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Learning to Teach: Diary of the Postdoc Pilots, Part 2: Exams, Ethics, and Evaluations

After taking a teaching class and working to develop lectures to bridge the lab experiments and the general class (see Part 1), we postdocs enrolled in the University of Alabama, Birmingham, pilot Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) program began to find our rhythm. It became a weekly routine. The laboratory coordinator and TAs would meet to discuss the classes for next week, we would prepare course materials and give the classes, and then we would meet again to review what was successful and what needed to be improved. This cycle was interrupted only by the midterm and final examinations. And as we found, the exams were to be a test not only for our students.

Students took their first midterm in October. I [Flanagan] used a prepared bank of questions from which I could pick and/or insert some of my own questions. As I was also correcting the examinations, this allowed me some flexibility in choosing questions that covered the parts of the syllabus that I thought were more important. The downside was the time factor involved in constructing examination papers and then correcting them. Despite this, it was another learning experience and it gave me an appreciation of the time and the effort that goes into the examination process.

Other postdoc interns had a different experience. I [Cakir] prepared the exam questions from my lecture notes. In turn, my lab coordinator checked the questions before the exam. Most of the students accepted their grades after they went over their answers. However, a few students were unhappy and asked me to change their grades because they believed that some questions were ambiguous, and they were right. Ultimately, to resolve the grading issue, I had a meeting with the students and the lab coordinator. I ended up collecting the exams and regrading the ambiguous question. I learned a lot of things about how to prepare both myself and my students for the exams.

Cakir Experiences an Object Lesson in Classroom Ethics

In the second midterm exam, one of my students tried to cheat.

The lab coordinator told me that I only could take the student's paper and accuse them of cheating if I am positive that cheating was actually going on. When I saw that the student was looking at a cheat sheet placed underneath the exam paper, I took it and told the student I would inform the lab coordinator about this event. After the exam, I contacted the lab coordinator and told her the exact story. She contacted the student and the college and department authorities.

I gave a lot of thought to this event and decided that my inherent flexibility or lack of teaching experience might have led the student to believe they could get away with cheating in the exam. Before we started teaching for this semester, we were instructed about how to catch and deal with the students who are cheating or staring at the other students' papers. However, I never thought that I would be involved in this kind of cheating situation in the college environment, because the students I am teaching are mostly pre-med or pre-professional students. Supposedly, they have to do their best to learn and understand every important concept and detail of the experiments. This was a big lesson for me.

Cakir Learns He Likes Teaching

I remember my nervous excitement and shyness in my very first class. I was thinking I wouldn't teach efficiently because this was my first real college-level teaching class and the students were real as well. Additionally, my accent and lack of some English conversation skills negatively influenced my motivation. Nevertheless, as the semester progressed, I started to feel that I was doing very well in both explaining the subjects and answering the students' questions. I am now more relaxed, comfortable, outgoing, optimistic, and little bit chattier than I was before.

Another benefit of the PFF experience for me was a growing understanding that the class environment must include interactive events such as asking questions of the students. I became more confident during both the lecture and lab section of the class because I was more involved and interested with the students in the class.

I am now considering some career teaching positions. I started liking teaching. I believe research is dynamic and exciting. However, research sometimes seems to me a little bit boring, due to long hours and personal sacrifices.

Would I recommend PFF to other postdocs? The answer is yes. I am honestly admitting that my previous expectations were successfully fulfilled, and this program helped me improve my teaching abilities. Other postdocs, depending on their research and personalities, may think differently. To get a good teaching experience while doing heavy research during postdoctoral studies is a rare opportunity and has to be deeply considered.

Flanagan Cautions Postdocs to Consider Time Commitment

If you want to get the most out of the course, it takes considerably more time than the 4 to 8 hours per week advertised by the Graduate School. In my opinion, for a postdoc at the bench struggling to get the data for their first paper, it would be very difficult to find the time necessary to prepare and present a class in addition to performing experiments. However, once a research project is under way it is an ideal opportunity to find out if teaching is right for you, and if you are right for teaching.

The PFF program allowed all of us interns to experience the work that goes on before the students enter the classroom and after they have left it. I now have a greater understanding of what is involved in preparing, presenting, examining, and developing a course and the need to be flexible when dealing with students. I am still uncertain if an academic career is for me, but regardless of my future employment options, I think my teaching experience will be advantageous as it demonstrates to an employer that I have the ability to present data to a group of people in a logical manner.

Yavuz Cakir received his Ph.D. in comparative and experimental medicine from the University of Tennessee. He is currently a postdoc in Charles Falany's laboratory in the pharmacology and toxicology department at UAB. He is researching the functions and properties of human sulfotransferase (EST) enzymes in human breast cancer cell lines. Brian Flanagan received his Ph.D. in virology from the University of Warwick, England, and accepted a postdoctoral position in microbiology at UAB in the laboratory of Gail Wertz determining the pathogenesis of, and the immunity to, vesicular stomatitis virus.