New Year, New Teaching Skills

 In for grad students, for postdocs, PhD/Postdoc Blog, teaching

January’s unofficial mantra is, “New Year, New Me.” Whether you are for or against trendy resolutions, the spirit of self-improvement can be mobilizing. As spring nears and new teaching opportunities flourish, I wanted to use this year to improve my teaching. I already have many exciting opportunities in the works.

Recently, I became my advisor’s teaching assistant for his Systems Pharmacology and Personalized Medicine course. At the Baltimore Underground Science Space (BUGSS), in the spring and mentoring their high school project team that competes in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. I will also create a new workshop in computational biology (😄).

With these exciting opportunities nearing, I wanted to learn more about different teaching techniques and find ways to employ them. I hope some of them may be useful on your first day of class and beyond.

Improving the First Day

The first day is for first impressions. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to balance the desire to inspire with the need to convey important course information. Dr. James Lang, Professor of English and Director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, addressed some of these challenges in his advice guide, “How to Teach a Good First Day of Classes.

Dr. Lang suggests to cultivate four key entities starting on the first day: 1) curiosity, 2) community, 3) learning, and 4) expectations. This article goes over changes we can make to improve our first day of class, the research behind why we should make them, and concrete examples from courses in Psychology, Mathematics, and more. I highly recommend reading this helpful article, but if I had to summarize one new teaching technique, it would be this:

Spark interest through communal action

As Dr. Lang writes, the first day is your “best opportunity to spark students’ curiosity and invite them into a fascinating intellectual journey.” One approach to achieving this is to pose a course-related problem that students can work together to solve. To create this problem, you must reflect on the world’s fascinating challenges and course skills that can address them.

Through this challenge, you inspire students’ curiosity by highlighting your course’s world impact and build community through collaboration. Furthermore, students learn the techniques used to approach the problem and gain an expectation of what they will acquire from the course. It is better if the problem is unsolvable on the first day. This early challenge requires students to use whatever information they have, cultivating what Dr. Lang calls “fertile grounds” for new knowledge and skills.

Improving your Students’ Comprehension

The first two-thirds of the semester is already behind you. You are happy with how the course is going, but you are worried about a student that consistently tests poorly.  With only a few weeks until the final exam, they are in your office – what now?

Last fall, I attended a “Pizza and Pedagogy” event hosted by the Center for Educational Resources at Johns Hopkins. The event explored strategies for supporting the academically challenged student. During this event, Dr. James Culhane, Chair and Professor at Notre Dame University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, introduced his Systematic Approach to Learning and Metacognitive Improvement (S.A.L.A.M.I.) method. I left Dr. Culhane’s talk with a greater understanding of possible challenges to learning, as well as one critical action that we can all do as instructors:

Start guiding students’ study habits

In a 2013 study on learning techniques, education psychologists assert that many students struggle because they do not know effective study strategies. To combat this problem, these authors evaluated the effectiveness of several learning techniques, such as highlighting, summarization, and practice testing. They found studying over multiple sessions and practice testing were two of the most effective strategies.

Accordingly, Dr. Culhane emphasized that you can incorporate effective study strategies into lessons using simple exercises. The goals of these exercises are to highlight important concepts and provide sample exam-style questions. Importantly, interactive learning exercises also help you as an instructor gain real-time insight into students’ understanding.

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash.

Although none of these techniques are new, they can be new to your classroom or lecture hall:

  • Clicker questions can be presented at the end of major topics and involve students answering independently as well as engaging in group discussion
  • One Minute Papers is an exercise where students summarize key points presented in the lecture along with their lingering questions
  • Exam writer involves students drafting and answering their own exam-style questions

Here are more interactive learning exercises curated by the Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Central Florida.

Every course and classroom are different, so try the suggestions that feel appropriate. For some of you, the spring may bring your very first teaching opportunity. For others, you are returning to a recurring class like an old friend. Regardless, I hope some of these techniques can help make your teaching feel new and improved.

What new teaching techniques are you trying out? Any long-held techniques that you would add? Let me know in the comments or tweet me @WanguiMbuguiro!

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