Teaching Statement

How should instruction change when teaching a diverse group of students? As an instructor to incarcerated students, blind and deaf students, first-generation college students, and highly educated Johns Hopkins undergraduates, I have asked myself this question for years. By observing the effectiveness of different teaching strategies with each of my students, I have carefully crafted my student-centered teaching style, which incorporates active learning, an engaging and inclusive teaching environment, and development of critical thinking and imagination.

Variation of Teaching Approaches

My primary goals for my courses are that each student learns how to develop and test theories of cognitive science, and how to critically evaluate experimental findings. I find that this is most effective in a “hybrid” classroom format, in which traditional lectures are coupled with hands-on activities. As a visual learner myself, my default teaching style years ago was to write excessively on a blackboard. When I taught my first blind student, I realized how ineffective this method can be, not only for students who cannot see my writing, but who learn best from auditory or hands-on approaches. Ever since, I have incorporated a variety of teaching methods in my courses by pairing concepts discussed in lectures to a variety of different forms of hands-on activities. In my freshman-level Cognitive Neuroscience course, students view lectures online and perform weekly active learning sessions to engage them with the material on a deeper level in class. To develop effective hands-on activities, I identify the most important conceptual material from the previous week’s lectures and create an activity that asks students to apply this conceptual knowledge to specific examples. These activities have taken the form of demonstrations of psychology experiments with stroke patients, to analysis of neuroimaging data, to evaluating effectiveness of artificial neural networks.

Unsurprisingly, I have found that certain material lends itself better to certain manners of instruction over others. When teaching neuroanatomy, for example, I find it ineffective to simply show students a few diagrams and expect them to memorize the images – this kind of material requires deep understanding and shallow memorization is nearly useless. Instead, I teach neuroanatomy using free neuroimaging software that students can install on their computers, which allows them to view each structure from any angle and truly understand the spatial relationship between different brain areas.

Other material, like understanding the principle of cognitive subtraction, require students to have conceptual knowledge of different cognitive processes, which students seem to learn the best with specific examples from experiments. When presenting this topic, I show students a video of a patient receiving cortical stimulation at a given electrode while accurately performing addition but failing at performing multiplication. The students’ task is to determine what cognitive process this particular brain area is performing based on the patient’s pattern of performance and using the principle of cognitive subtraction described in lectures. From students’ feedback, I have adapted this activity to include a group work component, in which students collaborate with others to propose additional experiments to test alternative hypotheses.

Engaging and Inclusive Teaching Environment

As a minority in academia, I am especially attuned to the issues that students from underrepresented backgrounds face in higher education. As a kind, approachable instructor, I always strive for my students to feel comfortable asking “dumb questions” and to meet with me individually to discuss subjects that go beyond the course material. One of my incarcerated students (whom I tutored in statistics) was excited when I told him about my dissertation research, and asked to meet with me weekly to learn about visual perception. Outside of statistics class, I taught him the visual pathway from eye to primary visual cortex, the contributions of different brain areas to visual perception, and some current hotly debated questions in the field. It is obviously every instructor’s dream to have a student like this who wants to go beyond the material and study purely for the sake of knowledge, and I believe that the best way to encourage this is to present myself as an enthusiastic, upbeat, and supportive teacher to my students.

I also recognize that students come from diverse backgrounds and vary in their needs, so I frequently ask questions to my students in lectures to ensure that they have understood the content thus far. Since some students are shy to ask questions in front of their peers, I also have an online discussion board where students can post questions anonymously.

I am confident that this approach is successful since several of my minority students have asked to be my research assistant. Multiple times throughout graduate school, these students have requested me as a research mentor because they felt their ideas and thoughts were valued in my classroom. As a research mentor, my goal is not just to delegate tasks to my research assistants, but to treat them as colleagues who assist in brainstorming, discussing recent publications, and learning different research methodologies. As a result, I have already co-authored four publications and presentations at major conferences with my undergraduate mentees.

Development of Critical Thinking and Imagination

I believe that students learn the best when they are personally interested in the topic, so I tailor my courses to each student’s interests by helping students develop final projects on topics that they find the most fascinating. In my Cognitive Neuroscience course, this takes the form of an NIH “pitch,” in which students develop and propose a novel experiment to address a cognitive question related to those we discussed in class. These pitches have addressed varied research questions like: “Is the visual word form area domain-general? Investigating the VWFA’s processing of Braille in the congenitally blind” to “Neural processing of semantic ambiguity: A case study of homographs.” Since these complex topics require students to deeply understand concepts discussed in lectures and active learning sessions, I individually meet with students regularly to clarify their questions about experimental design and assist them in finding relevant literature. Experimental design requires considerable critical thinking ability, so many of the students’ active learning activities include a component on experimental design, allowing them to practice this difficult skill several times before their final evaluation. Since students have considerable freedom in the research project that they propose, they consistently rate this aspect of the course highly in their course evaluations, and I am consistently impressed by what they have developed in a short semester.


My student-centered teaching model is based on my personal experiences interacting with students from diverse educational backgrounds. I have learned to be flexible in my teaching approaches, offering multiple examples for each topic and presenting hands-on activities to help the material “stick.” I feel encouraged that my classroom environment feels inclusive and supportive since my incarcerated students regularly request that I teach a psychology course to them. My students’ varying learning styles and intellectual passions drive my teaching philosophy, and my close interactions with students through these active learning activities have led me to have the most rewarding experiences of my academic life.