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Teaching 101

You've been plugging away at your research program, presenting your findings at important conferences, publishing your results, and networking. Think you're ready for a career in academia? Almost, but don't forget to get some teaching experience. Although research remains on top, undergraduate education has received increasing emphasis in recent years, even at top-tier research institutions. So it's important to be able to do it decently, while saving time for other things, such as research. We can't wave a magic wand and add hours to our days, but we can benefit from others' experiences and speed up the learning curve. Follow these tips and you'll save some time and headaches next time you teach an undergraduate course.

Before You Sign On: Choose Carefully

Not all people get to choose what courses they teach or when they teach, but if you're one of the lucky few who are given a choice, carefully consider your options to enhance your productivity. One of the best ways to reduce class preparation time is to teach a course that's directly related to your specialty, says Jean-Marie Bruzzese, associate research scientist at New York University Child Study Center. And of course it's best to start small: one lecture class without a lab, if possible.

If you have the luxury of determining your teaching schedule, consider your personal rhythms. When are you at your best, cognitively speaking? Save your most productive time of day for your research. Also, choose a class time that doesn't disrupt your day. For example, consider an early morning or late afternoon class rather than one that meets in the middle of the day (e.g., 1:00 p.m.). Remember that students may want to visit with you before or after class to ask questions, so a midday class can eat up a large chunk of your day, making it difficult to return to your lab and immerse yourself in work.

Planning Your Course: Don't Over-Stuff

Your students are a captive audience for an average of 45 hours over the course of a semester, but those class periods fly by. It isn't possible to cover all of the material in a discipline, so you must choose: What's the fundamental, essential knowledge that a student must walk away with? What are the themes of your course? As Julia Frugoli, assistant professor of genetics and biochemistry at Clemson University in South Carolina, advises, "Take everything you think students should know from a course, and cut it in half. Then teach that half well. We all want to show our students the latest, neatest stuff, but it's more important that they grasp the fundamentals. You can always add the neat stuff back as icing on the cake if you have time."

Writing Your Syllabus: Establish Clear Guidelines and Contingencies

Your syllabus is a contract that spells out all of your expectations for students. While it might seem like a lot of work to identify class policies and decide how to handle tardiness, late work, and student absences, a little time spent thinking about these common problems before the semester begins--and incorporating your policies into the syllabus--will save you much time and aggravation later. Sara Wilson, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, attests, "I wish I had known more about the importance of creating and sticking to clear, easy-to-follow, and rock-solid classroom rules and expectations that are set up the first day of class."

So what should your syllabus cover?

  • Reading assignments and due dates

  • Late-work policy (i.e., if it's accepted, whether points are deducted for late work, how many points are deducted each day, at what point late work will not be accepted)

  • Attendance policy

  • Policy on academic dishonesty

  • Grading policy (i.e., how will students' work be evaluated?)

  • Test dates

  • Makeup policy.

Consider your syllabus a work in progress. As the semester advances, you may encounter issues not addressed in your syllabus (such as cell phone use in the classroom). Take notes on these incidents and incorporate what you've learned into the following semester's syllabus.

Class Preparation: Practice Moderation

It's easy to let teaching take precedence over research because teaching is a scheduled activity whereas research is more flexible. Remain disciplined, however, because class preparation can take as much time as you allow. Perfection isn't possible when it comes to teaching, especially while balancing an active research and publication program, but it is possible to teach well without overinvesting your time.

Most new instructors overprepare for classes, notes Robert Boice in Advice for New Faculty Members. New instructors tend to rely on "extensive, painstaking preparation with a focus on understanding and covering everything--especially on avoiding criticism about a lack of comprehensiveness" (p. 13). Unfortunately, this approach tends to generate too much material to cover in a given class period, resulting in too fast a pace of presentation to permit discussion and student participation, and ultimately leading to poor comprehension and stressed, unhappy students--and professors.

Boice and the successful professors he has studied recommend preparing for about an hour and a half (and no more than2 ) for each hour in class. Prepare in 20- to 30- minute sessions throughout the week, rather than in a long marathon session. This allows you to add examples as they come to you, rather than forcing them. Don't write out your lecture: Prepare an outline of your major points, discussion questions, and activities, but leave room for flexibility and spontaneity.

Lectures: Be Selective

Exert restraint in planning each class session. You can't cover all of the material in the text and assigned readings. Your lecture might be based on the most important material in the reading assignment, a topic from the reading that students are likely to find difficult, or material that doesn't appear in the text. Explain to students that you will not repeat much of the material in the assigned readings, and their job is to read carefully and critically, identifying and bringing questions about the readings to class.

Your lecture should present no more than three or four major issues, with time for examples and questions. Anything more than a few points and your students will be overwhelmed. Determine the critical message of your lecture and then remove the adornments to present the bare bones in a succinct story. Students will absorb the salient points easily if they are few in number, clear, and coupled with examples. Emphasize the fundamentals during class time, and assign papers or projects to allow students to explore unresolved issues in the field. Students need concrete, well-organized information in class. Out-of-class assignments and activities can be used to illustrate the true complexity of science. There's still much to discover.

Break up your lectures so that they are presented in 20-minute chunks. What's wrong with a 1- or 2-hour lecture? Research shows that students remember the first and the last ten minutes of lecture, but little of the intervening time. Undergraduate students have a limited attention span--so take advantage of it to structure your class. Switch gears after each 20 minute minilecture and do something different: Pose a discussion question, a short in-class writing assignment, small group discussion, or problem-solving activity.

Encourage Active Learning

The role of a teacher is to help students learn. How do students learn? Psychological research suggests that learning is a constructive process. It entails making connections, relating new knowledge to what is already known, and applying knowledge to new contexts. Only by working with content do we internalize it and make it our own. Instructors who understand how learning occurs use active learning techniques in the classroom. What is active learning? It is student-centered instruction, rather than the traditional lecture-oriented, teacher-centered instruction. Active learning in the classroom forces students to manipulate the material to solve problems, answer questions, formulate questions of their own, discuss, explain, debate, or brainstorm. Moreover, students tend to prefer active learning techniques because they are engaging and fun.

Active learning techniques are also helpful for you, because they deemphasize lecture. You can use discussion questions and group exercises, as well as problem-posing and -solving sessions, to get your lecture points across in a meaningful and memorable way. How do you begin using active learning techniques in the classroom? Perhaps the easiest way is to ask reflective questions--not yes or no questions, but those that require students to think (e.g., What would you do in this particular situation? How would you approach solving this problem?). Reflective questions are difficult, so be prepared to wait for an answer (at least 20 to 30 seconds). You might also ask students to write about the question first for 3 to 5 minutes, then solicit their responses. The benefit of asking students to consider the question in writing is that they will have time to think through their response and feel more comfortable discussing their views without fear of forgetting their point. To extend active learning beyond the classroom, ask students to do out-of-class library and Internet-based research to respond to questions that you've posed. Asking students to work with the course content and determine how it fits with their experiences enables them to learn in their own way, making the material personally meaningful, which is at the heart of active learning.

Understand Your Students and Remember Your Role

Frugoli provides the most critical advice for new instructors: "Your students are not you." You presumably enrolled in graduate study because you love learning. Only about 10% of your students will go on to earn a Ph.D. in science; these students will learn regardless of what you do. The other 90% of your students "are less than thrilled with the subject matter, and in a required course, perhaps 10% of your students will earn an F no matter what you do, because they just don't care. It's the middle 80% that you're teaching," says Frugoli. That's a hard pill for new instructors to swallow. Even now, after teaching full-time for 7 years, I find myself wondering why some students are so bored by material that is, to me, completely fascinating. Your enthusiasm may convince some of your students that at least some aspects of your field are interesting, but you won't be able to sway all of your students. Don't let it depress you.

Professional Development: Reflect on Your Teaching

Good teachers are reflective teachers. They consider their day-to-day classroom experiences and continually seek improvement. Take brief notes on what seems to work in the classroom and what doesn't--and then consider why an activity or lecture did or didn't work. Have the courage to try something new in class, such as a debate or a group problem-solving assignment, because much of good teaching entails trial and error. Be brave and adventurous!

Gathering feedback from students is also helpful. Do it during the semester rather than waiting until it's too late to make changes. Sure, feedback can bruise the ego, but there's much to be learned from student feedback. How do you obtain it? Use minute papers. At the end of class, ask students to write for about a minute on a topic you assign. You might ask: How's the class going? Anything you want to tell me about or ask regarding instruction? Minute papers are also great ways to learn exactly what students are taking away from class. Ask, "What was the most important thing you learned today? What questions are left unanswered?" and you might be surprised at students' responses. I find that minute papers help me to determine how well students understood the major points and conclusions of a given lecture or activity. If they clearly don't get it, you can explain it in more detail during the next class period. It only takes 15 to 20 minutes to read through a large class's papers, and you'll gather information that will help you be a more effective teacher.

Get Help

Finally, remember that there are places where you can turn for help. Frugoli advises, "Find the people in your department who teach well and pick their brains. When you come up for tenure, or apply for academic positions, they'll remember that you cared about teaching--it still counts for something even at big research universities." Bruzzese advises that you ask other instructors for copies of their syllabi and gather suggestions on how to structure classes and create course policies. Most universities have centers for teaching effectiveness or instructional development--take advantage of them if you need additional institutional resources. Even if your institution is short of teaching-related resources, there are plenty of books and Web sites that can help you improve your teaching (see the resources listed below). Finally, remember that good teaching develops over many years. Practice moderation in class preparation and teaching activities, and you'll find that balancing teaching and an active research program is challenging, but not impossible.

Recommended Resources:

Boice, R. (2000). Advice for New Faculty Members. Allyn & Bacon.

Vesilind, P. A. (2000). So You Want to Be a Professor? Sage.

McKeachie, W. J. & Hofer, B. K. (2001). McKeachie's Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. D. C. Heath & Co.

Davis, B. G. (1993). Tools for Teaching. Jossey-Bass.

Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (

Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate

Education (

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