The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Taking the plunge: first-time teacher trolling for tips!

A really incredible chance to try something new and exciting arose this fall. After the logistics and paperwork were sorted, and I officially decided to take the plunge


I (rather giddily) made this announcement on Twitter:


I’m taking on a third-year Population and Community Ecology class this winter. It’s a lecture-based course with a hearty focus on quantitative approaches, and I’ll have about 100 students (eek!) with very diverse scholastic backgrounds and strengths.

Those of you who have followed along here for a while know how I feel about teaching. It’s something I really love doing, and I have worked hard to find and create opportunities to improve and enhance my teaching skills throughout my grad studies, despite the fact that grad students are often discouraged to do so (the argument being that we should only focus on producing publications). While I recognize the importance of publications, I also want to come out of this program with a well-rounded skill set that will compliment my research activities and make me a more effective academic. Teaching is a standard and significant component of an academic career and for the life of me I’ve never been able to understand why grad students don’t receive more explicit mentoring and training in this area of their professional development.  ANYways. [/rant]

Since I’m always up for learning about new approaches to teaching and classroom management, I tossed this request out to the Twitter community:
2My tweeps didn’t let me down, and I was given some great tips to mull over.  Some people pointed out that attitude, passion and performance play an important role:

reply 1

Tips regarding question-and-answer periods had a recurring theme:

reply 4

Others highlighted some practical aspects related to workload and time management:

reply 2This last point from Mitch started to ring very true as I began preparing some lectures:
And people shared their ideas about it:repy 3
The conversations I’ve had with experienced lecturers, both online and in person, have been really helpful.  I wanted to share these tips with you all, in case there are other new or wannabe teachers out there.

I also want to throw out my original question to you readers: what are some of your tips? Is there anything you wish you’d known/been told? Something you’d do differently? Anything you think is really critical for first-time teachers to do (or, alternatively, to NOT do)?  I’d love to learn from your experiences and hear your thoughts!

UPDATE (long overdue): Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, everybody! (Readers, they’re well worth the extra click!) I also finally published a Storify of tweeted teaching tips:

11 responses to “Taking the plunge: first-time teacher trolling for tips!

  1. David McCorquodale December 16, 2013 at 9:04 PM

    I taught my first course more than 30 years ago — filling in for most of a third year insect ecology. I had taken the same course as an undergrad a decade earlier – in the same room. The subject fascinated me. How to get that fascination and enthusiasm across? Listen. Ask questions. Explain with respect.

    (Yes I am old, but teaching keeps you young!)

  2. Mike Powell December 17, 2013 at 5:16 AM

    I don’t know of any magical formulas or even practical tips (and I am not a teacher). What worked best for me as a student was when the teacher was energetic and visibly enjoyed the subject.

  3. Barbara Frei (@barbalink) December 17, 2013 at 9:48 AM

    Crystal, you and I need to rant sometime together about our shared feelings re: lack of grad student training on teaching. Not that I think a PhD always must = professors – I think there are many, many other fantastic careers that a PhD prepares you for. But for those of us whose ambition is to become a professor, we should get thrown into the deep water once or twice before we follow that course.

    I was exactly in your position two and a half years ago (i.e. deciding to teach a heavy-worload uni. course) and I have never regretted my choice. For me it was a personal challenge, a test to see if I would really love teaching or I just loved the idea of it. As an undergrad I had faro to many professors for whom teaching was a chore, an afterthought, something they had to get through but hated. And everyone in the class felt it. I wanted to ensure that I could be a good teacher as well as researcher.

    Here are a few tips/thoughts based on my experience and some excellent and detailed feedback I received from the class at the end of the term. Forgive me if they echo previous peoples comments, somehow I missed the conversation the first time around.

    1. You can always spend more time prepping for a lecture (especially the first time you teach a course) – at some point pull the plug and manage your time. You cannot know everything (its not possible), but you are a competent, knowledgable scientist. Trust yourself.

    2. Focus on quality, not quantity. It is easy to squish too much details and information into a course/lecture. Focus on giving the students a solid foundation with clear examples, multiple connections, and time to digest information before moving on to the next.

    3. Pause. Wait. Wait some more. Ask questions. Ask ‘is something unclear?’ Wait again. At first it seems strange, but this will foster an atmosphere where students begin to be brave enough to ask that question they feel stupid about. Listen encouragingly and repeat every questions asked to the class. Don’t rush your answer – if you need a moment ask the class – ‘any thoughts on this?’ This will give you a moment to think.

    4. If you don’t know – say so! Often, during debates or off-topic conversations I will be asked something that I really don’t know or just might not be sure about. If I have a clue I will say “Thats a great point. I’m not entirely sure but I would suspect….”. If I have zero clue I will say “Great question! Simple answer – I don’t know but I will find out” And I do – I go home and look it up. And I have the answer or explanation at the next class. This was one of the things that the students really responded to, that I took their questions seriously. And by the end of the course others would go off to research the question as well and the next day we all knew the answer and were eager to share our discoveries with each other!

    5. Share your own experiences or topical issues. If you can tie this into the course curriculum, the information will come alive to the students. I still remember facts from my undergrad that were told as a personal story by my professors.

    6. On a more difficult note – be careful with where to draw the line. There is a difference between being friendly and being their friend. You want to be approachable but you are still in a position of authority. Be very clear and transparent in what you expect, and how they will ultimately be graded for their mark. I challenged my students, especially on their written skills and critical thinking. I made it clear that I was there to teach and help them learn, but if I was pushed for lenience or special favours (when unwarranted) I stood very strong and remained professional. This, especially as a (younger) woman can be a difficult line to walk.

    Good luck – I know you will be great!!

  4. peternewbury December 17, 2013 at 10:33 AM

    There are some great resources for instructors here from the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at UBC (and they apply to all disciplines, not just STEM). “Motivating learning” and “First Day of Class” are especially good.

  5. George Sims December 18, 2013 at 4:21 PM

    I don’t know nothin’ ’bout no Twitter, however, I am anxiously awaiting the first Geeky MOOC, since I can’t take your class in person.

    • TGIQ March 23, 2014 at 4:03 PM

      LOL, pretty sure there aren’t any Geeky MOOCs in my immediate future, but I’ll put you on the shortlist of applicants should one ever materialize.

  6. Mr Epidemiology January 6, 2014 at 11:15 AM

    If your university has a teaching centre, use them. They can often help you out when it comes to preparing classes, observe you and give you pointers, as well as answer many of the questions you have.

    Personally, I find the hardest thing when I’ve taught is to figure out *why* the student is asking the question they are. Most are from interest, which is easy. However, sometimes it’s because they have misunderstood something previously, and so they’re walked down the wrong path. As a result I have to figure out where their misinterpretation started, go back to there, and then work my way backwards from there.

    Good luck!

    • TGIQ March 23, 2014 at 4:01 PM

      Hey Atif, thanks for the perspective! I spend a lot of time on student questions during lectures now, and I completely agree that it’s important to get to the root of them. Our university teaching centre is stellar (I’m actually working for them now!) and have been a great help 🙂

  7. Benjamin January 10, 2014 at 8:42 PM

    I’m mostly dropping in here to say that I’ve really enjoyed the discussion here and on your post early last year about the deppresing (lack of) importance placed on teaching in the higher echelons of academia. I missed the post at the time, so I’m glad you dropped a link to it here!

    Also, I haven’t taught at the university level yet. But after finishing my undergrad this year in EEB at a research university, I headed to semi-rural China to teach English for a year before heading off to a Ph.D. program in ecology/evolution (assuming I’m accepted!). I’ve just completed my first semester here in Hunan. My situation is decidedly different from a U.S. (or Canadian) university classroom, as I have 550 high school students in ten different classes each of which I only teach once per week. Others in my organization have upwards of 2,000 students that they only meet with every other week, so I consider myself lucky.

    I absolutely second the comments about not teaching too much in one lesson. Particularly in my situation where in the same classroom some students can barely manage “How are you?” while others can perform a dumbed down version of “The Merchant of Venice”, ensuring class-wide understanding is difficult. I find that if I teach too much, at best a few students understand most of the information. This is essentially useless! It’s really kind of self-evident – if you overload students with information, they will not be able remember almost any of it, even if you’re lucky enough for them to understand some of it the day of. Yet it’s easy to fall into this trap from over-zealousness or, less positively, laziness in lesson prep. Allowing time for questions about, reflection on, and utilization of the taught material is critical. Although, if there’s a discussion/lab period for your class, you may not need to devote as much time to this during lecturing.

    Along with this, having several specifically worded questions planned ahead of time greatly increases student engagement and your ability to assess their understanding. I’m a bit of a tangential speaker (as evidenced by the length of this comment!), and this will creep in dangerously into my teaching when I’m not careful. I would naturally just say “I’ll think up some questions on the spot!”, but even if I succeed in doing this, they will probably be less optimal than pre-prepared questions. Not sure if this is an issue for you.

    Anyways, I think I’ll 闭嘴 now.

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