Kristin Phillips, Ph.D.
Collegiate Associate Professor in the School of Neuroscience
Excellence in Teaching Award by the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Virginia Tech
The award, presented by the center to approximately nine Virginia Tech faculty members each academic year, recognizes a faculty member's effective, engaged, and dynamic approaches and achievements as an educator.
Among the goals of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning are advancing experiential learning at Virginia Tech and improving student learning through research-based instructional practices and student-centered design. According to Phillips, her approach to teaching ultimately comes down to making the learning experience accessible and enjoyable: “For every class I teach, I start by putting myself in the shoes of the student. What kind of background information do they have? How is this relevant to them? Is my lecture clear from where they stand? From there, I structure my lectures and activities to highlight my top objectives. I position myself as their guide in the exploration process and encourage them to think outside the box.”
Since arriving at Virginia Tech in 2017, Phillips has developed nine new courses in the School of Neuroscience. She described “taking non-traditional approaches to content” and trying “to incorporate a liberal arts approach.” One example is a course entitled, War and the Brain. According to Phillips, “It crosses traditional disciplinary boundaries by embedding neuroscience-relevant issues in the context of history, military, war, and public policy. The course provides multiple perspectives – scientific, clinical, personal, historical, and current.”
Phillips also created a study abroad program called Global Perspectives in Neuroscience and Medicine. She describes the program as one that “elevates a traditional approach to studying neurological diseases by analyzing these diseases in a global context and explores the real-world impacts that go beyond the traditional boundaries of research and medicine.” The 3-week program is based out of the Steger Center in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland. She explains that “the program fosters cultural sensitivity and awareness and prepares students to be global thinkers. The conversations cultivate cultural awareness and sensitivity and enhance their ability to view the many dimensions of problems in our society.”
Phillips says her teaching style places “specific emphasis on highlighting real-world relevance, incorporating interdisciplinary perspectives, promoting collaboration, and inviting reflection.” Former student Katrina Knapik described her classes as “designed to teach students how to think critically, engage in discussions, and question the world around them. She places emphasis on class engagement and sparking curiosity rather than acing exams.” Sophia Phillips, another former student and current doctor of physical therapy student, explained how Phillips’ discussion-based teaching style prepared her for “clinical reasoning skills and recognizing the importance of social determinants of health when working with patients.” Gary Simonds, Phillips’ co-lead in the study abroad program, shared how he “witnessed first hand, for several hours a day, her incomparable teaching skills.” He described her teaching as “exciting, inspiring, engaging, digestible, highly informative, logical, organized, diverse, energized, exceedingly well-informed, challenging, and just plain fun.”
Mark Cline, Associate Professor in Animal and Poultry Science and Phillip’s colleague, expressed that she “is one of the most dedicated educators that I have met during my two decades in higher education.” He continued, “She has an unlimited amount of empathy and patience both in and out of the classroom, and treats each student as an individual. Students are eager to work with her because she is very approachable, and takes the time to listen to everyone. Students love her lectures because she is a dynamic and animated presenter. The School of Neuroscience owes much of its success to the tireless efforts of Dr. Phillips – she is a role model for other faculty to emulate.”
When asked to recall her most memorable and meaningful moment as a teacher, Phillips recounted a specific moment in spring 2022: “A student told me that she had lost interest in learning in general during the pandemic and was no longer sure if she was in the right major. She then told me that taking my class reignited her passion for learning and she finally felt excited about her major. To know that I made someone feel excited about learning is the greatest reward. That’s really what this is all about.”
Phillips provided the following advice for new college teachers: “Instill a growth mindset from day one - both in the classroom and for yourself. It is necessary for students to feel like they can do well, even if they struggle at first. It also helps to remind yourself that you will improve and get better. Don’t expect any one lecture or course to be perfect the first time around. Give yourself a few iterations to find your sweet spot. And finally, find a mentor, and don’t be afraid of feedback.”