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Art of Teaching

A few weeks ago, in The Art of Loving Your Work, Next Wave attempted to answer the question: What makes a good teacher? Such a large question produces so many answers and there really is so little time but--ever interested in helping our readers excel at their myriad academic responsibilities--we hereby begin our seminar on The Art of Teaching. In Session 1, Robin Wright, associate professor of zoology and recent recipient of a University of Washington Distinguished Teaching Award, reveals 10 oh-so-important secrets she wishes she had known before teaching her first class.

After all the interviews, negotiations, and nail-biting, I had finally made it! In just a few weeks, I would be an assistant professor at the University of Washington, Seattle. The challenges that lay ahead seemed exciting rather than intimidating. After all, the training over the past 15 years of college, graduate school, and postdoctoral work had surely provided me with all the tools necessary to succeed.       

This euphoria lasted about 3 weeks, until I faced my first class of 100 undergraduates. It didn't take long to realize that nothing--not my teaching assistant experiences, not watching my mentors teach, not doing well in classes myself--had adequately prepared me to teach. As the quarter progressed, I realized that I was spending nearly every waking hour working on lectures, talking to students, writing exams, and grading papers. "At least the students will appreciate all my efforts, even if my research is going undone," I reasoned. Imagine my shock and disappointment when I finally opened the evaluation packet to discover that, despite all my hard work, my class was rated in the bottom 20% of classes in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Over the next few years, with help from my colleagues and lots of additional hard work, my teaching improved dramatically. But, my life would have been much easier if I had only known ...

Your students are not necessarily like you. Surprisingly to me, most students do not love knowledge for its own sake. Even majors need to have the material connect to them in some way. Ask yourself constantly, "Why should my students care about this? What difference will this information make in their lives?" Then, be sure to tell the students the answers to these questions--don't assume they can or will figure them out on their own.

Adequate preparation for class takes an enormous amount of time. The first time I taught, it took me about 15 hours of effort to put together a 50-minute lecture. Now, ten years later, redoing a lecture takes about 2 to 4 hours, but creating an entirely new lecture still takes about 10 to 15 hours. Using PowerPoint helps a great deal: Once you have a reasonable lecture saved in the computer, it is relatively easy to update it. To make PowerPoint presentations most effective, make sure that your textbook offers all of its artwork on a CD so that the figures can be pasted into your presentation.

Respect your students. Even if you have to make photo flashcards to remember their names, do it. It is amazingly effective to look up and say, "We missed you yesterday, James. I hope everything is OK in your life." That one interaction will do more to improve attendance than any pleas or threats.

Students love a good story. Incorporating mysteries or stories can go a long way to keeping your students engaged with the material. You can be as creative here as you wish! For example, I begin an introductory cell biology course reading a true story about a little girl's death from cystic fibrosis. We continue to use passages from this book as we discuss protein targeting, antibiotic mechanisms, and other hard-core cell biology issues. Putting a human face on the issue is extremely effective and appreciated in helping students "make the connection."

Teaching can be, and undoubtedly should be, a scholarly activity, just like "normal" research. Each class is an experiment and you can try something new every year. If the new approach works well, use it again next year. If it doesn't, there's always next year to try something else. Document your pedagogical experiments in a teaching portfolio, which you will need anyway for promotion and tenure decisions. What did you hope to accomplish? What new things did you try? How well did they work? What will you do differently based on this information? Include this information, as well as the course syllabus, exams, samples of student work, and any other relevant documents.

Don't be afraid to challenge students and expect them to meet high standards. But challenge them fairly. Make sure that they know exactly what is expected of them. Don't try to "trick" them--partner with them in achieving excellence. For example, having explicit worksheets that list everything you expect students to know or be able to do on an exam is both fair and reassuring.

Take advantage of recent hot results in your field, even if it means leaving out some "essential" material. When a major event happens, the media do a lot of your job for you by making students curious about the material. Your scientific viewpoints can serve as a valuable counterpoint to possible inaccuracies or overstatements in the popular press.

There IS no essential material. No body of information exists that all students must know to be successful. In contrast, the skills that students learn are key to their future success. So, be aware that you are teaching more than the content of a particular discipline. You are teaching students to think critically, to find and evaluate information, to communicate effectively, to interact with peers, and other outcomes that will be essential for a successful career, whether in science, business, or social work.

Share your love of the topic with your students. What makes cell biology so fascinating? How did you choose to be a chemist? Don't be afraid to talk about the most recent results from your lab. Students will appreciate the university more, as well, as they come to understand its larger research mission.

Be kind to yourself. You will never please every student every time.

And stay tuned ... in Session 2 of Next Wave's Art of Teaching seminar, Robin Wright reveals another set of tips useful before teaching your first class: how to develop a teaching portfolio.