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.


  1. Do you think there should be a place in academia for a good scientist who is crappy at lecturing to undergrads?

    Could a reasonable model for a department be where many faculty focus on doing great research and do a minimal job of teaching upper division/grad seminars. And then hire great lecturers (or other faculty who love teaching) for the large enrollment classes and important major courses?

    It seems like there are departments in med schools/etc. and even some natural science depts at Harvard/MIT/Stanford/etc that work like that. I wonder if we should bother intervening with faculty (my Dept does too) who really don’t care that much about being a great teacher and just want to do great research. Those faculty can still do much of what the department cares about (recruiting top students/postdocs/faculty, prestige, raising funding, etc), so maybe they should be allowed to just teach easy grad seminars, or continuously buy out or whatever?

  2. This is great advice. I hope your junior colleague takes it to heart.

    To 1/8 I would add:
    I don’t think you need to avoid 75-min lectures if you’re using interactivity and being a little dynamic with your lectures. I’ve only ever done 80-min lectures, but my classes are pretty interactive, and even for my gen-ed class last semester I got comments on my evals about how the students could never fall asleep in my class. I do lecture most of the class period, but I generally do 2-3 think-pair-share questions per class, plus occasional in-class activities (once every week or two) like a demo or guided investigation that takes up ~15min of class time. This level of interactivity seems to be enough to keep my classes engaged. I think it also helps to know names and develop rapport with the students — makes them more likely to participate, and it’s a virtuous cycle.

    To 2/5 I would add:
    YES on the timing of HW sets. I just shake my head when I hear about faculty who have problem sets due on Mondays — what a way to set yourself up for panicked student emails at midnight Sunday night and grumpy/frazzled students in class the next day. I do the same as you, except that I coordinate my office hours with the TA session: if HW is due on Wednesday, TA session is Mon night and my office hours are Tuesday afternoon. Gives the students help when they need it, and I get higher attendance at office hours. TA sessions and office hours are both structured as group problem-solving sessions — the students are expected to come with questions, and they are welcome to work on the HW with their classmates during the help sessions (as long as they write up their own independent solutions afterwards). TAs and I facilitate rather than field questions from the front of the classroom. So it’s sort of like what you’re saying about teaching your own discussion, except that I have the TAs kick it off because students are much more likely to want to get help from the TAs, especially early on in the semester, and it encourages students to get started early in the week and then come to me if they still need help the next day. I also have office hours Friday afternoon, which have very low attendance (usually I get nobody), but provide an opportunity for students who want to have a private one-on-one conversation about whatever (their grades, issues in their personal lives that are impacting their coursework, study strategies, etc). So that office hour is for low-quantity but high-quality interactions, and most of the time I just get to sit there grading.

    To 4 I would add:
    – More frequent exams with built-in leniency for screw-ups work best for me. Sometimes I do short (20-30min) quizzes every other week in lieu of midterms, and then I drop the lowest quiz. If I do midterms, it’s always two, and I usually give them incentive for improvement: if they improve between midterm 1 and 2, I use the higher grade for both midterm grades (I mostly do this in high-freshman-enrollment classes, since it’s so common for freshmen to bomb the first midterm).

  3. xyq – very good points. (Although every individual’s mileage will vary slightly. For example, I do better with twice a week lectures, because I can spend more of the time in class discussion and in that interminable pause waiting for students to answer a question I’ve asked. I spend the first part of the lecture going over the homework that was due that day and the last part in discussion. At 3x/wk, I couldn’t do that. And as hard as I try, I’ve never been able to remember more than about 20 names out of the 100 in the class.)

    A couple of comments on other points:

    5. There’s a huge advantage to teaching your own discussion. It makes you more accessible. I find that teaching my own discussion helps mitigate the age difference. One of the biggest problems I find is that the students are intimidated by me. Teaching my own discussion helps connect them to me at a less “scholar-on-the-stage” level. Remember, they live on TV and youtube and are used to watching without interacting. (Comments are given to peers about the subject, not to the video subject itself.) I find teaching discussion breaks that fourth wall.

    8. On the subject of a microphone. An interesting anecdote is that in my class this year, for the first time (because class is now 20 percent larger than I’ve ever had to deal with before), I tested a mic and the students immediately shut down and went into “listening mode”. You could see it in their posture. So I put away the mic, and started calling on them again. Luckily, I have a strong voice and a background in performance, so I can project my voice well. (I do a lot of wandering around and calling on people – think evangelical preacher or stand-up comedy working the audience.)

    The other thing that I did this year is I got them to chant “Come to office hours”. In my syllabus day, I said over and over to come to office hours. “When you don’t understand something, what do you do?” “Come to office hours!” And then, at the end, I told the story of the student coming crying into my office on the last day of class asking what to do given they were failing the class. To which the answer was unfortunately, “nothing”. I told them that I felt terrible, but what I had wanted to say was “what part of come talk to me that I wrote on every test did you not understand.” And I said “what should the student have done?” And they all rolled their eyes and said “Come to office hours!” You know what, though? For the first time in a dozen years teaching classes like this, my office hours are full. When I commented on this, one of the students told me that they felt I really did want them at office hours, but that they felt most professors didn’t.

  4. Oh, and in general, having built-in leniency for screw-ups is something that really makes my life easier. The first day of class, I tell them about all the built-in leniency: “I realize that life happens, so I drop the lowest homework, quiz, and pre-class reading assignment, incentivize improvement on the midterm, etc.” They are usually nodding and smiling happily at that point. Then I say: “The flip side of this approach is that I will generally not offer extensions, because I already have the built-in leniency for when life happens to you during the semester. In exceptional circumstances you should of course come to speak with me, but please don’t waste your free homework by blowing off an assignment at the start of the semester, because I can almost guarantee that you will regret it later.” Then when I get the inevitable student coming to me all sad-faced because they had six midterms and a 50-page paper due that week and could they just have one more day on the homework please? I get to say guilt-free: “Wow, that sounds like a lot of work — what a rough week! As I said at the beginning of the semester, this is exactly the sort of situation that the dropped homework grade is made for — so don’t worry, if you don’t turn in the HW this week, or if you do a worse-than-usual job, it won’t count towards your final grade.” They almost always respond really well to this approach, and I tend to get frequent comments about how fair I am with assignments.

  5. PS. In terms of problem sets due on monday. I have found that this is OK, as long as (1) the timing is the same every week, and (2) there is an office hours between each class and homework due date. So if class is MW, then office hours Tu/F.

    The other thing that I do is lots and lots of low-impact homework, so they can screw it up the first few weeks and still do well in the course. Once they realize they need to turn in the homework before M, they start coming to office hours on F.

  6. If your junior colleague is going to get tenure regardless of his lackluster teaching, what’s the incentive for him to change? So he can do more heavy lifting? That sounds unlikely.

    Some other suggestions:

    If you use slides/powerpoints, use a pointer to refer to what you are projecting. Mix it up, so some days you use the board instead of a projector.

    Ban laptops

    If your grad student TA line gets cut, don’t get tempted to use undergrad TAs.

    Ask a friendly colleague to sit in, and let you know if you are speaking as clearly and loudly as you think.

    If you’re not a naturally warm and caring person, learn to fake it! A little kindness and empathy can mean a lot, especially to 1st year students.

    Don’t be too judgmental of your failing students. You have no idea what else is going in their lives. Unless you catch them cheating, and then judge the hell out of them.

  7. I also make long homework sets due on Wednesday, but I actually have shorter assignments due on Monday and Friday. Those assignments are generally one problem broken up into several simple steps, either to give them a warm-up for what is due Wednesday, an introduction to what will be done today, or a refresher on what they just did last time so they don’t forget it. Teaching MWF makes it possible to give them more frequent practice like that.

    As to this:
    “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. ”

    The absolute worst is the person who talks constantly about their commitment to student success but clearly prefers attending meetings on student success to actually teaching core classes that sutdents need in order to succeed.

  8. I am so jealous of the control you have over your teaching!!! Sigh… I’m stuck with team teaching, centralised timetabling with no standard spacing rules (as in, if I ask for 3×50 mins sometimes I get 9-9.50, 10-10.50 and 17-17.50 on the same day of the week) etc.

    V impressed by your memory too, but there again I took the same small advanced maths classes with only two other girls all through high school and we were good friends, visiting each other’s houses etc – and I still got their names mixed up sometimes. That bit of my brain works REALLY BADLY. What I do is tell students directly that I have a memory problem with people’s faces and names, and it doesn’t mean I don’t care – they seem to be ok with that.

    Agree completely about the real caring being essential – and as a very single, childless person I don’t think you need to be a mom to have it – it may even benefit from me not being a mom, people have suggested (that just might be the usual subtle “real women need to nurture so it’s easy for them” put down I get a lot) . Also I like them, even if they are unfinished and naive and sometimes stubbornly unwilling to se how cool science is and in other ways not my ideal students…)

  9. Two other things:
    1) Undergrad TAs, properly used, are a fine thing. If properly used they admittedly won’t be as useful as a decent graduate TA, but they’ll provide a little help, do no harm, and learn a ton.

    2) I do scheduling for my department, and I have one simple rule: If you are a tenured or tenure-track professor you have no right to complain that you didn’t get your preferred TuTh schedule. The part-timers all want TuTh schedules, and since they have other jobs and shitty pay, the least I can do is help them out. I do what I can to give the tenured/tenure-track faculty some TuTh classes if they want them, but my first priority is to do what I can to make things a bit less shitty for the bottom-tier people that the entire system is riding on the backs of. The whole thing would grind to a halt without them, so I make it a priority to keep them from revolting.

    If you want a TuTh evening class I can probably help you out. Ditto if you want a TuTh mid-day class in a special lab facility that’s used for very few other classes. But if you don’t want to arrive on campus before 9 or leave after 2, and you want to teach in a popular room, then it’s going to be harder to give you that TuTh schedule. That’s just a fact.

  10. re leniency:
    As of a few years ago I switched to the following grading strategy (this is for undergrads, with grad students I have projects etc.): they have N HW assignments, and they have to correctly complete (over a certain reasonable percentage) at least N-3 assignments. If they do, they have satisfied the HW requirement; otherwise, they haven’t. The point is that I want them to do most of their HW, but if they cannot for a week or two or three, no harm done.

    The grade is based 100% on the exams, each exam carrying the same weight. If a student has satisfied the HW requirement, they get to keep all their hard-earned exam points; it they haven’t satisfied the HW requirement, they lose 10% of their exam points.

    This way they are not rewarded for doing HW, they are penalized for not doing it. What I want to convey is that HW is par for the course; no bonus points for doing something that is expected of every student in the class. This way I also don’t have to police how they do it, if they copy it from one another etc., I just make sure they try to do most of it most of the time (which they need to do to prep for exams anyway). I am also free to discuss HW in as much detail as I want with them during discussion and office hours, because it’s only important that they do it, not that they do it independently for an addition to their grade.

    I also tell them that I look for both stability and for growth in their exam scores, so that if someone has had a low start but the other three exams are at a higher level, then I will look at just the last three exams. About 10-15% of the class does have a very low first exam, but the next three are at a much higher level (much higher = more than 15% jump). The rest are all either stable around where they are, or you have capable kids who don’t work steadily and their exams are high, then low (didn’t study), then high again (after “oh shit, I better study”), etc. I don’t want to reward yo-yoing or poor time management, which is why there is no blanket dropping of the lowest exam score.

  11. You are very lucky to have all this control. Here in UK, none of the things you mention are possible, timetables and venues are pre-set for the whole university (so students in different programs have the smallest possible number of timtable clashes), classes are team taught (sometimes up to 10 academics per course) and types and times of assessment are pre-defined and can’t be changed by an individual.

    So for here, the only aplicable things from your list are learning names (not feasible for me in classes of >200) and making lectures interesting, which I already do.

  12. I’m learning to teach at the moment, second semester teaching a mid-sized 2nd year course. So it’s really interesting to hear people’s perspectives. One thing that stuck out to me from the way you describe your course is it seems (without a TA) you’d have to be spending many hours grading homeworks and exams?

    What is your opinion about carefully crafted self-graded homeworks? I am trying it for the first time as a test during one unit this semester (in addition to less-frequent on-paper homeworks and ungraded practice problems from the book) and the students seem to LOVE it. On my side, I get near-instant feedback about which topics students are struggling with so I can use that information when designing review. It’s slightly more impersonal, I suppose.

    Also you run your own discussions? So in addition to 3 hours a week of lecture you also do 5 hours of discussion?? That seems like an incredible drain on your time. Or does your Uni allow discussions with all 100 students present at once?

  13. Hi jojo, the discussion is optional and is 90 min/week. It’s in a lecture hall, same as the lecture (although I would like to get a classroom with smaller-group seating, but there aren’t any that are big enough). I have about 60-70% of the students coming to discussion and we work through HW problems and discuss various tangents related to the course; basically, they lead/choose what we discuss. The department doesn’t care how much time I spend with the students on top of the 150 min/week lecture as long as they don’t have to pay extra (i.e., fund a full TA) to do that. I also have 3x2hrs a week office hours, and always have someone in my office; most of the time it’s full. (Pro tip: Have students work problems that they struggle with in your office on the board. It helps you see clearly where they stumble, it helps them tremendously as it clarifies their thinking, and it also helps teach other students who are in the office.)

    I do grade all the exams (4), but for HW I have a grader (they are paid by the hour so it’s easier to get the department to agree for some grader hours than give me a TA). If I didn’t get a grader for HW, I would have to go the spot-grading or self-grading or some other form of electronic grading route. When you say self-graded, do you mean electronic? Depending on how tech-savvy and interested you are, the type of material you teach, and the amount of time you have available, you can certainly craft completely electronic homework and exams — there are some courses in the department that do that effectively and students always love it. (For some the courses in my department, I am skeptical because I have seen the products of the flipped classroom in earlier courses and it’s not looking great, but there are others where it had gone all electronic and works well, but it’s a lot of work).

  14. Yes, I mean online, autograded homeworks. On the platform I’m currently using, students get instant feedback if they get it wrong and have an opportunity to try again. I am assigning 1 per lecture and students have a reasonable amount of time to complete it (many students do it that day). I’m currently looking at the results (broken down by % right and # of attempts as I design a review day for the unit’s exam. The main reason I’m doing this is that students were asking for additional practice problems last semester.

    I see, so the students don’t have to register for the discussion – do you ever get complaints from students that they can’t make the discussion section (so it’s “unfair”)? I suppose you could advise them to come to office hours in lieu of discussion. I think I will at least start moving my pre-exam office hours to a larger room to facilitate larger numbers of people for review.

    Thanks again for the posts.

  15. I use autograded problems to supplement ungraded HW. I find machine graded problems are reasonably helpful in getting the students to keep up with the work. It is hard to do challenging, multi-step problems in that format, though, since the feedback to the student is yes/no. In my typical class size, I can’t possibly grade the HW, and I don’t have a grader. I do use assigned HW problems as the basis for some exam questions, so students who do (and understand) the HW tend to do well on the exams. I used to have 2 long exams + a final, but next year I am thinking of switching to 4 shorter exams + a final to get the students more frequent evaluation.

    I have 3-4 hours of office hours per week, but attendance at these varies a lot. I always get at least a handful of students, though. I have open office hours on the days of my exams. I try hard to convey that I want my students to come to my office hours, and they eventually start coming 🙂

  16. I see, so the students don’t have to register for the discussion – do you ever get complaints from students that they can’t make the discussion section (so it’s “unfair”)? I suppose you could advise them to come to office hours in lieu of discussion.

    There are a couple of ingredients. Most labs in my department are late afternoon on Tue, Wed, and Thu, which means that the chance of student availability is higher on Mon and Fri late afternoon; I schedule my discussion on Monday late afternoons for that reason, plus it’s right after my mid-afternoon Monday class. The discussion is on the schedule, listed as optional, and students can register for both lecture and discussion when they register for the course (they cannot register for the discussion separately, but they can certainly attend if not registered). I also request that a note be made when they register for the course “Discussion strongly encouraged.” And before the semester starts, I send out an email telling all the students who registered for the lecture that even if they haven’t registered for discussion they can attend, it’s very useful, so they might want to rework their schedule accordingly before classes start. There are always some who have something else at discussion time, I can’t do much about that, but they are a minority and I do encourage them to come to office hours instead.

    Prodigal, that’s a tough break — no grader at all! I feel that discussion (where I work HW problems in detail) plus detailed posted solutions do help with student learning; this is especially true for the art of setting up and then solving a multi-part problem systematically — that simply has to be taught by an experienced instructor.

  17. I have homework due on mondays or tuesdays depending on which days of the week I’m teaching because I don’t get an option of teaching 3x per week (lately it has been 1x/week because I have big sections and need the big room which is only scheduled in 3 hour chunks) fridays are recitation days, and I want them to start on the homework long before the weekend. I do give them the option of checking their answers if they’ve finished prior to Friday office hours. When I teach just wed or thurs, I set my last office hours on Monday or tues respectively. Generally I have one set a day or two after class and one set two days before the due date.

    What usually happens is the hardworking students finish and check on Friday and then help out their friends on the weekends. It doesn’t work out for everybody but it does keep me from having stressed out students needing me to explain everything they needed to know but forgot from the lecture because it was almost a full week ago and then staying up all night to finish, falling asleep in class the next day. It forces a good portion of the students to start the homework early enough to actually finish it.

  18. “Do you think there should be a place in academia for a good scientist who is crappy at lecturing to undergrads?”

    Perhaps. But these folks would need to pay at least 75% of their salaries through grants — i.e., they get the kind of “tenure” that many people at med schools or in soft money positions have.

    What I don’t think there should be any place for in Academia is people who don’t give a shit about teaching, refuse to take reasonable steps to improve, when necessary, and want to be called professors and have a 9 mo. guaranteed salary from the dept.

  19. Another UK person here with a question: as AnonP above, we are also restricted with timetables, lengths of classes and venues that we get and we teach large classes (~200). For example, my 2nd year class timetable is 1hr lecture at 9 am Mon-Wed and then computer labs in several groups on Fri morning and afternoon (these are run by a TA + myself in a computer lab seating 50-60 students). All these are unpopular slots that result in about 60% attendance, which is often sporadic, i.e. they come to one lecture per week. None of our activites are obligatory and we are not allowed to take attendance, which would probably help. Also because the timetable is set centrally so that there are minimal clashes between programmes, there is no chance to change it.

    So what happens are two things. 1) attendance is low, so students consequently can’t evaluate my teaching properly (how can they tell I was explaining things clearly if they were not present?). 2) there is a subset of students who didn’t attend anything, but expects to pass the exam and when they don’t, they complain that they didn’t understand anything and I wasn’t available for help (of course this type of student also never shows up to the office hours nor goes to the stats/maths one-on-one help that is organised by the student union and where I always point them to as an additional resource on top of my office hours) and their comments in evaluations reflect that.

    Given our limitations, what would you recommend to get over this problem and both motivate students to show up and raise evaluations? Things like learning everyone’s names is impossible with 200 students, especially if they don’t show up. Caring is fine, but you can care all you want, but can’t help someone if they don’t want to put any effort into the learning process to the point that they don’t even show up.

    Any suggestions would be welcome.

  20. UKacademic: Here I think only large-enrollment freshman courses are centrally scheduled (because everyone takes them). The rest are in the domain of individual departments; departments make sure their own courses that students take concurrently don’t overlap, but other than that they try to accommodate faculty preferences for time (especially if you don’t insist on TueThu “prime time” slots) and room type. (Students have a lot of freedom in tailoring their own program of study, so it’s impossible to prevent all imaginable overlaps with all other programs on campus.)

    Not sure what to do with people who won’t show up. Some faculty have mandatory in-class pop quizzes to make sure students show up to class, but if you aren’t allowed to have any in-class activity that’s required, then that’s no help.

    Ultimately, you can’t teach/help those who don’t want it. And you can’t make people like you if they are dead-set on blaming their educational failures on you. There are always some grumpy comments in evaluations, and after having been on the merit review committees, I assure you that even the best, most beloved and most decorated teachers also get a small fraction of disgruntled comments. Unless these pose an actual problem when you yourself are being evaluated, I would just try to think of them as an inescapable cost of doing business. (This is easy for me to say, but I know it’s hard to not get ticked off and I still definitely do when I read such comments, no matter how few and far between they are.)

  21. These past two posts have been really informative for me, especially since I still consider myself new to teaching.
    Could you have a similar series of posts detailing how one should approach writing a letter of recommendation? On occasions you’ve mentioned your very special talent for writing recommendations and I’m in a position where I have to write some for a couple of students and a colleague. On one hand I feel honored that they chose me but on the other hand I feel pressured to make sure that the letters are compelling. A colleague of mine aptly pointed that out the all the letters of recommendation I will be writing are for women and I will help diversify our university and academia. I’m worried because I know that a bad or lukewarm letter of recommendation can do a lot of harm.
    How do you approach your recommendations so that they are effective and not damaging?

  22. I’m surprised that you don’t mention anything about active learning or student engagement in your classes, only that you are a very good “lecturer.” The research overwhelmingly shows that active learning supports student achievement of learning outcomes, so those who interested in being the best teachers they can be should definitely consider how it fits in their courses!

  23. idm, about active learning:

    First, I hate how “active learning” has been co-opted to mean “not lecturing,” because lecturing supposedly means passive learning? A good lecture is a very dynamic endeavor, with a lot of student engagement. There are questions/answers, I also give short quizzes, and do demos. I know some commenters incorporate think/pair/share into their lectures. I firmly believe that a well-crafted and well-paced lecture with good examples and plenty of opportunity for students to both ask and answer questions remains a key component of education. It is to be supplemented with well-chosen materials that the students work on at home. Nothing can replace extensive deliberate practice that the student has to undertake.

    Now as for the flipped classroom, I have written about it before, and I know research shows it should be a panacea and the solution to all our education woes. My attitude towards the fully flipped classroom is fairly negative, in part because several of my colleagues have flipped their classrooms. In particular:

    a) The flipped classroom is very easy to botch and turn into a time-wasting enterprise for everyone. Doing the flipped classroom well requires an enormous time investment (all the materials — videos, interactive HW, electronic exams — have to be created with extreme care to be effective). Personally, if someone is ho-hum about teaching, like my young colleague, he will probably do less harm in a traditional lecture than in a flipped classroom (unless he uses someone else’s materials completely).

    b) I am 100% convinced that it is a better idea for certain courses than others. It depends on the course level and content, as well as class size. The students themselves will come and say it.

    c) I have had the misfortune of teaching a required course that follows another required course, which had been fully flipped for several years. That flipped course and its instructor have been lauded as the second coming and he is a true flipped-classroom zealot. Well, I can tell you that whatever students learn in his class is bull$hit, because they don’t know anything when they come to my class. What I know is that they feel warm and fuzzy about never having to do anything hard at home alone and doing homework in class is appealing, but then they come to my class and see that they don’t understand the concepts, definitely not well enough to apply them to specific problems. And they haven’t actually been shown how to systematically solve any problems. So I spend a lot of time re-teaching the material from the flipped course, just so the students would acquire enough proficiency so we can move into the actual course I am supposed to teach.

    d) To me, the insistence on everything being interactive and with other people (*shudder*) would have been a definition of hell when I was in college. Has anyone asked any introverts how they feel about the necessity to work closely, all the time, with other students? There is something to be said for leaving people alone, to think in peace.

    e) A senior colleague is a big flipped-classroom proponent and he and I discuss this issue all the time. The thing is, there is no panacea. There is no size that fits all. There is inherent value in having different teaching techniques available to students. And yes, I am also resisting what seems to me as yet another fad and a call for uniformity, pushed relentlessly. Any metric of student achievement that you think the flipped classroom is hitting, I guarantee my students hit just as well if not better. We have frequent feedback (frequent exams and HW), plenty of contact hours to get questions answered (discussion, office hours), lots of material for deliberate practice.

    f) There is one fundamental aspect where the colleague (a gregarious extrovert) and I (a grumpy introvert) disagree. He thinks students should never feel uncomfortable that they can’t do a problem, so they should only ever work on problems in class, with an instructor just a few feet away. Fundamentally, I disagree. First, 150 min per week is not enough practice, especially if the students don’t view the lecture videos at home. Second, without ever sweating over a problem and trying to crack it on your own, you will never truly master anything. If one’s goal is to create students who feel good all the time even though they likely know squat, then yes, colleague’s flipped classroom all the way. (The colleague thinks happy, comfortable students make more likely future donors — yes, he’s a passionate Koolaid drinker and a jolly member of the welcoming committee for the corporatization of the university; I’d think well educated students who go on to be successful and appreciate the education received will be more likely to be future donors, but what do I know.) Anyway, then they come to me and have to be retaught everything to be able to do actual problems and move onto follow-on courses.

    So yeah, I’ve got opinions! 🙂 idm, I hope I haven’t freaked you out — this is nothing against you, of course.
    I have written about teaching extensively before, I recommend looking at the “teaching” tag.

  24. Longtime lurker, thanks for delurking! I think I mentioned being good at nominating people for awards. I can certainly write about letters of recommendation in the near future.

  25. No, no, no. All lecturers are bad, and all active learning is good. I learned that in a seminar that was so poorly presented I wanted to fake appendicitis just to get out of the room. Irony!

    In my experience, active learning classes drastically cut down on the amount of material covered. So more students master the material, but there’s less material to master. Is that a good thing in the long run? That’s also a conversation that we need to have. (It also makes those “controlled” comparisons between active learning and lecture-based classes problematic.)

  26. A lot of the studies of science education are done by people whose background is in the natural sciences, not the social sciences. Even if they have research training in pedagogical research, the bulk of their background and perspective comes from natural science or engineering training, not social science.

    Here’s a fascinating recent study with an experienced educational psychologist, who is hardly a foe of active learning. This researcher notes some of the issues with comparisons that anon notes, and reports a surprising finding:


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