Thursday, November 4, 2010

Teaching Tips--or Survival Guide

I am not the perfect teacher. Indeed, my first semester at my new university--after 10 yrs teaching as a tenured/tenure-track professor elsewhere--really threw me for a loop and into the gutter.   But I bounced back (or clawed my way out).  And I've learned a few things through the years.

1. Try to convey why you find a topic fascinating.  Show your excitement (a smile or some facial expression that says "wow, isn't that amazing!")--or at the least say that it is fascinating.  I think this is the main thing I have going for my teaching.  Students mention it a lot. (Added plus: I find that acting excited or trying to find reasons to explain why something is fascinating can actually make me more excited.)

2. Praise in public; criticize in private.  Try to nip a problem with a student in the bud by asking him/her to talk with you after class.  Best not to show irritation--especially in front of others.

3. If the class does poorly as a whole, I don't tell them that.  Instead, I remain positive, praise the fact that some students did very impressive work (which thankfully has always been true), and encourage any students who might be disappointed with their grade to visit me in office hours. Then, if they do talk to me, we can focus specifically on that single student's work.

4. Try really, really hard to cut yourself a break when making up the syllabus.  Don't overload yourself with quizzes or research paper summaries--you'll just hate yourself for it later.  And maybe one less day of reading, so that you can spend a class before the midterm and final reviewing.  A longer test isn't necessarily a better test of students' mastery of the subject--but it is more likely to drive you crazy because remember, YOU have to grade it.  See Inktopia's post for more on this.

5. In the long-run, lectures are easier than discussion-driven classes.  I used to hand out reading-based discussion questions ahead of each class day and then run class by discussing their responses. It worked wonderfully--got me a campus teaching award even.  Until one semester it didn't. And students became resistant to the idea that they should have to do the readings on time. And since they didn't read, they thought class was unreasonably demanding and boring.  I give lectures these days to undergrads, and then generate discussion through asking questions within the lecture.  Getting those lectures up and running was hard.  But now it is a lot easier than rereading my own reading assignments for each class.  (A lot of you are probably saying "duh" right now. But hey, this was a big lightbulb for me.)

6. The first time I teach a class, I show a few documentaries or schedule some guest lecturers if at all possible.  Or else have 3-4 classes in which students give mini-presentations. Students love all these.  I usually phase them out over time, as I always find more to say each semester--but maybe I shouldn't.

7. Don't always stand rigidly on principle.  Sometimes you need to just cut your losses with a class and adjust your grading standards or policies.  Sometimes you even need to go into triage mode--and think of yourself as the patient.  I came into a new job in which the major had seriously languished and the students had very low expectations in terms of workload.  I caved in the first year, and over a couple years brought standards up to where they needed to be.  Now our majors are some of the best in the university.

Has anyone out there any good lessons learned?  Small tips or big light bulbs--all are welcome!


  1. I'm suffering from #5 right now. My seminar was an amazing experience last time I taught it. This year I have 2 great students... and the rest don't do the reading.

    Must finish replacement lecture tonight...

  2. These are all so great. I especially love and can relate to #1.

    (And thanks for the link! I think I'm always overexcited before the assignment, then hit the Wall of Realism during, both with designing reading assignments and creating tests. Sigh.)