Talking Teaching

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!



  1. All good stuff thanks guys (he says outing himself as the questioner).

    I think the thinkg I really ought to have done when it became clear I wasn’t making sense to some of the group was to roll it back. Instead I sort of blurted the way through my speil. Thankfully the lab was small enought that i could get to each group and work through the porblems (we had good dems too, who were very keen to direct the hardest questions my way!)

    Comment by TheAtavism — August 18, 2010 @ 12:10 am

    • Working with the smaller groups was always my favourite part of lab teaching (I say ‘was’ because in my current position I’m not able to do much of that, alas!). As you say, it gives an excellent opportunity to clear up the bits that the students might not have got from the introductory talk. And you get to know them better, too.

      Comment by alison — August 18, 2010 @ 1:01 pm

  2. […] 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? […]

    Pingback by controlling nervousness « Talking Teaching — August 18, 2010 @ 9:53 pm

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