Help me improve my performance as a university lecturer
December 6, 2011 1:23 PM   Subscribe

Help me improve my performance as a university lecturer (undergrad and grad school).

I joined this site because I found a post where fellow mefites were helping a fellow tenure track professor cope with the stress of it all. Unfortunately, I can no longer locate that post. (Does anyone remember it?)

I'm finishing my first semester as a tenure track professor (but my third semester teaching) and I am just generally dissatisfied with my performance as a teacher.

Here are some of my issues:

I worry about not being clear, and therefore tend to over simplify concepts. Students therefore tend to find my classes easy and I miss out on opportunities to challenge the great students.

I don't know how to evaluate. I so don't know how to evaluate that I can't even figure out how to present my challenges there. I feel like a fraud evaluating other people's work, and that means that I seem to have three categories of students: Outstanding (A), Good (B) (the majority of students), Poor (D) (a minority). I have tried doing Rubrics but they don't seem to help. I have tried backwards curriculum design, but again, I seem to be missing out on some of the notions.

In both lecturing and evaluating, I feel like my major challenge is figuring what I can expect from students. I want my courses to be thought provoking, but as they are now, I feel like the student don't learn a lot in my classes.

So any tips and resources that would help me become a better lecturer?
posted by Milau to Education (14 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
In which country are you?
posted by cromagnon at 1:35 PM on December 6, 2011

It would also help to know what subjects you teach, as we might be able to give specific advice.
posted by King Bee at 1:38 PM on December 6, 2011

So I assume you didn't you spend years as a teaching assistant? That would have given you plenty of experience of evaluating. It's just something you fret about at first and then get used to.

It also depends on the level of university, but in general, university students should be doing a fair amount of independent research, so really your job is to make the lectures as engaging as possible, and then point to lots of further material for the better students that are interested. Most important things for engagement I think are breaking up the monotony with interactive bits, questions, video clips or other vivid examples. You want to make sure that the most important ideas are burned into their memories (and that they know which ideas are the most important). Everything else they learn should really come from reading. So I wouldn't worry about being too clear, so long as it doesn't seem pedantic.

The other important thing of course is how you perform your material, and is comparable to being an actor. Knowing your material well, projecting your voice, walking around a bit, looking them in the eye, smiling etc. It all matters.
posted by leibniz at 1:42 PM on December 6, 2011

Most universities have some kind of official support services for academics-- people who will video your classes and give feedback on your teaching style and go over your teaching materials with you. A lot of what you're feeling is typical of all new instructors and talking to some pedagogical professionals will really help you get some tactics and techniques to gain more confidence in the classroom.
posted by yoink at 1:54 PM on December 6, 2011

In the US, most colleges and universities have a"Center for Teaching and Learning" or something along those lines whose job it is to help faculty with exactly these questions. We can give you general advice, but they know your student population, your university's expectations, and what other folks there are already doing.
posted by hydropsyche at 1:56 PM on December 6, 2011

The way to make things thought-provoking and challenging for the better students without losing the worse students is to adopt a kind of "tiered" approach to curriculum presentation.

LECTURES: The main point of lectures is (a) to communicate the absolutely vital information, without which nothing else makes sense; and (b) to inspire the students to be enthusiastic so they put the effort into really learning the less-vital but interesting and challenging information. Part of (a) means repeating that information over and over, saying explicitly that it is the most important, and returning to it from many different angles over the course of the lecture/week/semester. Part of (b) means referring to the other, more challenging stuff in lecture, with just enough information that the better students will get it and the good-but-not-the-best students will have the basic idea. THEN you provide a lot of extra-lecture resources so that those students can figure it out on their own.

RESOURCES: These should be challenging. Again, the basic points should be clearly there (and they should know that that's what they're supposed to get out of it) so that the worst students don't feel completely at sea, but this is where a lot of the learning is. For instance, reading materials should require a few re-reads, and active underlining/thinking, for them to get it. Problem sets should go beyond the lectures, requiring them to synthesise and consolidate information (more on that later). These extra-lecture resources should also provide information (clearly marked as not examinable, so your students don't freak out) that will "hook" the really good students. Extra credit is a great place for that. If your university doesn't do that, having an optional problem or two - or presenting a reading as optional but really interesting - will work as well. Only a small fraction of students will do that, but this is what will engage the best students - they are motivated by the intellectual challenge of it.

ASSESSMENT: Your assessments should be tiered just as your lectures/resources are. Make it so that a student who understood the basic points you highlighted in lectures could pass, but probably not do more. Have a few very hard problems or questions that you expect only about 10% of people to get. For the rest, make them problems that they can get with a little work - active engagement with the resources, thinking critically about what you have presented, etc.

I also totally agree with the point about how teaching is acting, but hopefully these other points will help you with organisation, structure, and assessment. Don't stress too much: just the fact that you are worrying about this tells me you're probably not a bad teacher. And it's a hard job and everyone could always improve!
posted by forza at 1:58 PM on December 6, 2011 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for the helpful responses.

I teach in Canada in the social sciences. I teach mostly undergrad and am teaching my first grad course next semester.

I have had access to my university's center for teaching and learning. They're the ones who encouraged me to do Rubrics and backward design. They were helpful, but I still don't feel satisfied with my teaching. I even encouraged students to give me feedback, and that is how I know a percentage of them feel like the classes could be more challenging.
posted by Milau at 2:14 PM on December 6, 2011

Teaching at the university level is a tough balance, I find. You can have wildly different abilities, levels of motivation, etc. in one class, and you have to find a way to cater to at least the majority. Forza has a great suggestion for tiered learning, where those who want more challenge have additional readings they can do.

I found in my own teaching that while there was a percentage who were on top of the material, the assignments, essays and exams revealed that a larger majority were already being sufficiently challenged with the stuff I was presenting.

Here are some suggestions that worked for me in terms of lecturing:
1) Don't just stand at the front of the room and talk. Use audio-visual aids, powerpoints, move around. Switch up your presentation about once every 15-20 minutes, don't give people time to get bored or switch off. One really effective technique I used was to switch my mode of discourse - say the information once in the formal lecture style, then say it again in a more informal style. The ones at the top of the class get it the first time, the ones who were struggling get it the second time. Either way, the change in language often makes people sit up and take notice, and you can play the incongruity for laughs, if you want to go that route.

2) Rubrics really helped me - I did a table, with the grades as columns and the elements being marked as rows, and a clear description in each box of what kind of work elicits the mark above. Thus, someone who got a B in grammar could see clearly what they did right, and where they needed to improve to get that A. And if a student wanted to contest something, they were able to go straight to the heart of what exactly they felt wasn't a fair mark.

3) Hands-on work is a great way to engage even the students who want more of a challenge. When I was going through bachelors' myself, we were offered the option of doing a large essay at the end of the semester, or doing a reconstruction of a historical piece of music (I was and am a music major). You had to go whole hog - not just learn and perform the piece, but re-create its original context as closely as you could given the resources you had available. Students salivated to take that one on!

Good luck!
posted by LN at 2:51 PM on December 6, 2011

I don't teach at the uni level anymore,but I'm going to throw in some things that worked well for my students. I wouldn't beat yourself up because there are always ways to improve and it is easy to focus on what went wrong vs what went well.

So here are just a few topline things, but it will really varies based on level (1st year vs 4th yr vs grad students), interest (major, nonmajor),etc.

To draw in their interest if they are nonmajors:

• Use a news story at the start of the class that makes the material related to them (most have no idea how Topic101 relates to their lives) -you can also supplement their reading with this material from news sources;
• Make it hands on for the students who want it (don't just talk about a brain, but put a brain in a jar on the table.;
• Use an occasional guest speaker (a specialist in something still related to the class, but can add another layer of depth)

To challenge the majors, Jr/senior level:

• Make it about problem solving in your discipline- the students want to learn about your field, so present data, ask them how to design an experiment to test a question, ask them how to interpret data, etc.
• If they are seniors (small number of students),assign at least 1 or 2 journal articles per semester (this is really challenging to them, but they will see how the material is applied, and if they go onto graduate school, they will need to do this and may not have someone holding their hand)

To assess and challenge in class:

• This still goes back to problem solving, no matter what level it is, you can present the basics (definitions, how something works), but then ask them to problem solve or apply it in a way that you did not present with a multiple choice question. See if you can access or get remote controls (not necessarily this system,but the same idea) to ask questions and get them to will see the graph response of what they thought instantly and you can see if they understand/do not understand --you may need to apply for a grant to get this system, or if you have a large enough classroom, some are partially free bundled with textbooks). Anyway, you can ask 2 to 3 challenging questions during class, but ease up on these for tests (it frustrates some students). I was surprised but the students really enjoyed this, too (seeing if everyone got it wrong and a few got it correct or the reverse, etc.)
posted by Wolfster at 3:08 PM on December 6, 2011

I've been teaching at a college in Canada for about four years now. I found the Art of Teaching: Best Practices from a Master Educator course from The Teaching Company very helpful. Perhaps you could convince your department to purchase a copy for you and your colleagues?

Also, have you sat in on anyone else's lectures recently? Would you consider having a colleague you trust sit in on one of your lectures and give you feedback? I found video-recording myself lecturing and watching it back to be helpful as well.
posted by stungeye at 9:51 PM on December 6, 2011

I even encouraged students to give me feedback, and that is how I know a percentage of them feel like the classes could be more challenging.

By the way, no one ever fully solves this problem. Whenever a bunch of academics sits around talking about pedagogy this issue will come up and no matter how seasoned the teacher unless they're completely oblivious to what is actually happening in their classroom they will admit that if they could just teach to the top 10% or to the bottom 10% of the class, they would teach in an entirely different way.
posted by yoink at 10:35 AM on December 7, 2011

I work for a remote control "clicker" company like the one in the article Wolfster linked to except ours is meant for higher ed, and they do help you gauge comprehension in class so you can move on to other subjects or spend more time on whatever you were just talking about.

I'd be more than happy to talk to you about it or show you how they work if you are interested.
Here is a good article by Vanderbilt's teaching and learning center that tells you why you might want to use them.
Here are some videos by the U of Illinois about how to use clickers in the classroom.

I don't want to link to my specific company here because I don't think that is kosher, but mefi mail me or mail me at the address in my profile and I'll tell you.
posted by rmless at 12:24 PM on December 7, 2011

I was going to come in and suggest backwards design, too, because it's been the best thing for my instruction.

I might consider using "Checks For Understanding" throughout a lesson. To do that well, you need to know what your objectives for the lesson are and have an idea of where students might experience a pitfall. Then find a way to poll the class - with questions, by observing a task, etc.

You could also use "Exit Tickets" a the end of each class. All students would take an ungraded mini quiz on the day's materials. You can review that material and see if you're ready to move on to new material.
posted by jander03 at 12:39 PM on December 7, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks again for all the thoughts. My university has clickers and I have used them in class. They're not always easy to integrate in a social science curriculum design however. I've also done informal mini-quizzes. Those were very informative - they allowed me to see what students latched onto.

I think I just have to get better at curriculum design. I also have to get better at concluding the classes so that I bring back the points that were made, while presenting them in an way that will perhaps challenge the top 10%. As it is now, I usually end each class with a brief "here's what we talked about" and a sigh of relief.

I also have to get better at designing evaluations.

My university offers professional development funds, so I downloaded the series that was suggested - it was even on sale!
posted by Milau at 5:00 AM on December 9, 2011

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