Not cut out for it?
January 27, 2011 5:23 AM   Subscribe

I've always wanted to be a professor. However, it turns out that I suck at it!

I'm an instructor at a large public university. I taught over the summer (my first class ever), and I got middling evaluations - not horrible for a first time, I thought. This Fall, I taught my second class - in a topic unrelated to my field - , and I just got my (awful) evaluations back. My boss actually called it "heartbreaking".

I have to teach this class again this semester, and I know the answer should be to suck it up and try to improve. But can anyone really turn it around so completely in such a short amount of time? Should I take this as an indicator that I should just move on to another profession?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (45 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Does your university offer a course for new academics in teaching and learning? You shouldn't have been thrown in the deep end without least some training.
posted by wingless_angel at 5:25 AM on January 27, 2011

In what specific way were your evaluations awful? Students typically race through teacher evaluations, often evaluate things that have nothing to do with teaching, and give middling scores to profs they're not fond of. To get really BAD scores one suspects there is some way in which you're alienating your students. I don't say it to sound blamey (some of the things that set students off into giving awful scores are stupid), but it's hard to know how you can improve without knowing what's gone wrong.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:33 AM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Can you post some of the more consistent themes from the evaluations -- is it possible that the problem was more the topic than you?
posted by kmennie at 5:33 AM on January 27, 2011

Yeah, I think you can turn it around. This was only your second time teaching ever, and you were teaching material that presumably you're not very confident about. That's a really tough teaching gig. I don't think it says anything about what kind of professor you're going to be.

Can you tell us more about what the evaluations said? And also, what kind of class is it and how are you teaching it? Is it all lecture? All discussion? How big is it?
posted by craichead at 5:34 AM on January 27, 2011

What broad field are you in?

I have been a professor for coming on 20 years. I taught for the first time in my first job out of grad school (I luckily avoided it in school somehow). It took me at least 5 years to feel I had my game in hand, 10 to feel I was really good at it, and now it's my favorite part of the job.

Here's my best advice: lose the barrier without losing respect. I have a policy that I meet personally with every student in every one of my classes at least twice during the semester, at least one of those early on in the class, to discuss the student's expectations and background and interest. By the end of the class, if every student feels a personal connection to you, your evaluations will improve a lot if the content of your teaching is otherwise ok to solid. You can't neglect the content, or your own style of presentation, which means you should get over the anxiety and try to really understand where those poor evaluations are correct or getting at something wrong with your practice. But the single biggest difference between profs who get ok evaluations and those who get stellar ones, year in and year out, is the level of personal connection the latter category is able to build with students. Learn from them what they want or what you're doing wrong *before* the end-of-semester evaluation period. It's that simple.

Very few people are naturally gifted at this. Be patient, work hard. It's a true joy if you get it down.
posted by spitbull at 5:40 AM on January 27, 2011 [28 favorites]

Oh and yes, meeting with every student twice can be a lot of time and work. So is everything else you do well.
posted by spitbull at 5:41 AM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

need to be more energetic, show more interest in the students/be more approachable (which I thought I did/was), don't admit when I don't know the answer/show more confidence,

There's 'studies' somewhere that claim that student engagement with a class and an instructor can correlate with the instructor's enthusiasm in the classroom. You don't have to sacrifice intellectual rigour for this. Can you get a friendly colleague to audit a class and see how you come across to the students?

Also - what do you teach - subject, class size, etc.?
posted by life moves pretty fast at 5:43 AM on January 27, 2011

Oh, and you *can* control their responses to "too much material" and "grades too toughly." First, give them a realistic sense of how much material the course requires right up front, and then help them develop study strategies for working through lots of material. It's amazing to me how many undergraduates don't know how to read for courses, and feel they can't keep up because they're struggling to read every word of every assigned reading, which no successful graduate student actually does.

Second, explain your grading policies (and how they might be constrained from above you) very early on in the course. Make sure you give graded assignments in the first few weeks so they get a feel for the curve and the standards. Use those as the reason to meet with students personally early in the course, as per my suggestion above. Show a typical spectrum of grades from a prior semester (without names of course). Explain *clearly* how they can do well and maximize their grade - not just "work hard," but "keep up with the reading," "come to my office hours," "let me know if you have to miss a class session" (if you grade on attendance), etc.

Third idea: videotape yourself teaching, and watch it critically. So much depends on body language and physical presence. Do you stand at a whiteboard? Step away from it, toward the students, get in front of the podium, sit on the table, walk into the rows -- don't be frantically moving around, but don't stand in one place droning. Force students to follow you by moving occasionally. MAKE EYE CONTACT with students while you teach, this is *crucial.* Work on modulating your voice like a radio announcer. If you're female, especially, work on losing things like sentence-final rising intonation (very common now, but more so for women), or the tendency to be self-deprecating when you don't know an answer or get something wrong. Students pick up on your confidence in yourself much more than on whether you know everything. If you believe you're a charismatic person, and work on engaging them, they will give you very different evaluations.

Make sure you let them speak in class. Create opportunities for them to do so.

Let the one or two tat are just mean-spirited or sexist or focused on your appearance wash off your back. And don't gauge your performance by the highly motivated students' reactions, either. You want the broad middle.
posted by spitbull at 5:49 AM on January 27, 2011 [20 favorites]

I don't teach in nearly the same environment, but the thing is that teaching is hard. It isn't just hard because you have to Know the Material, or because you need to Be Energetic, or because you just need to buckle down and Be An Awesome Teacher, it's hard because every single damn student is different.

I've taught the same class on the same night to reasonably similar groups of students and had completely different outcomes - I think the most difficult part of being a teacher is navigating what your students need, as opposed to what you think you're supposed to give them. This kind of knowledge only comes with time, and listening to the feedback you're getting. Don't give up!

I think getting a friendly colleague to audit a class would be good, but you'll probably act differently knowing they're in the audience. Videotaping yourself teaching your classes would be great because once you're used to the camera being in there you'll start acting more natural, and then you'll be able to really analyze how you're teaching.
posted by soma lkzx at 5:54 AM on January 27, 2011

Should I take this as an indicator that I should just move on to another profession?

Everyone fails at teaching until they start succeeding. Everyone. Everyone knows that the first few years you spend teaching will be disasters to some degree or another. Everyone. The entirety of academia is based on this lie: getting a PhD prepares you to teach. Everyone knows it's a lie. Why don't we change it? I have no clue. But learning how to be a good professor only happens after you've had some failures in the classroom, and struggles at the start say nothing about your potential.

Let me repeat: this is true for everyone.

Everyone also knows that evaluations are worth less than dirt. Like someone else mentioned, look for general themes, but don't assume any one student is actually right. You say they complained the grading was unfair. Chances are, it wasn't. But this means that they perceive the grades as unfair, and that is something you can try to change. Think about what you can do when handing back assignments to make them understand the grades. Can you go over the right answers? Maybe put more notes on their papers? Maybe explain the rubric better? There's information you can glean from what they say, and you should think hard about what that information can be.... But, all the same, keep this in mind: undergrads don't know what they're talking about. They don't think hard about the evaluations. If yours is a class that is offered regularly and is taught by someone inexperienced, I'm guessing it's the sort of general requirement course that none of them are in any way predisposed to think too hard about. Furthermore, the dynamic in any one class is as much about you as it is about them. Everyone gets bad classes. Everyone. Even one single trouble student can completely destroy the semester for the entire class. It happens. Especially to the inexperienced. This is just life.

The trick, now, is introspection. Think about what you did in that class. Think about what moments there were that, maybe, you could have handled better. If you notice similar moments next time, do try to handle them in that better way. Talk to your professors, get their advice, ask them to sit in on your classes and give you suggestions. Spend as much time thinking about your teaching as you do about your research. The trick, I think, to being a good professor is caring enough to work hard at it.

Teaching is hard, and it takes hard work. Strangely enough, this is the one thing that nobody seems to know.

You'll be okay. And you're free to MeMail me if you need to talk more with someone who knows exactly how you feel.
posted by meese at 5:55 AM on January 27, 2011 [6 favorites]

Let the one or two tat are just mean-spirited or sexist or focused on your appearance wash off your back. And don't gauge your performance by the highly motivated students' reactions, either. You want the broad middle.

Agreed. Yesterday I realized that you should think of a student body as being a bell-shaped curve - a small number of people are going to be bad or complainy or awesome or idolizing no matter what. It really is the broad middle that's important.
posted by soma lkzx at 5:58 AM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Every decent university has teacher-training workshops for grad student instructors, and many for younger faculty members as well. Find them and take them.
posted by spitbull at 6:03 AM on January 27, 2011

"Otherwise, there were just the normal comments: too much work - which I have no control over - and grading unfairly (which I strongly disagree with)."

I will bet you dollars to donuts you're not using grading rubrics. It always feels high schooly to me, but it is undoubtedly the fasted way to deal with the "grading unfairly" charge, and many of the best teaching professors I know use extensive rubrics. But look -- "too much work" and "unfair grading" is basically code for "your expectations are not transparent." You're not being clear enough in the assignments, they're not sure what to do, and they're upset when they get back the papers because they wouldn't have done THAT if they'd known that the grading was going to be like THIS. Do what you gotta do to make the assignments as transparent as possible. On occasion I've had a three-sentence assignment with two paragraphs of explanation. It drives me a little nuts because I feel like, "BE A LITTLE SELF-DIRECTED" but the fact is that a lot of students have been "trained" that professors EITHER give excruciatingly detailed instruction OR give trick questions. And there are a lot of profs out there that put one thing on the syllabus or assignment and then do something entirely different ... and penalize students for it. (I still remember my absolute rage when I had a paper assigned that we were to write, turn in, get a grade and notes, make the specific corrections the professor suggested, and TURN IT BACK IN FOR A HIGHER GRADE, promised the assignment. I turned it in, got a B+, made the specific corrections suggested, turned it in again, and GOT A B. I was furious. I asked, WTF? and the prof said, Oh, on second reading, I just decided it wasn't as good a paper as I thought. It wasn't so much that I thought it was an A paper ... it was that I did exactly what the assignment said and I got bait-and-switched because the prof changed his mind. I was so. angry. Had I known the requirements for the paper WEREN'T what he said they were, I would have DONE SOMETHING DIFFERENT!) If you're going to ask them to be self-directed, you first have to build some rapport where they feel like they can trust your assignments.

"Some criticisms from the evaluation: need to be more energetic, show more interest in the students/be more approachable (which I thought I did/was), don't admit when I don't know the answer/show more confidence, and that I had a hard time understanding students' questions at times (which I'll admit to, although in my defense, one of the students had a speech impediment)."

Teaching center. Or work with another prof to help you learn. This all sounds like basically one unified problem of presentation/confidence/manner. (Except possibly the understanding student questions -- there's that maddening subset of teachers and professors who never seem to get what the student is asking, some of whom talk over the student so the student doesn't get to finish the question. I don't know how to fix that except with more active listening, or asking another student to clarify if you seem to be missing the first student's point. My suspicion is that some of these profs have a very one-track mind and have trouble following the student's question when it comes mid-lecture ... so taking questions at the end could help, if that's you.)

As for the toad crap, ignore that shit. I had a student write that he didn't think I should teach while pregnant because it made me "unpleasant to look at" during class. Yes, that's what I'm there for, to be your eye candy. (I don't think I was exactly the stuff of 18-year-old boys' dreams BEFORE I was pregnant, but hey.) Your supervisors aren't paying any attention to that sort of shit, they've seen it all before.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:09 AM on January 27, 2011 [11 favorites]

Student Evals?

Indeed, as everyone is mentioning, it takes time and practice to get good at teaching and find a method that works for you. Someone upthread noted that they were lucky to avoid teaching in grad school; I posit that I'm lucky that I got to teach my own classes while in grad school for 6 years. When I did graduate, I already had a bunch of experience under my belt.

Evaluations do indeed range all over the place, and anyone in academia who knows anything knows that evaluations are completely worthless. They're in place to placate students (so it seems they have an outlet for their unfounded complaints) and to appease administrative types.
posted by King Bee at 6:12 AM on January 27, 2011

I think if you come across as lacking enthusiasm, it might be the time to unearth and critically examine your original desire to teach. What made you so passionate in the first place that you felt like all you wanted to do was stand in front of a class? If on examination you feel clear about your motivations, then you should focus on capturing the essence of your enthusiasm and conveying that to your students. If your motives seem less clear-cut then you should consider whether this is truly what you want to do in life.

On a different note, and perhaps reiterating spitbull's excellent advice, I would say that definitely the thing for me which separates my truly engaging lecturers from the many who leave me feel bored silly, it is the ability to create a feeling of personal connection. Basically, a good lecturer is someone who you feel likes you and wants to help you. A friend. I think people are very sensitive to these types of things, so it is probably impossible to pretend to care about your students, your heart really has to be in the right place.

Another thing I notice is that poor lecturers usually focus on relating facts, while good lecturers tell stories - and the best lecturers are the best story-tellers. No matter what the subject is, if you can turn it into an interesting story, your students will learn from and enjoy your lectures more. I think a good idea would be to research good storytelling craft, and practice - in different social settings, telling stories. Take out something interesting from your day at work, think about what makes it interesting, then tell a friend the story. Lie a little to gloss over the less compelling parts of the narrative. Then watch the reaction you receive and think about how to do better next time. Turn your lectures into part of this process.

Likewise, research good lecturing by sitting in on good lectures. Find someone who is widely regarded as a good lecturer - ask one of your students who they like - and sit in and watch them work. Learn.

Finally, try not to take insults like the "toad" thing you mentioned too seriously. Students can forget that lecturers are people with feelings and say quite heartless things that aren't deserved. Filling out an end-of-semester evaluation can be a bit like filling out a comment box on Youtube.
posted by schmichael at 6:12 AM on January 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I teach at a community college. I am also training to become an elementary teacher. What I've learned about elementary teaching has already made me a better college instructor. There are plenty of good books out there to learn from, and a lot of it applies across age levels. Pick up a copy of "The First Days of School" (highly recommended to me in this thread over here.) It changed the way I approach college teaching quickly, and in some very good ways. And I think Eyebrows is right about rubrics--let them know exactly how they will be graded, and as early as possible. It's harder to complain about unfair grading when they were told from the beginning what constitutes an A, B, C or F. Give examples of good work on major assignments, and maybe of bad work, too, so you can be sure that it was understood.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:21 AM on January 27, 2011

You might or might not be able to turn it around completely right away, but I'm not sure that's what you should be aiming for anyway. I'd vote for small steady improvements.

How big a class size are we talking about, btw? Sometimes smaller groups will have groups of people who complain to each other (although those complaints might not be based on realistic expectations or they might just be grumpiness). Those complaints then wind up on the evaluations regardless of their accuracy.

It's hard to be energetic (read: enthusiastic) about a subject that is not your main one. However, you can still work on presentation. (Apologies if you do this already).

When you walk in, smile at everyone and say hello. If someone makes a comment or asks a question in class, look at them as they speak and have a pleasant, receptive expression on the face (I'm sure you wouldn't have a negative expression, but a neutral one can be taken as a lack of interest).

Tell them at the beginning of each semester that there is no such thing as a stupid question, and that they should always feel free to ask you anything. If they can ask it in class, so that others can have the benefit of the clarification, that's great, but if they'd rather talk to you privately, stop by during office hours or make an appointment. Try to say all of this with heart, and repeat it after going over a difficult section.

You can also say something like, "Does that make sense to everyone? I want to make sure I've explained this clearly before we move on?" This opens to the door to people feeling as though you're approachable because you invite the questions.

I remember the first time I heard a prof say, "I don't know"--she was very well-known and respected in her field, and this was an introductory class, and she was completely casual about it. "I don't know" she said in answer to a question. "I'll look into it and get back to you." My respect for her shot way up. When I started teaching, I was so grateful that I'd had her as a role model.

Sometimes students' questions are hard to understand because they're confused about the topic and don't even know how to articulate their questions. There's nothing wrong with saying, "O.K., before I answer that, let me make sure I understand what you're asking. Are you saying you're not clear about . . . or did you mean . . . .?" Repeat as necessary. Again, nothing wrong with clarifying.

Agreed that you should be ignoring some of the comments (irrelevant, mean-spirited). Also, when I taught I followed the advice of another instructor and took the one that rated me the highest and the one that rated me the lowest and tossed out those comments (on the theory that they came from my best friend and worst enemy).

Confidence will come with time, and energy is demonstrated when you're enjoying yourself, I think.

Hope that helps!
posted by Amy NM at 6:24 AM on January 27, 2011 [7 favorites]

Teaching is hard.

Review the Seven Principles (also) and see if your institution has a program for improving teaching like Quality Matters.

Rubrics really help set and manage expectations. They tell the students precisely what you expect of them and make your grading work much easier.
posted by idb at 6:27 AM on January 27, 2011

I trained to be a middle school teacher, and at the end of my student teaching, when I was running three classes myself every day, I realized I could be a good teacher some day but it would likely take five years of very hard work.

So I don't think two semesters is actually much of a training ground. Of course you can learn and improve.

1. Look into additional instructor training at your university. Ours offers a graduate level teaching certificate, which requires 3-4 classes, I think.

2. Find out who is getting good evals in your department, profs and TAs alike. Ask to sit in on their classes to observe how they interact with the students, answer questions, write their syllabus, present their expectations.

3. Ask those well liked instructors to sit in on your classes and give you feedback.

4. Grading unfairly can be poorly communicated expectations, or students comparing to their friends in other sections of the same class with different instructors, or that they feel you're too harsh/nit-picky. More communication with the class, and coordination with other section instructors can help (if that's your situation.)

5. This sounds dumb, but maybe smile a little more, look directly at them, tell them they have cute shoes, nod understandingly when students speak, give feedback like, "Hm, that's a good question" to give yourself a chance to process and come up with an answer.

6. Don't just say, "I don't know" but instead, "Hey, I never thought about that. But it would be good to know, right? I'll find out and answer next section." Then come back to the next meetng and say, "Mike asked blah blah, and here's what I learned."
posted by Squeak Attack at 6:28 AM on January 27, 2011

Someone upthread noted that they were lucky to avoid teaching in grad school;

Point taken, and remember this was 20+ years ago, and somehow I made it to tenure and a strong reputation as a teacher, so go figure.

That said, I think most PhD students do a lot of teaching these days, with very uneven standards and expectations. Really good departments (mine included) spend a year teaching them to teach first. And so one more suggestion for young faculty members like the OP: get involved in teacher training in your department if you have grad students in the classrooms. Nothing improves one's own teaching like observing and criticizing other people's. I've learned a lot from the many times over the years I've had to observe and evaluate someone else's teaching.

Also, just try to sit in on some lectures by the best lecturers at your school, maybe even outside of your department. When you're not a student in the class, you can really focus on the meta-level issues. And you can think back to your own most inspiring teachers too -- what did they do?

I learned the trick of meeting with my students systematically and early in the semester from an undergrad teacher of my own, an eminent, world-famous scientist whose classes had waiting lists to get in and who met individually with over 100 students in the first course I took with him. Some of my colleagues think I'm crazy -- if you've got 30 students and you meet each one for half an hour, that's a couple of solid days of work.

But actually knowing your students a little bit, and individually, from early on in the class adds immeasurably to the pleasure of teaching for the instructor too. Really, that one trick -- meet everyone early, and at least twice, face-to-face -- radicalized me as a teacher and changed my own experience of teaching a lot. Colleagues who have done the same thing report similar results. It's a lot of work, but worth it in spades. We're all overworked, this isn't an efficiency trick (except in the longest term view). It's a job satisfaction trick.
posted by spitbull at 6:32 AM on January 27, 2011

Do you have grad student friends who can observe you and be honest with you?

What was your experience in school? Did you fit in well with your peers or were you more of an outlier? I was the outlier, and when I was teaching I taught to the person I had been, which didn't work well.

Are you afraid of your students? I have been, and it comes through. Students mirror that, and things just go downhill. (You can fake not being afraid, though.)

Things I tried when I was failing at teaching (and I improved, although I decided that teaching wasn't for me):

(.5. Drink coffee right before class so that you're pepped up)

1. Start the first class with some in-class writing where your students give you their wishes for the class, their fears about the class, something personal about them. Find out what the students expect from the class, why they're taking it--if needed, you can talk about what the class is for the next time, and you can also tailor some material to their interests.

2. Learn all your students' names right away--I did this by taking pictures, by calling role the first couple of classes, by making notes on the first day ie Jeanette--brown hair, round glasses) (Unless it's a giant lecture class, of course)

3. Tell your students a little bit about you, even if this makes you look a bit of a fool about things outside the class. It's okay to say, "So since I'm an enormous nerd, I was watching [TELEVISION] last night and it made me think about [CLASS SUBJECT]."

4. Use visuals if applicable. Both the best all-purpose classes I took used a lot of video clips and visuals--in one case, it was a geography class focused around specific human problems; in another it was a several-hundred-person lecture class in an enormous hall where the professor was just a tiny dot far below, but he used a ton of slides of interesting historical material. Even if you're teaching math, think of some real-world stuff--xkcd, pop science articles, etc.

5. Check out the classroom in advance and plan some different places to stand/sit. Lean on the windowsill? Sit on a desk? Pacing back to the back of the classroom comes across as just a little controlling, I think. If you need to, set yourself a goal of teaching from three different spots during a class.

6. How do you dress? Consider how your colleagues dress--are you significantly more/less formal then them? Consider investing in a "fun" accessory that doesn't undercut your authority--some bright flat boots if you're a woman, Converse shoes with a suit, an interesting bag. You can provide students with something to relate to or something memorable, and that helps the ones who aren't as academic.

7. Think of a professor who is popular with students and "act" being them, just a little bit. I developed a strong mental picture of myself as a wacky-but-popular professor type and that helped a lot (even if some days I was more like a shaky-but-not-loathed professor type)

8. Find a way to get questions from students--in-class question collection at the end of the class, for review next time?
posted by Frowner at 6:34 AM on January 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

And by the way the trick also works even with 15 minute meetings, if you're pinched or the class is large. As a backstop, try to pick out one student or group of students per class to talk to for a few minutes on a personal level before or after each class.
posted by spitbull at 6:36 AM on January 27, 2011

What was your experience in school? Did you fit in well with your peers or were you more of an outlier? I was the outlier, and when I was teaching I taught to the person I had been, which didn't work well.

Oh man does this need emphasis: do NOT assume your typical undergad is anything like you were at that age. You went on to a PhD. You were a nerd who loved books and classes. Remember that.
posted by spitbull at 6:37 AM on January 27, 2011

I taught at the college level for 13 years. When I was hired to teach freshman composition, I had no background in that field--I had an MFA in Writing as my credential. They basically gave me a copy of the textbook and a sample syllabus and turned me loose. When I think back to those first few years teaching, I sometimes think I should track down my students and make personal apologies to all of them, I was that bad.

A few things happen with experience: you do get better. You also get a better sense of what you can and can't control, so some of the bad evaluations you learn to just ignore because they're about things that aren't about you. You learn your own strengths and weaknesses, so you adjust what you do in class, the methods you use to teach, to accommodate those.

Other than that, I just second the good advice you're getting up-thread.
posted by not that girl at 6:42 AM on January 27, 2011

Just wanted to add--you can turn your teaching around. I was a terrible, terrible teacher for my first year (and it ate away at me like you wouldn't believe) and then I was a good teacher except for one class; and then I was solid.
posted by Frowner at 6:57 AM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Some suggestions:

1. I found that taking classes in acting helped my teaching considerably. I was no longer on the line in front of my students - my character (a teacher) was. It helped me relax and accept failure.
2. Along the lines of acting, enjoy what you are doing and show that. Or fake it.
3. Enthusiasm? Don't be afraid to be explicit about it. Tell the students why you believe in your subject.
4. If the class is a difficult one, let the students know early on - and why. I tell students there are easy classes and hard ones, this is a hard one and here is the reason.
5. Find relevant current examples of your subject.
6. Imagine interesting questions your students might ask. If they don't ask them, bring them up. (For example, when I teach Viagra I bring up whether it improves sexual response in women taking the drug.)
7. Bring up the controversies and solicit student's opinions. For the student it is a relief to be able to talk in class with an opinion and be neither absolutely wrong or absolutely right. And it teaches an important skill - thinking out your opinion, grounding it in reality and supporting it. As I tell my students, an informed opinion is always better than an uninformed one.
8. Anecdotes. These are what students remember well after they forget the basics of a class. Look for the best anecdotes on a subject.
9. Don't be afraid to be momentarily sidetracked into discussing something that is interesting and entertaining about your topic. You can always get back on topic.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:09 AM on January 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Teaching is like entertainment. Try to be entertaining. I don't mean with like, jokes or props, because those are likely to fail miserably. I just mean, think of teaching as being like acting. Don't be so hung up on going through all the details and explaining everything. I mean, go through the required material as you must, but try to focus on being entertaining, and on handling questions and challenges well.

Oh, and on questions/challenges. Try as much as you can to percieve all questions, and all observations of any errors you have made, as being HELPFUL. It is a good thing when students ask questions or point out your errors. So be pleased when they do these things. No teacher is perfect. Any teacher who thinks that they never make mistakes is a fool, and good students know this. Therefore, acknowledging that you will make mistakes, be grateful when they are pointed out. Do not be embarassed. Do not feel challenged.

In sum: f the students are entertained, and know that they can converse with you, everything else will come naturally.
posted by molecicco at 7:13 AM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

A couple other points I thought of:

"I was the outlier, and when I was teaching I taught to the person I had been, which didn't work well."

GOD. YES. And it's not even being an outlier -- it's that people who succeed in academia are a NARROW SUBSET of learners who learn well from reading and lecture. One of the most valuable pieces of teaching advice I got is that you can't just teach to that narrow subset; you have to make sure you're teaching to a broad audience with many different learning styles. Now, it's the students' responsibility to figure out how to learn from your teaching, and colleges are geared towards lecture-and-reading, they have to accept that, but you can meet them at least partway, and reading up a little on learning styles was helpful for me.

On a related note, I think teaching outside my discipline is actually to my advantage. (I studied theology and law; I teach philosophy.) One of my most aggravating and disliked-by-students colleagues is a giant philosophy nerd who has never wanted to do anything else and who teaches exclusively to the giant philosophy nerds. He is actively dismissive of the students who struggle with the material, because he doesn't understand how ANYONE could consider it boring or difficult, because for him it came easily and was fascinating. (He's always surrounded by a coterie of Neitzsche-loving undergrad hangers-on, which makes him feel very good about himself and which I find vaguely disturbing.) I, on the other hand, had a hell of a time with philosophy as an undergrad; I found it extremely difficult and extremely dull. So when I teach it, I'm teaching from that background of "this took me a long damn time to understand, it takes a while for the lightbulb to go on, this doesn't come naturally." I get a lot of the "second chance" students who drop his class in terror at midterms. Sometimes we're not very good at teaching the things that come naturally to us because we understand them so intuitively; it can be hard to walk beginners through "the steps" to get there, since we were able to make intuitive leaps over those parts. So try to USE the fact that you're outside your discipline to you advantage.

Finally, the single most useful thing I ever did in preparation for teaching was take a class on writing and delivering sermons in divinity school. Public speaking classes were fairly useless and acting didn't do it for me; I felt like sermon class was a place that actually took seriously the "performance" aspects of public lecturing, while not losing them in the falseness of acting, since you do have to communicate clearly and honestly and engagingly to a large group of diverse listeners who are variously prepared to understand your message. As sneetches notes, acting classes were useful for him/her; others will have found more useful public speaking classes than I did. But I found a single class on sermons vaulted me a million miles ahead on my lecturing ability. So look for help in strange places. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:32 AM on January 27, 2011 [7 favorites]

Pretty much nthing the above advice. Some specific points:

1) See if you have a "teaching training center" or "instructional design group" on campus and work with them. My campus has a week-long set of workshops every August, a semester-long training program in the evenings, and a variety of workshops scattered throughout the year. I have attended examples of all of these and they have been very helpful to me.

2) Work on that enthusiasm, if you can. You do not have to act like a clown, or work excessively to "engage the students," just try to express that the information is important and interesting (at least to you).

3) Try to mix up your classes with active learning, group discussions, student presentations, etc. Depending on discipline, this may be easy or not, but lecturing to students for 50 (or 75 or 3 hour) minute blocks is a great way to get them to hate the class (and you).

4) Some classes will not gel and you and some students will not like each other. That is just the way it is.

Feel free to memail me, and I will try and give you more concrete suggestions.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:41 AM on January 27, 2011

Lots of great advice here, and you can get a lot more at the forums at the Chronicle of Higher Ed (here the advice is on average really better though...). There's an epic, multi-year longboat thread of wildly varying quality called Jedi Mind Tricks that has lots of tips about conditioning student expectations about grades and such.

Definitely get a sense of distance between evals and teaching quality--their relation is partial and complex.

Definitely get a stronger sense of your "audience"--if you aren't sensing how class feels to them, it's hard to frame things productively.

Further to that point, if you balk at thinking of teaching as "entertainment" (which is problematic for some folks), at least do recognize that it is experience and not just transmission.

Ultimately, if you care about teaching, that will both be recognized by your students and over time improve your teaching. Good luck!
posted by Mngo at 7:43 AM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Different student bodies have different expectations of their professor. Find out which profs get the best reviews, and sit in on a few of their classes, and review their syllabuses.

I don't mean you should copy them, I mean you should get a feel for what works from them. Maybe ask them for some collegial advice. (That's a pun. You may groan now.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:51 AM on January 27, 2011

I've taken way too many university classes, and I have several years' teaching experience. The best teachers entertain their classes by showing their classes how much they care about the subject. If the teacher doesn't care about the subject, the students aren't going to either. You need to help them see why they should care. This is easier said than done, but it's fundamental.

Communicating clearly is essential. You need to outline expectations. You can do it every single class. At the beginning of class, tell your students what you want them to learn. Review key concepts again and again and again. If they understand those concepts, they feel good about what they know, and it reinforces the idea that, if they don't understand, that's okay, because otherwise you wouldn't be reviewing it so often. Find ways to test comprehension and teach to (just above) your students' level. Gauging their level is a skill, which you can develop by testing comprehension.

All of that said, some classes are better than others.
posted by smorange at 8:06 AM on January 27, 2011

I'm not a teacher, though I have done a lot of training in workplaces and think I was successful.

Most of this has been mentioned above...

- Grading too hard. I agree that this is probably code for the students not understanding the expectations. Or they are just griping. If it is Com 101, lay out in the syllabus what the composition of the final grade will be. 20% attendance and participation, 20% final exam, 40% assignments, 20% quizzes. Or whatever works for you. Set it up in a way that a student who isn't all that great at one aspect can still get a good grade by excelling in the other areas.

Same with assignments- 25 points for basics (grammar, spelling, presentation, appropriate length), 25 points for subjective "goodness" and 50 points for hitting all the objectives of that particular lesson.

Don't fear that they will game the system- as long as the system is good enough, anyone who games it will attain the required knowledge.

One thing some of my teachers did was to have a system where on tests, if a certain percentage of the class got a certain question wrong, it would be thrown out. On the theory that if enough people failed to get that concept, the teacher mus have screwed it up.

They also did post-mortems on tests and exams. What things did students not get right, where did their answers seem like guesses. Never call out students specifically here, obviously, but do call out specific good and bad answers. The goal here should be to make sure you fill in any holes in the previous section so that the students can retain the information so they can build on it for next time.

- Similarly, make the syllabus as detailed as you can possibly make it. Don't fall for the romantic idea that learning should be spontaneous and mysterious. This is their job, and they need to know their job requirements. If you have to change it, go ahead and change it. But give them everything you can.

One thing to try here would be to look at the class from a "remediation" perspective. Give a test at the beginning, that doesn't count for anything, that covers all the things the class should cover. Explain this to them- you want to get an idea of where everyone is and what you need to cover. Go in-depth of the stuff they don't know, and breeze over the stuff they already grasp. Nothing is worse than sitting through a lecture that everyone in the class learned last semester.

- Energy, engagement. Design the lectures to have thematic ebbs and flows. Like "yadda yadda yadda, and that's why you always leave a note!" Each one should have a point. Break them up to avoid tedium, but don't break them up in confusing ways. Each chunk of the classtime should be self-contained.

Don't work for a class to gel or the group to become BFFs forever. If that happens, great. But it shouldn't be a requirement. If the students never speak a word to each other outside of class, they still ought to be able to be successful in the class.

- Be available to the students. Maybe build in question and answer sessions to lectures. End some classes 10 minutes early and invite students to come and talk to you if they have questions or clarifications. If a student asks a question where you realize "aww crap, I forgot to mention that part!", make a note to cover that again in the next session.
posted by gjc at 8:15 AM on January 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I work in a teaching centre at a large university - this is exactly why we exist. Most centres offer workshops, private consultations, mentoring programs, and have libraries with excellent resources on teaching.

An essential component of our longer programs is microteaching. We videotape each participant doing a 10-minute lesson at least twice. Other participants give feedback, and the participant must watch the video and reflect on the experience. This is hugely improtant for finding your own teaching style and gaining confidence in the classroom. If your concerns are more about syllabus design or grading, you could ask around for a mentor within your department.

And there's a ton of literature out there - Tools for Teaching is a good, practical intro, but there are many many more.
posted by raxast at 8:24 AM on January 27, 2011

Next time you teach, get anonymous evaluations from your students on a regular basis for your own use. Ask for quantitative ratings ("how clear is teacher on a 1-5 scale?" "how organized?" etc.) and ask for comments on how you can improve. Take their suggestions (with a grain of salt) and see if things in fact get better.
posted by shivohum at 8:47 AM on January 27, 2011

Is it possible to get a mentor at the school you teach at, that you can meet with regularly? At the school my better half teaches at, every new teacher is automatically assigned a mentor, and it seems to work well. Swallow your pride and ask someone on campus to sit in on a class and offer you notes.

I'm just an outside observer, but I can say after being with her through a couple of rounds of new hirings, there is often a huge leap in improvement after you get 2-3 years of teaching under your belt. It's certainly possible that you're "just no good at it", but I know quite a few professors who have improved dramatically after some experience -- and it takes more than 1 year. Seriously, I've seen departments heads go from "this hire was a disaster" to "this hire is doing fine and shows a lot of potential to be a great teacher" after a couple of years.
posted by the bricabrac man at 9:01 AM on January 27, 2011

I don't have time at the moment to read everyone else's answers nor to give as thorough an answer as I'd like, but I want to send you some quick encouragement. Teaching is HARD and it comes "naturally" to very few of us; but if you give a shit, you CAN learn to do it better.

I taught for 9 years in grad school and when I started, I sucked at it. It was awful, I was awful, I didn't know how I was going to go on. But within a few years I got better at it. I never became the rockstar teacher with 30 students on the waitlist for their class, but I got decently competent.

Things that helped me improve:

1. I went through a few rounds of getting a sympathetic colleague to sit in on my class and give me non-judgmental observations and tips for classroom management.

2. I picked up behaviorist tips from watching a few episodes of Supernanny (yes, really) and reading that "What Shamu Taught Me about a Happy Marriage" article in the New York Times. Most importantly: I realized the importance of letting students know when they're doing something right, and rewarding good (or at least on-track) performance with praise. I would do this both verbally in the classroom ("Great discussion today, especially the way some of you were supporting your arguments by citing specific passages from the reading. That's the kind of thing you need to do in your papers, too") and in written responses to student writing (always say something specific about what they've done right before you get into describing what they've done wrong).

3. I read a little bit, though not tons, of pedagogical literature. There was an article on Piaget's four stages of cognitive development and how those were relevant in a college classroom that helped me. Robert Boice's Advice for New Faculty Members has some useful stuff in its chapter on teaching, though it doesn't cover everything you need to know.

4. I gained experience and with it, confidence. This is one of those things that comes with time. Give yourself a chance.

5. I got really clear and consistent about conveying my expectations (for both classroom behavior and academic performance) up front and then sticking to them. I sometimes graded with a quasi-rubric, and sometimes just handed out a sheet at the beginning of the semester that described in detail "What an A paper looks like," "What a B paper looks like," etc. ("An A paper clearly and concisely states its thesis within the first paragraph or two. The thesis should be both contestable and supportable. . . . A B paper clearly states its thesis, but the thesis may lean too heavily towards contestability or supportability. . . . " etc.)

6. I made a point of expressing my enthusiasm for the subject and for the students' engagement with it. On the first day, tell students you're glad to meet them. When they have a discussion, tell them you're glad to see them digging into the material. When they hand in written work, say "Thank you" as you collect it. When they ask a question that you don't know the answer to, tell them you'll find out the answer and praise them for having the curiosity and intellectual flexibility to think outside the syllabus.
posted by Orinda at 9:26 AM on January 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Depending on your strengths, you could also try teaching an online course and see how you like it. It uses slightly different strengths (though is as difficult in a lot of ways).
posted by ejaned8 at 10:41 AM on January 27, 2011

You have a ton of fantastic answers here, and I will throw in my two cents as well. Having taken many, many college courses, I loved it when professors would show concrete examples of what kind of work they were looking for. Even if you have to write them yourself, I think this is worthwhile. Show just what will get an A on an assignment - not just "this person answered the question and it was correct" but "this person explained WHY something something physics or business, and here they gave specific examples of blank blank blank". Compare this with a completed assignment that was just middling, and state specifically "this person only gave a one-sentence reply and that was not enough to answer the question".

Nothing used to frustrate me more than grading that was either a) not completed within a week or two of turning it in, b) seemingly arbitrary, or c) done so late in the semester that pulling up from it felt hopeless.

The suggestion of a rubric above is a good one. Students do not naturally know how to write or do assignments in the correct way.
posted by amicamentis at 11:44 AM on January 27, 2011

You have been teaching the way you think things should be taught, and it hasn't been working. You now have a few options: quit (don't! improvement is possible!); fly by instruments (get more frequent feedback from students about what is going well and and what isn't); get observations from colleagues to get advice about how to change; think back to when you learned this stuff, and teach it how you wish it had been taught, not how it WAS taught.

The basic problem here is that your current compass about "how to do things" seems off. So you need to substitute something else for a while to hone a new set of instincts. Frequent student feedback, colleague feedback, or just trying a totally new approach - any of these could do the trick. The important thing is to try.

The big trick that works for me: treat your students like people. It's harder than it sounds (Be kind to all of them? All the time? Yes and yes.), but it works.
posted by pmb at 12:38 PM on January 27, 2011

As a student, it's easier to suss out a prof's style and grading scale if you get feedback on a couple of smaller assignments first before a big paper or test comes around. I don't know how you structured your syllabus, but it might be something to keep in mind.

Also, the teachers and professors that I have loved and respected the most were the ones who--from a student's perspective--did an equal share of work in a class. I know that probably sounds ridiculous, because both prepping for a class and grading take so much work.

But it's the difference between the professor who requires you to hand in one-page response papers every week but never even gives them back to you, and the the prof who requires the same amount of work from you but grades and briefly comments on every assignment AND gets it back to you promptly, so that you can use their suggestions on the next assignment. I've been in classes with both kinds of teachers. The first sort just makes me feel like I'm being forced to jump through a bunch of arbitrary hoops for some unknown benefit. I love the second sort, because it feels like they're invested in working with me and in teaching me something useful.
posted by colfax at 1:18 PM on January 27, 2011

You may take comfort (and ideas) from previous AskMes on the topic of teaching.

Since I was rushed this morning, I want to point to one of my previous answers to expand on what I said above about using praise to shape students' behavior and make them feel good about the class.
posted by Orinda at 6:02 PM on January 27, 2011

Oops, muffed the link for "one of my previous answers."
posted by Orinda at 6:07 PM on January 27, 2011

Lots of good advice here. I just wanted to add my own anectode: in my department, student evaluation results can be confidently predicted for each individual course regardless of which professor teaches it. In other words, if the students don't like the material, then it doesn't matter how good the teacher is.
posted by primer_dimer at 2:22 AM on January 28, 2011

To the above poster: We have a STRONG correlation with the average grade for the class. As in "I'm going to inflate, and the evals are going up by one point."

Around mid-semester, I give out 3 questions (picked them up somewhere in my time as TA, so no credit to me):
"What do I do that helps your learning? What do I do that hinders your learning? Give me one piece of advice on how I could improve this class."
These pre-evaluation questions give a good picture of how your evals are going to look like - while at the same time giving better information than stupid 1-5 number sheets.

The first class has to be awesome/interesting, there's a strong correlation on how students perceive the first class with how the perceive the entire class - which is not an anectode, but scientifically researched. It works. I honestly work very hard on my first 2-3 classes, give great examples, etc. If they attend my class thinking "Hey, this is a great class", then it's gonna be great.

About being available: At the Chronicle of Higher Ed (I second the Jedi Mind Tricks!) they recommend renaming "office hours" into "student hours". For some reason, students (unlike us, grad school->nerds..) don't seem to get the concept and think they disturb you. It's a cheap trick, but helps some. Jot down notes for continuing conversations (I use AllMyNotesOrganiser for that.)

Arrive early, chat with students, don't ever go over time. Learn their names, and possibly majors.

"Battle plan for today" is my second slide every single lesson. (My students love cheesy lines and running gags, but then again, I'm the sort of person who loves to joke around. If such things are not your style, don't do them. But do give them an outline). On every slide, I have numbers (as in 34/54, so they can see how far along the lecture I am.) At the end of each topic, I do a summary.
I also have consistent powerpoint slides (including a symbol for "references", "practical applications",..) with consistent font sizes for headlines,.. Students like that, and once you've gotten into the habit, it's no hassle at all. As odd as it sounds, it makes me seem much more organized that I am.
posted by mathemagician at 6:15 AM on January 29, 2011

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