Thursday, October 2, 2014

Prepping for Class

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University is putting on (an excellent) series for new Assistant Professors (1st and 2nd years).

1. Advice from tenured professors for pre-tenure faculty

The second seminar I attended is about preparing for class. Some of the focus was about Arizona State University specifically, but much of the advice is applicable to anyone starting out teaching. The format was a panel discussion with three Assistant Professors (past their 3rd year review) and four Associate Professors. This group included winners of the Zebulon Pearce Award for teaching excellence, and one panelist who was invited to participate an an HHMI initiative to improve science education. The disciplines represented were wide, spanning across the Sciences and Humanities. You'll notice in my notes that there are some contradictory comments. Hey, they happens when a group of people talk about their teaching advice. Here we go:

Use the resources available to you
  • Ask to see syllabus and course notes from previous years.
  • Ask questions of those who taught before, what worked, what didn't.
  • You don't have to reinvent the wheel to prove yourself as an educator.
  • Be cautious: Just because a class has been taught before doesn't mean it was taught well.
Manage classroom time
  • Practice application of materials in class. If you expect students to do something (e.g., apply knowledge) on the exam, you need to teach them the critical thinking skills in class and in homework. They won't automatically know how to take it that extra step. 
  • Students may behave poorly. By not addressing problems, you enable them.
  • In large classes, walking around the classroom (and having TA's walk) can help keep students focused.
  • Prepare for misinformation that might be widely available about your topic.
  • Prepare for dissenting voices. Think about that one student who will antagonize you, and try to preemptively address it, or be prepared with a quick response if that voice speaks up.
Create an authentic model of authority
  • If you aren't an old white guy, don't act like an old white guy.
  • Some people command respect , but that isn't for everyone.
  • You can create a bond of respect that you are comfortable with.
Evaluate student learning and experience more than once
  • Leave a blank page at the end of each exam for students to tear off and leave anonymous comments about the class.
  • Evaluate at least once before or at the midpoint of the semester. For you. For your students. 
  • If using online technology, can run rolling quizzes. Put online at 8am Friday, and students have until 8am Monday to complete.
Interacting with students over email can require patience, and preparation
  • Wait (a day or two) to respond to emails that frustrate you.
  • Set the tone. Use a full salutation. Many students never learned how to write a proper letter.
  • Write a draft email that you can cut and paste in response to all of the similar questions you will get.
How do you stop obsessing and stressing about teaching? 
  • Assess whether it is true anxiety that affects you (if so, seek additional help). Or, check if it is care about student success and it is motivating you.
  • Allocate time for teaching. Allow yourself to stress out that day/time, and not the next.
  • Allow yourself to appreciate what you are doing right.
Structure your teaching so you don't spend all your time on it
  • Respect your prep time and respect your non-prep time. 
  • Put in your syllabus about when you will respond to questions about course materials (e.g., will not respond three hours before email).
  • Make a "need to respond" folder for student emails, then respond during your teaching time.
  • Don't waste your time trying to find "just the right picture." That picture is not going to substantially change the class.
  • Develop discussion questions.
Preparation time rules of thumb
  • 2 hours prep time to one hour of lecture
  • 4-5 hours of prep time to develop active learning activities for for each hour of class time.
  • 7 hours to prep for one completely online hour.
Manage Teaching Assistants (TAs)
  • Set up clear expectations, map out what the semester is going to look like, which weeks are busy and which are going to be lighter.
  • Require that the TAs teach.
  • Have a weekly meeting for the TAs.
  • Keep track of good students so you can ask them to be assistant TAs in future classes.
Use varied approaches to engage students in large lectures
  • Ask a lot of questions.
  • Work in pairs, upload answers to blackboard.
  • Lectures can be very boring
  • Make content into questions. Content will come out in the discussion.
  • Make nameplates for each student (they bring to class each session).
  • Cold call, but allow students to "phone a friend," asking for help from other students.
Teaching surprises (will vary from school to school) 
  • Diversity in background among the students.
  • That I liked teaching.
  • Students have many competing demands and responsibilities.
  • It is the exception that your students won't have a job (full or part); large veteran population.
  • How much students need mentoring. E.g., first generation college student.
  • Surprised and delighted by how you get to change a couple people's lives.
Things we learned the hard way so you don't have to 
  • Check the version of the book (especially if it includes a new ending and/or different material.
  • Cover the required amount of material.
  • Don't try to cover too much (especially packing slides too full).
  • Ask for feedback, but try to prepare yourself for the negative impressions.
General suggestions/thoughts
  • Design your course so that over-committed students can excel. Check in constantly. This doesn't mean cover less content, but it does mean hand-holding, mentoring, and taking a half-step back to reframe the contentt
  • It is generally not good to mirror your teaching expectations of students at your institution based on where you went to school. You will need to learn the dynamic at your new institution.
  • Have each student fill out a notecard with name, other classes, outside commitments. Even in a large class this can be useful for cold-calling.
  • Sometimes students don't read instructions. Make a difficult exam question, but within the  instructions state the answer, for example, "the answer is 'B'."
Whew! Alright, got all that? And we're just scratching the surface here. Please leave your comments and suggestions about teaching for new faculty. Happy teaching!


Mark P said...

Have fun while doing it.

mathbionerd said...

Yes! I do! I gave my first lecture here at ASU on Tuesday, and had a blast (I hope the students enjoyed it and learned something too).

Mark P said...

It's the best part of my job (but don't tell NIH that)

PS make sure you connect with the active learning folks at ASU--it's apparently a leading group and its best to learn to teach that way rather than learning and then unlearning how to lecture

mathbionerd said...

Thank you for the link! I've been attending as many research and teaching workshops as I can this semester, for exactly the reason you mention. I'd rather learn how to do things right the first time, instead of have to unlearn bad habits.

Rachel said...

I would add to prepare your students for how you will teach. Lots of explanation up front makes them a lot more comfortable with non-lecture activities, group work, and anything else that is less comfortable / more challenging.