Talking Teaching

August 18, 2010

controlling nervousness

Every now & then I cruise through the statistics for this blog – it’s always interesting to see who’s linked here & of course we do like to know how many visitors we’ve got! Anyway, I noticed that someone had used the search term ‘controlling nervousness’ & I thought that might make a good topic for a post. (I have to add that what follows is purely from my own experience; I’ve never done a course on public speaking or anything like that!)

I remember being intensely nervous when I first started demonstrating in labs as a PhD student; when I began my secondary teaching career (remember, at that point I hadn’t been to training college…); when I became a university academic. And in fact I still have bouts of nerves today, before I front up to a class – made worse if it’s a topic I haven’t taught before, or (even worse!!) if the audience is a group of academics. Mind you, I do think that some level of nervousness is a Good Thing as it helps keep me on my toes (& if I ever lose that feeling it’s probably a signal that I should be looking for another job), but the trick is to control it where possible.

Part of the nervousness, as a new, first-time lecturer, is due to the fact that you may have absolutely no idea what it’s going to be like. You’ll have been a student, so you know all too well what goes on on that side of the lectern :) But to stand in front of that sea of faces, none of whom you know or have any sort of rapport with; that’s something else again. (Especially if, like me, you have memories of how poorly students can behave if they are so inclined.) If you can (& if they’re willing), sit in on a couple of lectures by a more experienced colleague; they’ll have a few tricks that they use & you may decide that some of these will work for you. Or spend time over coffee or a cuppa talking about what might work in the classroom. Personally I believe that sort of mentoring should be a given; all too often you hear of new lecturers effectively being thrust in front of classes with no real idea of what to do apart from their memories of how they were taught themselves. The current trend of expecting/encouraging staff to take some form of qualification in tertiary teaching (as Marcus & Fabiana are doing)  is a Very Good Thing.

For me, having done my teacher training was a boon, because it taught me a lot of crowd control skills, & that helps control the nerves. Things like setting the ground rules for behaviour right up front – these need to be fair, but they also need to be adhered to. From my perspective, I’m the one controlling what goes on in the classroom, & I have a right to be heard & to facilitate learning without other people creating a distraction; simple courtesy, in other words. (Respect, I have to earn.) From the students’ side of things, they have the right to expect that they’ll be similarly treated with courtesy, that their learning environment won’t be disrupted, that their questions will be answered clearly & well. That early teaching experience gave me the confidence that I could set that sort of thing up. Now, these aren’t ground rules that I’ve ever spelled out, & maybe I should do that… But for me, anyway, it’s more a matter of what I do in front of the class. For example, you need a signal to the class that you want them to be quiet when it’s time for the lecture to begin. You could just try talking over them but that’s never appealed to me, & certainly not shouting – that’s just undignified :) But try waiting them out. Put your first slide up on the screen, look at them (really look around the class, & make eye contact), stand there… and wait them out. As I said in the previous post, I find that dimming the lights at the same time is a good signal, & I usually only have to do the waiting bit once or twice with that before they’re all nicely conditioned.)

What about if someone starts talking at the same time that you are? Myself, I just stop. And wait. And look at them. It doesn’t take too long for them to realise that not only am I doing that, but a fair number of the rest of the class are as well :) If they persist, or do it again, then I’d suggest simply asking if they’re having trouble with the material that you’re discussing. If they are, deal with it then (see ‘the sea of blank faces’). If they’re just gossiping, maybe they’d like to take their conversation elsewhere? Having times during the lecture when the students know they’re going to have the chance to discuss things, or making sure they know that it’s fine to ask questions if they don’t understand something, probably reduces any tendency to chat anyway. (I must admit to being really nervous the first time I used a pop quiz in a lecture & told the students that they had a couple of minutes to discuss their answer with their neighbours. I mean, what if they didn’t quiet down again when it was My Turn??? But it all went swimmingly, probably because they were already conditioned to my signal for when it was My Turn.)

But the really important thing, I think, is not to let on that you’re nervous :) You need to project confidence, even if inside you’re trembling in your boots. It’ll be easier if you’re well prepared (notes in order, powerpoint sorted); if you remind yourself – just occasionally; you don’t want to get cocky! – that you’re there because you do know more about the subject than your students. And if you’re prepared to admit that you’ve made a mistake, or to say that you simply don’t know. (Make no mistake – you are guaranteed to have someone ask you a question to which you don’t know the answer.) You want to be a good role model for your students, & making this admission – and showing that you’re prepared to go look for the answer, or to work it out there & then – is all part of that, plus it shows that you’re only human. Because something I am absolutely certain of, is that there’s an awful lot of stuff I don’t know. But I’m always happy to learn :)

Other sources of information

If you’re keen for more on this subject (as I said, I’m no expert: all I’m doing here is sharing some of the things that help me!), then you might like to read about improving lecturing skills on the University of Indiana (Bloomington) website. The University of Queensland’s Teaching & Educational Development Unit has a very good resource on teaching anxiety (as in, anxiety about teaching), which begins by making the key point that “[if] you are prepared to acknowledge fear of lecturing as a totally surmountable challenge, it can be used to work to sharpen your performance as a lecturer.” And the Cambridge University Press offers an excerpt from The Art of Lecturing that also offers many tips on overcoming nervousness & turning it to your advantage. (I must check with our Teaching Development staff to see if they’ve got a copy, as it looks really interesting.) Enjoy :)

August 15, 2010

Congratulations Alison!

Ako Aotearoa last week announced the winners of the Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards.

Among the recipients is our co-blogger Alison Campbell.

The readers of this space will not be surprised: her love for teaching, for her studensts and her insights on education she shares with us on every post. As a teacher myself I admire her commitment and insight and this blog has for me become a place where I come to find inspiration from the posts and the comments.

It is wonderful to see Alison’s  teaching excellence recognized, so here is to you Alison! Well deserved!

August 13, 2010

the sea of blank faces

One of our readers has written:

Hi Talking Teaching Talkers ;) I thought I drop a very quick note to you guys about My First Teaching Experience. I was recently asked to teach a 2nd year lab on phylogenetic methods (one of the students very least favourite topics). I jumped at the chance because I’m very keen to get some teaching experience. Like most postgrads (or early career scientists) asked to teach part of a course for the first time I’ve had not training in how to teach.

I’ve just finished the labs and I think they went pretty well (I certainly enjoyed them!) but there were a few moments I wasn’t prepared for. In particular, I went through one example on the board and evidently did it too quickly. When I turned around and asked “is every happy with how we did that” I was met with a sea of blank faces (well, there were a few anguished onces among them). It was terrifying to realise that everything I’d said for the last 10mins had failed to enter anyone’s consciousness and I really didn’t know what to do next. That, and the awkward silences that followed any question I asked the class were something I just wasn’t prepared for. So, I’d be really interested to see how the talking teaching crew deal with those problems.

Like most grad students (and early career researchers) asked to teach a class I only have experience as a demonstrator and no real training. So, I thought it might be an interesting topic for you guys to pick up. How do you deal with the sea of non-understanding, or try and get people involved even in a big class? It’s just an idea, and I only bring it up because I’d be interested in hearing what you guys think about it.

This is something of a composite answer as we’ve had a bit of behind-the-scenes e-mail discussion around the question :) As Fabiana says, that sea of blank faces is a terrifying thing to see in class. There are ways of getting around it, but most of the ones that have worked for all of us have been in situations where we teach several lectures in a row. It can be really hard to deal with if you’re just popping in & out for one or two classes, because you don’t really get the opportunity to build much rapport with the class. Fabiana suggests that one way of getting round this might be to create some sort of online discussion (pre-lab assignment) prior to the class – this lets you start by addressing some of the qeustions at the beginning of the class. And now I think about it – this would work for lectures too :) The only thing is, to make use of initiatives like this, you have to make a conscious decision to cut some of the ‘facts’ you want to get across in order to facilitate in-class discussion, because of time constraints. And sometimes other people can be quite critical of you for doing that; you just have to stick to your guns!

Getting them to ask (& answer!) questions in class (lab or lecture, or even small-group tutorials) can be really difficult, though. You have to be prepared to wait for a response. And I think I’d add, it takes a bit of courage to do that :) As teachers, we tend to dislike those pregnant pauses, where no-one’s speaking up, & there’s a natural tendency to rush to fill it. You know – “oh my goodness, no-one knows the answer; that’s terrible, I’d better go on & tell them what it is.” But I’ve found that if you do wait, someone will eventually say something, you just have to be willing to wait them out. And it may help, if nothing’s immediately forthcoming, to re-phrase the question. Something like: “Hmmm, I think maybe I didn’t put that very well. Here’s a little bit more background. Now, let’s try looking at it this way [& then put the question again].” That’s something I do quite a lot, because I want to check that they understand what I’ve just been talking about before I move on to the next bit & I just know that they won’t all have ‘got it’ the first time. I’ll admit that it does help if you’ve taught them for more than a couple of classes, because they need to know that you’ll take their questions seriously. One way of sparking those initial questions, if you’re able to give the time in the class, is to let the students discuss the answer among themselves before you ask for a response. That way they may feel a bit more confident about speaking out, not least because they’ll probably have found out that they’re not the only person who’s not sure of the answer. If you do try that, you’ll just need some way of getting their attention when it’s your turn to start speaking – in lectures. (I deal with that by dimming the lights a bit when it’s ‘my’ turn & brightening them when it’s ‘theirs’.)

Which leads on to another pont that Fabiana raised: “One thing I find is too often students starting their questions with ‘this may be a stupid question, but XXX?’ which I think reflects the way that they perceive what questions ‘should be’. but good questions usually slowly emerge from a sea of ‘bad’ qeustions, which immediately makes them good, at least because they trigger better questions. My point (I think) is to try to break that barrier: As I say in class: ‘there are no stupid questions, just stupid answers’. That usually gets them going. But I found it is important to never dismiss a question. Usually what appears to be a ‘stupid question’ can be rephrased to be a good one and teaching them that is always good. And I try to ‘never’ answer by referring back to the notes or by saying ‘you should  have read that before class’. When a question is asked I usually ask the class: ‘can anybody think of an answer to that, or are there any others with a similar question?”, and that also usually helps them relax.”

I agree with that 110% :) It’s something we reinforce with our lab demonstrators before the paper begins at the start of the semester. While they may have heard a question umpteen times before, for the student this is a brand-new query. And if the student has plucked up the courage to ask it, then it’s most definitely not a ‘stupid’ question; it’s meaningful for them & they genuinely want to know the answer, & it opens a window for you into their current state of knowledge. (Plus you can just about guarantee that for every student who comes up with a query, there’ll be several more who are just as keen to know the answer!) So, never dismiss a question :)

Just in passing, one of the other things we insist on, with our demonstrators, is that it’s more than OK for them to say “I don’t know” if they don’t have an answer – as long as they don’t stop there but add “but let’s see if we can work it out”, or maybe “but I’ll go & see if I can find out”. (My own preference is for the first option, because it gives an opportunity to model how scientists approach a question to which they don’t immediately know the answer.) Anyone who shows a propensity to just making stuff up won’t last long!

Anyway, we hope that helps :) Let us know how you go!

August 12, 2010

Who should be involved in course and curriculum design?

At the 2009 TEDxAKL event, Brenda Frisk framed her talk by first stating that

everybody has been educated, so everybody thinks they know and they understand education.

Teachers will almost inevitably gravitate to reproducing “the model of teaching that they experienced as students”. It is not unusual to hear teachers express that a given model ‘worked for me’ as a sufficient argument to justify their practice. But this attitude only perpetuates educational models designed for a very different kind of society, and very different commercial and industrial needs. It may then fall short of providing the adequate tools and flexibility needed to adapt to an ever-changing work environment.

“Science is about proving that something can be done ONCE. Commercialising it involves figuring out how to do that squillions of times, with exactly the same outcome, for as little money and as quickly as possible. VERY different skills.”

-Nat Torkington

From Marquette University photostream

A recent report by MoRST, Igniting Potential, New Zealand’s Science and Innovation Pathway, shows that the vast majority of science-related PhD graduates (over 80%) will occupy jobs outside of academia. This figure would be much larger if it were to consider all other (undergraduate and post-graduate) science-related degrees. But despite this daunting reality, I would argue, most of the staff entrusted with providing this large proportion of students with suitable qualifications and skills for their future careers in the ‘real world’ have probably had little or no experience in those work environments to draw upon when designing a course curriculum. And as Nat Torkington points out, the skills needed are quite different.

I would argue that the quality of the education received may depend on how well the design of the curriculum is aligned with the real-life demands that the graduates will eventually face. And most of them will not end up in academia.

So, when it comes to curriculum or course design, should we take into account only what faculty consider to be the core necessary body of knowledge, or should the main stakeholders (students and future employers) be invited to participate in the process?

other ways of assessment

Filed under: education, university — Tags: , , , — alison @ 12:24 pm

Last week Marcus attended a couple of seminars by Phil Race (I was away & missed out :[ ) – he went on to write briefly about the ideas that were discussed & provided a link to Phil’s website. So when I had a minute I trotted over & had a look – some very thought-provoking stuff there.  What I want to do here is pick up on some of the ideas in Phil’s seminar & website.

One of the assessment tasks for our first-year Bio students is an essay. Not particularly long, ‘just’ 1000 words (plus references). There are several reasons for having them do this: lecturers with 2nd- & 3rd-year classes used to complain that students didn’t know how to write essays or reports. The first-year papers include essays in the final exam, & there’s absolutely no point in doing that if you don’t give students practice in writing these things during the semester. (The exam thing is one reason that the word limit is 1000 words – the students need to be able to put ideas down as concisely & precisely as possible in an exam, since they’re working under time pressure, so the word limit for the internally-assessed essay helps them to gain those skills.) And – I want to help my students to develop their ability to pull together information from a range of sources and to combine it in a thoughtful & meaningful way – that is, to encourage them to think critically about an issue, rather than simply regurgitate facts.

Now, I hasten to add that we don’t simply set the question & leave them to it! Our wonderful science librarian provides a guide to referencing & citation, and another on how best to search for information in the library, its databases, & on the net. When the questions are set I also provide a brief outline of what key ideas I’d expect to see mentioned, & the marking rubric’s also available to them (before they submit) so that they can see how the marks will be allocated. They get practice at paraphrasing (a necessary skill & something that many of our first-years really struggle with) & we spend quite a bit of time in tutorials on things like interpreting the question, structuring the essay, referencing & citations, & why plagiarism is a Bad Thing & how to avoid falling into that trap.

But even with all that, the final marking/assessment of the essays is still a major task. (& one reason why there was a certain amount of opposition to the first-years writing them – someone has to do the marking!) The tutor & I split the task but it still takes 2-3 weeks of work. So I was interested in seeing what Phil had to say. I think I’ll use one of his suggestions this year – to hand out general feedback comments the day the essays are submitted. The rationale is that this timing means that the comments are most likely to be read :) With 3 different topics obviously this sort of feedback is of necessity very general: the things that you know from experience are likely to crop up every time. I’m sure that you can think of examples; my list would include: not following instructions on general layout (double-spacing, wide LH margin…); proof-reading (or otherwise) which should pick up on spelling, grammatical & punctuation errors; failing to read the question properly so that the essay is off-topic or gives the wrong weighting to the various sections; the need for consistency in how references are formatted; good practice in in-text citation…. Then, says Phil, when you mark the essays themselves, you can focus on how your students have addressed the topic as they’ll already have feedback on the ‘other’ stuff.

He also suggests handing back the assignments with feedback (see above) but no grade. When I first saw that, I thought ‘eeep!’. But his explanation made a lot of sense, & Marcus has tried it since & found it worked well. The idea is that you mark the assignment & record the marks – but not on the work itself. There, you just provide formative feedback, & ask the students to read it & say what they think the grade should have been.  Reflecting on it, I can see why this is such a good technique – it makes the students read your feedback :), & it really makes them focus on looking critically at their own work & how it could be improved. So the next piece of work they submit may be much better; a win-win all round.

There’s also the idea that you don’t get the class to submit a whole long essay at all. (Phil’s talking here of 2-3000 words & over.) Ask for the abstract, or a conclusion/summary – they’ll still need to do the background reading & research in order to produce this, but the overall marking task will be much less while still giving you a good understanding of just where the students are at. That one I’m not so sure of at the moment, in the sense that I don’t know about doing it with the first-years; I’m still inclined to think that while assessment practices (across the board) remain as they are, that my students still need to learn & practice the skills associated with turning out the whole thing. After all, the abstract tends to be the last thing you write!

Some thoughts on assessment

Filed under: Uncategorized — Marcus Wilson @ 10:16 am

This is a copy of a post I put last week on my home blog PhysicsStop

I went to a very interesting seminar this morning [5 August]. Phil Race, from the UK, was presenting about making assessments better in tertiary teaching. There was a lot in his talk (you can download it and other information from ) – I’ll just summarise some of the points that are most interesting to me.

1. Assessment started going downhill when, in 1791, the University of Cambridge introduced the first written exam. (Before that, it was purely oral).  Not sure that this is ever likely to change – but I can certainly say that in my experience students seem to appreciate feedback a lot more when it is given in person.

2. Don’t put a mark or grade on a student’s assignment when you return it to them. The student will become focused on the grade, to the point of ignoring all your written feedback.

3. Instead, let them work out what their grade should be, based on the feedback you give and how their work compares to that of their peers. I tried this out very briefly this afternoon in a lab class. I normally mark student lab reports by spending a few minutes the following week with the student and going through their report together (see point 1). Today I asked my poor unsuspecting students what mark they reckoned they should get.   All but one was spot-on – their assessment was the same as mine. The other one was harsh on himself – I thought his work was of better quality than he did, and I was able to explain why.

4. Never ask a student ‘Do you understand?’ This is likely to trigger the following train of thought:

What is it he wants me to understand? What if I don’t understand it? Will he think I’m stupid? Will my friends think I’m stupid? Will he ask me more awkward questions? How much do I have to understand? Is it a hint that this will be in the exam? etc. etc.

So the student answers …. Hmmm… I’m not sure…which gets no-one anywhere.

And 5. There is so much literature about what works and doesn’t work with assessment that there shouldn’t be any excuse for carrying on with the same methods that we know aren’t much good. Just go and do what works.   As the Oracle of Delphi is supposed to have said “You know what the problem is… you know what the solution is…. now go and do it”

August 4, 2010

what made me a teacher

Recently I’ve had occasion to reflect on the things that have made me the sort of teacher that I am. (Yes, I know there’s probably some grammatical issue with that sentence!) So I thought it might be good to write them down – for me, as a way of focusing my thinking, & also because maybe it would elicit other points of view. So, here goes…

I believe that behind every good teacher are a whole lot of other people. In my case the people on my list would include:

  • my parents, who encouraged all their children to follow their dreams & who passed on their own sense of wonder & curiosity about the world around us.
  • the inspirational high-school teachers teachers who not only cemented my love for science but also made me think seriously about the prospect of becoming a teacher myself. Mrs White, Mr Withers, Mr East – I owe you a lot. And my own mother, a teacher herself.
  • the then-Principal of Palmerston North Girls High School, Mrs Calvert: after I finished my PhD, I didn’t get a research scientist’s job straight away, so I began to look for alternatives. Mrs Calvert looked at a bright shiny new PhD graduate with no formal teaching experience, & must have seen potential there because she offered me a job as a biology teacher. I did my teacher training on the job, extramurally, and settled into the career that I thought I’d left behind when I began my postgraduate studies.
  • all the enormously supportive colleagues with whom I work, & have worked in the past: fellow high-school teachers, academics & the wonderful staff in our Teaching Development Unit, who let me bounce ideas around & give advice on trying new things, supporting me in taking a few risks.
  • my husband & family – thanks, guys! – who’ve put up with long hours & the seemingly endless piles of marking for quite a long time now.

But ultimately, you can’t be a teacher without students. And I’ve been lucky to have students who don’t seem to have minded being guinea pigs (well, not too much!) when I’ve tried new things, & who’ve been willing participants in the classroom. And that’s been wonderful, because to me the teacher is a learner too, & while my students are (I hope) learning from me, I’m also learning from them.

Create a free website or blog at