Not that Kind of Scientist: Tales of Teaching
If you come from a research-intensive PhD program and postdoc, you, like me, lack teaching experience. Outside of one semester of service as a teaching assistant in graduate school, I have never lectured in a course. To those of you who teach regularly, develop multiple courses, all while running a research program: I have a newfound respect for your ability to balance research with the teaching. For this bench scientist embarking on their first semester of teaching, my first attempt was rough, but I learned a lot. As always these days, n=me but today, with only pilot data.
Transferable skills: The good news about teaching is you have cultivated some of the skills necessary throughout your graduate career. Skills in public speaking and compiling clear presentations will serve you well. Even though it has been a while since I took a course, I still remember how my favorite lecturers presented material or put together exams. Use these skills.
Times have changed: If you have not been teaching or involved with college education, you might be surprised to see how much has changed. My college education included attending courses and taking furious notes for an hour. This static approach has been replaced by interactive learning with clickers, in class-question slides, and small group work during the lecture. Lectures that are more static are now videotaped, giving students the option to watch the material at home. The plus side is this makes the material more accessible to all the students in the class. The downside is that when it came time to take the exam, I had never seen 75% of my class before. I can honestly say my grading was completely free of bias.
Resources on campus: If your campus has a large undergraduate student body or medical school, there are resources available to help you design your lectures or implement some of the new teaching strategies. Do not be afraid to use these.
Your fellow faculty: Do reach out to the other faculty in your department for help with designing the lectures, deciding on what to cover in the exam, and general support. I was rather worried I had made my test too hard based on some of the low scores, but my fellow course instructors informed me these averages and distributions were well within the ranges they are used to seeing. If you will be doing a lot of teaching, cultivate some relationships with mentors who teach heavily.
Be prepared to spend a lot of time on course preparation: If you are inheriting a course section with slides, congratulations! If you are not, be prepared to invest some time in putting together lectures. My slide preparation took about eight hours per lecture. Even had my slides been prepared, designing the test took another four hours, and grading occupied a solid twelve hours, split over two days. Budget for this time; otherwise you, like me, will be miserable for two weeks.
Writing the exam: The only preparation I had for designing an exam was having taken quite a few throughout my long academic career. I decided I would model the exam after my favorite courses and include some short answer and experimental-type questions. At the gentle prodding of the course director to not make grading too hard on myself, I included some multiple choice questions. Grading the exam made me seriously consider doing an all multiple choice exam next year. The short answer questions were varied in responses, often not quite what I had envisioned because the question was too open-ended, and required quite a bit of effort to grade. However, for a subset of students, having the ability to draw out or write out experiments, instead of choosing the correct statement over an almost correct statement, proved critical for their success on the exam. Their ability to demonstrate considerable knowledge on the topic made me seriously consider the utility of multiple choice exams in identifying promising scientific minds. To those of you in education or with larger teaching loads, this, of course, is not surprising.
Dealing with course evaluations: Luckily, dealing with funding agencies and manuscript reviewers has somewhat prepared you for reading course evaluations. Be kind to yourself and accept this is your first time teaching, and next year will be better. Or so I am telling myself. Again, do not be afraid to utilize the resources on campus to improve your lectures. Finally, do not under any circumstances read websites like Rate My Professor. Do not do it.
For those of you embarking on your first lectures this fall, good luck. It is an honor and a privilege to teach the next generation of scientists and doctors. Use part of the summer to prepare and plan your lectures. You will thank me when your research or writing does not come to a screeching halt because you have to prepare course materials. Stay tuned for more tales!
Did I miss an important point? Do you have questions or concerns about the post? Or perhaps an anecdote to contribute! Feel free to send some electrons my way in the comments, via Twitter @PipetteProtag, or through traditional electronic mail firstname.lastname@example.org