Lecture notes

A post by Chris Rowan Some wag in the comments to my last post not-so-subtly noted the slight lack of blogging activity from yours truly in the last few weeks. There are actually three inter-related reasons for this impromptu break. Firstly, I’ve been lecturing three times a week for most of the last month, so quite a few of my evenings have been spent preparing for them. Secondly, I had to fight off a bout of stomach flu, which meant that the times when I wasn’t preparing for lectures I didn’t really feel like doing anything. Thirdly, my days at work have been spent in the lab trying to get our new magnetometer working properly. All this has meant that my blogging muse has had to get used to being crowded out.
Lecturing has, as usual, left me feeling rather ambivalent. Standing up in front of an entire class is where I suffer the most from imposter syndrome. I’ve never received any formal education training, after all, and the lecture theatre is when I feel that lack the most. When demonstrating in labs and on field trips, and supervising students on projects, there is at least the prospect of being able to assess your own effectiveness, by talking with the students, and checking their work, and asking them questions. Through these constant interactions, I’ve managed (hopefully) to become a better teacher – I can see which approaches work, which don’t, and, more importantly, identify problems in understanding as they come up and deal with them accordingly. Standing up at the front of a lecture theatre, it’s much more difficult: you do most of the talking, they do most of the listening. Even if you encourage the students to ask questions, it’s not exactly common, so you find yourself wondering whether they’re not asking questions because they’ve understood what you’ve been talking about, or because they don’t want to admit that you lost them within the first five minutes. Of course, given how tentative most post-grads/docs are in asking questions during and after talks, you can hardly blame first years for being a little cautious about speaking up.
So although I’ve done a fair amount of lecturing now, it worries me that I really can’t say with any confidence if I’m actually any good at it or not. I think I’ve gotten much better at pacing myself, and not trying to cram too much information into too short a time – lectures are sort of like anti-conference talks, which is a bit of a problem when that’s your only real experience when you first start lecturing. I’ve also begun to appreciate that a pen and whiteboard can be much more effective than a powerpoint slide and laser pointer, especially when you’re talking about basic concepts. But still, I fret. Perhaps my readers have some suggestions for how you can objectively assess your effectiveness in the lecture theatre beyond the quality of answers in the exam. Just remember – I’m not a member of the teaching staff; I was covering part of a course for a member of staff who was on sabbatical. So it’s hardly my place to completely retool the teaching model.

Categories: academic life, ranting, science education

Comments (8)

  1. --bill says:

    Ask the students. Give a little piece of paper with two questions: what do you find good about these lectures, what do you find bad? When you hand them out, do a little speech about the importance of valid feedback, and what you plan to do with them. From the data you get from this first feedback, you can design a second feedback survey, focusing on one or two aspects, etc. In any case, this sort of process, of repeated short (one or two questions)surveys whose questions depend on previous surveys has been useful to me in large (more than 100 students) lecture classes.

  2. Kate says:

    I just did mid-semester evaluations in my two classes this semester, stealing questions from the Berkeley teaching center: http://teaching.berkeley.edu/semestereval.html
    They were really useful questions so I got really useful feedback.
    And by the way, we all get impostor syndrome. Since it is a near-universal phenomenon that appears to be independent of actual scholarly quality, it is likely not a useful indicator of your own scholarly quality :).

  3. Kim says:

    There are a number of ways to make lectures more interactive (if you don’t like pure lecturing – that’s different from simply feeling awkward the first time!). There are some on this page (scroll down to the bottom): http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/coursedesign/tutorial/strategies.html
    Some people who teach large lectures (100+ students) like using various sorts of technology to make their classes more interactive. Physicists have been using “clickers” integrated with powerpoint presentations; some other people have been looking at using laptops or smartphones (combined with a number of different websites – the simplest would be Twitter) to make students in large classes respond to discussion prompts. (I don’t use Twitter or clickers or anything like that in my classroom, but I only teach 50 or so students at a time.)

  4. Lab Lemming says:

    Have you considered liveblogging your extended battle with the magnetometer? It would be an interesting expose into what scientists actually spend most of their time doing. And who knows, you might even generate a few helpful tips.

  5. Alice says:

    I’m an early career lecturer. I have had some formal education training and a fair bit of experience. I still feel a lot like that. So thanks for your blogpost. Good to know I’m not alone.
    As already said: ask the students. Afterall, they sit and watch lecturers work all the time. You have to make sure they know you are taking their views seriously (and er, then take some of with a huge pinch of salt…) – but it can be really useful.
    Also, do you have peer evaluation? (where you watch another lecturer’s class, and they watch yours and you tell each other how rubbish you were) REALLY USEFUL.
    My lecturer qualification helped me think about my teaching, it it didn’t teach me how to do it well. I really think you learn how to lecture simply by doing it. Moreover, each lecture you give gets better every year you give it. Which means you and the content will be a bit rubbish at first, and that’s depressing. But I doubt you’ll ever be so rubbish you’re messing up those students’ careers for ever (!) and you do get better.
    Recently, I’ve been discovering the value of just stopping, and asking the students what they think/ how they see or read a topic. Getting them to say stuff that doesn’t necessarily add much to the overall content covered, but (a) gives them all a chance to digest it, (b) gives them a chance to hear the ideas re-expressed by each other and with new examples (which sometimes helps those still struggling) and (c) gives me a chance to see if they’ve understood it. Doesn’t work for all groups or all topics, but I need to do more of this. I think my interactive aspects of sessions were all too structured. Structured activities = good. But can have unstructured ones too.
    Anyway: try stuff out. Sometimes it’ll work. Sometimes it won’t. Sometimes it’ll work brilliantly for one group of students or particular topic, but fail miserably for another. It’s never going to be perfect. But if you are thinking about it, the likelihood is that you’re doing ok.

  6. “how you can objectively assess your effectiveness”??
    In spite of all the good advice offered so far, and whatever I might add to that, I think the answer is that objectively you can’t. There are too many variables. For example, asking a colleague to sit in and could be risky, career-wise, in some institutions that give lip service to teaching excellence but don’t count it toward tenure and promotion.
    Student feedback takes a certain amount of guts, if they honestly express themselves, for example on websites. For some scathing comments about yours truly, go to reviewum.com. I’m rather proud that the college I retired from tops this website list for student participation- over 11,000 responses. That’s quite a sample.
    I would add to the list of recommends: “Thinking About Teaching and Learning” by Robert Leamnson, Stylus/Trentham Books, 1999. He is a biology professor at UMass.
    I started teaching in the 60’s, when the Boomers crashed into college and insisted on relevance and authenticity. When you stand in front of that lecture hall, feeling bare naked, those are the only garments you can cover yourself with. And you must fashion them for yourself. And you are quite right- powerpoint is no help at all.
    Maybe it’s more important than blogging.

  7. Meganne says:

    I do not agree to what Alice said about being a self-taught teacher:
    “I really think you learn how to lecture simply by doing it. Moreover, each lecture you give gets better every year you give it.”
    I’ve had lecturers who has given one course for ten or more years and been
    teaching for 30 or more years. Still, their lectures are not necessarily good,
    because the teaching skill requires knowledge about pedagogy. This is not a
    natural endowment, but it can be learned through education training. Of
    course, you learn a lot from standing in front of a class, but I’d recommend
    getting some education training, if possible.
    Good lecturers have another important quality:
    They care about their students. Whether or not you are a member of the
    teaching staff, you meet students which have questions, both academically and administrative. If you are going on a field trip, your students might want to know the date(s) of the field trip many weeks on beforehand. As a student, I
    have had to cope with lacking information about field trips, exams, mid-term exams (how much do they weigh of the final grade), etc. I experienced my exam date being moved on a week’s notice, and as a lecturer, you can avoid that, or at least, try to mend such problems by giving enough information early. I’d say that this is also a part of the lecturer’s job.
    Some professors do not care about their students. A friend of mine finished
    his master thesis last year. His supervisor did not read his thesis until he was nearly finished. I’ve had professors which have read some student’s plagarizing papers and thought “I have a suspicion that this is plagarism, but what can I do? I’ll pass this paper”, and no, NO, comment was given back to the student that he/she should learn how to cite correctly.
    Now, I am a master student tutoring 10 bachelor students in a basic course of
    hydrology. I do not give lectures, but I do have contact with students who are afraid of asking questions because they are used to meeting arrogant lecturers.

  8. Passerby says:

    Your students will differ in how well they grasp concepts and their application, so you should present material using all three communication modes: speaking, written and graphical formats. They read text, hear it explained and analyzed, and then see a graphical demonstration.
    I use random pop quizzes to reinforce key material retention, couple times a week, even for large undergrad classes. Given first thing in class, it encouraged regular attendance.
    At the start of a general course, I offered night-time ‘prep’ sessions to bring students to speed on subject matter they are expected to know, eg. course requirements. I show how the material is going to be used in the weeks ahead, by example problems and real world applications. By my second year of teaching, attendance at these Friday night cram sessions was overflowing, because students who were preparing for professional registration would sit in as well.
    I used short questionnaires to suss out sticky spots in class comprehension of the most important core material in a course. They’re given every 2-3 weeks.
    I also encouraged vocal feedback and would walk up and down the large classroom (150-200 students) isles making eye contact and asking questions. Once students got used to class format as informal, they got into the swing of asking good questions, frequently.
    I never graded on a ‘curve’, either you knew the material or you didn’t, but I did use the pop quizzes to buffer final grades slightly. The best students didn’t benefit, but the lowest performers did and consequently their exam performance generally improved over the semester.
    On the final course evaluation, I asked for honest opinion of the course material and my teaching. I knew I was making good progress as an educator if the electrical, mechanical and structural engineering students taking my general environmental engineering courses could grdugingly admit to having ‘learned a lot even, though it wasn’t their thing’.
    I made sure the students understood the utility of these courses, because their future, regardless of occupation, would be impacted heavily by environmental issues. Higher level courses were taught with an emphasis on take-home, problem-solving-toolbox techniques and applications. Again, there was reasonable appreciation for the utility of these courses.
    If you work hard to cross-link key concepts to real-world utility, tapping into overlapping concepts taught in primer courses taken in sequence before your class, you’ll find that connectivity reinforcement from various discipline perspectives provokes permanent (learned) mental linkage from different angles, rather than temporary (memorized) brain stuffing. It makes for adaptive problem solving capacity in students.
    One last item: in the Eruptions blog, I posted a comment under the recent entry on invited Q and A session with a prominent news science editor, on the importance of integrating critical thinking skills and tools in course materials.