How to keep material organized while teaching?
May 15, 2009 8:00 AM   Subscribe

How do I keep track of things I want to cover in the future in the course I'm teaching?

I'm a graduate student in math, hopefully (crossing my fingers!) a year away from getting my PhD. This summer I'll be the sole instructor for a course, and I'm worried about planning. What sort of system do those of you who teach use to keep track of things you might want to talk about in class in the future?

Some background about the course: The course is titled "Ideas of Mathematics", thirty or so students, mostly sophomore and juniors, various (mostly non-technical) majors. This meets a distribution requirement at my university, so they don't necessarily want to be there, but there are courses which are less mathy that satisfy the requirement, so I can assume they don't totally hate math. I can't assume any prerequisites beyond the fact that they got into my (top 10? in the US) university. The course is in turn not a prerequisite for anything else, so there's no particular material I am required to cover. I plan to cover some basic number theory and combinatorics, fractals and chaos, probability, and game theory; I'm using the textbook The Heart of Mathematics by Burger and Starbird, which came recommended by a colleague who has used it twice for this course.

Some background about me: I have TA experience (mostly in calculus courses), which has gone reasonably well (I've gotten above-average but not award-winning evaluations). I actually taught a calculus class three summers ago, before I had any TA experience, which was a bit of a disaster; let's pretend that never happened. From experience as a TA, I'm confident about my ability to do the "little things" in teaching -- answering questions that students ask, grading homework and exams, and so forth. It's the larger-scale things that I'm worried about.
posted by madcaptenor to Education (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think I understand the question. Are you wondering how to plan a syllabus? Or how to keep track of things that it suddenly occurs to you that you need to cover next class? Or how to keep track of ideas about how to change the course for the next semester?
posted by kestrel251 at 8:09 AM on May 15, 2009

Response by poster: I don't entirely understand the question either, and I wrote it. I'm not totally sure what the right question to be asking is.

But I think I'm asking how to keep track of things that it occurs to me to cover in the next class, or in some class down the road. I have a syllabus, and I don't expect to teach this class again.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:13 AM on May 15, 2009

Just take a few minutes after every class to jot down a few notes, either in a computer file called "notes" or "thoughts" or something that you keep in the folder with the lecture notes, assignments, etc, or else in a physical notebook. "Don't forget to repeat the blah blah blah" -- that kind of thing. That's all.

Good luck!
posted by kestrel251 at 8:24 AM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't know if you have a comprehensive course calendar (what you're teaching on what day), but consider a double-entry log (two columns).

The stuff you actually taught || The things that you'd change next time, and why.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 8:40 AM on May 15, 2009

Someday/Maybe list
posted by decathecting at 8:44 AM on May 15, 2009

Math prof here. Type up your lecture notes in TeX; you may not teach this particular course again, but you are certainly likely to lecture on some of these "fun" topics in the future (e.g. if you give a talk to the undergrad math club, to a high school group, or just as part of some other course) and you'll be happy then to have a nice typed-up set of notes to work from. Now, since you've got a big TeX document you're keeping your notes in anyway, just keep a section called "To include in future lectures" after the \end{document} and you're good to go.

Good luck! Courses like this are generally pretty fun to teach. And allow plenty of time for probability; in my experience, this is often the most non-intuitive but also in the end most valuable topic for non-majors.
posted by escabeche at 8:53 AM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I do actually have a few "fun" lectures I've given before that I'm planning to incorporate into the course.

And I am a probabilist, so don't worry. I'll give probability the time it deserves.

The idea of writing the whole set of lecture notes up in TeX seems like a good idea; I guess I'm hesitant to do it because I've always worked from handwritten notes. But I've also never taught this sort of class before. As I've said I've taught calculus, but that takes less planning because basically my job there was to cover what's in the book.
posted by madcaptenor at 9:07 AM on May 15, 2009

Another math professor here. Let me 2nd escabeche's suggestion about making your lecture notes (or at least outlines) in TeX. I just started doing this (after 10 years of teaching!) and it has made a profound difference with what I do when I revisit topics. After each lecture, I analyze my notes for things (examples, explanations, group projects, etc...) that worked (and stuff that didn't) and include that analysis in the notes themselves. The next time around, the old notes serve as a foundation to build (hopefully better) notes and consequently (really hopefully), better lectures.

I would also suggest to try to make a tentative schedule of topics for the class before you start teaching. Make it part of your syllabus. This can be tough, especially the first time teaching a course. Having a schedule helps give you some structure, even if you eventually decide to change some things. It also makes you look like you have a plan, which can deflate some gitters you (and the rest of us) have when teaching a class for the first time. Oh, and speaking of first time, don't beat yourself up too much for your calculus class that was a "disaster". We've all been there. At least you are aware enough of a teacher to recognize it wasn't up to your expectations. And you have the desire to evolve into something that is.
posted by El_Marto at 9:18 AM on May 15, 2009

Best answer: When I taught at the college level, I often re-taught the same or similar courses. Usually they were organized by topics or units. I had folders (both on the computer and physical files for things that could be photocopied, or extra copies of class materials). When it was time to prep a topic, I'd look at that folder on the computer, and that physical folder. If I had a new idea for an activity for a topic, or came across materials I thought it would be useful to have in the future, I'd jot a note on a piece of paper and slip it into the file. That way I could also add copies of magazine articles, etc. Or I'd put a note in the computer file.

I also always worked from handwritten notes, and usually made fresh notes for each class session. My other materials were very detailed but my handwritten notes were pretty telegraphic, and that worked for me--but I wasn't able to re-use them because they didn't make much sense to me later. I did sometimes have outlines or examples on transparencies (these days, it would probably be PowerPoint) which I could re-use.

It served me well as over the years each unit got more complete and included more options, and it provided a really good way for me to tell Future Me what worked and what didn't.
posted by not that girl at 9:32 AM on May 15, 2009

Best answer: Music prof, not math, but I think the most important thing to do in planning a course is to determine the fundamental concepts/skills/ideas/etc. that you think must be covered in this course. I do this to be sure that I cover all the essentials, but also (once you're a faculty member teaching multiple courses, if that's where you end up) to be sure that your course fits in curricular sequences, etc.

I tend to think much more in terms of 'what concepts do students need to understand, and what skills will flow from that' than about what skills specifically need to be covered. I think the most fundamental part of learning, ideas themselves, are the most important part of a teacher's role in the classroom. Once a student has the right conceptual framework in place, skills tend to flow naturally.

So, I brainstorm those concepts, etc., and then order them in a way that will make sense to a new learner (sequentially, etc.). This usually gives me an excellent semester outline of course content, and from there I move to more and more specific levels of outlining/developing, etc. (What skills need to be attached to this concept? What activities will develop those? and so forth).
posted by LooseFilter at 11:05 AM on May 15, 2009

Lit/Comp instructor: In face-to-face classes, I've found outlines very handy, in that they keep me on track with the things I feel obligate to cover and also provide a place for direct quotation and other factoids that I want to include verbatim.

Teaching online has forced me to expand those outlines into written-out lectures. If I had to teach face-to-face again, I suspect I'd grab a highlighter and extract and outline from them, as I wouldn't want to simply read a lecture.

For storing little ideas that I might want to include in some future lecture, I use Evernote. Then I tag them with the name of the course and the term in which I'm going to be teaching it. It that or start a new project in OmniFocus and add an item there, as a reminder.
posted by wheat at 12:29 PM on May 15, 2009

« Older That's no lady, that's [insert teh funny here]   |   How to investigate a slow startup process on... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.