02 November 2007

Notes on Fisher Files, Sequence II, Episode 9 - Teaching

Here are my notes on the Fisher Files episode entitled "Teaching."

  • Teaching happens anytime you interact with students or colleagues, not just in the formal lecture setting.
  • If you're a good teacher, you will find that teaching goes both ways: you are teaching your students and colleagues and they are also teaching you.
  • You want to organize an academic class in a way that is pleasurable and efficient for both you and students.
  • Keys to lecturing well
    • Preparation
    • Finish on time without hurrying
    • Respect the students
    • Keep a tight feedback loop
  • What doesn't work: Keeping a lecture or two ahead of the students because you will end up with a course that meanders (no, an outline is not good enough)
First time teaching the course
  • When you start off, most universities will give you a tour of duty that involves teaching the same class three times in a row.
  • Prepare the course well in advance. At the start of the course, have a rough draft of every single lecture. (that is, everything you will say and write on the blackboard) and a rough draft of every problem set (Yes, you read the last bullet point correctly. You need to prepare a rough draft of every lecture and every problem set. A class is a lot of work and the more of it you do ahead of time, the better)
  • Need a clear idea of your goals so that you can assign useful problems in the problem sets
  • Know your audience and your student’s capabilities; ask your colleagues who taught them the term/year before
  • Need to constantly be adjusting the course to keep a balance between overwhelming and boring the students
  • It's easy to find out if you're meeting that balance; just ask the students and section instructors
  • Good idea to have a staff meeting every week for the course (usually 15-30 minutes is sufficient)
  • In order to finish each lecture on time without hurrying, you will have to practice every lecture
  • By practicing every lecture, that means practicing in real time with blackboards and a timer
  • Won't cover the many aspects of lecturing (pacing, legible writing, presentation, etc) since there are books and media available on these topics
  • You need to have respect for the students and they need to respect you.
  • The way to make this happen is to make clear your expectations of them and what they should expect from you
  • Expectations is really about laying out boundaries
  • Within your boundaries, you will be completely engaged in teaching and outside of those boundaries, spending more time on teaching is optional
  • Lay out your expectations right away at the beginning of the course
  • On the first day, hand out a one page sheet of expectations
  • Reasonable expectations for you
    • You should finish your classes on time
    • Problem sets should be graded and returned with solutions in a timely fashion
    • Textbook should be chosen at a reasonable level
    • Students should find you available to discuss the course
  • Reasonable expectations for students
    • Students should not bother you when you don't have office hours or an appointment scheduled
    • Students should not complain about their grades
    • Students should attend class on time
    • Students should make an honest attempt to complete their work
  • When you hold office hours, you should really be available (i.e. waiting for students) and not doing other work
    • Peter likes to reserve a tutoring room and bring a magazine
    • Peter thinks it is useful to have office hours a few hours before the problem set is due so that you get a lot of students and can generate a lively discussion
  • Should encourage students to email you with questions
    • Students should expect a thoughtful, timely response to a reasonable question
    • But they should not expect that they can send you a 4 page long email anytime and expect a response
  • Problem sets and exams should be returned within a week maximum, preferably shorter because after that, students forget the material or the material becomes irrelevant
  • Problem set/project due dates
    • Recognize that like yourself, students have complicated lives with many competing demands and it can be difficult to meet "arbitrarily set" deadlines
    • Peter's take: students should meet deadlines, but if they need extra time, they should tell the instructor and propose a new due date subject to instructor approval. If the instructor is not going to start grading the problem set/project soon anyways, it makes sense to give the student some extra time.
  • You should look at students while you lecture; are they engaged, bored, or lost?
  • If they looked lost or disengaged, you should stop lecture and ask them what's wrong
  • You should talk to students informally before/after lecture, during office hours to get feedback
  • Course evaluations come too late and they just confirm at you knew already anyways
  • Try to find out who the students are and what they are interested in (show an interest in their lives)
  • Anything you can bring into the course from your research or experience is valuable because you will be passionate about it
  • Find ways to make your teaching more efficient
    • One example, if you screw up in lecture, write up an explanation and pass it out in class rather than going over it on the blackboard
    • One idea: set up a video camera and videotape a blackboard derivation
  • Section teaching
    • Role is not to give another version of lecture, do problem sets for the students, or answer questions
    • In first five minutes of class, figure out what the students need help with and make an agenda out of their questions and concerns
    • Group related questions together in the agenda
    • Spend rest of the time going through the agenda and addressing student’s questions in a Socratic dialogue
    • Make students feel like section is their time
  • Teaching graduate students
    • Mainly you teach them to do your research for you
    • But take some time to prepare mini-lectures about things they should know but won't learn about in class (think about what you wish you had known as a grad student)
    • Try to meet with your graduate students weekly
    • Good to teaching your student something at every meeting
    • Also a good idea to have everyone teach each other at group meetings
  • Remember that teaching is pleasurable because you spend a lot of time with students who are interested in the same things you are and want to learn from you. Students are endlessly fascinated with faculty: how you got there, where you went to school, what research you conduct.
  • Just make sure this stuff doesn't spill into teaching time (set your boundaries)
  • In contrast, most of your colleagues are just concerned with their own research and not really interested in what you are doing.

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