The Technology of Teaching

surviving as a teacherWhy teaching is something one can and should learn!

As a young academic with a predominantly research focus, when I was asked to lecture at the University, the opportunity created a perfect storm of feelings in me. I was terrified about how I would teach, groaned at the amount of work it entailed, cross because it would mean time away from research, and excited because I recalled some of my favourite teachers.

I realised that despite all my misgivings, I wanted my students to like me and enjoy my classes.

Yet, as a newbie teacher in the classroom, I found that it was every bit as difficult though in unexpected ways, every bit as terrifying and the rewards were unpredictable and irregular at best.

The classroom in the University I think is significantly different from that in high school.
At University, one can expect to

–          Lecture to much larger classes (even upto 300!)

–          Lecture to students from different educational backgrounds, levels of ability and learning style. This is hard as some students will not have knowledge you think essential, while others are more advanced. Some are used to a lot of instruction, while others prefer independence.

–          Have a very culturally diverse audience: I had some visiting students from China who needed translators in class, along with students whose native language was English! While my English students would use my first name to talk to me, the Chinese students were extremely shy and afraid of giving offense by asking questions in class.

–          Prepare extensive material even for non attendees. I found that students and the University expected me to put up all my lecture slides and handouts online for students to download. This meant extensive preparation as well as organisation much ahead of teaching. In addition, as attendance is not compulsory, students expect to be able to pass/do well through self study of these materials, without attending class.

–          Deal with difficult students. I was quite unprepared and taken aback to find students at University, who were paying high fees for studies that are not compulsory, yet they were not motivated to be there. There can be a small minority of such individuals in any class.

Some aspects of teaching are probably universal (and challenging) at all levels of education:

–          Learning culture. Some of my students were strategic learners, mostly interested in activities (tutorials, labs, coursework) if these carried weight towards their final grade. Very few wanted to learn independent of grades – or so it seemed to me.

–          Engaging and motivating students. How does one engage an entire class all with very different temperaments and interest. How does one motivate these different personalities?

–          Discipline. How do you engage the disruptive students?

–          Assessment. How do you come up with a system that can fairly and objectively assess each student and provide feedback that aids the development of the student?

I could go on, but suffice it to say, teaching is challenging.

However, as teaching is an integral part of most academic careers, there are excellent reasons why every academic could benefit from doing it well.

I think the ability to teach really well is a gift, a talent. And not everyone is born with it.

These people who can instinctively pause when students would like them to, or explain complicated concepts in simple and easy to understand ways. They know when their students don’t understand something. They know how to give just enough time to attempt a question, when to start, when to stop. They know how to engage!

For those of us not born with this gift or vocation, the idea of facing a few hundred students, waiting like hungry lions to devour our fearful attempts at introducing Discrete Fourier Transform, is not an enticing prospect.

So what can we do?

Well, innate talent aside, there is help out there.

Many universities offer courses on Academic Practice, that deal with various aspects of teaching: theories on learning and teaching in higher education, curriculum development, assessment, creating group work, teaching techniques, design of learning environments, exploring the potential of learning design in different contexts, for example, in face to face, e-learning, distance learning, and the possibilities offered by a wide range of media and digital applications, such as Web 2.0, social networking, blogs and wikis..

I went on a two-day teaching workshop where we were taught about how to design lectures, including preparing slides, handouts, assignments etc. We practised giving lectures that were video recorded and played back to us. With feedback on very practical issues, we could see how we appeared to students: were our voices carrying across the room, when we wrote on the board was it legible, did we fidget and appear nervous, did we talk too fast or too softly?

Many professional bodies and technical societies also have learning and teaching resources for educators (high school teachers, lecturers, etc.). Usually the resources will be subject specific and thus can be a great place to find material, teaching tip and activities for your course/area. They can often suggest both individual projects and group activities/projects for different ability levels.

There is also support from experts who specialise in E-learning, Learning Success, Learning and Development. These people develop, research and practise the latest techniques in teaching and learning. Many such techniques reflect the new technology that students enjoy using and the social norms that prevail. Inputs from these sources can make a big difference in engaging students.

Consider this example: I found that my class was not solving tutorial questions and no amount of exhortation could convince them. The Learning Development Centre team suggested to me that I divide the class into groups, and assign tutorial questions to each group. Subsequently each group would have to solve a question on the board before the entire class, and each group had to prepare a question to challenge other groups, with the best question winning. Peer pressure and some healthy competition would achieve what pressure from the teacher may not be able to.

So while one may not have ‘the gift’, one can learn techniques that can at the very least make one reasonably competent as a teacher. With practise of these techniques and lots of hard work and sweat one might dream of becoming a ‘good teacher’.

As for the rewards:

Well, my lecture today was a joy. While I taught, my class was attentive (no yawning, texting, talking…). They asked me questions, they responded when I asked them questions. They laughed at my jokes. They pulled my leg and seemed to enjoy the lecture.

I was walking on air! I hope the next class will be as much fun (yes, fun).

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