Teaching Philosophy

The most effective learning occurs when students are actively engaged in defining their own questions, allowed to make mistakes, and encouraged to work through those mistakes to arrive at a genuine understanding of difficult concepts. This type of experiential learning is demanding for both instructors and students, but I am committed to providing a challenging and engaging learning experience to each of my students both when designing my classes and when mentoring independent research students.

Asking students to propose and struggle with their own questions approximates the process of scientific discovery that practicing scientists actually follow. When undergraduate biology students are guided into taking control of their own learning, they cultivate the independence and self-motivation that graduate schools and professional careers in biology demand. Creating opportunities for genuine scientific discovery through class work is challenging, but the best teachers that I have had often accomplish this task by employing active learning strategies, such as ‘flipped’ classrooms and by developing open-ended assignments that use real datasets for lab activities in which students have the opportunity to develop and test original hypotheses.


Courses As Instructor

Ornithology: BioEE4750

Together with Jen Walsh-Emond I redesigned and taught an upper level Ornithology course for 70 students at Cornell University in Spring 2020. This offering is meant to serve as the flagship Ornithology course offered by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In designing the course, we made extensive use of multimedia resources at the Lab of Ornithology to create flipped content with mini lectures and quizzes delivered online and class sections focused on active engagement and discussion. Our assignments were designed to engage students in critical evaluation rather than memorization.

From my syllabus: One of the advantages of a class focusing on birds is that we can explore the links between sub-disciplines of biology that are often covered in separate classes: ecology & evolution, anatomy & physiology, genetics, behavior, and conservation. At Cornell, we are also lucky to be able to draw on the resources of the Lab of Ornithology, the premier organization in the US for bird research, conservation, and education. In this class we will learn what birds have to tell us about each of these topics and what features make birds so unique and successful. Over the course of the semester we will combine online learning exercises with in-class discussion, activities, and guest lectures to achieve the following learning objectives:

  • Demonstrate the ability to read, evaluate, and synthesize information from primary scientific literature on topics in avian biology.
  • Describe key morphological and physiological characteristics of birds and understand how variation in these features is related to selection and life history across different avian clades.
  • Synthesize material covered throughout the course to propose and conduct original, independent research projects related to the behavioral and evolutionary ecology of birds.

Syllabus Assignment Sheets


Data Science, Visualization, Quantitative Methods

I have a strong interest in data science, visualization, quantiative methods and developing workflows to promote reproducible research. I have been a leader in the Vitousek Lab at creating lab best practices and training related to those approaches. In Spring 2019, I led a seminar with graduate students and postdocs following through the course material from Richard McElreath’s Statistical Rethinking textbook. The course introduces a series of approaches to making inferences from data and covers directed acyclic graphs for causal inference, generalized linear multilevel models from a Bayesian perspective, and a number of approaches to model fitting, checking, and interpretation. For this course, we used pre-recorded lectures delivered by the author with group discussion sections focused on coding practice and feedback on homework sets that were completed each week.


Spring Field Ornithology: BIO1250

In Spring 2016 I taught Spring Field Ornithology for a group of 12 Cornell University undergraduate and graduate students. This course was designed to build off of the publicly offered Spring Field Ornithology Class that was offered by Steve Kress at the Lab of Ornithology every Spring for many years. The public course focuses largely on bird identification with guest lectures and video presentations related to ornithology. My students attended some of those lectures and also participated in a one credit weekly seminar that was largely focused on reading, discussing, and evaluating scientific journal articles related to current topics in ornithology. The class was designed as an entry into studying ornithology for non-majors and attracted students with a wide range of backgrounds.


Animal Communication: UC Davis Core Class

I taught a seven hour lecture section on Animal Communication as part of the UC Davis Animal Behavior Graduate Group Core class that is required for all first year PhD students in the program. We covered introductions to all major areas of animal communication, such as signal design and efficacy, game theory and frequency dependence, information content and signal honesty, and systems for updating information and making choices based on communication. The section included lectures, outside readings, written assignments, and discussion sections that I led.


Other Teaching Contributions

Guest lecturing

I have provided guest lectures and short multi-day teaching units in classes at Cornell University, the University of California–Davis, Hamilton College, and Skidmore College including:

  • Organismal Biology
  • Ecology
  • Fundamentals of One Health
  • Wildlife Ecology & Conservation
  • Ornithology
  • Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
  • Introduction to Geographic Information Systems

Teaching Assistant

At the University of California Davis, I was a teaching assistant for the following classes:

  • Introduction to Biodiversity & the Tree of Life: Sole instructor for two lab sections per week.
  • Introduction to Ecology & Evolution: Sole instructor for two lab sections per week.
  • Animal Behavior
  • Introduction to Experimental Design: Introduced basics of experimental design and statistical testing.

Evidence of Teaching Excellence

I have consistently received excellent evaluations for my teaching. A few student testimonials are listed below and full teaching evaluations are available by request.

“I feel like most of my teachers don’t know how to teach. They only teach because they are required to. Therefore, they don’t really care about the students. Conor showed a willingness to help us on a daily basis.”

“Conor makes sure we all understand the work and encourages us to learn the subject matter instead of just doing the steps.”

“This instructor is willing to help and doesn’t get frustrated even when a question is asked many times. Great instructor!”

“He was great at clarifying questions even if they weren’t in his field of expertise because he always came prepared.”

“Conor is great because he is helpful and extremely willing to answer questions and to take additional time to discuss materials with you that you find confusing or difficult.”