Revising—and Reframing—Your Teaching Philosophy

Article by Tara DaPra, Assistant Teaching Professor & 2022-23 Instructional Development Consultant

Why should you write a teaching philosophy? Chances are, you already have, even if it was way back in graduate school or when you applied for the job you now hold. But if you are going up for promotion, as many of us in the teaching professor category may now do, or if—happy days—someone nominates you for a teaching award, your teaching philosophy may need updating. You may be dreading this. You may continually move it to the end of a long list of more pressing tasks. You may ask yourself if anyone will really read this. Leonard Cassuto says what many of us are thinking when he writes, “Teaching philosophies account for some of the most tiresome reading that academe has to offer (and that’s saying something).” But must they be? Rather than a chore or a high-stakes assessment, why not re-frame what a teaching philosophy can—or perhaps should—be? What if you instead treated your teaching philosophy as a celebration of your time in the classroom and a vision for the future?

In an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, James Lang argues that teaching philosophies “fall under the genre of creative nonfiction,” a genre of writing that privileges techniques like voice, narrative arc, and compelling details while insisting on a non-negotiable commitment to the truth. Lang warns writers of teaching philosophies not to fall into the default mode we so often see in student writing—telling rather than showing. So instead of regurgitating your course learning objectives or points from your CV, Lang advises that we zoom in and describe a day when those objectives were lived in a particularly meaningful way. He writes, “Readers remember and respond to your stories, not your explanations.”

Another hallmark of creative nonfiction is to distinguish between what the writer knows and does not know—and to lean in to the latter. In her essay “Memory and Imagination,” Patricia Hampl writes, “It still comes as a shock to realize that I don’t write about what I know: I write in order to find out what I know.” Teaching philosophies are, essentially, a personal essay, a space for writers to puzzle over a complicated question and attempt to answer it from many angles. The word essay itself means “trial.” What, then, is the question you most want to discover, as it relates to your teaching? What parts of that question have you answered and what parts remain a mystery?

Writing a teaching philosophy can help us to reflect upon and articulate our ideas about what makes for effective teaching. And doing this can help to ensure that what we do in our classes is consistent with those beliefs—but it can also acknowledge pieces of the teaching puzzle that we have yet to fit together. And so, while teaching philosophies should certainly highlight a teacher’s strengths and successes, good teachers might also acknowledge what they hope to learn next.

If you’d like to read more about writing effective and reflective teaching philosophies, CATL has gathered some resources.

Writing Course Objectives

Once a course has an essential statement, the instructor can start to give those big ideas a concrete, measurable shape. Objectives inject clarity into a course by putting the focus on what instructors want students to do or perform. Just delivering content is not enough; after all, how will instructors know that students really grasped the content?

One consistent element to almost all design models today is the centrality of learning objectives to activities, content, and assessment.

Measurability is a necessary attribute of a good objective. Without measurability, teachers cannot know the extent to which students have achieved the course objectives. For example, consider the following course objective: “Students will understand the causes of the American Civil War.” On an intuitive level, the intention of the objective seems clear. But, on closer inspection, what does “understand” mean? How will we know that students understand?

To gauge understanding, we will have to go a step further and ask students to do something. This will mean replacing the word “understand” with some actions that will help us measure student understanding. We could swap out understand with words such as: debate, analyze, describe, delineate, or narrate. While we cannot see inside the heads of students to know whether they understand, we can watch them debate, or assess their analysis, or parse their delineation.

One way to know whether or not your objectives are measurable is to ask yourself: can I devise an assessment to measure the degree to which students have mastered this objective?

Methods of writing objectives

ABCD method

One common method is the ABCD method for writing objectives.

  • A = Audience (Who will complete the objective? It is helpful to think about the characteristics of your students and their place in the curriculum, online students in a Freshman Experience course, for example.)
  • B = Behavior (What do you expect learners to do? For example: evaluate causes for the American Civil War.)
  • C = Condition (Under what conditions or constraints will learners perform the behavior? At the end of a unit, after practicing first, for example.)
  • D = Degree (What level equals mastery?)

Example objective: By the end of the semester (C), beginning History students (A) will be able to distinguish between primary and secondary sources (B) with close to 100% accuracy. (D)

Using Bloom’s Taxonomy (Taken from Arizona State)

When you begin creating a course, you want to design with the end in mind. The best way to approach this is to start by writing measurable, learning objectives. Effective learning objectives use action verbs to describe what you want your students to be able to do by the end of the course or unit. Aligning assessments with course expectations is much easier when you have written measurable objectives from the beginning.

  1. Identify the noun, or thing you want students to learn.
    • Example: seven steps of the research process
  2. Identify the level of knowledge you want. In Bloom’s Taxonomy (Links to an external site.), there are six levels of learning. It’s important to choose the appropriate level of learning, because this directly influences the type of assessment you choose to measure your students’ learning.
    • Example: to know the seven steps of the research process (comprehension level)
  3. Select a verb that is observable to describe the behavior at the appropriate level of learning.
    • Example: describe these steps
  4. Add additional criteria to indicate how or when the outcome will be observable to add context for the student.
    • Example: describe the seven steps of the research process when writing a paper.