Teaching Statement & Philosophy

My colleagues have always commented upon my unabashed passion for cognitive neuroscience. It shines through every time I talk about my own work or whatever exciting mysteries our field has yet to answer. I want to ignite that same sort of passion and love for neuroscience in my students as well, leaving them with a burning desire to discover more about their brains and ultimately themselves. My path to success as a scientist has been paved by the diligent, hard work of my many teachers and mentors. This journey left me with a great respect for teaching and mentorship, knowing that these students will become the next generation of scientists. Thus, my teaching philosophy revolves around how I can best equip these young scientists with the critical analytical thinking skills that will help them succeed in their future endeavors.

In my experience, students are most likely to connect and engage with learning when they are given the opportunity to critically evaluate content rather than passively listen to it. I’ve successfully used this approach to teach discussion sections in both Introduction to Cognitive Neuroscience and Biological Bases of Behavior. The content of both classes revolved around reading and discussing academic articles related to content from the main lecture, but discussions were designed to focus on team-based learning. Biological Bases of Behavior was an introductory course taken by students from many different departments; consequently, I focused on giving them the basic critical thinking skills and language necessary to begin navigating the world of neuroscience. I would begin each class with a brief presentation on the topic before the students were assembled into groups for further discussion. Each group was assigned to a figure from the article and were tasked with reviewing it until they could present it to the rest of the class at the very end. Another critical part to this class was a project where students developed their own ideas for a new experiment. These were developed over the course of several short papers written over semester that I gave iterative rounds of feedback on. It was clear through each successive stage of these documents, in addition to informal feedback from my students, that this was an excellent way to push students to think in bold new ways about how these concepts and tools in neuroscience can be used to help us understand how our brains actually work.

"Matthew was a great TA who was very knowledgeable of neuroscience and research, caring of his students, and willing to help inside and outside of class."

Students in my Introduction to Cognitive Neuroscience discussion sections were primarily Neuroscience majors who had taken several prerequisite courses; this allowed me push this group-centered learning approach even more. In this class each group was responsible for presenting an assigned article to the class and end their presentation with several discussion questions to pose to the class. My primary task was to moderate and encourage deeper discussions on each week’s topic, pushing their critical thinking skills while evaluating the claims each paper made. For example, one of our topics involved discussing a region of the brain that some researchers argue to be selectively sensitive to faces, while other claim that it is generally sensitive to expertly recognizing objects. For this class I played devil’s advocate for each team, leading the discussion in such a way as to have students deeply consider the strengths and weaknesses of each argument, and moreover, to consider the possibility that both theories might be accurate in different ways. I also did my best to engage the students with real-life events and circumstances. I began my first class with a short video on a Porsche ad that claimed that riding in its cars resulted in the same sorts of brain activity you would experience from riding in jet, thus “proving” that their cars were incredibly fun to ride in. To say that the video was misleading would be an understatement – so the students and I had fun stepping through all of the inaccurate elements of the video, while discussing the growing trend of companies using “neuroscience” to back bogus claims. Learning how to find ways to engage with students on a deeper, personal level is likely one of the biggest takeaways for me in this course.

My teaching philosophy was probably best exemplified when I helped teach Brain Waves and Cognition. The first half of this course was designed to teach students the core ideas and theories behind modern electroencephalography (EEG). However, this fell into the same traps that plague many neuroscience classes, where students can only passively learn these topics through lecturing. We overcame this problem through our class project and paper, which the class revolved around over the last half of the semester. The class project is intended for students to take the EEG concepts learned in the lecture and then actually engage them in a “real” scientific endeavor. Essentially, the class project is an EEG research project on which the students can learn how to collect and analyze data. Critically, this project takes on a novel research question instead of something already known; consequently, students are much more excited about the outcome of this project. The project was primarily designed and programmed by myself but students also gave feedback. I taught them all of the steps involved in data collection and analysis, with the goal of them being able to perform quasi-independently in this regard. We discussed our plan and hypotheses in advance, collected data from each other, and learned how to analyze the data together. Towards the end of this project students wrote up their experiment in the format of an actual scientific manuscript, complete with an introduction, methods, results, and discussion section. Sections were written in several stages where I would respond with feedback, until students eventually turned in the full document at the end of the semester. Consequently, the class project and paper allowed students to experience every element of the scientific method, from designing an experiment to collecting and analyzing data to writing up a manuscript.

My students gave me an 4.83/5 on my overall teaching effectiveness. You can find their full ratings here.

“I felt like Matthew was a great TA. He clearly put a lot of effort into preparing class materials and worked to make things as user-friendly and understandable as possible. He was also extremely patient with us when we asked a ton of questions.”

Madison Hunter & I presenting our work at CNS '19.

I also make it a personal point of pride to extend my teaching and mentorship skills outside of the classroom. I have long history of mentoring undergraduate, other graduate, and in some circumstances post-docs in various EEG research projects, approaching ~45 people in total. I’ve also worked hard to improve upon this skills – in the summer of ’19 I participated in a Duke sponsored mentoring workshop where we discussed these skills in-depth over the course of four weeks. In this group-based learning course we learned how to set up objective goals and scenarios, reflected on our mentorship strategies, and shared our strategies for dealing with various situations.

These experiences have helped me realize my passion for equipping students and mentees with the skills and experience needed to succeed in graduate school. In the future I would like to teach more classes like Brain Waves and Cognition where students can learn how to use actual, hands-on skills; however, I would also like to teach as the primary instructor so that I can get more experience developing a course syllabus and schedule. In the future I would also like to consider effective strategies for teaching online. Although this format comes with a host of additional challenges, it also comes with ample opportunities to reach a wider, more diverse population of students.