Monday, 2nd March, 1998. A buzz is in the air. New places, new faces, new expectations. This is the uncertainty and excitement of your first day as an undergraduate at University, entering your first ever lecture in Chemical Engineering. On this day, however, there was also another person with feelings mixed between uncertainly and excitement: the lecturer, me.
Appointed for the first time in an academic position, I had been assigned the responsibility of nurturing the young minds in a first year course. After just one semester, I've much about this elusive goal of good teaching. Following are a few retrospective thoughts, ideas and tips that I've accumulated so far, for other new lecturers.
Tip №1: Consider using PowerPoint for lectures
It was discovered quite early that my chalk-board technique required refining. Too big, too small, not writing in a straight line - just plain uncoordinated! I even spent a few hours writing out the alphabet over and over again late one evening. Actually I'm not that bad (now), however I found that the modern practice of typing rather than writing has made me into an extremely slow chalk writer. Around week three into the semester, this problem was remedied by using PowerPoint with a computer projection system for the basic lecture material.
There were many advantages that spawned from this wish of fixing up terrible chalk-boarding. First and foremost, the students really appreciated it. So long as you gave the students enough time to copy down any notes from the presentation slide, it provided much greater continuity to the lecture. No longer did I have to turn around and slowly scrawl out something onto the chalk-board, in which moments later would be scrawled down onto student's notepads. More time was now available to discuss the lecture material by using the time I would have been chalking. Using the computer also gave access to visually stimulating tools such as animations and simulations. These extra items were useful in demonstrating difficult concepts that words and static diagrams can not easily convey.
Additionally, the lectures can then be placed onto the course web-site. This allowed access to lecture material for those who want to review it and for those who missed the lecture. This issue alone received a great response in the course evaluations. Finally, the lecture material is now in a form that can be easily refined and reused, in following years.
Tip №2: Set up a course web-site
As mentioned in the previous tip, the course web-site was seen as a positive step to course accessibility. Students can't always make it to lectures and even those who make it to all the lectures might still lose their assignments sheets. Having all the handout and lecture material in a central repository such as a course web-site was one solution to this problem.
Other material posted up on the web-site included messages as to when assignments were due, solutions to previous assignments and links to interesting articles concerning the profession. By the end of the semester, nearly all students claimed to have used the web-site. This interesting statistic was due partly to the Department having a computer laboratory accessible to all our undergraduates.
Tip №3: Remember when you were an undergraduate
Always try and remember how it was when you were sitting in the lecture theatre. Ask yourself, would you listen to your lectures? As a Sydney University graduate myself, I remember how I learnt to be a discerning connoisseur of lecture worthiness. I recall that if I lost interest in the subject or (worse) lost faith in the lecturer presenting it, I was likely not to attend chat to my neighbour about their weekend plans.
Students don't expect the lecturer to be super-human or perfect. I found they respected answers of "I don't know, but I'll find out for you" to difficult questions, and "oops!" to the odd calculation error. However, if the lecturer seems to be struggling with the core material, this certainly can't inspire confidence to the student. There are those who view technical competence in a field as not a necessary condition, because the lecturer assumes the role of a facilitator of learning (and assists students in developing self-learning habits). I must, however, confess, for this first time lecturer, I felt that technical competence was certainly a nice warm safety blanket.
Tip №4: Assessment policy
Clearly spell out the assessment procedure. There is no quicker way to get disgruntled students than to have an ambiguous assessment policy. An assessment technique that was useful was for tutorial assignments to be marked on effort and not on correctness. This non-adversarial marking scheme reduced the amount of straight copying just to get the correct answer, and encouraged the students to give the assignments an honest attempt. It also encouraged interaction among the students as they bounced around ideas on how to tackle the questions. I felt this was vitally important at the first-year level, as it stimulated many new friendships.
Tip №5: Look for help
Find a mentor, or even better find three! There is no question that the learning curve of "how-to run a lecture series" is a steep one, especially if unaided. Look toward the senior members of staff that have reputations of being great lecturers and learn from the best. They can also assist you in the difficult tasks of working out how much will fit into a 14-week semester, what level of difficulty the examination should be, and what to do with all those University procedures that never did get explained but you were expected to know (eg. textbook ordering, exam preparation, result reporting etc). I'd like to especially acknowledge Geoff Barton and Tim Langrish for all their efforts in keeping me out of trouble so far!
The other great source of feedback is from the students you teach. Don't wait for the post-mortem for a course evaluation. Actively seek out and ask both individuals and groups, how they are coping and what they believe can be improved during the semester.
As an undergraduate you probably thought a lecturer's only job was to lecture. Dispelling this rumour was both very interesting for the students, and provided a positive attitude change as they appreciated that other demands were being put on you. Take some time to explain to the class about your other jobs (i.e. research work).
Overall, this first semester as a lecturer has been highly rewarding. It is an exhilarating feeling when you are in front of a large class and can hold their attention about a complex concept. I most definitely recognise I still have a long way to go, and that I'll always be learning to better my teaching. As for that first lecture - it went off without a hitch. Whew!
/by Bruce Choy,
Department of Chemical Engineering
I. Say what is meant by:
Elusive; to spawn; to scrawl out/down; visually stimulating tools; to set up a course web-site; Power Point; to refine one’s technique; simulation; repository; to post up; to spell out; mentor; to keep sb out of trouble; feedback; to seek out; to dispell a rumour; to put demands on sb; overall; to hold one’s attention about sth; to go off without a hitch; retrospective thoughts; to remedy the problem; a facilitator of learning.