Robert O’Donnell


Teaching Philosophy

Writing about my teaching philosophy does not come easily to me. Although I have been teaching at Geneseo since 1987 I find it difficult to define or summarize my approach to teaching as a “philosophy.” My approach is still evolving but has in its origin a nervous and uneasy beginning. The first class I taught at Geneseo was Cell Physiology, the first day I skipped half of what I intended to cover and I was done with the prepared lecture in one quarter of the time allotted.

Twenty-four years later I still tend to speak too fast and I’m never quite comfortable at the start of class. I’m not witty or funny and I can’t captivate my students with my eloquence. What I do try to do is to be as prepared as possible, to simplify the material whenever possible and to stimulate their interest to make the students active engaged learners. I expect a lot from my students but not more than they are capable of performing. I encourage questions during lecture and will answer any question and try to make the response relevant to all of the students. I try to always be open with my students and admit when I don’t know the answer to a question or when I make a mistake. I try never to be sarcastic or demean a student in any way.

My style of teaching is also somewhat altered for the audience I teach. Most recently I have been teaching three distinct groups: freshmen majors (Freshman Experience in Biology, and General Biology I and II), senior majors (Immunology and the Biology of Cancer) and a sophomore/junior level laboratory. The Freshman Experience in Biology was established in 2002 to help incoming students adapt to college life and the demands of being a science major. General Biology I and II is an overview course meant to acquaint students with the basic principles of biology and to introduce them to the various areas of biology. I try to mix factual information with explanations of how things work. In past years I have incorporated JITT assignments before each class but more recently moved to using “clickers” of Interwrite.

My classes with seniors are approached quite differently. The emphasis in these classes is the application of knowledge to experimental approaches. Students are provided with the tools to appreciate the most recent discoveries and the background to understand the future findings in the field. My tests are mainly problems where I ask students to explain the results or suggest possible outcomes to data from important papers in the field. My non-majors class is an elective in the Human Development minor although many students take it as a pure elective. In this course the emphasis is on making biology directly relevant to the students’ lives by teaching them the connection between lifestyle and various physiological processes. I stress the point that not all diseases are inevitable, and when inevitable, the disease process can sometimes be modified to enhance the quality of one’s life.

I also try very hard to know my students by name. I’m successful with my classes of 30-40 and with most of my 40-50 academic advisees but I’ve been unable to master or find a successful approach for my classes of 200 students. I do try to get to these classes early and speak with students prior to class even though this works with only those students closest to the front.

For additional information on my work in the Fellows Program, please see my report on Collaborative Learning Outside the Classroom:  Peer-Led Study Groups for General Biology.