By Dr Catherine Armstrong
It is coming to the end of my first year as a lecturer. Here are some tips for being a good undergraduate teacher that I have learned in my first year.
- Be organised - administration is everything!
- Use technology wisely in your teaching
- Email is the best
- Do not over-prepare
- When marking: do short, sharp bursts
- Learn names as quickly as possible
- Do not over-commit
- Learn from your students
- Work with other colleagues
- Think about strategy
In May or June you will be required to submit the marks you have awarded students throughout the year. This involves at the very least collating results and sending them to a colleague, or if you are a unit leader you could be responsible for managing all sorts of complicated spreadsheets with large amounts of data. The key to getting this right is to be organised from the start of the year. Once you have marked an essay or exam, record the mark carefully and store the mark sheet in an accessible place. It sounds so obvious, but it only takes one mark to go astray and your life will be thrown into chaos!
Many universities and departments now do some sort of online teaching, whether it is simply having research materials available for students or the more sophisticated discussion fora and online assessments. Do not be frightened of this; make an effort to use the technology. Students like it because they have something tangible that they can access outside class time. Many are intimidated by the format of lectures and seminars and are initially unsure how to collect information from them, so having the back up of online lectures, digitised research materials, and links to useful websites is beneficial. Think carefully about what you put online, and when you do so. If you simply post all your materials on the web you may find no one bothers to come to your lectures any more!
When communicating with your students outside class time I have found that email and face to face contact are the best methods. Many lecturers work from home for some of the week and students can be slow to realise that you are not in your office every day. Encouraging your students to email you is far more practical than having them go to your office when you are not present. That is not to say you should never be available to students personally, just that email is a good way of managing contacts, and it's not as intrusive as the telephone. You have to keep on top of your emails, though; I try to reply to a student within 48 hours, or quicker if it's an urgent query.
A mistake new lecturers frequently make is spending hours and hours preparing for one seminar or days writing a lecture. There is no need to do this. If you are spending too long writing a lecture chances are you are including too much material and bombarding your students with information. It is the same with seminars or tutorial groups. These are designed for students to show you what they know, not the other way round.
It can seem daunting to have fifty scripts or more to mark in the same subject where every student has tackled the same question! You might think: `how will I ever get through all those?` The key with marking is to do little and often. I mark as many scripts as possible in an hour before having a 5 minute walk or making a quick cup of tea. Trying to do a full 2 or 3 hour stretch simply won't do your students justice in my experience. Answers start to blur into one and you lose the ability to be objective. Little things like students' awful handwriting really begin to bother you!
It may seem a minor point but students really do respond better if you refer to them by their first names occasionally. It shows that you remember them and have paid attention to who they are and what they have to say, and it makes them more confident about contributing in the future. It also has the added bonus of being useful if they are misbehaving; you can tackle them directly, in front of the class if necessary, rather than having to ignore the problem or show you have forgotten or do not know their name.
This is similar to point four, it is easy to let teaching take over your life. If you become too available to students they will constantly call on you for assistance about the smallest thing. One of the benefits to them of going to university is to learn the value of independent study. Your role is distinctly different to that of a school teacher so try to get the balance right between showing you care and are interested in their learning, and engendering an independent spirit.
Although your primary role during term time will be as a teacher, you will probably also be required to keep up your research profile too. Don't stop thinking about your research just because you are in the classroom. Students like to hear about your work and, of course, research-led teaching is very important when you share research materials and ideas with them. However, don't be frightened to allow the process to go the other way. You might get some fascinating ideas from your students or something they find interesting might trigger curiosity in you. If you supervise undergraduate dissertations then this does become an almost collaborative research process in the best cases.
Life as an academic can be rewarding, offering a great deal of individual autonomy, but it can also be a lonely business with no one else sharing your exact area of expertise. This can be combated by initiating different teaching projects with colleagues. This can involve jointly teaching a course together or doing a guest lecture on someone else's course, running a special optional visit somewhere or starting a debating club. It is a good way of getting to know colleagues on a professional level and working with people who might be outside your obvious area of expertise.
If you enjoy teaching and become interested in the direction your department is taking then get involved in the strategic planning side of things. Your head of department will be able to advise you on the best way of doing this. There will be committees that meet termly to decide on the provision for the next academic year, but there also might be larger projects to drive the department's teaching forward over a number of years. Getting involved with this is a good way to protect your own teaching interests and will also look great on your C.V.