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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!

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!

A grad student’s guide to using social media as a tool for Doing Science

I’m finally back from an incredible whirlwind tour of entomology conferences. I’ve travelled from Ottawa, Ontario (ESO) to Edmonton, Alberta (ESC) to Knoxville, Tennessee (ESA). I am pooped and my brain is saturated with awesome science.

I was invited to give a talk as part of a special symposium at the ESC meeting: “From the Lab to the Web”. It featured other awesome people like Morgan Jackson, Dave Walters, Adrian Thysse, Greg Courtney and Chris Buddle. In my (not-so-) humble opinion, I think it was a highlight of the conference proceedings. My talk was called “A grad student’s guide to using social media as a tool for Doing Science”.  

You can check out some voiced-over slides here, but if you don’t feel like sitting through the entire 30 minutes, here’s a quick round-up of the main points:

1. Social media doesn’t need to be scary or overwhelming. Try to think of it as “hallway talk” – the informal socializing, networking, collaborating and community-building that we do as grad students every day, already.

Our peers are using social media at work. You should too. Image from:

2. Half of Canadians have a social media profile: social media is an important part of the way we communicate and build communities. Academics, especially new faculty, are using social media as a work tool. 90% of academics in the US report using social media – this is nearly twice the average for all other fields of employment. Grad students not using social media in a professional capacity (perhaps especially those considering careers in academia) need to get with the program.

3. Social media can help you:

    • Improve your communication skills. You can practice using non-technical language that anyone, even non-specialists, can understand. Blogging and microblogging are great platforms for this, because your audience is the entire world (and most of them don’t understand your crazy jargon).
    • Get stuff. Like inaccessible journal articles (try the #Icanhazpdf hashtag on Twitter), data (you can tap into citizen scientists from all over the world) and funding for projects (the #scifundchallenge on is well worth a peek if you’ve never heard of crowd-funding).

My Twitter followers. How global is your professional network?

    • Network. Not just within your institution or field of expertise – you can develop a diverse international network of collaborators and colleagues. Being involved in social media allows to you tap into a community of scientists that WANT to engage with you. You will find mentors, friends, allies, and informants in places you never thought possible.
    • Get noticed. By your school, the media and other sciencey organizations. These people are looking for cool research and passionate scientists to feature on their web sites and in articles (which, by the way, can get thousands of readers). You can also use social media and networking sites to get the attention of other academics and boost the citation counts on your articles.

4. Important people – like future thesis advisors, future employers, and faculty search committees – will Google you. Seriously. They’ll do it to learn more about your professional and personal activities. If they can’t find you online, it looks suspicious. Grad students need to take the time to create and cultivate a professional online presence so that the right people can find them when it matters most.

This will not impress your future graduate advisor.

5. Although you want to be Google-able, don’t get caught doing dumb things online. What goes on the internet stays on the internet forever (screenshots can easily create permanent records of stuff you’d rather delete). First impressions are important, so be smart about what you put out there for the world to find.

Criticism is part of the job. Learn to deal with it professionally.

6. Sometimes people on the internet are jerks. You could fall victim to a creepy online stalker (yes, this happens to scientists sometimes), so keep your private, personal information private and personal. Same goes for that of your friends and family members.  Other people might not be creepy, but they might be critical of you and your research. Learn to stand up for your work and practice responding to criticisms in a professional way.

7. Developing a professional online presence takes time, and the upfront investment can be steep, but it’s well worth the effort. Schedule some time in your to-do list to engage with other members of the online science community, and start building your network.  You’ll be glad you did. I know it’s paid off big-time for me.

Again, if you’d like to hear more details, please check out the video.

I know that I’m probably preaching to the converted already, but I’d love to hear about your own experiences (both positive and negative) with social media, either as a grad student or as someone in the workplace (scientists and non-scientists alike!)

What makes a “good” student?

This is something I’ve thought about often, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I found myself thinking about it again recently.  It’s this: what exactly does it mean to be a “good student”?

As an undergrad, we are told that “good student” (GS) = student with high grades. Therefore, to be considered a GS by my instructors, my school, granting/funding agencies, and potential future grad school advisors, I must achieve a certain level of scholastic excellence (say, > 80%) based on grades.

Yes, I know, things like extracurricular activities and hands-on experience can help a bit in some instances, but grades are either exclusively (Dean’s lists) or mostly (some scholarships, possibly future advisors) considered to be the main indicator of GS-ness. As much as I wracked my brain to think of instances where this metric would not be the primary consideration in a practical/applied context at the undergrad level, I couldn’t think of one.

As a graduate student, many of us have little to no course work. There are, therefore, very often few or no grades. There are exams (comprehensives, defenses) and tasks (proposals, reports, oral presentations, publications) that are accomplished along the way which we either pass or  fail, often with no formal recognition of having done so. GS’s at the graduate level are usually judged by whether or not they complete these tasks, but also on accompanying qualitative characteristics including: time management, productivity, interest, communication and interpersonal skills, problem-solving, multitasking, leadership/management, research abilities and contributions, etc.  These things are not graded, but are emphasized when the student’s success is being evaluated by advisors, funding agencies, and employers.

All of this makes me wonder a few things:

1. Why is there such a HUGE gap between how we judge – not just judge but TRAIN – students at the undergrad level, and those at the graduate level?

2. Why does it seem like the default assumption tends to be that one’s being a GS at the undergrad level is a reliable determinate of future GS-ness at the graduate level?

3.  How many intelligent, hard-working, keen students fall through the cracks because they are “bad” at school in the traditional, structured/formal sense; i.e., they are not so great at exams or memorization, but are able to demonstrate a good grasp of the material in less structured settings. Put another way, how many students are lost because their individual learning styles are not compatible with traditional institutional styles of instruction, when they might actually have the potential to be really, really great researchers?

4. On what criteria do people (I’m thinking grad student advisors) primarily base their decisions in terms of who to take on as students in their lab? If funding (which is obviously linked to grades, at least at the M.Sc. level) was not an issue, what kind of student would you choose to work with – the one with the 4.0 GPA or the one who was able to demonstrate more practical (i.e., grad-student-like) abilities, attributes and interests?

This is a fairly personal subject for me, since, as you know, I have been told that I was “not good” at science. Based on grades alone, this assessment could be considered correct. I was also not a very strong student during the first few years of my undergrad, which should have been an additional indicator that I was not a GS.

For some reason, I wouldn’t take the hint (yeah, I’m stubborn like that).

What I know about myself now is that the way I work and learn best is not very compatible with the traditional teaching methods used in post-secondary institutions (talking head at the front of the class, scores of memorization, big exam/paper that tests everything, the end). I am, however, (close your eyes, I’m about to toot my own horn) intelligent, hard-working, creative, persistent, and excited about learning – and I know that, someday, I’ll be a good scientist, even if I was not a GS.

As a teacher, I often see students who remind me of myself, and I worry that we’ll lose them.

So, what do you think makes a good student? Your thoughts?

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