The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Grad student teaching woes – and a WIN!

I’m teaching the intro zoology lab again this winter.  When I was introduced to the students this week, I saw a few familiar faces from last term.  When the prof announced that I was going to be the TA for the lab…I swear to god this really happened…I saw at least three in-the-air-fist-pumps and heard at least one “Whoo-hoo!” and a “Yay!”

I am doing something right.

At least, I did something right this fall.

Last winter, despite the potential awesomeness of the material we study in this zoology lab, by the end of the term the students were clearly overwhelmed and uncertain as to what the point of it all was.  I sincerely hope that my own teaching skills were not to blame for their negative experiences.

You see, each week the professor in charge basically handed me a list of  “here’s the stuff from the lab manual the students are to look at/do”, and then he would disappear and I would set up the materials and help the students work through the exercises.  I did not, however, have any input as to the objectives, content, or format.  So I did the best I could with what I was given but still ended up feeling pretty lousy about the whole thing, because the STUDENTS seemed to feel pretty lousy about the whole thing.  Not exactly what I was going for.

This year, it seemed like disaster was to strike yet again, only worse.  I don’t know if it’s because he doesn’t care, or doesn’t think it’s important, but I showed up for the first lab session this Wednesday and Dr. Professor said (and I quote): “I don’t know what we’re doing for these labs yet.  Oh, by the way, I’m not going to ask them to buy a lab manual this year.”

Oh for frack’s sake.

That night (after subjecting my wife to a  rant session) I looked at my notes from last year and thought hard about how I would run the labs and what I thought the students should get out of the course and how I thought the materials should be organized and presented.  The next morning I sat down with Dr. Professor and presented my ideas.   At that point, I really wasn’t thinking about the possibility of overstepping my bounds with a bigwig-tenured-dean-head-honcho-type-prof; all I knew was that I didn’t want another crop of students feeling terrible at the end of the course, especially under my watch.

So I don’t know if it’s a good thing from a workload perspective, but I was given the go-ahead to design exercises/handouts for the labs.  I just finished the first document, and you know what?  I’m pleased.  I think it’s a manageable amount of material, with realistic expectations, clear learning objectives, and it also caters to different learning styles.

I may have to broach the delicate matter of my contract, which stipulates a certain number of hours per week; the extra time it will take me to develop these things should be compensated, I think.   Despite this technicality, I am tickled pink that I’ve been given some autonomy and might be able to make something good happen here – time will tell.

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14 responses to “Grad student teaching woes – and a WIN!

  1. biobabbler January 8, 2011 at 10:28 AM

    Wow. Great move! That sort of initiative is the kind of thing that (emotionally secure) supervisors DREAM about in their employees. AWESOME. =) Clarity is SUCH a great thing and is often, with a little more thought/work, attainable. (fist pump!)

    • TGIQ January 8, 2011 at 11:02 AM

      LOL @ “fist pump”! 🙂 I think Dr. Professor was pretty surprised at my…well, my ballsiness. It definitely caught him off guard, but he reacted well to it. Now I just have to ensure that I follow through with some stellar work this term 🙂

  2. jason January 8, 2011 at 10:49 AM

    Awesome news! Good on you for jumping at the opportunity to address the shortcomings. The students will be better for it.

    • TGIQ January 8, 2011 at 11:00 AM

      I hope so, Jason. These kids are paying good money for their education, for one thing. For another, they’re all so gosh-darned shiny and sparkly and KEEN and I’d hate to see that die because someone spoiled it for them, simply out of laziness. I’m looking forward to this opportunity 🙂

  3. dang January 9, 2011 at 4:02 AM

    Good for you, even better for your students. In the old days when I went to school I remember the best biology teacher ever. They only allowed him to teach one year, saying he was too friendly with his students. I think about him and still get PO’d even now. Good for your Dr. Professor for allowing you, many would be intimidated if they weren’t sure what to do.

  4. Megan January 17, 2011 at 6:09 PM

    As a future teacher, I would love to hear more details about how you are “flipping” your lab materials into something more engaging! I’m going to be helping out in a freshman bio lab this semester and, after that, probably teaching some of them. I know I’m going to run into the same issues. It gives me hope to read that you were able to go to the scary professor and get permission to do your own thing. (:

    • TGIQ January 18, 2011 at 8:24 AM

      Hi Megan, thanks for stopping by!

      I guess I had two main gripes about the old material, which I’ll address separately.

      1. The old instructions were invariably: “look at the specimen and look at the picture in your text book”, and then the text was basically a list of definitions. This approach may work for a handful of students who are excellent visual learners/memorizers, but won’t for many others who have different learning styles.

      Basically what I tried to do was incorporate different exercises (a pre-lab talk to point out critical ideas for the lab and/or to summarize critical points from the previous lab; more hands-on work with the specimens; sketches to do while in the lab; summary tables to complete; videos to watch; review questions they can work on at home; plus I allow students to bring in laptops/cameras/video recorders), all with the understanding that these excercises are (for the most part) optional, and should be considered learning tools – the student is ultimately responsible for learning the material, and it’s up to them to determine which tools work best for them.

      Also, when writing the text for the handouts, I try to keep the style conversational, using humor, interesting stories or “did you knows” (trivia, really) to draw their attention to important points. I also make a lot of comparisons between organisms that students may be more familiar with. The idea behind all these is to make the experiences in the lab memorable and personally meaningful.

      2. There was simply FAR too much material being covered for the number of labs we had to cover it – so instead of students coming away with a good grasp of key concepts and major themes, they were lost and overwhelmed by a ridiculously long list of complex anatomical terminology, none of which would be remembered a few weeks after the final exam.

      So what did I do? A few things. First, I made it very clear what I wanted them to be able to do/know by the end of the labs (i.e., I gave them objectives). As a student, I used to think those little “objectives” statements on the syllabi were kind of silly (and many times they were because they hadn’t been thoughtfully constructed) – but they’re actually useful. They tell the student: here is what I expect. It helps keep them focused on what is important (and eliminates, largely, that annoying “is this going to be on the exam” question).

      Along those lines, the other thing I did was cut a TON of material. Students have still be commenting on the amount of work; I’m certainly not letting them slack of, and they are certainly still being challenged. But it’s an acheivable amount of material, and rather than pointing out every single minute structure on every single animal, I’m getting them to focus on critical structures that can a) easily be observed in the lab (before, many structures could only be seen in diagrams in the book) and b) easily be compared between phyla.

      Again this contributes to the memorability of the exercises. I’ve been asked by a student “well, shouldn’t we know all of that other stuff?” My answer was to bring their attention to the objectives and to reiterate that this is an INTRODUCTORY class that covers an incredibly breadth of taxa and that it would be literally impossible to learn all of it properly in one class. I encourage them to do their own reading if there is a subject of particular interest, and I keep texts and good ol’ Google handy if someone raises a question about material not covered in their handouts.

      Anyways, that was long winded and I’m not sure if it was helpful at all, but there you go 🙂 Good luck with your lab, and have fun! I’m sure you’ll find it a good learning experience 🙂

      • Megan January 21, 2011 at 7:28 PM

        Thank you for providing such an in-depth reply; it was extremely helpful! I’m not much older than the students I am teaching so it has been a little intimidating, but I think I will get into the swing of things soon enough. 🙂

        In my education classes, we’ve been learning how to take these dry labs and make them more meaningful. It’s nice and all, but it’s mostly theoretical and always over the top. Your experience/example provides much more insight into the real world. I appreciate it!

        • Megan January 21, 2011 at 7:34 PM

          P.S. I am an avid follower of your blog. Although I am almost done with my undergrad in biology teaching and will go back for a biology masters before teaching high school, my secret dream is to get a PhD in entomology. I love reading about your experiences!

          • TGIQ January 21, 2011 at 8:12 PM

            And thanks so much for your readership – it means a lot that you are enjoying the blog and taking something useful away from it! Good luck with the rest of your undergrad!

        • TGIQ January 21, 2011 at 8:11 PM

          Never be intimidated…just remember that you know more than they do (if only because you’ve reviewed the material before the lab and they haven’t), and, more importantly, remember that you don’t have to know all the answers all the time. It’s perfectly ok to say “I don’t know”. It’s better than making stuff up and getting caught at it!! Just keep a good reference handy so you and the student can look the information up together – you’ll both learn!

          Be honest, and discover your own style – as long as that style says “I care about this material and I’m interested in it!” Interest and enthusiasm is infectuous!

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