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Ten important things I learned about teaching (Part II)

Continued from last week, here is the rest of my “top ten” list of lessons learned during my first teaching experience.

6. For goodness’ sake, be yourself.

One bit of advice I got before starting this class was that I should dress up – you know, wear a pantsuit or something – to establish an air of authority. I was told that I should embody a stern/serious demeanor to garner respect, especially because I am female and young.


Even if my department was not already quite casual (I love ecologists and their jeans and plaid and polar fleece), I am very much a jeans and t-shirts kind of person. I am also hopelessly goofy, unashamedly nerdy, and definitely inclined to get overly-hand-wavingly excited about certain topics.  I am not an authoritative/dictatorial person. I like to converse, give-and-take, laugh, establish an environment of mutual respect.

Trying to disguise myself as anything other than exactly who I am would have made me incredibly uncomfortable and fidgety and would have been immediately picked out by students as a sham – they are not stupid and can spot a fake in a second. I suspect it would have backfired quickly and badly.

Instead, I was happy and felt at ease. I just can’t see the sense in creating additional stress by trying to maintain a false persona in an already stressful situation.  (Plus, more than a few students expressed their appreciation for my excellent collection of nerdy nature/science-themed graphic Ts, so there :P)

7.  Be OK with quality vs. quantity.

Confession time: I didn’t cover every single topic I set out to cover at the beginning of the term.  But I am 100% completely happy with this, because what we DID cover was done thoughtfully, thoroughly, and included opportunities for students to really immerse themselves and be engaged with the material in an active and meaningful way. If I’d tried to cram everything in, we would have missed out on so, so much.  Which brings me to:

8. The absolute best classes were the ones where I did the least amount of talking.

Even though I was working with a larger group of students (~90) we often did small group discussions or activities centered around word problems, news articles or journal papers that showed real-world applications of the theories or models we’d been working on.

Discussions and group work are fantastic ways to break up a lecture, wake people up and get them directly engaged in the material. Working in small groups or pairs enhances participation and provides opportunities for interaction for even the most introverted (and least likely to speak up in class) students. The buzz in the room during these short active sessions is fantastic, and it provides a neat chance for the instructor to go around the room, listen in and chat with students.

Very often I’d be completely blown away by the breadth of the students’ experiences, knowledge and insights and would find the class immersed in truly magical moments during which real dialogue, critical thinking and learning were taking place.  In these moments my role became that of a facilitator or mediator – ensuring that everyone could hear what was being said, occasionally paraphrasing complicated ideas to echo them in simpler or more concrete terms, posing follow-up questions, or playing devil’s advocate to challenge students to justify their opinions or assertions.

Did these unexpectedly long conversations take away from some of the stuff I’d planned on talking about that day? Sometimes, yes; I was often able to incorporate most of the main points I wanted to cover into the discussion, but not always. Was it worth skipping a few minor details for the sake of these dialogues? Unequivocally, yes.

9. Sometimes you will screw up. Admit it, fix it, and move forward.

One day, I realized I’d screwed something up. Something pretty important, actually, that would be revisited and built upon in the coming weeks. I went through various stages: denial (no way!), horror (OMG, way!), embarrassment (OMGGGGGGG).

I got help, corrected my notes, and then the next class I put on my big girl pants and said, “I screwed up. Here’s what I told you – it was wrong. I’m sorry. We need to fix this before we move ahead, so here’s the correct information.”

And you know what? The universe didn’t end, no one made me feel bad, and we moved on to new things without a hitch.

10. Teaching is bloody hard, but:

“This is my favorite class I’ve ever taken.”

“It has been a blessing to have you as a teacher.”

“I never thought a math class could be fun.”

“Thank you.”

It’s so worth it.

Ten important things I learned about teaching (Part I)

The grades are in, and as promised I’m going to take some time to talk about my experiences as a first-time teacher.   Long story short: it was super-challenging and I loved it.

Where the magic happened...

Where the magic happened…

I put together a list of ten important things I learned this term; I hope others find these useful, and I welcome any feedback or comments!

1. No matter how confident you are, when you’re given your first class you’re probably going to be freaked out at some point. Do whatever you need to do to get through the first few lectures – it gets easier.

I love teaching, and I consider myself a good teacher.  Nevertheless, in the weeks leading up to the start of the term as I tried to prepare my first couple of lectures, I had many sleepless nights and about five mini-breakdowns during which I decided I was woefully unqualified and couldn’t figure out why on earth I’d been asked to teach this course (Math? Me? Aaak!)

I really over-prepared to try to compensate for these feelings. I had hand-written notes, which I then transcribed to type-written, which I then transcribed again into my official class notebook. (Because practice makes perfect?)


These carefully crafted notes, which took me days (no, let’s be honest: weeks) to produce, lasted all of three or four lectures. In hindsight, it was a good confidence booster even if it was overkill. I knew exactly what I wanted to cover and how I wanted to cover it – I had, for all intents and purposes, a script.  This was especially useful for the first few days because I was a nervous wreck and having a clear, well laid-out plan made things easier.

But, a) the time investment per lecture was simply unsustainable, and b) after a few lectures I realized that I was not exactly incompetent and the classes were going well.  So I chilled out, got comfortable with prepping my lectures only a day or so in advance, and grew confident in my ability to ad lib.

2. It’s going to take way more time than you think.

If you ask for advice, as I did, people will tell you: “three hours of prep for each hour of lecture”.  LIES. Lies, lies, lies.  If this is the first time you’ve taught a course it’s going to take a lot more than that unless you’ve literally been handed a set of PowerPoint slides and a script. (And really, would you want that? Yech.)

Reading, learning the material, finding supplemental literature/examples/activities, preparing slides or notes, managing online spaces and uploads, drafting tests/quizzes/rubrics, practicing lectures a little bit to smooth out some tricky spots – I figure I spent at least double the basic estimate: probably six hours/hour.

Was this too much? Maybe. I know that I can be a bit perfectionist and REALLY wanted to do well, but it was absolutely the amount of time I needed to spend to feel competent, prepared, confident and have classes that ran smoothly and on time.

3. Take the time to get to know your students.

This means names, background, experience, interests.  On the first day of class I handed out cue cards and asked students to write their name, major, previous ecology experience, and a bit about their ecological interests (“what is your favourite part of nature?”) I then printed, cut out and glued the student’s photographs (these are available to instructors at my school) on the back of the cards. These became little flashcards I could use to quiz myself when I had a few spare minutes (on the bus, making breakfast, between sets during a workout) – to match the face with the name. I didn’t get them all – I’m really bad at remembering names – but this technique worked better than anything else I’ve tried to date.

In addition to names, I got a sense of what the students were interested in – lots were keen on forests, big predators and coral reefs. When I prepped my lectures I would look for examples that touched on many of the different themes, systems or organisms listed on these cue cards – it helped students make links to topics with which they were already familiar and in many cases seemed to enhance the quality of our discussions because they had opinions, experiences and prior knowledge to contribute.

We also did a group assignment, and I used the cards to assemble groups that united people with shared interests, and promoted diversity in terms of level of experience or major.

4. Figure out what kind of learning environment you want to create: set the ground rules and expectations early and stick with them.

There are a couple of ways to do this. First, spend a lot of time working on your syllabus. Err on the side of “too long”. It’s a contract – you lay out your expectations of your students, not just in terms of the content/workload, but also in terms of classroom comportment. You should also use the syllabus to tell the students what they can expect of you.  It’s only fair, and spares everyone a lot of unpleasant surprises.  Consider things like use of tech gadgets in class (cell phones, yay or nay?), turnaround times for email replies, expectations for doing work outside of class, procedures for disputing marks, matters of punctuality, etc.

As a brief example, I told my students that classes would start and end on time. I held up my end of the deal by setting an alarm on my cell phone – at 12:25 the beeper would go off and if I couldn’t wrap up what I was doing in 10 seconds or less I’d cut it off right away.  This completely eliminated the usual loss of focus and coat-shuffling/stuffing of notes into bags that usually happens near the end of lectures – students knew they could count on me to let them out on time. It also seemed to encourage them to arrive punctually, or to at least warn me in advance when they’d not be able to be on time, and they demonstrated respect for their classmates upon arriving/leaving by keeping the disturbance to a minimum.

Another thing I strongly recommend is to set the in-class tone on day one.  Do you expect students to engage in discussions, do group work, ask questions, solve problems in-class, read from PowerPoint slides, use clickers, take notes from the chalkboard?  Have them do these things on the FIRST day of class as much as possible.

I think this is especially important if you are straying from the traditional “I will stand at the front and lecture at you with slides” teaching format that most students are accustomed to.  If you plan on employing active or student-centered learning strategies in your class (and you should), you need to make it clear ASAP because you might encounter resistance from some students. They will be able to determine, before the drop/add date, if the class content AND format are going to align with their needs and interests.

5. Develop thoughtful, thorough assignment descriptions and rubrics, and grading schemes for exams.

This will take a fair bit of time, but, a) it’s so worth it, and b) it’s just good pedagogical practice – not just good, but absolutely non-negotiable in my opinion, whether you or a TA are doing the marking. Make the information available to students as early as possible.

Rubrics will make marking a hundred times faster, will all but eliminate inconsistencies or subjectivity in the grading, and will significantly reduce the amount of questions or complaints you get about marks, especially if you provide the exam grading schemes after the exams have been handed back. Students can easily check their own work and figure out where they went wrong, and I’d argue that there’s better learning to be had in that process than a discussion with the instructor.

Part II next week!

The finish line is in sight

Because mole cricket.

Clawing my way to the finish line! (Alternatively titled, “Excuse to post a picture of a mole cricket, which is an awesome animal, period.”)

Fifteen centimeters of snow fell yesterday, we’ve burned through nearly our entire cache of firewood, and there’s not a hint of green life to be found. Nevertheless, it’s just past the first day of spring, and a startlingly short 3 weeks until the last day of classes.

I swear I have not been deliberately neglecting this space, and my extended absence this time ’round is absolutely no cause for alarm.

The simple truth is that I have been having an excellent term and am entirely preoccupied with other things that are firmly at the forefront of my attention as this year rushes by, roaring full-tilt towards what I am grudgingly recognizing as the imminent conclusion of this PhD (*sad face*).

In the last few months I have: a) begun searching, and applying for, postdoctoral positions (another post for another day, but it will probably start with something along the lines of, “womp, womp”); b) started working as an assistant at The University’s teaching and learning services office; c) been blessed with a small army (I’m not exaggerating even a little bit – there are so many) of enthusiastic, intelligent and hard-working undergraduates who are helping me squeeze out the last bit of data for my thesis by volunteering in my lab; and d) having an absolute blast teaching.

Teaching is exhausting. Anyone who says it only takes 3 hours of prep for 1 hour of lecture is a LYING LIE-FACE, at least for the first go-round with a new course. It is challenging as heck: I’m learning/re-learning an awful lot on a daily basis and stepping well outside my comfort zone. It is also enormously humbling. My students are SO FREAKING SMART and I am a flawed human being who sometimes makes dumb mistakes, which they invariably – and delightedly – point out.

Teaching this class has also brought me so much joy I can’t even begin to tell you.

In a few weeks, once the dust has settled and exams are marked and grades are in, I’m going to sit down and write some of my thoughts about this experience, and also about where things stand with my research and “career” progress (and, if this winter ever decides to end, maybe even some new photos of bugs), but in the meantime I just wanted to check in and say, “Hi!”, and “Happy spring!”, and “I’ll see you at the finish line!”

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:

WiFi in the woods: new article on mobile technology and inquiry-based learning

For the past four years I’ve had the great pleasure of TAing a course run by Chris Buddle, called St. Lawrence Ecosystems. SLE is an undergraduate, field-based ecology class with a strong emphasis on experiential learning.

Last year, students were tasked with designing a research project – start to finish – that they could execute in the arboretum on our campus. They could pick any plant or animal they wished to study, had to come up with a research question, design their methods, pull off intensive data collection during three 4-hour outdoor lab periods, then analyze and present their data.

This project was quite novel, considering that, a) undergrads rarely get a chance to experience outdoor labs in their first year of university education (WHY???), b) undergrads rarely get a chance to experience real, self-directed research, and c) we were loaned a set of WiFi-enabled tablets to “test run” the use of mobile technology in an outdoor class setting.

Students were not required to use the tablets: they were simply presented as another tool.  As such, the tablets were adopted to various degrees by different research teams. For some, they were integral to the data collection process. Others used the internet access to check out online field guides to help them identify their study species. And some groups found they were more useful as a flat surface upon which they could write field notes on a good ol’ piece of paper.

As a component of this project, students were also required to reach out to, and connect with, different online audiences, including the general public as well as scientists, via Twitter and blog posts The tablets let them post some pretty interesting tweets spontaneously and on-the-spot while in the field and doing research. Some of them were surprised (and pleased!) to discover that other people “out there” were interested in what they had to say, and that these people were happy to offer feedback, advice and assistance when asked.

Just a few of the many great tweets by this year's cohort of students! Their enthusiasm for their chosen subjects is infectious!

Just a few of the many great tweets by this year’s cohort of students! Their enthusiasm for their chosen subjects is infectious!

One very cool development with this year’s group was that they (totally unprompted) started to tweet at their classmates in other groups, sharing relevant sightings and asking questions.  This kind of in-the-field communication and collaboration was really fantastic to see (example top left, above).

Another fantastic benefit of the tablet-enabled connectivity was that it let us instructors keep tabs on, and chat with, the students much more easily.  In the past, we’d spend most of the lab running around in this 245 hectare forest, trying to locate the research groups so we could check in on their progress. With the tablets we were a mere text message or a Skype conference away, and we could easily pinpoint their locations using shared GPS coordinates.

Anyways, I’m super-excited because the team I worked with on this project has just published an article about this tablet-trial-run in EDUCAUSE Review, an excellent periodical devoted to exploring the use of information technology in higher education.  You can read the article here: “Tablets in the forest: mobile technology for inquiry-based learning“.

sle screenshot

Screenshot of the SLE class blog

Also, if you haven’t already checked out the SLE students’ blog, “St. Lawrence Lowlands“, I highly recommend it </shameless plug>; it’s chock-full of really excellent natural history! This year’s cohort of SLE-ers are also writing blog posts about their study systems, and first of ten just went live this week, so please consider stopping by and leaving comments or questions.  And, our students are still tweeting up a storm: you can easily check out their great, information-rich posts by following the #ENVB222 hashtag!

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