By Dr. Catherine Armstrong
Teaching a module based on your own research
These top ten tips form the last instalment in the series advising on the best practice when teaching undergraduates. For many academics the ‘holy grail' of teaching is to be able to run a course based on their own research. This is advantageous for many reasons as it will be a subject you are enthusiastic about, and also you will already be aware of developments in the field and will not have to learn a lot of new material in order to teach it. Here are ten tips on how to get the most out of teaching a subject close to your own research.
- Think of the curriculum
- Don’t get too narrow
- Let your enthusiasm ‘sell’ the module
- Themes and overviews are still important
- Present other views
- Go with the students’ interests
- Don’t be too harsh
- Avoid seeing students as unpaid researchers
- Think study skills/transferable skills
- Don’t be offended if they are not interested!
Although you may desperately want to teach your students about the minutiae of your chosen specialism it has to work within the curriculum too. Think about whether the subject will be totally new to students or whether their work in previous years at university will have prepared them for your course, and tailor it accordingly. Obviously for a completely new topic you will need to start at a much more basic level. If there are courses that prepare them for your subject, try to draw connections and parallels with what has gone before.
It is easy to become blinkered and focus on a narrow part of a particular theory or the study of one text or a few years of history because that is where your work has taken you, but students for the most part will not want that. They will need to have context and examples, so make sure you fit your course to them - do not expect them to fit around your research.
The attractive factor will be that you are an expert in your field and you are devoting time to train your students in the subject. So let your natural enthusiasm show, don't be shy!
Never forget that the audience you are teaching is probably going to be made up of young and inexperienced scholars so don't assume that they understand where your work fits in to the bigger picture of your discipline.
Don't simply present your work as the ‘last word' on a particular topic; make students aware of conflicting views and other approaches. Similarly, if you include your own books and articles on the reading list, make sure they have an alternative as well. Students (and your colleagues) will quickly spot if you are trying to present a one-sided approach to the subject and you may get a reputation for trying to hard-sell your own books!
You will probably find that students are interested in very different aspects of your topic from you, so allow them to explore those. This is especially the case if you are running a third year module, by which time they will have acquired some decent study skills. As with teaching any course, flexibility is vital, so don't allow yourself to become rigid and restrictive in the approach you take.
For the most part lecturers mark more harshly when students are writing about a subject they know very well. It is difficult not to do this because you have a deeper understanding of the subject yourself and are looking for these nuances in your undergraduates' work. Make a real effort not to do this and judge students' work on its own merit.
Your students are not there to do the research projects that you have not had the time or the inclination to do! Let them decide the approach they will take to your topic; do not try to force them down a particular research path.
Despite the fact that you are a trained scholar, you must realise that most of your students will not become lecturers or researchers, so it is always important to relate what they are doing to their own life experience.
Remember that your students may not take to the subject as warmly as you did, so don't take it personally if they do not share your passion for a particular aspect of your topic. It is not because you haven't taught them well, or because your subject is not engaging enough, but simply down to different tastes: perhaps next year you will have some real converts in your class!