Thursday, June 24, 2010

Teaching Undergraduates--Observations of a Newbie

In my department at Prodigal U, professors are guaranteed to keep classes they develop for 3-5 years, though sometimes they keep them for longer (less popular to teach classes, particularly good classes, untenured profs) or shorter (sabbatical or other leave replacements, course just not working out). I teach one grad class (enrollment ~15 mostly senior majors/grad students) and one large undergrad class (required class, enrollment 200-220 mostly premeds). I'll talk about my grad class in a future post.

I am at a big research intensive school. Research is the key thing for tenure here, however bad teaching can also block tenure. My colleagues are (mostly) very interested in doing a good job teaching, and our department has several award winning teachers, so the expectation is that new profs will be at least adequate, and hopefully much better than that. My department is a core science (think physics/chemistry/biology/math) so we have a lot of large classes for non-majors. Personally, I care a lot about my teaching, and not just because I tend to want to succeed at everything I do. I moved from National Lab specifically to work with students, so I have a lot of self-motivation in this area.

For my big undergrad class, I teach from Powerpoint slides on a tablet. My handwriting is pretty bad and I can't draw well, so my slides have important equations, plots, and illustrations on them. I mark them up a lot during my lectures. I make my slides available before and after class. I also have a Web discussion board, and post homeworks and solutions on the Web site as well. I don't grade homework, but I have simple electronic quizzes once per chapter or so covered (10 total, drop 2) worth a small fraction of the grade. My course has two midterms and a final. I tried to do one YouTube demo video a week to illustrate key concepts, which was pretty popular.

I was a bit nervous about running my own class for the first time, especially such a big one. I did OK--my evals were near the departmental average, even though this is an unpopular class, so I think that is pretty good for the first time through! So, as I look through and start to think about revising for next year, what did I learn?

1. The course overhead eats up a TON of time. Dealing with questions, problems, concerns, and grading is a huge timesink. To save my sanity, I only see students during my two office hours a week or right after class ends, though I hold open office hours on the day of exams. I do not take student phone calls, just email. To decrease grading disputes (particularly at the end of the course) I took a colleague's advice, and made grades permanent one week after handing back the exams.

2. Preparing exams takes a really, really long time (and I still missed a few typos!). I was as nervous on the day of my exams as the students! I was really lucky, and had a few exams from previous instructors to use as a guide to the appropriate question difficulty level. (Some) of the students have all the exams from this course back for a 15 year period, so I didn't worry too much if a question I liked was on a prior exam. In fact, I often just slightly modified assigned or related homework problems and/or problems I worked in lecture, and the course average was still a 68.

3. During the actual exam, there is a fine line between being helpful and being a distraction. The students will often ask lots of dumb, obvious questions when I am there, so just a peridioc walk through the exam room(s) is much better than hanging around any specific amount of time.

4. I wasted a lot of time before the semester started prepping lectures. Next time I develop a course, I will make a detailed outline, but only try to get a week ahead with specific lecture slides (since the course dynamic changes a lot).

5. Very few students come to office hours (even the open hours on the day of the exam), so having open office hours is a cheap way to show you care. Holding office hours and answering questions was my favorite part of the course!

6. People write really nasty things on teaching evaluations. Even though it is anonymous, I was really surprised by this. I also had a lot of good things (one person said they changed majors to my field partially due to my course--yay!), but the negative remarks can really get in your head.

7. Students expect a TON of stuff I never had as an undergrad (lecture notes posted, lectures recorded and online, unlimited 24-hour email responses from professors, individual appointments on demand). How demanding some of them were was a huge surprise.

8. Clear rules and expectations are very popular, even if you are a hardass. Almost every non-"worst prof ever" evaluation comment mentioned this and my availability for extra help as big pluses.

9. Incorporating some recent research results to supplement the textbook is a nice way to keep the top students interested and curious about the material. I did this, especially in places where I was really familiar with the material. Another "enrichment" thing that students like is some historical information about how measurements were actually made and about the personalities involved. This stuff was also praised in my evals.

10. There is no point in arguing about lame excuses. I don't have makeup exams--if someone can't make it, their points just get redistributed. I had a few off the wall excuses for missing exams. In general, unless the excuse was real (and the student had actually been studying and keeping up), students who missed midterms went ahead and flunked the final, so it all took care of itself. Dropping 2 of 10 quizzes also saved me a lot of grief.


Female Computer Scientist said...

"I don't grade homework, but I have simple electronic quizzes once per chapter..."

Out of curiosity, what software do you use for administering these quizzes? (Or is it homemade?). I was looking at quiz software packages awhile ago, but found many of them to be both inflexible and rather expensive.

prodigal academic said...

FCS, I use WebCT (which I hate) because we have to use it for our courses. The "Assessments" function works reasonably well once you figure out its weirdnesses.

JaneB said...

Wow, you get to keep the SAME COURSE for 3-5 years? That would be wonderful...

prodigal academic said...

Yeah, we are lucky in that way (keeping our courses a while)--I find that my colleagues are willing to put a lot of effort in the first time around because they know it will pay off in the next few years. It is especially helpful to pre-tenure folks like me!