On Classroom Teaching, Part Deux

What’s with all these teaching musings, you ask?

The university requires annual peer review of teaching for assistant professors, so yesterday I did a review for one of my junior colleagues. I went to one of his lectures (he knew I was coming), took notes, and I will write up a report for his tenure file. When I was an assistant professor, most of my reviewers would meet with me after the lecture to chat about their impressions, which I thought was nice and collegial and anxiety-reducing, so I did it, too, after yesterday’s review.

This was a large undergraduate class with more math than many students can comfortably take in, and the colleague is a junior faculty member teaching the material for the first time to an audience considerably more populous than he’d ever had before. He did well and will certainly get better with practice.

Between yesterday and today I got to thinking about how much one can actually really improve and if there are aspects of one’s personality that just cannot and should not be curbed in teaching. For instance, I sometimes get comments on evaluations that I speak too fast. That is probably true, to a perhaps even high degree. When I was an assistant professor, I tried to speak more slowly, but it adversely affected my delivery: I was too self-conscious and so focused on talking speed that it took away from my focus on the content and on student questions. So I stopped trying to change; I talk how I talk.

If you consider teaching evaluations as a useful metric for teaching, mine went up somewhere during year 3 or 4 on the tenure track, from initially being about 84-86% of the maximal score as obtained from about a dozen questions (department average over all faculty is around 75%) to being consistently around 94-96%, even when I teach large undergraduate courses; I occasionally get 98 or 100% with grad courses. Some of it had to do with confidence; accepting my own style for what it is, trying to be myself when teaching and thereby reclaiming the fun rather than pretending to be someone else. But much had to do with adjusting the content and delivery to better suit the average student I actually had in the classroom, rather than, well, I guess a clone of me. What helped the most with my teaching, especially undergrads, was:

  1. Distill the material. Cover fewer topics, but cover them really well. Spend enough time on the most important ones, relentlessly emphasize things that are the most important and why and how they underscore some overarching ideas about the field as a whole. When something is just FYI or BTW, say so. There is value in digressions and side information, they provides color and a change of pace, but be absolutely clear about what is IMPORTANT, what is IMPORTANT, what is Important, what is important, and what is not really all that important but is cute or fun or curious or a chance to make a pun and wake up sleepy students 55 min into a 75-min lecture.
  2. Make the course materials that highlight what you need highlighted. I am not a big believer in online videos of lectures or whatevers. Me being yet another talking head delivering elementary content online is not what the world needs. I believe in doing examples/problems/projects and in choosing or creating assignments that tackle the core concepts from different angles, so that something would end up working for (almost) every student. I like to assign small computational projects that result in the students making plots or videos, or I even give them chunks of code so they can tweak stuff and produce something audible or visual. If I am using a nonstandard format in homework for a specific purpose, I tell them in the HW setup why I am doing it, what I want them to focus on, and what I expect them to get out of it.
  3. Explicitly draw connections to topics covered in other courses. This also requires teaching broadly across the curriculum and  perhaps getting involved with student advising, so you know what they hear in other courses, when and why.  The best students draw these connections themselves, but the best students will do well even if you are a bad teacher. The best teacher I ever had in my life said that 20% of students will do great no matter how poorly you teach, 20% will do poorly no matter how well you teach, but there are the 60% in the middle where your quality of teaching really makes a difference, so they are the people you should try to reach. To them, explicitly pointing out what to pay attention to and why, and how it relates to their overall educational goals and hopefully their interests, or where they may have seen the concepts before makes a huge difference.
  4. Office hours are useful for students and for you and can be great fun. The only way to learn where your teaching is working (or not) or where your students’ preparation is adequate (or not) is from the students. So give them ample chance to interact with you; the baseline is having office hours. As my experience with teaching increased, so did my ability to get the students to ask questions in class and to come to office hours. Having more office hours is not necessarily better if they are not properly scheduled. Choose due dates for homework so they are not on a Monday (because students will then work over the weekend, when they can’t come ask for help). Organize office hours so you are available before the deadline. Increase availability before the exam.

The colleague I reviewed is a smart and knowledgeable guy. He is also serious and to the point; one of the reasons we hired him was that he showed lots of technical substance and creativity, with no bullshit or fluff.  For the same reasons, I don’t see him becoming the charismatic beloved teacher that some of my colleagues are, seamlessly weaving lecture material and anecdotes about their kids . And he shouldn’t have to; there should be space for serious people in the lecture hall, people who are kind and patient, but not necessarily vaudeville performers.

My point is that your personality is your personality, and you should work with it and not against it. If you love cracking jokes, go for it. If you are serious, by all means be serious. In teaching people to teach, there are tenets that are really overarching and are centered on students and on learning: focus on proper content; on clarity; on proper emphasis of importance, on engaging not just the students’ ears but eyes and minds and hands with assignments; on kindness, patience, and availability. But the rest — how you go about fulfilling these requirements, minutiae of content delivery, mannerisms — should be left up to the teacher. There is no one true style; it’s not something that can be taught nor something that should. The teacher’s unique personality is a key ingredient in successful teaching.

4 comments

  1. “your personality is your personality, and you should work with it and not against it”

    This, this, a thousand times this.

    It’s difficult as a pre-tenure woman: I feel so compelled to be what everyone else seems to want (encouraging, kind, not too difficult or demanding, nice, etc) which by contrast leaves me feeling like a witch. But you’re absolutely right: I can’t be anyone but me.

  2. I am trying to teach the 60% now. Last time I taught this class I assumed that student knew a lot (which is incorrect). This time I am dumbing down the material much more ( I feel stupid at times asking students if they get what I am saying) and they seem to be learning more and doing better overall.

    Lets see how this effects my teaching evaluations 😀

  3. Another thing that I think really helps on the ’emphasize the important’ piece is to give practice exams/problems so that they know what to study. I’ve started doing quizzes in class to get them to do the readings and come to class and it seems to work pretty well. Many of those 60% don’t seem to realize that they need to study outside of class too if they want to learn, and more prompts are helpful to 1) actually study and 2) study the important things.

  4. I have something due pretty much every day. Sometimes it’s a long problem set that they’ll need a week to work on, other times it’s a short warm-up or refresher just to keep them thinking and preparing for what we’ll be doing today. I subscribe to the timeless insight that if you want to learn something you need to keep practicing. I’m sure there’s a buzzword that I could use for it, but I’d feel dirty.

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