook the task of redesigning the course, including the development of a new textbook** that institutes sweeping changes. This text presents a broad overview of all the core subjects and tools that encompass the entire chemical engineering discipline, with particular emphasis on emerging and non-traditional products and processes. We crafted the book to stimulate visual (graphical) learners by providing graphical tools for analysis of a variety of physical phenomena, from meteor-induced global winters to instability in chemical reactors. Most importantly, the text emphasizes engineering design, an aspect of introductory courses that had previously been abandoned in favor of symbolic and analytical (mathematical) analysis. Thus, this text represented the beginnings of a new pedagogical approach and a broader appeal to learning styles. Our book is now in its second printing, has been translated into Chinese, Spanish and Korean, and is used by about 10% of the chemical engineering students worldwide. Interestingly enough, it seems far more popular offshore that in the United States. 

With a new textbook in hand, it was then up to me to execute my course so as to evince deep learning. I believe that good teachers are passionate about their subject. They demonstrate this passion by recognizing analogies between their students' everyday experiences and the chemical engineering principles they learn. Passionate teachers remind their students that understanding the subject matter is but one part of a much bigger picture…the privilege of being part of a professional community that can positively impact the human condition. This is why I choose topics from the popular media each semester to incorporate into my class: chemical accidents, hazardous spills, and nuclear winter models are all examples of how I attempt to ignite passion in my students by demonstrating the relevance of what they are learning.

Multiple learning styles can be accommodated in the classroom by using the class as a place of adventure. Adventure in this context means that teacher and student alike recognize that the outcome of a learning experiment is uncertain. What if you came to class each day with the expectation that your input, and that of other students, would change the way the class hour precedes? And what if there was no way of predicting ahead of time exactly what would happen? To foster this spirit of adventure, I attempt to build conversations with and between students.   These conversations encompass design problems, ethical questions, and short calculations in order to wrest ideas from the students.  These ideas, in turn, channel the lecture hour towards new, unplanned and unrehearsed areas. For example, a past lecture on a chemical accident in India provoked a lengthy and spontaneous in-class dialog on the globalization of hazardous technologies. I rely on my knowledge of the subject matter and my training and skills as a classroom teacher to accommodate and move student learning along, in spite of the fact that I am not always sure how the students will respond to classroom dialogs. The classroom experience becomes as much an adventure (and challenge) for me as it is for my students.

Effective teachers are usually remembered for the relationship they build with the student. Like other relationships, the teacher-student relationship does not just happen, but takes dedicated, focused work. I use student photographs to learn their names, and I call on students by name both in and out of class. I use electronic mail to contact students who have problems or questions, and I invite them to my office for one-on-one meetings. When I see excellent student work, I praise the student(s) by acknowledgement of exactly what was excellent, making sure I use the student’s name in public, and with eye contact. I believe that quality relationships are based on trustworthiness.   This means that the teacher must not only know her students by name, but also be aware of their students' background, and be sensitive to student fears. Trusting relationships do not exploit, demean, belittle, or shame. Trustworthiness perseveres in the face of immaturity, ignorance, and other human shortcomings in order to ensure student success.  I eschew sarcasm and cynicism, confident in my belief that every student in my classroom is capable of success. Moreover, by appreciating their differences, I am better able to demonstrate to my students that differences play a considerable role in the development of new knowledge.

It is often said that a “fair” instructor is one that insures all teaching resources are distributed equally to each student. But what if the teaching resources were distributed so that all students get the resources they need to succeed? According to my paradigm of inclusivity, every student is viewed as potentially successful, if given the proper resources. One example of inclusivity in action is my office hours. I cater to those that are needy, not those that are advanced, by making more of my time available to them. This is not always popular, as undergraduates that have been GPA/SAT “superstars” often feel that they are entitled to special attention from the professor in the office hour. In my “upside down” world, however, I seek to help those who can benefit the most.

Mears' observation that “a teacher hasn’t taught until a student has learned” reduces the nature of education to its simplest form.  Yet she subtly alludes to the great challenge that lies imbedded in this "simplicity".  Indeed, her words are a call to action-- a call that I strive to answer each time I stand in front of my students, a call that I fully embrace even as I struggle every day to meet the challenge.  


*See Paul Ramsden, Learning to Teach in Higher Education, Routledge, London 1992

**Chemical Engineering Design and Analysis Cambridge University Press 1999