Talking Teaching

July 23, 2010

reflecting on why i enjoy first-year teaching

The other day Marcus wrote a post about teaching first-year classes, & some of the things he said made me reflect on how I became a ‘first-year specialist’ & why I get so much enjoyment out of teaching at that level. (And I have to say that I don’t think he’s giving himself enough credit – the fact that he’s constantly thinking about what he’s doing, & how to improve his teaching & his students’ learning, makes him a good teacher at any level :) )

My first taste of teaching at university was as a ‘demonstrator’ – a senior student assisting with teaching in first- & second-year biology lab classes. This was while I was working towards my PhD. After completing that (in 1983) I went on to get a job as a secondary school teacher, something I really enjoyed, & I stayed in that area until in 1992 I was asked  if I’d be interested in returning to Massey University’s Ecology Department as a senior tutor (which I found quite flattering as it wasn’t as if I was actively looking around for a position!). To begin with, this just involved lab teaching & being responsible for the first-year papers that we taught extramurally, but pretty soon I was asked to take on a bit of lecturing as well.

This sounded like it could be fun, but it was also a rather daunting prospect. I knew I was pretty good at controlling classes of 30 students or so at secondary school, but we were talking around 400 uni students here. And they could be an unforgiving lot – I had not-so-fond memories of a class way back when I was a first-year myself. In this particular case it was right at the start of the semester & the lecturer – who was completely new to the job & I think to uni teaching – stood up & told the class just that: that he had no real experience of teaching at uni level & hoped we’d be understanding. Alas, some in the class weren’t; their behaviour was pathetic & paper darts were just a part of it. That was a good lesson for me – to be confident (or at least to present that way, no matter how hard the butterflies were flapping in my stomach) about what I was there to do. Having that secondary school experience helped – some 4th-form (year 10) classes that I’d encountered had a reputation for being ‘difficult’ & if you didn’t come across as confident & in control from the start you were sunk…

I found I really enjoyed lecturing, but my goodness! I was nervous before each class. And to some degree I still am: nervous that I’ll forget something important (I don’t use notes, just powerpoint images & some words as cues), or that I’ll say something stupid & totally confuse everybody. I think that’s actually quite a good thing as it means that I think carefully about what I’m doing & I plan ahead. And revise/review stuff all the time, not least in the light of student feedback on the papers I teach & on my actual teaching. In fact, I think that when I stop being a bit nervous is probably going to be a signal that maybe I should consider looking for something different to do. (The other signal – & just as important! – would be when I stop having fun in the classroom & it all becomes just routine.)

When I joined the Biological Sciences Department at Waikato I was taken on as a ‘specialist’ first-year teacher, partly because that was where my experience was & also because by this time I’d also been working quite extensively with school students & teachers on a variety of  ‘outreach’ activities. That, plus the fact I was a trained secondary teacher, convinced the then Head of Department that I had a contribution to make in bridging school students into study here & also in developing & enhancing our (then rather minimal) links with the secondary schools in our region. So, while I have taught at all levels up to PhD supervision, first-year makes up the bulk of my teaching role. And frankly I wouldn’t have it any other way. I do believe the HoD was right, that my secondary background – & since then my various other activities to do with NCEA – gives me a good understanding of where my first-year students are coming from, that helps enhance their enculturation into the university world. And besides – first-year teaching’s such fun!

No, seriously – I really do enjoy it. I’m my own worst critic if I think I’ve done a poor lecture, but I love teaching & I really get a buzz out of first-year classes. They’re always challenging, not in the sense of my having to do a lot of crowd control, but because you can guarantee that someone will ask a question that I haven’t anticipated & that I really have to think hard about before I can answer it properly. But that is good too – keeps me on my toes! – but also gives the opportunity to model how scientists think. You know – “I don’t actually know the answer to that one. But, on the basis of this information, here’s my hypothesis about how it could work. Now, if that hypothesis is correct, what do you predict that we might find if we do ‘x’?” And so on. Intellectually stimulating for all parties :-) Weaving a story that ties what they are learning with me, at this minute, into what they learned at school and what they’ll be learning with the next lecturer or the next paper, is also fun. (Yours truly is a firm believer in the power of narrative.) Plus, I love that ‘buzz’ that you get from a class that is (mostly!) engaged with what’s going on in the classroom – & it’s so good to see someone’s face light up when something you’ve said ‘clicks’ with them :-) That really makes my day.


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  3. Interesting that you mention the narrative approach. I am currently at a teaching with technology seminar. One of the speakers showed us a clip from the movie, “A Mirror Has Two Faces.” In the movie, Barbara Streisand is a professor and she gives a lecture to her class. The speaker used this clip as a model for how to give a good lecture. In the movie, she used humor to build a personable dialogue with the students, but she also used a personal story to relate her lecture topic to her own life and by extension to the class and how they might react to things, thereby building a bridge between their experience and the lecture topic. There were other things that were pointed out as well, such as knowing at least some fo the students’ names and asking them questions and taking their answers seriously and so on.
    It may have been Hollywood, but it did demonstrate an engaging lecture style.

    Comment by jdmimic — July 24, 2010 @ 4:14 am

    • My approach is pretty much like that :-) I guess in part it reflects my own fondness for stories; you can weave so much into a tale while not losing sight of the basic science concepts that you’re trying to convey. (I’m currently reading Bill Bryson’s latest book, “At Home” & loving it for the way that he weaves historical information & personal anecdotes into his work.)

      Comment by alison — July 25, 2010 @ 9:18 pm

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  5. […] I really enjoy my first-year bio classes, & one of the reasons for this is that the students respond to my questions and ask questions of their own. I’ve just read Marcus’s excellent post on what he’s learned from his students & it’s spurred me to write a bit about this too. […]

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