Teaching Philosophy Statement

What Teaching Means to Me

I consider teaching to be an art. My goal as a teacher is not to invent new colors, but to master the ability to combine existing colors into a fine work of art. In other words, I am not constantly seeking to find the latest and greatest new teaching technology or trying to reinvent the classroom. Rather, I strive to master the use of basic teaching fundamentals in order to create a solid, successful learning environment. The information on this page highlights some of my teaching experience and philosophy through my Teaching Philosophy Statement and my Teaching Portfolio (below).


Joel M. Brown

Teaching Portfolio

The classroom is a dynamic environment that is constantly changing. This teaching portfolio is designed to be a road map which highlights my current pedagogical practices and tracks some of the experiences that have shaped them into what they are today. Each of the links below expands on different components which are important to me as a teacher.

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Teaching Experience

During my education I have had three distinct opportunities to teach. Currently, I am a TA at Cornell University. Previously, I was a TA and adjunct faculty at the University of West Florida, and during my undergraduate degree I did a highschool teaching internship in biology and music (not discussed here). In many ways, I am a jack-of-all-trades with a broad spectrum of subject familiarity. However, my focus and specialty have been developmental biology and genetics.

Classes for which I was the primary instructor:

  • Developmental Biology Lab (UWF) This was a junior level lab course with an accompanying lecture component. The lab was about 50% experimental (sea urchin/chick experiments) and 50% embryology (slides).
  • Genetics Lab (UWF) This was a junior level lab course with an accompanying lecture component. Building on the work of previous instructors, I used a combination of classical genetics experiments (using fruit flies) and molecular genetics.
  • General Biology Lab for Non-Majors (UWF) This was a freshmen level biology survey lab with an accompanying lecture component. We covered everthing from photosynthesis, to basic cell biology, to anatomy and physiology, and evolution.

Classes for which I was a TA:

  • Principles of Cell and Developmental Biology (CU) This was a large freshmen level course (~360 students) which consisted of a lecture component and small-group active learning sections. As a TA, I was responsible for facilitating a handful of the active learning sections which focused on using activity based learning to reinforce the lecture content.
  • Developmental Biology Lab (UWF) This was a junior level lab course with an accompanying lecture component. The lab was about 50% experimental (sea urchin/chick experiments) and 50% embryology (slides). As TA, I worked under Dr. Charles D'Asaro to assist with specimen collection and to help students navigate the experiments. Dr. D'Asaro also included TAs in test preparation.
  • Molecular Biology Lab (UWF) As a TA, I assisted with preparing reagents and helped students to understand and execute the lab experiments.
  • Anatomy and Physiology I (UWF) As a TA, I assisted with experimental preparation and grading of quizzes/exams.

(Mouse over for more details)

As a rookie teacher, I made my fair share of mistakes and continue to seek to refine my teaching technique. Some of these reflections are discussed in the Evaluations tab.

Course Design

Course Design

I've had the opportunity to work under some fabulous faculty that take pride in putting together and effective course. However, the time is fast approaching when I will be deciding what material to include, how to present the material, and how to assess student understanding. I plan to apply a bottom-up approach to course design, meaning that I will first outline what I intend the students to learn by the end of the class (learning outcomes) and then will design activities for the express purpose of accomplishing those learning outcomes. Determining that these learning outcomes have actually been acheived is detailed further in the Assessment div.

The first opportunity I had to fully execute a course came in the summer of 2012 when I was the sole teacher of the Genetics lab course at UWF. This included ordering supplies and designing new experiments to include over the semester (see Genetics Lab Syllabus and Genetics Example Project). The most important thing I learned during this process was...DON'T CRAM! I tried to fit too many experiments into our short time and eventually had to drop one of them. I now realize it is more important to cover less material well than more material poorly. I also learned the importance of intermingling simple experiments that garantee success with challenging experiments which may or may not work. By mixing things up like this, we were able to prevent a losing streak mentality even when some of the experiments did not work well. I look forward to modifying and reusing this syllabus someday as it lays an excellent foundation for building a fantastic Genetics lab.

In the future, I would welcome the opportunity to design and implement a developmental biology course containing both lecture and lab components (see Developmental Biology Syllabus). To me, the story of development is a similar to that of history, except that you are following the lives of cells and tissues rather than people and nations. The backbone of the course would consist of interactive lectures which would be fleshed out by journal article discussions, student presentations, case studies, and laboratory experiments. In order to build scientific skills beyond developmental biology alone, I would include a scientific writting assignment to help develop the ability to digest and summarize main points from primary literature. Having worked with Drosophila, Arabidopsis, chicks, and mice, I have at my disposal a wide array of resources which can be incorporated into the laboratory portion (see the syllabus for more information). This website also serves as a growing repository for experiments which can be included in the lab div.


Student Assessment

One challenging aspect of teaching is providing meaningful assessment for students. In the sciences we tend to default to three prelims and a final in order to assess student understanding. There is certainly a lot of value in administering a carefully designed exam and I plan to make these an important part of my classroom. However, I ultimately believe the method of assessment should be determined by the learning outcomes, and exams alone may not sufficiently assess certain learning outcomes. Another important consideration is the frequency of assessment. By providing frequent, low-stakes assignments, the students are able to gauge their comprehension of a topic prior to a high-stakes exam. In my classes, I plan to include quizzes and homework assignments on a regular basis, in order to sample the level of student understanding throughout the semester. Of course, class size will greatly impact how these assignments are designed and administered, but the principles will remain the same.

Another form of assessment I'ld like to include in my biology classroom is scientific writing. When a student must organize thoughts on paper, it enables one to assess different levels of understanding than can be examined by a test or discussion. In order to grade the written work as objectively as possible I would develop a rubric which highlights the main criteria I will be looking for in their writing (see Sample Rubric and Lab Report Rubric). One advantage of a rubric is that it can be a teaching tool in addition to a grading tool. By giving it to the students ahead of time, they can assess their own work prior to submission.


Teaching Evaluations

I have found that student evaluations are a critical form of feedback which can be used to guage the strengths and weaknesses in my classroom. Listed below are respresentative pros and cons from different courses I have taught. The "negative" feedback has proved to be very useful in identifying areas to improve in my classroom. The most eye-opening experience came from the feedback I received from my first class with full autonomy (see Genetics Lab Summer 2012).

Principles of Cell and Developmental Biology - Active Learning Section Fall 2013


"Joel is super enthusiastic, which I appreciated immensely."

"Joel was always excited and engagin and made me excited to be there. I really lived his energy and enthusiasm and would recommend him to anyone. Excellent TA"

"Joel was great! He was very enthusiastic and seemed very interested in helping us learn, and his enthusiasm definitely increased my interest in the course."


Changes to implement: Great improvement from last semester. I still used the same active questioning (cold-calling, etc.) but tried to do it in a less aggressive manner which emphasized its purpose as a learning tool and not an assessment tool. It was well-received.

Principles of Cell and Developmental Biology - Active Learning Section Fall 2013


"All I know is that Joel is a fantastic TA."

"Joel is very clear when it comes to explanations and answering questions. Although he enoys picking on people to respond during section, I like how he doesn't intentionally do it to embarrass us, but rather to engage us. There is definitely a difference between the two, and as I said before, he is very effective when it comes to teaching."

"Joel is very energetic and passionate about the material. HE is very helpful when it comes to guiding students in the right directiona dn explaining complicated processes."


"I don't like how my TA randomly calls on people. I understand it is to engage everyone, but it personally makes me anxious and I don't think I'm taking away as much from the section as I could due to this."

"Joel likes to call on students randomly to answer questions even if they're not raising their hand. While this keeps the class engaged, I feel that it detracts from my learning as I'm more worried about being prepared for the next question in case I get called on, and I'm less focused on him reviewing the current question that we're discussing."

"Joel is a very committed and dedicated TA and he definitely knows his stuff. However, section with him is very stressful because of the way in which he calls on students randomly and extremely frequently-I can't focus on understanding and following because I'm too busy preparing a response for if he calls on me."

Changes to implement: Wow! Very interesting to see a consensus show up among the cons about how intimidating the active questioning once. Clearly, this was a problem in my delivery since I always do actively question students and have never had this push-back. I think it's no accident that this happened during my second semester of TAing this course. During the second semester I tend to get overly confident and less careful in the classroom. I don't want to drop the active questioning, but clearly next semester I need to build a safer environment for students so they don't feel intimidated in answering a question.

Principles of Cell and Developmental Biology - Active Learning Section Fall 2013


"Joel's section was a pleasure to be in. He taught the material very well and actively engaged his students."

"Engaging, and didn't make you feel uncomfortable if you didn't understand know the answer to a question. Good at going over specific processes."

"Joel was fantastic. He was incredibly enthusiastic and knowledgeable, making section one of the highlights of my week."


Changes to implement: Great semseter overall! The active questioning was well received by students. Keep it up.

Genetics Lab Summer 2012


"I really enjoyed this class. Joel was a great instructor and made learning genetics very interesting and fun."

"Very energetic instructor and thorough in his teachings. Enjoyed his class very much. Outstanding."

"Joel is an excellent communicator of essential ideas and topics and presents them in a logical and fun way. My goal as a chemist is to be as crisp and clear when speaking as he is."


"Joel was a great teacher, but would often treat us like we were children in grade school instead of adults in college."

"We’re your future peers, treat us like it."

"This class was fairly odd in its structure seeing as some labs took weeks to complete so it allowed the students to somewhat forget about what project they were on or doing."

"Biggest problem was I felt rushed since we did not have many lab divs. More days would be a great improvement."

"Too long of lecture in most labs. Very knowledgeable but not enough grades!"

Changes to implement: This was the first time I taught a class with full autonomy and the reviews reveal a lot that can be improved. For starters, this authority clearly went to my head as several students felt I was a somewhat condescending. I have to be careful in the future not to get overly-confident the longer I teach a subject. Furthermore, the organization was too cluttered. I need to include less material and in the cases where experiments extend for weeks, I need to be careful to review each week to get everyone up to speed.

General Biology for Non-Majors Lab Spring 2012


"Mr. Brown was an excellent teacher he was very clear in all his assignment and he explained the material in a way you could understand."

"Joel was the best teacher ever!!! You could tell he loved biology and it showed in his lectures and it really got me excited each week! *thumbs up* :)"

"Professor was very animated and easy to listen to."


"Better study guides!"

"Testing procedures as lab practical’s are not very good. Not enough time at each station."

"This was an interesting course and was very productive. I did not like how we took the tests though. I found it to be difficult to take the exams."

Changes to implement: Good semester, although I now realize that many of the students in the class have probably never taken a lab practical were you move around the room. In the future, I'ld like to prepare a quiz which is formatted like the lab practicals in order to acclimate students to this testing style.

Genetics Lab Spring 2012


"He is an amazing lab professor. I was so glad to have him for 2 labs."

"Mr. Brown has a good sense of humor and is very helpful. You can tell he’s passionate about genetics."

"I really enjoyed Joel’s teaching abilities. He really knows his material. Great instructor!!!"


"Please return previous quiz before the next quiz, not on the day of."

"I wished that the course material would be more details and explainable."

Changes to implement: Great bunch of students. Clearly, one area where I can improve is in organization. Not returning quizzes promptly or explaining assignments well probably stem from poor organization.

Genetics Lab Fall 2011


"Best lab I’ve had in a while. Joel is excellent all round."

"You make sense!! Could you please teach my whole degree!"

"Joel is an excellent instructor. He makes learning the material simple and straightforward. Having him as a teacher was very rewarding. Nothing bad to say about him."


Changes to implement: Great semester overall! Teaching approach well received by students. Keep it up.

General Biology for Non-majors Fall 2011


"Joel brown was an absolutely excellent lab teacher. He went out of his way to make sure the entire class understood, pulled in the lecture class material and answered any questions promptly. He really rekindled my love for bio."

"Joel was a great teacher. Very attentive to his students and willing to work with them in/out of class."

"Joel was fantastic. He was incredibly enthusiastic and knowledgeable, making div one of the highlights of my week."


"Some labs I felt could have been explained better and made clearer."

"Kind of felt like I was in highschool, again, but excellent instructor. Very vibrant and enthusiastic."

Changes to implement: No obvious patterns showed up in the evaluations; although, the second negative is something I have feared in these Gen Bio classes. There comes a point when too much enthusiasm can come across as elementary. I'll have to be conscious of this moving forward.

Genetics Lab Summer 2011


"Willing to help me learn at any time; available for questioning/explanations as well as very knowledgeable about the subject. Amazing teacher not easy but challenging."

"Joel Brown was an excellent lab instructor. He ran the course in a very organized manner, and I learned a great deal in this lab."


"I would have liked to have a more clearly explained idea of how labs/notebooks were graded. Many times instructor would say he was looking for “key” points & not disclose what they were."

"Showed great interest in the course, but can be a picky grader. But, overall great teacher."

"Very knowledgeable, fun class, learned a lot. Teacher could explain grading practices better, inconsistency b/w grading students."

Changes to implement: Definitely need to improve my grading practices in both explaning how a project is graded and the actual process of grading. I have since developed a sort of lab report rubric for grading their final project which has helped to provide consistency. I will also start giving this rubric to the students ahead of time so they what they will be graded on.

Genetics Lab Spring 2011


"Very pleasant teacher--still keeps a happy attitude even when the class is sleepy :)"

"Lectures were fun and interesting. Made concepts in genetics very relatable and easy to understand. Asked a lot of individual questions which kept you on your toes and paying attention. Learned a lot in this lab that would help in lecture!"

"Professor Brown was an excellent instructor. He explained everything very clearly and made it fun to learn! He is very passionate about genetics so being a student of his made it fun for me also."


Changes to implement: Great semseter overall! Teaching approach well received by students. Keep it up.

Developmental Biology Lab Fall 2010


"Joel was an awesome instructor in and outside of class. He wanted us all to do well on each exam, quiz, etc. He was amazing and made developmental fun! Great job!"

"Best lab instructor I’ve had at UWF, he is passionate about the subject and teaches at a level where I could understand the material."

"Joel helped me understand the subject material and forces you to be involved; thus accelerates the learning process effectively."

"Give Joel a raise. He deserves it."


Changes to implement: Awesome semester! I loved teaching this course, and the teaching approach was well received by students. Keep it up.

Pro. Develop.

Professional Development

In order to keep my academic career from going stale, I want to have a plan whereby I can purposefully continue developing both the teaching and research aspects of my life. In short, I believe professional development is best continued by interacting with peers and those who have proven successful in the field. Below are some activities which I have participated in to highlight my commitment to professional development.

Teaching Development:

  • Graduate Teaching Assistant Fellow with the Cornell Center for Teaching Excellence
    • In order to take an active role in the educational environment at Cornell, I participated in the Center for Teaching Excellence fellow program. As a CTE fellow I led workshops for other grad students/postdocs geared towards improving teaching practices here on campus and elsewhere. Here is an example of a workshop I co-facilitated called "Engaging Lectures and Effective Presentations."
  • Helped to organize the Cornell University-wide GET SET Teaching Conference, Fall 2014
  • ALS6015 Teaching in Higher Education
    • Although I had previously earned a B.S. in Education during my undergrad, I took this course during my PhD candidacy in order to think more about my teaching at the college level. More than anything this course laid the foundation for building healthy habits in order to continously reflect on and improve my teaching.
  • Darling Marine Center: Developmental Biology Teaching Workshop
    • In the summar of 2012, I attended this week-long workshop led by Leland Johnson and Eric Cole all about building a successful developmental biology lab. We spent the week exploring experiments that can be implemented to teach different developmental concepts (some of which I've documented here).
  • Interview with Dr. Drew Noden
    • As an educator, I think it is important to not forget what it was like to be a student. What teachers stood out to me? What teaching techniques were helpful to me? etc. One highlight of my graduate work was taking the course Mammalian Embryology taught by Dr. Drew Noden. After completing this course, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Noden to learn more about his experiences as a faculty member. I also took the opportunity to document some of the highlights of his teaching style that stood out to me as a student. Attached is a write-up summarizing key thoughts from the interview.

Scholarly Development:

  • Co-organizer of the Center for Vertebrate Genomics Journal Club.
  • Symposiums/Conferences:
    • Center for Vertebrate Genomics Symposium (Cornell)
    • Genetics, Genomics, and Development Symposium (Cornell)
    • Santa Cruz Developmental Biology Meeting (UCSC)