Talking Teaching

July 21, 2010

Aaaarrhh First Year

Filed under: Uncategorized — Marcus Wilson @ 3:53 pm

This is a copy of a post made today on my home blog PhysicsStop

It’s no secret that I don’t like teaching first year classes.  I find third year undergraduates far easier to teach. I think the main reason for this is that with the third years I don’t have such a large gap between my knowledge of the subject and theirs. That means that I don’t need to think so much about whether I am using words they are not familiar with, or whether my explanation draws on contexts and phenomena that the class hasn’t seen before. I know others take the opposite view – third year classes are harder because the material is more advanced – but to me that’s not a problem. What is a problem is communicating, and it is easier for me to do so with students who are closer to my ways of thinking.  Plus third years tend to speak a lot more and let you know when they don’t follow something, so it is less easy to lose a whole class without knowing it.

On Monday I did a first year tutorial in which I ended up in a horrible tangle  trying to explain something that to me is really simple. To be fair on myself, I think the question that I had to explain (which came from a website) was badly put together, but I should have done rather better than I did. First year teaching takes real practice (I think it does, anyway) . I’m very envious of people like Alison Campbell who excel in teaching large groups of first years.

As part of my PGCert in Tertiary Teaching, I experimented last semester with a method of finding out whether my class (a second year one in this case) is with me or not. (See for example Turpen and Finkelstein, Physical Review Special Topics, Physics Education Research 5, 020101 (2009) ) It’s a well-used method in physics teaching, though I gave it a bit of adeptation for my class. Essentially its formative assessment – ask the class multiple choice questions at the beginning of the lecture relating to last lecture’s material and have the class discuss it in pairs – not to test them for the sake of allocating marks, but for me to know where their understanding is at.  It worked well, I think – there were questions that the class struggled with that I thought they’d have grasped easily. That has got to be good overall for the students, because it allows me to go and unpick their reasoning and correct misconceptions. In a subject like physics, where so often one concept is built on another, the teacher (me) needs to know whether the students have that foundation or not – if not, there really is no point going on.

That’s another reason why I find third years easier to teach – by the time they reach third year, they have grasped those underlying concepts (if not, they’d be failing bigtime in second year). That means less preparation on my part is required. Maybe I’m just lazy.



  1. :) I have a bit of an advantage here. Since I talk about dinosaurs to little kids all the time, by the time I talk to the first years at the university, I can usually talk at their level (ouch). Sadly, I found not as much difference between fascinated primary school kids and disinterested college students as I would like. I can expand a little for the college students, but not as much as I think I should be able to. I can’t even expect them to read any more. My primary school kids study harder too. It is so refreshing to talk to kids that listen, look at the books and ask questions about the material beyond, “Is this going to be on the test?” That question always irritates me. I tend to answer that with I took the time to talk to you about it, so unless I tell you that it is an aside that you won’t be tested on, just assume it is fair game for a test and you should probably know it.

    I find it easier to get my med students motivated, though. They aren’t any more motivated than standard students, but there I can usually tell them exactly how the knowledge can be used in their practice and ways they can kill their patients if they don’t know it.

    For the paleo material, I have tried to find ways to relate it to more pressing modern examples, tie it to something they see all the time. I also find I get their attention better when I present them with something they think they know and turn it completely around on them, showing it from a completely different perspective. The layering that you mentioned in physics is important here too. If I can have them se a modern situation, then I can expand that into a deep-time perspective to show them how that situation may evolve and development.

    I have often tried what you talked about, particularly in my medical classes. I give them a question to think about at the beginning of the class, then present some material. Then I go back to the original question and ask them to provide a diagnosis based on what we have talked about. They seem to pay more attention when they know they are going to have to solve the riddle at the end but that the answers will be presented in the lecture.

    Comment by jdmimic — July 22, 2010 @ 3:23 am

  2. I think a big part of the problem is that you have reached a much higher level of cognitive thought than your first year students. They are looking for the right answer; you are presenting the evidence. I find that having students teach each other helps. The student, in part, translate for the students at lower ci\ognitive level,

    Comment by pcurmudgeon — July 22, 2010 @ 1:58 pm

    • We try to do as you suggest in first-year Bio tuts – break the class up into groups, give them a problem & some time to discuss it, & then have one person from a group present the group’s answer. Which means that the others have a reason for ensuring everyone in their group knows that answer & can explain it. Doesn’t always work as well as it might – especially if the person you pick has been resolutely sitting there & trying not to be involved :-)

      Comment by alison — July 25, 2010 @ 9:15 pm

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