When you are applying for a position to teach college courses, whether in class or online, you will frequently be asked to provide a “statement of teaching philosophy.” Not always, mind you, but enough so that you will want to have one at the ready. You may have one formulated already, but then again, you may not even know what a teaching philosophy really is to begin with! In any case, crafting a teaching philosophy for an online course will be different from one you would put together for a regular classroom teaching position.
To write a statement of teaching philosophy for an online teaching job, you’ll need to think about how you practice andragogy (which is different from pedagogy), how you engage and motivate students, and how you provide feedback to them. You’ll also have to think about how your availability as a teacher allows you to accomplish all this—and more.
So where should you begin? Begin with the job posting you’re looking at and go from there. What is this college asking of applicants? What is it they value? But don’t stop there—look at other colleges, other jobs postings, and you’ll begin to see the common threads that you can weave into a teaching philosophy.
Start with Who You are Teaching: Adults
If ever there was a magic word for the online adjunct professor, it is this: andragogy.
Andragogy refers to adult education (as opposed to pedagogy, which refers to teaching children). Most colleges that have online programs look to recruit adult learners, which is by far the biggest subset of students enrolling in online classes anyway. You already know by now that online college programs are ideal for adult learners, most of whom have jobs, families, mortgages, responsibilities. Accommodating the realities of the adult learner is paramount—and your teaching philosophy will demonstrate that you know this fact to your bones.
It is helpful to look at some of the foundational thinking around andragogy, especially the points formulated by the American adult educator Malcolm Knowles, who began developing his theory of adult education following World War II. After the second world war, American institutions were virtually flooded with returning soldiers—all eligible for the GI Bill. Colleges were so bursting at the seams they had to build more just to fit them all. They needed, too, to build a new method of teaching this very different student.
To start, what motivates an adult to learn? Knowles points out six factors, each of which you need to consider when you craft your teaching statement.
First, adults need to know the reason they’re being asked to learn something. Adults want to know the relevance of what is being taught, and how it is going to benefit them. Adult students ask, why is this important to me? How can I institute it in my day-to-day life?
Second, adults learn by experience—they want to do things for themselves, with their own hands and minds. Making mistakes on their own terms is a part of this experience. This is different from passively absorbing lectures or reading textbooks and writing papers in response, what we might imagine as an Ivy League seminar—adults want to take what they’re learning to task.
Third, adults want to feel responsibility for their learning, which means they want to be actively involved in planning their education, as well as how they are assessed and evaluated. You could think of this as a kind of self-directed learning. Adults want to take an active role in everything they do—why not learning?
Fourth, the things that an adult learns need to be practical to the student’s life. What they choose to learn, therefore, is expected to have an immediate impact on their lives: their jobs, their hobbies, their personal lives. And jobs, as we have seen, and careers in general, are going to be a big reason for adults taking classes at all: they will routinely ask, How will this move me forward?
Fifth, adult learning is oriented not around “content” but specifically around solving problems. That is, they’re not going to be interested in simply learning “stuff,” but rather specific things they can use to solve the various problems in their lives, their careers, and so on. The more the class gives them the opportunity to solve problems (what better way to practice?), the more motivated they will be.
Finally, the adult student is going to be far more responsive to internal motivations rather than external. The adult learner is probably taking courses because they want to, not because they are expected to. They are savvy enough to know they want to better their lives, and keen to do so. In an online course, keeping that motivation going could be a challenge for them—but you can help.
In short, education must be meaningful for the adult learner—but not in the same way as children. You could think of it like this: kids, even younger undergraduates, are still absorbing knowledge; adults have knowledge, and they what to use it. How do you plan to make this happen? This is the basis of your teaching philosophy.
How an Adult Learns
There are some principles to adult learning that, again, you should study and embody. How does an adult learn best? Demonstrate that you understand this in your teaching philosophy. Here’s the main points.
Adults learn because they want to learn. The adult student responds well to self-directed learning where they can learn new skills (that will help them in their careers, or in their lives in general) or get the knowledge they desire, and when this interest is coupled with self-directed learning, the adult student will be excited and therefore motivated.
The adult will insist, then, that what they are learning must be relevant. The adult student is likely to have practical goals, and they will want to know how the knowledge you are teaching them can be applied to their lives and connected to their goals. This is a crucial point: how do you make content relevant to students? Especially self-directed adults?
The adult will learn best by “hands-on” learning; that is, they learn by doing, by practicing, and by participating, and the classwork allows them to experiment with methods. By doing so, they integrate what they are learning in your class into their experience as a parent, a worker, a manager. What kinds of activities have you done in a classroom to encourage hands-on, participatory learning?
The adult learns not by learning things in a certain order but by working to solve a problem. Adults work toward solutions, which is practicality in action that makes knowledge concrete. What kind of questions do you pose in the classroom? What problems do you pose for students to examine?
Adults, unlike children, have experience—and lots of it. How can you use their unique experience in the classroom? How can you incorporate their experience into classroom discussions? Think, too, that experience is a real boon, but it can also be a liability; after all, some of your adult students may not know things you take for granted. Some may have been out of school for a long, long time.
The adult learns best in an informal environment—and you are the designer of that environment. Although there will be a curriculum, you should think of curriculum being in terms of “student-centered” rather than “teacher-centered.” How have you fostered collaboration among students? How have you made the class inviting to students that are often diverse? Where have you encouraged networking among students and people in their experience outside the class?
Speaking of collaboration, the adult student wants to collaborate in their own learning process. Rote learning isn’t enough for them. Socialization is critical to adults, who want to be an active participant in the culture of the class, collaborating with other students and the instructor. To say it simply, they don’t want to be told what to do. They do want a say.
Adults are not kids. They are fully developed human beings who expect agency in their lives, including their education. How do you make education meaningful for adults? This is the core of your teaching philosophy, specifically as it relates to “adult learning.”
Those are the basics in andragogy. Now let’s look at how that applies in an online environment.
Teaching Philosophy: Some Other Fundamentals
So you’ve got a good sense of how andragogy works for you. Great—now let’s look at some other important points to bring up in your teaching philosophy, some of which are specific to teaching online.
Probably the most salient point to dig into here is how you use technology in the classroom. An online class is more than just PowerPoint presentations and Zoom calls. How do you use these technologies to maximum effect so that your adult students are motivated, collaborating, and getting practical experience? The more specific you can be here—by providing examples—the better.
The other major technology that you need to talk about is the learning management system, the LMS. Whether it’s Blackboard or Moodle, you’ll want to fully express your comfort level with LMSs you’ve used, and also how you use them to facilitate learning. A major point is the asynchronous discussion board—how does the discussion board contribute to adult learning?
Your statement of teaching philosophy should also detail your presence in class. If there is one thing students can’t stand, it’s a lack of participation and presence from the instructor! Yes, adult students are self-motivated, but they fully know it is the instructor’s job to facilitate the class, to provide for learning, for conversation, and to just be there to, you know, answer questions. That the online class makes this “presence” much more fluid—and it can certainly make it difficult—is a point to discuss. How have you created a collaborative, productive community from the raw material of your students? How responsive are you? How important to you is it to maintain presence in your class?
A final point for your statement of teaching philosophy is regarding the feedback you provide. Because adults prefer the “guide on the side” rather than teacher-directed learning, the majority of your teaching will be the feedback on student work and student responses. Remember, the adult learner wants practical, hands-on learning—but they also want feedback that is pointed and practical, as well. How do you provide this in an online environment?
You might also think of the shortcomings of technology and how you overcome them. One point to especially think on: the use of distance learning technology virtually (no pun intended) demands that students be self-motivated. How do you encourage this motivation in an atmosphere that is virtual?
Writing Your Statement of Teaching Philosophy
By now we all know that cover letters should probably stick to a page or, at best, two, and that it be formatted correctly, be addressed to an actual name rather than “To Whom It May Concern,” and other rules we’ve picked up along the way. In terms of a Statement of Teaching Philosophy, some of these factors will be useful—brevity, for one.
A statement of teaching philosophy should be just long enough to get the finer points across. Think 4-5 paragraphs. Think one page single-spaced. Now, some places will say that a teaching philosophy can be up to four pages long, but for you, who are not expected to be an academic in the traditional sense, err on the side of brevity. Most of all, think from the heart.
Iowa State University provides a good starting point. They offer some writing prompts to help jog your ideas and, basically, good starting points in the writing of this enormously important document. Here’s some of their important talking points.
What are your objectives and goals as a teacher? With adults, how will you foster lifelong learning? What is it you want students to learn? Then, how is it you actually achieve these goals? Explain your methods. Finally, how do you measure your effectiveness? That is, how do you know you have achieved your objectives? The goal here is to be reflective. Really think about what you are trying to accomplish as an educator and how you will do that.
Iowa State says that the one point you can be a bit grandiose in your statement is in answering the question, “Why do I teach?” Why does teaching matter…to you? Overall, your statement should be self-reflective (maybe even a bit poetic), but also specific. Think—I mean, really think—about the impact you have on students, if not the world as a whole. It’s OK to gush a little.
A good teaching philosophy should not be written from a template—believe me, HR professionals can spot those a mile away. Don’t do what everyone else is doing or you’ll end up, well, like everyone else—at the bottom of the pile. Make your statement personal, as affective as it is effective, and really let yourself shine.
Cornell University also offers a page with some good starting points. Think of the statement as a narrative that gets to three things: your conception of teaching (and learning, of course), a description of how you teach, and a justification for why you teach that way. Talk about your goals and then show how you accomplish them in the online class, with all its challenges.
Need a few examples? The University of Calgary offers nearly 30 teaching philosophies from award-winning teachers. But remember, even if Mark Twain said, “Good writers borrow, great writers steal,” make yours unique.
A teaching philosophy is about how effective you are as a teacher, with the evidence to prove it. But it is also about your beliefs and values, and these are inherently personal. Be an individual.
Teaching from the Real World
One thing to get across to hiring committees is that you yourself are an adult, and you have real world experience that informs the way you teach. You know how your own college education has been made practical, solving the problems of your own life, applying to your own career.
Your teaching philosophy has to demonstrate that you are intimate with the character of the adult learner, the non-traditional student, and the distance student. Show that you understand their needs and have created curriculum that emphasizes those needs. Show that you are committed to their success.
Online programs are not looking to hire research-based academics; they are looking for people with real-world experience. If you are looking to teach criminal justice or nursing, you can see how important that real-world experience will be to students who want to strike out in that direction. However, if you’re looking to teach online philosophy or history, you’ll have to show how your own life experience can make these subjects practical for the adult learner.
More than anything, show how you create a supportive atmosphere. The needs of adult learners are pronounced in today’s educational culture, and the colleges are looking to hire someone sensitive to that. This is a good place, too, to remind you that diversity is the norm in adult education.
Online Statement of Teaching Philosophy: How We Help
What you will probably need, especially at the start of your career, is some feedback yourself! At AdjunctWorld, we offer help specifically for your teaching philosophy as part of our OnRamp course.
In addition to support in applying for online jobs and giving feedback on your cover letters and CV, we professionally review and edit your Statement of Teaching Philosophy. Take a look at our course description and registration page.