Starting From Scratch: Trials of a First-Time Teacher


Let's face it, we fresh-faced postdocs aren't usually weighed down under a heavy teaching load. I've been in my job for 11 months now, and I haven't taught anyone a single thing, although I've learnt a few new lessons myself. Freed from the steep learning curve of a PhD and not yet burdened by the snowdrift of paperwork on the desks of our group leaders, we postdocs are the full-time researchers, are we not? Yet if I am ever to aspire to my own independent research group, I know I must get hold of the teaching skills I will need when I'm faced with the demands of a first-time university lecturer.

If you need more convincing than that to get involved early, then look on teaching as one form of communicating your science. We all know the pre-eminence of excellent communication skills amongst the most successful members of our research communities. OK, so a class of first-year undergraduates may seem a world apart from our peers at a scientific conference, and we might need to dumb down quite a lot to reach them with our message. But in all instances, we should adapt our content and delivery to suit our audience. And if you are able to tailor your message to make it interesting and accessible to undergrads, then doing the same thing for your peers should be a piece of cake. It really is just a question of selectivity.

So my first challenge on this long walk to lecturer status was self-imposed. I volunteered not only to run an undergraduate practical class but also to write it from scratch. Am I mad? I don't know what prompted me to open my mouth when my boss said he had a gap to fill in his forthcoming course. It just seemed like an opportunity that was too good to miss. Having promised to "come up with a few ideas," the first thing I found was that I just didn't have any. After stalling for quite a bit, the ideas did start to come but were either only suitable for a Year 6 school lesson or were part of my own research, rephrased and typed out to look like something they weren't: an undergraduate practical class!

I was ready to admit to myself that I'd bitten off more than I could chew. But then I realised that the trick was to treat this like any other challenge and break it down into manageable bits. So I asked myself, "What is an undergraduate practical meant to achieve and how do you prepare a successful one?"

Of course students should learn something from a practical, and preferably something that will be of immediate value to them when they come to face their finals. But for me, a good practical class should, above all, capture their imagination and let them experience the scientific method firsthand. At the end of the class, they should feel like scientists, even if the discovery has been made 100 times before. Perhaps the key learning target, aside from any subject specific information they pick up, should be the dawning realisation that if your practical work is sloppy and you don't really make much of an effort, then you'll get meaningless results you can't trust. I still remember the thrill of knowing that my spot-on results were down to my precise and accurate work. That undergrad practical certainly had quite an impact on me.

But what does all this mean for how practical classes should be organised? Here are my carefully considered thoughts:

  • A practical is not a piece of original research or even anything closely related. When you are so engrained in your own projects, it's hard to think outside the limits of what you are doing right now, especially as this is what you know most about. So, forget your list of successful recent experiments. Base your practical on something published, if not widely accepted.

  • It must be interesting. You may find many things interesting, but keep in mind that you are talking to what is for you a slightly unusual audience. Try to remember what science turned you on at that stage in your studies. One thing is sure, they'll soon lose interest if they don't see the point. Why bother to write a practical if you don't grab their attention and stick something deep in their memory?

  • It must be accessible to each person in a class possibly numbered in three figures. Be visual and obvious.

  • It must work. If you pilot your practical well, there's no reason to think it won't work on the day. But, hey, this is nature we're dealing with, remember, so make it robust and doable.

  • It has to be quick. The pressure is on to reduce formal contact hours. If you are lucky, you'll have a couple of hours in which to get your message across. Remember, as in any act of information exchange, you must have a clear and simple message.

  • It must be fairly cheap. Don't expect to recover any materials for reuse, as a lot of it will be wasted or trashed.

  • It must be reasonably safe. There's a lot undergraduates aren't allowed to do, so check out what you can and cannot give them to handle.

Even if you follow all these guidelines, you might still be unsure how much work is enough, although I guess that too much is better than not enough. Yet, thinking back to my undergraduate days, I despised any practical that, even if we worked flat-out and shared the tasks, we still couldn't even come close to finishing in the time we had. With this in mind, I have tried not to antagonise my students. I've set what I think is a doable amount of work (loafers excluded), but built in ideas for further experiments if time allows. I've also added a short list of questions that can be completed during the class by the fast-finishers or tackled later by the more meticulous types. (I wonder which group you think will make the better scientists.)

Having written yourself a lesson plan to help you guess the timing, put a lot of effort into the handout--and I am deliberately using the singular here. Keep it brief and informative, and, where necessary, SPELL IT OUT IN BOLD TYPEFACE. Include a short introduction to get students' heads in gear, and tell them exactly what they have in front of them and precisely what to do, step-by-step in chronological order.

So much for the theory. ... Next month I'll tell you how it actually went on the day.

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