Lessons in Teaching

Lessons in Teaching

As I was brainstorming about what I wanted to share in this blog post, I reflected on what it was like for me when I first started teaching at the university level.  For my first day stepping into a Biology 101 lab as a new TA, the only preparation I had prior to that moment was the lab TA meeting the week before where we reviewed the lab procedure. That was it.  To me, I thought that was what “preparing to teach” was all about.

If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably begun learning that teaching is so much more than preparing content.  So.much.more.  There is an entire world of knowledge out there about teaching pedagogy, which is the research and theories behind effective practices of educating students, how to design effective knowledge assessments, different instructional styles and practices, etc.

Did I know about any of this?  Not a clue, not even a smidgen.  Was I effective at truly helping students to learn, retain, and apply that knowledge?  To be honest, probably not, reflecting on what I know now versus what I knew then.  However, there’s no way that I can tell you all the “best practices” in teaching in this blog post.  What may be more helpful for you at this point in your teaching development are a few of the lessons I’ve learned, sort of a “things I shouldn’t have assumed when I started teaching.”

Here are my top four:

  1. Students likely do not have the prior knowledge, or depth of understanding, that you may expect.

This statement is dependent on whether you’re teaching majors, non-majors, freshmen vs. seniors, of course, but it still applies to each course you teach.  What you know, and what they know, are worlds apart.  Think of all the courses you’ve taken to develop your knowledge base, all of them building upon each other and providing scaffolding for your future learning; think of your unique experiences that have guided and deepened that knowledge.  Your students don’t have any of that.  What do you do about this?  Find out from them, each class, each week – “tell me what you know about x”, or “tell me the questions you have about y.” Have them do this prior to and bring to class as their “entry ticket”, because having them do this at the beginning of class will not engender a thoughtful, deeper response.

  1. Do not assume students have had similar experiences simply because they’re in your class, at this university, in this city, this state.

This may seem obvious, so let me give you a telling example that better illustrates what I mean.  In the Marine Science course I teach, students learn about coastal processes.  I relate the concepts to the South Carolina coastline and what they would see along our beaches.  So what was my fundamentally wrong assumption here?  That they’d been to a beach at all.  When I was showing students erosion/deposition patterns along the coast, finally a student raised her hand and said, “I have no idea what I’m looking at here.”  It simply never occurred to me that students in Columbia, South Carolina, just 2 hours from the coast, had never been to the beach!  I asked the class, then, “who has not been to a beach?”  A quarter of my class raised their hand!  Thus, as an instructor, you need to reflect on what these missing experiences may be.  If I’d been aware of this prior to that class, I would have structured that class very differently.  As a result of that moment, I developed an activity for future courses that familiarized students with our coastline and basic features, and then showed them how these processes interact.  Without that connection and knowledge, the “coastal processes” concepts are meaningless.

  1. You do not have to teach the way it was taught to you.

Teaching strategies and styles are not a one-size-fits-all.  That may have been how college teaching has been in the past (“sage on the stage”), but it isn’t this way anymore… the phrase “guide on the side” has become the more accepted mantra.  It doesn’t mean that teachers are not central to the class or provide content knowledge, it means that teachers must recognize that they are key in facilitating students’ learning by what they do with students, how they teach the content, the methods and assessment types they use to guide students through that learning, and how they engage students in the classroom.  Teaching styles and techniques are as diverse as those who teach!

  1. Students do not necessarily value what you do with respect to your discipline.

In marine science, a large and fundamental part of it is non-biology:  marine geological and ocean physical processes control ecosystems.  I know these facets of oceanography, in tremendous depth, how they work, interact, and impact each other.  But my students mostly want to learn about the critters. They don’t yet value learning how Coriolis impacts current flow or how the plate tectonic theory developed, because they don’t have the depth of knowledge regarding the connections and interrelationships.  It’s my job as a teacher to help them develop, not necessarily a love of all the other aspects like me, but at least an appreciation for them and the understanding of their impact.  To do that, a teacher must make it relevant to them.  Always ask yourself, why do students need to know this?  In what way might it impact them later in their learning or life?  That, then, becomes how you introduce the topic, by helping them make that personal connection and engage them through seeing its value and relevance to their own “real life”.

I recognize that these four statements are not “new” lines of thinking, but they were revelatory to me when I experienced them.  My hope is that these will start guiding you in thinking about your own teaching, your style, what assumptions you’ve brought to the class, how you interact with your students on a daily basis.  Effective teaching is a skill that must be learned and developed.  And recognize that as you build your teaching repertoire, it will repay you in spades – how you interact with students and the strategies you use are skills useful in all aspects of your career.  Knowing “best practices” of how to encourage student learning is vital to a faculty’s professional development, and when that interviewer for the faculty position you’ve applied for asks you what is your perspective on teaching, you’ll know exactly how to respond.

As Isaac Asimov said, “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”

Dr. Michelle Hardee is the TA Program Manager in the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) and Instructor in Marine Science at the University of South Carolina. She leads CTE programming to provide training for graduate teaching assistants and for graduate students.

Questions? Comments? Ideas? Contact Dr. Heather Brandt at hbrandt@sc.edu.


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