Tobias Dienlin – Teaching Statement

Teaching Statement

Aims

One can sometimes hear that academic teaching has lost its original aim, which was to create a fundamental understanding of how the world works.1 It is argued that academic teaching has become too specific, too complex, overall too artificial, thereby impeding any real personal and practical insights. In other words, academic teaching does not cultivate something one could call “wisdom”.2 I agree. As a result, in my teaching I focus on theories and mechanisms of a more general nature, always hoping to create a deeper understanding of the bigger picture.

By applying theories of communication science and psychology we can investigate a large number of phenomena that are relevant both from a personal and from a practical perspective. For example, why do people use certain media (e.g., Theory of Planned Behavior)? How can media contribute to fulfilled lives (e.g., Self-Determination Theory)? Do fear appeals on cigarette packages reduce smoking (e.g., Protection Motivation Theory)? The primary aim of my teaching is to enable students to answer such questions by using their own words—and not because they can simply reproduce memorized knowledge, but because they have understood the underlying theoretical concepts.

Methods

Four aspects appear to be particularly important for achieving this aim: intrinsic motivation, a positive atmosphere, repetition, and interaction. Or, in the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Most importantly, I try to leverage the intrinsic motivation to learn something new. For example, instead of starting a course on quantitative statistics with the mathematical details of a t-test, I would rather have students brainstorm which scientific question they are curious to solve. For example, does drinking Red Bull improve cognitive performance?

Second, I aim to create a positive learning atmosphere. In my view, this is best realized by reinforcing positive behaviors and efforts, rather than by scolding failures. Learning can be fun, deepens social relationships, and often inspires to start something new.

Third, I believe that an understanding of complex theoretical ideas can be best supported through repetition. Oftentimes, we can recognize prior contents of teaching, but cannot freely recall it. Hence, I think it’s a good idea to routinely repeate both basic and complex ideas by, for example, rereading introductory texts or having refresher sessions. Specifically, I’m not often using the live online quizz -called kahoot, which is ideal to repeat prior content in a fun way.

Finally, I consider it important to use various interactive teaching methods. Above all, I encourage students to articulate their own thoughts and have open classroom discussions. In order to be able to engage with the subject matter, some students might prefer to talk, others to read, some to play, and others to listen. As a result, I think that over the course of one semester, good teaching should involve multimodal methods.3

People whose way of teaching I admire include, for example, Alain de BottonJohn and Hank Green, or Tim Urban. In academic contexts, I especially look up to the teaching methods used by Hadley Wickham, Daniel Lakens, Andy Field, and, of course, Richard Feynman.

Content and Courses

In terms of theoretical foci, I personally consider the following theories to be particularly important: theory of planned behavior, self-determination theory, social cognitive theory, the hyperpersonal model, and the protection motivation theory. In my teaching, I am therefore trying to continually refer to these theories.

In terms of methodological foci, I for example encourage students to use the statistical software R, or help conduct advanced statistical analyses such as structural equation modeling. At the same time, I also pursue the goal that students fully understand the basics of statistics, such as the difference between correlation and causation, the logic of scientific experiments, or the exact rationale behind the p-value.

Conclusion

Although teaching can be challenging, it is often also a rewarding experience and helps to improve one’s own research. For example, I learned several valuable things about YouTube phenomena by supervising a respective bachelor thesis (e.g., self-disclosure on YouTube is positively related to number of views). It is my personal conviction that the overall quality of a course depends more on the contribution of the teacher than that of the students. Reflecting on my own experience as a student, I often realize that several personal attitudes have been coined by teachers, for which I am thankful. In turn, I hope to inspire at least one or another of my students in a similar way.

Footnotes

  1. See, for example, Alain de Button’s book the consolations of philosophy.
  2. For an interesting post on wisdom, see the following article
  3. During my time as a high school student, my history teacher once simulated the work of historians by making us inspect the school’s garbage cans—a great method to illustrate the theoretical concept of historical inferences.