By Dr. Catherine Armstrong
Top Ten Tips for Teaching Undergraduates
Unless you are employed in a purely research job (and sometimes even then) at some stage you will find yourself teaching a room full of undergraduates. This can be quite daunting and, depending on your institution, the training given to prepare for this might be minimal. These top ten tips are the first in a three-part series of tips, and are intended for new, inexperienced university teachers. The next two in the series will be on teaching a course outside your area of specialism and teaching a research-led module.
Some hourly paid postgraduate tutors are thrown into classroom situations with barely a day's training, so it is important that you take every opportunity you can to learn about the theory and practice of post-compulsory education. It may sound obvious, but it is easy to get so bogged down in your own subject area and teaching requirements that these training courses are easily forgotten. Many universities demand that their new permanent staff take a diploma in education, but if you are offered the opportunity to do this before you get a permanent job, do so. It will save time later and make you feel more confident going into the classroom.
Teaching methods for a lecture are very different to a seminar, tutorial, workshop or laboratory session. If you have an hour with your students make sure you know what subject and what sort of teaching you will be expected to provide. In some ways lecturing is a lot easier because the teacher is in total control, but it is also unsatisfactory because there is no way of knowing whether students are learning anything in a lecture! Once you know what is required, try new things too: you don't have to stick with what your lecturers taught you at undergraduate level!
Knowing the layout of the room you are using is a great bonus to a teacher. Can you move the chairs around to run different sorts of group activities? What equipment is there at your disposal? Is there any natural light? For example, breaking up into small groups is very difficult in a tiered lecture theatre, so make sure you know what your room will be like before planning your session.
Teachers in training are taught to write minute-by-minute lesson plans for every session: try doing this as an exercise. Do not worry if you don't stick to your plan exactly, but being well prepared with materials and tasks will always work better than simply leaving it to chance.
One of the factors that makes a good teacher is the personal touch. An easy way to display this is by learning your students' names as soon as possible. An obvious way to do this is to ask them to sit in the same seats for a few weeks (they may do this without you asking them). This will obviously be easier with a seminar group of 8 rather than a large lecture room of 100 but still make an effort to learn as many names as possible.
A nervous or inexperienced teacher will often find that he or she ends up talking too much in seminar/workshop situations to avoid having periods of silence in class. It is important to learn early on that telling students the answer is not your role; you need facilitate learning not force it. This is easier said than done of course, but with every group the dynamic is different. Encouraging students to believe that they are stakeholders in the learning process is an important part of this.
When you are not the person who has designed a course it is difficult to work out the overall intentions of its creator, but now that most courses require official documentation it is possible to refer to the learning outcomes. These are achievements that every student who passes the course ought to have attained. But they can also help teachers frame their lessons because they tell you what students need to get from their time on the course. While it may feel like learning by ticking boxes, it is important to provide students with this information and skills base so they come away from the course with a strong sense of achievement.
It is a common mistake made by new teachers to try to cram too much into each session. You will find that 60 or 90 minutes goes incredibly quickly and however much you have planned for your students to do, half it! It is much better to allow time for digressions and student-led learning rather than racing through an over-structured lesson desperate to try to cover everything you have set. Flexibility is vital.
It can be difficult to gauge how well a session has gone especially if your students are quite and unresponsive. Your department will want you to collect student feedback in order to audit the overall student satisfaction with their course. However, you can collect informal feedback too; ask your students whether you pitched the session at the right level, whether they learned anything, and if so what. Ask them about practical matters such as whether you are speaking loudly and slowly enough. But be prepared for them to be brutally honest!
Being observed by a more senior member of staff is really useful and reassuring for a junior teacher. While it may seem nerve-wracking, the feedback provided can help you to improve your teaching methods considerably. And it is also useful to observe colleagues' classes. You won't have attended an undergraduate class since your own undergraduate days, and then of course were not observing the teacher's methods and practice! So make the most of every opportunity to develop your own teaching by taking on ideas from your colleagues.