Day: March 18, 2017

On Teaching, Yet Again (Part 2)

Here are some things that came up over the past few weeks as I thought about the teaching performance of that junior colleague of mine.

Here is a hodge-podge of things that I think work for me, or in general. I am assuming here a semester system, and a typical 3-credit course equivalent to 150 min of class time per week. I am sure you can extrapolate appropriately.

Also, I assume you as the teacher have some say in when and where you teach (e.g., you can request that your class be offered 2x or 3x per week, you can put in requests for a certain type of classroom or a certain time of day, etc.) I also understand that my R1 privilege is showing in that I (and my colleagues) typically teach 1 course per semester, and that, if you have to teach 3-4 courses per semester, many of the things I will write about are simply not feasible.

So here are some specific things one can do to be more effective as a teacher without sacrificing all their time to teaching:

1. More frequent, shorter class meetings
With undergraduate courses, teaching 3x a week for 50 min is better than 2x per week for 75 min (the kids call the latter “power lectures”).
Most faculty love to teach 2x per week because this frees up their time for non-teaching pursuits. But these 75-min slots are too long to keep focus and are a bad idea for undergraduates. Either take a few-minute break or teach 3x per week.

2. Right timing of due dates for homework. Being available to students
Do not have homework due too early in the week. Assume that undergrads work on homework within a day or two before the due date, and if those days are on the weekend or early in the week — before they get a chance to see you or the TA (if you are lucky to have one) for office hours — they will feel lost and will feel that you don’t have enough office hours. Even if you make yourself available for 10 hours a week, unless those are timed properly, you will get very little student appreciation for all your availability.

I usually have the HW due on Wednesdays if I teach MWF (on Thursday if I teach TR), and I have a discussion usually on Monday late afternoons (or Tue afternoon if teaching TR), and at least one and usually two office hours slots between Monday and the due date for the HW. While I start with some office hours at the beginning of the semester, if I don’t have high attendance, I will poll the students and move the office hours around so they are aligned with both the due dates for HW and with their availability. This is another way to ensure that both you and they get the most of the time that you do devote to office hours.

I also have additional office hours before each midterm.

3. Weekly homework
I assign a lot of homework and I do it weekly. They get a break after we’ve just had a midterm, but other than that I have homework due every week, on the same day and at the same time, and the turn-in is all electronic, so they get to keep their homework while the copies are being graded.

4. More frequent exams
More frequent feedback is better. More frequent, shorter exams, covering a few weeks worth of material are better at keeping students working continuously and stressing less about each individual exam than longer, higher-stakes exams. The downside is more frequent grading for me. But, grading all exams myself lets me see what they do and don’t know and helps me get to know my students better.

5. I teach my own discussion
I know, it’s more of my time, but it requires no prep (I already have to assign homework and write the solutions anyway), so it’s really no big deal to work extra examples or homework problems with the students during discussion, and it helps me to get to know them better. Everyone is more relaxed and everything is more free-form in discussion.

The only downside is that perhaps the students could better relate to a TA (smaller age difference) and it would be good to get someone else’s perspective besides mine. But, considering that the TA support has been going down the drain in my college, it’s really not between me and the TA but between discussion with me and no discussion at all. Most lower-level classes with a lot of math and physics really need a discussion, and the students invariably hail it as very useful, because that’s where we work out the problems in gory detail.

6. I know every student’s name
I don’t know if I would be able to pull that off in a 400-person class, but I can definitely do it in a 100-person class. It takes me a couple of weeks to remember their faces, and from there on it’s not hard to slowly attach names to faces. By midsemester, I know everyone by name, and I can call them out. I think knowing the names makes a huge difference, because it makes the students more accountable. They feel like someone gives a damn if they are there or not, if they are doing their work or not. It makes a giant class a little more personal.

7. Find the classroom and time of day that works for you
Many of my colleagues like to be done with teaching early in the morning, twice a week, and then go do other things.
I like to teach in the afternoons because that leaves mornings for intellectually nontrivial work. By midafternoon, I am already somewhat spent, so I can go teach — it gets my adrenaline pumping better than a second cup of coffee! I can keep going for several hours after class on the adrenaline high alone. (At night, I do sleep like the dead after the days when I teach.) But if you teach midafternoon, be ready for sleepy students — teaching in a dimly lit auditorium because you use PPTs is a recipe for student snoozing. I am vehemently in the markers-on-the-white-board-and-talk camp. I use the projector when I have a good reason, i.e., when I want to show something that cannot be easily drawn, but otherwise it’s all the lights on.

I have a set of classrooms that I strongly prefer and always request (and I can usually get what I want, because I teach in the afternoons, when the demand is low).

8. Keep the lecture interesting
If you are going to teach lecture style, you have to give the students something to focus their attention on. Ideally you will speak loudly enough so that the whole class can hear you  (I am quite loud myself) or you need a microphone; you will  move around the classroom,  gesticulate, write and draw on the board… Something should always be happening in front of the students. Some of my colleagues call it (derisively) entertainment; I think these are the basics of keeping people’s attention focused on you. I don’t see that it’s some sort of badge of honor to bore the hell out of your students by intentionally making sure they are not entertained.

A junior professor whose class I attended was, to be completely honest, boring as all hell. Speaking in monotone, not moving away from the lectern, dimly lit classroom, 75-min time slot. Pretty much anything he could do wrong, he did.

9. Caring matters
I can’t guarantee this helps, but I think it does — I really, genuinely, like undergrads. They are totally adorable. Me being a mom has a lot to do with my warm feelings towards undergrads. They remind me of my kids, and I probably remind them of their moms (it’s scary that I could actually be the mom to all my undergrads — I would have been a mom in my very early twenties, but totally feasible). I  do kick their butts with the material, make no mistake, and they sweat and huff and puff, but they don’t seem to hate me for it. I think students respond to genuine caring; if you read random comments on RMP, you will see many students talking about a professor caring about their students’ success. If they perceive you as genuinely caring, they will follow you through large amounts of work and very challenging material.

The students need this human connection, they need to know that you really care that they do well, and ideally that you care about them as people (see the bit about knowing their names). That’s why MOOC were always stupid.


This all started as I was thinking about the less-than-stellar classroom performance of my junior colleague.

Here’s the main thing: you cannot say that you care about the student success but at the same time treat teaching as a nuisance, something in the way of your research, and do everything in your power to minimize the time spent on interacting with students. Students notice that. 

That is ultimately the main problem with the junior faculty member in question.  On the one hand, of course, he’s on the tenure track, he should be focused on his research, which he is most definitely doing. Yet he says that he wants to improve teaching, but his actions speak differently. He focuses on maximizing the time he’s able to travel and has scheduled his class accordingly; he has minimal and fairly poorly scheduled office hours (honestly, to me it sounds like he purposefully scheduled them so that no one shows up). Again, all justifiable and likely prudent for a junior faculty member, but definitely coming across as not particularly giving a $hit about teaching.

He was a bit angry at his student evaluations and said it didn’t mean he couldn’t teach, as he could teach grad students just fine (don’t we all?), but that the problem was that the students in the undergraduate course were not motivated. See Part 1 of this essay — you have to teach the students you have, not those you wish you had, and anyone can teach a motivated student. I am not convinced he can teach all that great, honestly; I didn’t want to share how excruciatingly bored I was in his lecture; maybe I should have.

I gave him some of the logistical pointers above, and hopefully some of them work for him to get a better connection with students without too much extra time. We as a department have to show that we have intervened and made him take seminars and workshops to improve his teaching, and my written evaluation of his teaching included specific recommendations as to these resources.

Overall, he is an excellent scientist, so I don’t think he will have problems getting tenure. But I don’t see him doing the heavy lifting when it comes to the department’s teaching mission in the future.