How to teach for the first time?
Updated: Jan 10, 2019
They told me it was going to be difficult, it was going to be time-consuming, it was going to be a lot of work. Despite all the cautionary tales, nothing prepares you for it. In my training so far, the closest I have been to teaching a college-level course is being a teaching assistant during my PhD and I thought that was challenging. Wait until you become an instructor. I am teaching a junior-level class on the “applications of physical chemistry to biological processes.” The title is a mouthful; the pro: it is an existing core course that all students majoring in biological engineering need to take; the con: I want to teach it differently (content and delivery) compared to how it was offered previously.
Build an environment of active learning
Inspired by a teaching workshop offered by Rebecca Brent and Richard Felder over the summer, I wanted to engage my students with active learning—anyone who has tried it would not want to go back. I wish my instructors had done the same thing during my education and maybe I would not have fallen asleep during those 8:30 am lectures.
All-in-all, I am developing the course as I am teaching it. I had an outline for the course and the syllabus finalized (mostly) before the course began, but the lectures still had to be prepared. When I say lectures I do not mean the typical monotonous presentations where the professor talks nonstop for 75 minutes—in my case—while the class drifts off into daydreams. I mean building an environment of learning for the 75 minutes that I have with the students. The atmosphere in class is filled with curiosity and engagement. I enjoy the delivery, and I hope the students enjoy the receipt.
Building an environment of learning requires effort of about 8 to 10 hours per hour of class time—not sure if it is any more or less effort than a traditional lecture. In my case, preparation begins by learning or re-learning the concepts that I want to teach (my undergraduate degree is it nanotechnology engineering, which had different courses than the major of biological engineering that I am teaching). Once I get a grasp of the concept I want to teach, I look for (in books, articles, and personal experiences) applications that would engage the three streams of interests in my class: cellular and biomolecular engineering, food and biological process engineering, and pharmaceutical process engineering.
Prepare "lectures" and assessments
During my undergrad, courses did not explain why we were learning certain concepts; I hope to change this outcome, especially when the word “applications” is in the title of the course. Anybody who has tried to apply concepts from a class to a real application knows that a single concept—e.g. water activity—will not get you very far unless you are familiar with other concepts relevant to the field (such as bacterial growth when considering food spoilage). I incorporate these seemingly tangential concepts to the class as well.
Before preparing any PowerPoint slides or written notes, I sketch out the main topics that I want the students to learn and start drafting activities around them (I keep a list of possible activities next to me as I am preparing these notes). My favorite activities are brainstorming (list as many potential ideas as possible about a concept) and think-pair-share (individual opinions, talk with a classmate, and share with the rest of the class). These activities need to be between 30 seconds and 3 minutes long, any longer and you risk losing the flow of the class.
At the same time, I am also thinking about their assessments—homework assignments (which should really be called mini-projects), quizzes, and exams—and how to tie these assessments to measurable learning outcomes as suggested by ABET. ABET is—I believe—starting to notice that, in the age of machine learning and artificial intelligence, simply teaching technical concepts is insufficient. Successful careers require creative thinking and consideration of economic, global, and societal implications of our work. Achieving these outcomes, achieving success, requires holistic teaching.
Teach how to learn
Today, when information is pushed to us and attention is treated as a commodity, our students need to be able to present their ideas succinctly and grab the attention of their audience. The most important skill that a student can have is the ability to learn, i.e. when information is scarce, knowing where to look; when unknowns are present, knowing which assumptions to make; and considering the bigger picture without losing track of the finer details.
During my undergrad, I rarely learnt these skills in class (despite being the top student in my class with a >95% average or A+ grade or a 4.0 GPA—I even had a perfect grade on many of my courses). I was fortunate to engage in “co-op experiences” or internships where you get to work on “real jobs.” These internships were where most of my learning took place.
Why don’t we bring some of this experience to the classroom? As a teacher, I see my role as a facilitator, especially when you can look up most concepts online on excellent resources such as Khan Academy and YouTube. What we (professors) offer is experience, which is very personal and cannot be obtained elsewhere. The class we teach becomes “our class” because of this personal touch, and it should be. The technical knowledge is certainly a requirement as the students need to be competent. (As an aside, what is happening to the math skills of today’s students? Many of my students are struggling with numerical and analytical problems which I would have considered trivial when I was their age.)
How do we embed the soft skills, like communication, leadership, teamwork, and discipline? How do we demonstrate the importance of these critical abilities? I have tried to answer the first question by developing homework assignments that targets these needs. The homework is not a typical problem where they plug in values to equations that were learnt in class, but rather assignments that involve determining what they do not know, looking up information, making assumptions, and then embedding concepts from class. The actual assignment includes the whole gamut of solving problems, designing problems (which is much more effective at bringing out creativity than solving problems), evaluating peers, presenting an elevator pitch (actually within 30 seconds, which is how long it takes an elevator to rise/drop by 20 floors), building devices, and reviewing peer-reviewed journal articles. Given the variety in the tasks, I should call them “mini-projects” not “homework.”
Get feedback early and revise
I am getting a lot of pushback from the class because the homework is not just a typical numerical problem. I know because I incorporate early feedback into the class, I review the timing, difficulty, and perceived performance after (almost) every assessment, and I have a broader discussion when I see issues, e.g., when almost everyone failed (<60% grade) a quiz although two students got perfect. I either incorporate their feedback by making changes, or I explain my reasoning (e.g. achieving ABET requirements) for maintaining status quo.
The early feedback process, for example, led to the creation of a study guide for the exam and assigning practice problems to let them apply the in-class concepts. Both of these actions still need improvement, e.g. the study guide was overwhelming (and I have asked the students to fix it together in the form of a bonus assignment) and the practice problems were unsolvable by most students—why I did not get an e-mail or visit during office hours about these issues is beyond me. But then again, I did not go to any office hours as an undergraduate myself, never really had the time for it. As a faculty member, I have gotten much better at managing time (after all, we generally have to think a year in advance at least, when planning a research program and funding opportunities). The differences in the perspective of time management between students and faculty need to be addressed.
I also learnt what works well, e.g. recording my lectures (slides and audio) and posting them online (we use BoilerCast) is helpful for the students to review difficult topics. Also, in-class activities ensure engagement from almost the entire class. Every student was asked to make a nameplate (I provided markers and cardstock paper) and keep it with them for the rest of the semester. I use these nameplates to call on students before asking for volunteers during activities. This approach ensures that everyone is paying attention and that the class is not dominated by a few outspoken students.
In summary, I explained to the students the purpose of my course using the following graphic. Using an analogy of physical training, if a couch potato is asked to start exercising, it will complain a lot and struggle because physical activity will be challenging. Yet, after the training is complete, the potato will be ready for other fun activities such as playing tennis. Similarly, in the first two years of their undergraduate education, their brains have been biking around with training wheels. In this course, we take off the training wheels so that in the future maybe they can even ride a unicycle!
Hang on to hope!
As a graduate student, my perspective of teaching was: there is no way to satisfy all the students (which is still true, and true about people in general) and that it is alright but it takes away time from research—my true passion (which is also still true). Now, as an assistant professor, the instructor for my “own class,” I see the potential of influencing the lives of students, the potential of building tomorrow’s leaders. If I can improve the career/life of a single student in my class (of about sixty), I would feel satisfied. In the hopes that the effort put in the first time that I teach will pay off over the next four to five years when I teach the course again, I continue to be motivated and driven to give my students the best learning experience that I can.