Working Life

Learning to teach

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Science  20 Dec 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6472, pp. 1574
DOI: 10.1126/science.366.6472.1574

While preparing to teach my first lecture as a new faculty member, I told myself: “You have many research presentations under your belt; you'll nail this!” It didn't take long for me to realize that I was way off base. A few minutes in, the students looked tired, distracted, and in no mood to listen—a stark contrast to my research talk audiences, which seemed attentive at least. At one point, I noticed a few students giggling. “Do I look or talk funny?” I wondered. When I saw that the giggling students were on Facebook, I was relieved. But later I realized that, too, was a sign that I had failed to command their attention.


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ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“Actively engaging students is essential for holding their attention.”

In grad school, I had served as a teaching assistant, helping guide undergraduate students during hands-on lab sessions. But I was never responsible for teaching a class on my own, and I never had any formal training.

When I became a faculty member, I had to take on a daunting course load, teaching 50 lectures and as many labs per semester. It felt as though I'd been dropped in the deep end of a pool with no swimming lessons. Class by class, my doubts about my teaching abilities mounted, along with my fears that students were not absorbing the key details in my lectures.

I started to reflect on my own experiences as a student and tried to recall the things that helped me learn, as well as the things that didn't. The researcher in me also began to search for scientific evidence to guide me. I sought help from experts in pedagogy, as well as colleagues who had more teaching experience than I did. They told me about tools that they used during lectures and resources on campus for new teachers.

Within 1 year, there was a marked change in my teaching. I began to use new skills and tools that kept my students engaged. One student wrote in a teaching evaluation that my approach to teaching “made the information exciting” and “challenged students to pay attention.” Teaching gradually became a source of satisfaction rather than anxiety.

Here are some of the lessons that have helped me become a more effective teacher.

SEEK HELP. Teaching is a skill and as such needs to be learned. Many scientists assume that their graduate degree or postdoctoral experience qualifies them to be a teacher. The reality is far from that. Most universities have support systems for new teachers, but it is usually up to the instructor to actively seek help. I'd recommend taking formal university courses on teaching methods and participating in workshops. They can help you build networks with fellow educators, swap ideas, and share challenges.

KEEP IT INTERACTIVE. Actively engaging students is essential for holding their attention and nurturing critical thought. In a small class, asking students to partner with a classmate to brainstorm an answer to a question can help keep them focused. Then, you can bring everyone together and ask the students to share their ideas. Bigger classes pose a greater challenge, but there, too, the right tools can help engage students. For instance, you can ask multiple choice questions and use electronic clickers to register the students' responses. Or you can tell the students to pass a soft toy around the classroom, each taking a turn to ask or answer a question when the toy comes to them.

BE COMPASSIONATE. Students are more likely to learn if they feel the teacher genuinely cares about them and respects them. So treat every student with understanding and compassion, and make it clear to them that they can come to you for help. It is also important to be mindful of the diversity in student backgrounds and approaches to learning. Some students may not feel comfortable raising their hand in lecture, for instance, so I use an anonymous Google document where they can leave questions for me.

Teaching isn't always easy or intuitive, but it's your responsibility to help your students learn. Put in the time to create an environment that maximizes learning for everyone.

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