Saturday, September 21, 2013

Top Ten Tips for PhDs Starting to Teach

English: Veterinary students at the School of ...
Students awaiting my lecture (Wikipedia)

As a new PhD student last year, I was thrown in at the deep end with two seminar groups a week on a topic tangentially related to my PhD, and I don’t mind admitting it took me a while to find my feet.

It’s easy to recognise one’s (many) mistakes with hindsight, so here is the benefit of, oh, a whole year’s experience: my Top Tips for those finding themselves in the same situation this September.
  1. Preparation. It’s all about balance - have an overall plan, but allow for interesting deviations. Always have a couple of “last five minute” activities up your sleeve in case your session runs out of steam (one of the simplest is to ask, “if we were going to investigate this empirically, how could we do it?”). However, the converse … don’t spend so long on preparing a one-hour session that you neglect your PhD (note to self, must take own advice).
  2. Learn your students’ names. If you’re not automatically sent it, ask your department office for your university’s version of the “mugshot sheet” - a printout of your group’s student ID photos with their names and email addresses underneath. You can use the register to get to know your students. You should have one (because we’re all keeping tabs on our overseas student attendance, now, aren’t we?) but even if you’re only required to pass it round, doing an informal version of the traditional roll call will help put names to faces. It helps to do a quick layout of who’s sitting where that you can refer to if you want to call on individual students for contributions (which I generally find works better than asking a question of the whole class, who then look at the floor …).
  3. Watch others teach. Even if you’re not enrolled in a PGCHE or some kind of teacher training programme, observation of others’ seminars is a great way of picking up tips (good and bad!). As a new PG, it’s probable that you’re not long out of being on the receiving end, so use that experience - who inspired you? How did they do it? What was it about their classes you enjoyed? This is one case where plagiarism should be positively encouraged.
  4. Get feedback. Generally, the formal feedback mechanisms will only kick in at the end of the term/year, when it’s too late to change anything. Try a post-it note “last-five-minutes” exercise - on red, yellow and green, ask for anonymous suggestions for “I don’t understand/enjoy …”, “Why don’t we try …” and “I enjoy/find useful …” relating to the course. You might get a few blunt comments, but with any luck they’ll be outweighed by positive suggestions, and maybe even a compliment or two that will make your flippin’ week.
  5. Relate your material to the outside world. As a seminar leader, your job is most likely not to actually deliver content, but to situate it in a real-life context, discuss its applications, debate its worth. Use news stories and current events, give examples of actual uses, find people doing jobs actually using the topics on your syllabus.
  6. Keep copies of essay feedback. It helps you keep track of what you’ve said to who (particularly if a student subsequently asks you about it); and you can see whether your advice was acted on for subsequent work. If the same mistakes reappear, you’ll have to come up with something else.
  7. Be positive with feedback. The old adage of “criticise the action, not the person” applies. Don’t shy away from pointing out substandard work, but do offer suggestions for how it could have been improved, particularly if a mark is just below a class boundary - what would have put it over?
  8. Don’t beat yourself up if it isn’t perfect at the start. It’s easy to feel a certain amount of guilt if you don’t have a great seminar - after all, you are responsible for delivering the session, your students are paying for the privilege, etc; and it’s easy to have unrealistically high expectations - images of enthusiastic, inspiring debates can seem a long way from your first teaching experiences. Learn from what didn’t work, change it, move on; and don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Your university will have a teaching support unit - find it, and get as much training as you can.
  9. Communicate your enthusiasm. You are (presumably) teaching a subject you’re interested in enough to dedicate three years of your life to, so explain/demonstrate just what it is that you find so fascinating. If I had a pound for every time I used the phrase “… and I think this is REALLY COOL because …” in my classes, well, I wouldn’t need to be teaching.
  10. Take your own board pens. Nobody tells you this.

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