Learning to Teach

16. November 2012

Arti Agarwal

As a young academic focused predominantly on research, I felt conflicted when I was asked to lecture at my university. I was nervous about teaching for the first time and concerned about the amount of time and work required but also excited about the opportunity to impact students.

When I actually got into the classroom, I found that it was every bit as difficult as I had expected.

For those of us who are not natural teachers, the idea of facing a few hundred students, waiting like hungry lions to devour our fearful attempts at introducing discrete Fourier transform, is not an enticing prospect. However, in spite of its challenges, teaching is an integral part of an academic career. Every academic could benefit from learning how to do it well.

Fortunately, there is help out there. Here are a few ways that you can learn how to be a better, more effective teacher:

Take courses. Many universities offer classes on various aspects of teaching: theories of learning and teaching in higher education, curriculum development, assessment, teaching techniques, etc.  These courses can be very helpful for new teachers, so take advantage of them.

Find relevant workshops. I participated in a two-day teaching workshop focused on designing classes, including preparing slides, hand outs, and assignments. We practiced giving lectures that were video recorded and played back to us. Watching ourselves on tape allowed us to see how we appeared to students. Did we talk too quickly or too quietly? Was our writing legible on the blackboard? Did we fidget or appear nervous? Seeing these kinds of errors helps you to correct them.

Look to professional societies. Many professional groups and technical societies also have teaching resources for educators. Usually they will be subject-specific, and thus can be a great place to find material, teaching tips and activities for your particular area.

Seek advice from teaching experts. You can also find support from people who specialize in the study of teaching and learning. Input from these sources can be very helpful in engaging students For example, I recently had a group of students who were not solving tutorial problems. No amount of exhortation on my part could convince them to do the assignments. I was getting increasingly frustrated, so I went to the Learning Development Centre at my university and asked for their advice. They suggested that I divide the class into groups, and assign a question to each one. They would have to solve their problem on the board in front of the rest of the class, and then prepare a new question for the other groups to tackle. The most challenging question won. Peer pressure and healthy competition provided the motivation necessary to get my students excited about their work.

Even if you don’t feel that teaching comes naturally to you, you can learn techniques to help you be a more competent and comfortable teacher. It takes a lot of hard work and practice, but the rewards are worth it in the end. There is no better feeling than when a class goes well and you know that your students are truly learning and benefitting from your efforts.

Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at City University London in the Department of Electrical, Electronic and Information Engineering, School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her personal blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com.

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IONS Helped Build my Career—and Many Friendships

16. June 2011

Zuleykhan Tomova
 
Organizing the IONS conference in Moscow had a tremendous impact on my global outlook—and my career. It contributed to my professional development by fostering skills in networking, project management, community building, fundraising and leadership. 
 
The International OSA Network of Students (IONS) is a close-knit community of students who are united in our passion for traveling, visiting different research centers, meeting new friends and experiencing new cultures. Started six years ago, the IONS project has grown into a global network that connects young optics researchers around the world.
 
By the time I attended my first IONS conference—IONS-5 in Barcelona, Spain, in 2009—I had heard a lot about this project. I expected to meet new people, listen to interesting talks, have fun, and return to Moscow (where I was studying at that time) full of new ideas.
 
But I didn’t fully realize that I would take part in such a dynamic exchange of information and be surrounded by very enthusiastic people from many different cultural backgrounds. Such deep impressions defined my long-term involvement with IONS and led me to organize a conference in Moscow.

Skills obtained, lessons learned
I chaired the organization of IONS-8, which took place in late June 2010 at Lomonosov Moscow State University and Bauman Moscow State Technical University, Moscow, Russia. Working with students from four Moscow and three international OSA/SPIE student chapters had an enormous effect on my professional development.
 
Looking back now, I cannot imagine any other activity that would have given me the same depth of experience or the same opportunity to sharpen professional skills such as networking, management and leadership.
 
The student chapter itself is a miniature model of a research group or company. The crucial skills that are essential for success include bringing an idea to life, marketing, recruiting people, managing teams, advertising and raising funds. Through IONS, students have a unique opportunity to develop these and other valuable proficiencies. While any student chapter activity contributes to students’ professional development, organizing an international conference is the most challenging: It has a high level of complexity and requires intensive planning. 
 
The biggest challenge in the IONS-8 organization process was building a strong team at the very beginning and distributing duties among people. Every student in our team concentrated on a specific area, such as sponsorship, preparing documents for the hosting universities, advertising, food arrangements, etc.
 
Together we discussed the general issues of the conference program or housing arrangements for students and keynote speakers. My work as a coordinator was best described by one of my friends: “The conference coordinator does nothing and everything.” Although there is a student responsible for every organizational area, the coordinator is involved in every part, helping to solve problems and tracking overall progress against the schedule.
 
It was essential for me to have the assistance of someone reliable in planning the conference. In my case it was Vladimir Lazarev, OSA/SPIE BMSTU chapter president. However, perhaps the most important lesson that I learned is that effective responses from a group of students require personal engagement; that is, if you want a quick response it is important to ask individuals by name.
 
The process
The first thing we did was settle on approximate days for the conference. IONS Moscow was longer than a typical IONS conference, lasting five days. We created the program and looked for resources to invite speakers for professional development and career networking sessions.
 
We collaborated with several Moscow and international chapters who generously offered their traveling lecturer grants. By working with the project team to find this additional funding, I helped to build fundraising skills that will be helpful in my scientific career.
 
Another useful experience was my work with industry partners on sponsoring the event. In the spirit of international collaboration, my co-organizers, Mena Issler from ETH Zurich, Switzerland, and Desire Whitmore from the University of California, Irvine, in the United States, contacted companies with a proposal to sponsor our conference. It was my first experience getting in touch with industry. Working with Desire and Mena on these proposals broadened my networking and grant-writing skills and showed me fundraising approaches used in different countries based on cultural backgrounds.
 
After setting the conference calendar, we concentrated on program highlights. In a typical IONS conference, the first couple days are comprised of presentations from students about their research and student chapter activities, lab tours, talks from keynote speakers and professors at the hosting institute, while the last day consists of social events and sightseeing. What really differentiates IONS from other conferences is its amazingly friendly atmosphere. We focused on creating this environment by scheduling many social events, such as a welcoming reception, coffee breaks, evening meetings and sightseeing each day.
 
Positive IONS
IONS organizers have the good fortune of interacting with past organizers who share their experience with the next generation through personal contact and via the IONS Guidebook—a brochure that contains advice and notes from all previous organizers. It is an amazing opportunity to learn from the collective experience of many students.
 
I consider networking with experienced IONS leaders and students outside of our organization committee members to be one of the most valuable experiences in broadening my horizons, and it had an immense influence on my personal growth. For me, IONS is much more than another research conference; it is the forum through which I have met many good friends.
 
Zuleykhan Tomova (
ztomova@umd.edu) is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, College Park, Md., U.S.A and International Coordinator of IONS Project.

 

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Peer Review and You: How to Bounce Back from Rejection

15. September 2010

By Pablo Artal, OSA Fellow

OSA Fellow Pablo Artal has kindly allowed OPN’s Bright Futures career blog to republish content from his popular blog Optics Confidential. In his blog, Artal fields questions from students, colleagues and other researchers on science, society and managing a career in optics. For more advice on mastering the peer review process, see our related post on Peer Review 101.

Dear Prof. Artal: I am a postdoc working in physics in an eastern European country. I published several articles in high-impact journals during my Ph.D. thesis. However, the first article I submitted from my new research was rejected. I am disappointed since I believe the research was good (in fact the best I ever did). Moreover, the reasons for the rejection were not convincing. I feel very depressed and I am even thinking about quitting my research career. What can I do? Alexander, Kiev, Ukraine.

Research papers, together with conference presentations, are the major outputs in research activities. No research is actually complete until it is published and accessible to the whole scientific community. In addition, careers, grants, reputation and promotions depend on the number and quality of the publications… so if a paper is rejected, it can feel really miserable.

But perhaps Alexander would be relieved to know that every scientist had some rejected papers in his or her career. So, first of all, this is not the end, but actually something quite normal. You can be even more relieved to know that there are well-known and important discoveries that were initially rejected! Relax.

I am in a good position to address Alexander’s question. First, I am a scientist with long experience collaborating with editors and reviewers on my own work. I also serve as editor for two international journals, so I have had to deal with other scientists and, yes, sometimes I must reject their papers.

You need to recognize honestly the importance of your research. This is something you can learn from your mentors, and do not be shy about asking your colleagues. In many cases, reviewers and editors are right; perhaps you overestimated your own research. If this is the case, ask for advice and recognize the situation. Plan more experiments, rewrite the paper or add a new model to complete the paper.

In most high-quality journals, you will receive at least two reviews, and most likely you will be asked to revise the manuscript. It is also common in some journals to have a direct rejection based on the large number of manuscript they receive. This argument is quite subjective and difficult to change, so if this is the case of your rejected paper, perhaps the best option is simply to resubmit it to another journal.

If you firmly believe the reviews were incorrect, write the editor an appeal letter. In it, you need to demonstrate point by point every detail of the review that you contest. If you are right, the editor should reconsider the decision and eventually your paper may be sent to different reviewers.

It is true, however, that in some cases the communication with journals may be quite frustrating for the authors. I can share with you a recent (and bad!) experience that I had. We prepared a manuscript on a topic I believe was quite novel and that provided interesting results with potential applications. The paper was sent to one of the top journals in ophthalmology. We were asked to revise the manuscript on three occasions with very detailed description of every minor change.

After a year and a half of making painstaking revisions, I received a letter from the editor telling me that the paper was rejected because the priority of the paper was low for the journal! You can imagine my reaction. I felt as bad as you may be feeling now. This is in my opinion an example of a bad editorial behavior. If a rejection is to be made on subjective criteria such as space and priority, it should be done as soon as possible.

Address every comment. Of course, it may happen that a paper is rejected after a revision if the authors are not able to address the reviewer’s comments. One typical mistake from some authors is to perform no revisions or only very minor ones, ignoring important comments from reviewers. You should always take very seriously any revision requests, and apply the same level of dedication or even more than in the initial preparation of the paper. Prepare a letter where every change and every argument is clearly listed. You do need to address every comment in some way; if you elect not to make a change, state the reason why. Most papers are greatly improved by the revision process, so take advantage of that.

It’s not always about the science. What can be even most frustrating is when rejections are based on the order in which competing research is submitted to a journal. Several years ago, in a study performed during one of my former student’s Ph.D. thesis, we measured the change with age of the aberrations of the cornea. We showed that corneal aberrations increase slightly with age, and that the lens exhibits a more significant change. We reported this first in a conference, but another group followed our idea very quickly, replicated the study and submitted a paper before that we did. A few months later, our work was rejected because the journal already had a similar paper on the topic. This happens sometimes, and it feels bad when it does. In any case, our study was finally published in another
excellent journal and has been widely used and cited since then.

Don’t be too anxious concerning papers. In particular, try to be calm when addressing reviewers and editors. Be firm, but not aggressive. Hopefully the research will be finally published, but if not, it won’t be the first time.  Every scientist could tell you a similar story about their own rejected manuscripts.

Pablo Artal (Pablo@um.es) is an OSA Fellow and professor of optics at the University of Murcia, Spain. He is an optical and vision scientist with an interest in visual optics, optical instrumentation, adaptive optics, and biomedical optics and photonics.

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Welcome to OPN's Bright Futures Blog

15. July 2010

 by Christina Folz, OPN Managing Editor

Are you trying to launch or manage a career in optics? If so, you probably already realize that today's job seekers confront a number of unique challenges--including navigating a tough economy, learning how to stand out in a crowded market, and managing their online reputations. As optics professionals, you face the additional question of finding your place in a field that cuts across virtually all other scientific disciplines. The membership of the Optical Society (OSA) demonstrates the incredible diversity of optics and photonics: It includes researchers, engineers, entrepreneurs, educators, policymakers, communicators, and more.

But the endless possibilities are as exciting as they are daunting, and this blog is here to help. We're launching it in conjunction with a new column that we recently introduced into Optics & Photonics News magazine called Career Focus. I am managing the column in collaboration with Yanina Shevchenko, an active OSA volunteer and Ph.D. candidate in photonic systems at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

Both the column and this blog are intended to serve as a resource to one of OSA's fastest growing groups of members--its students and recent graduates. In a broader sense, though, we believe these tools will be relevant to all of OSA's members and other science professionals as well--basically anyone who wants to stay abreast of employment trends and best practices for hiring. 

Some topics we'd like to explore, both in the Career Focus column and on this blog, include:

  • Internships and their benefits for undergrads and graduate students
  • The ins and outs of peer review
  • The importance of mentors
  • Your post-Ph.D. career options
  • Student start-ups, and
  • Navigating the student-advisor relationship.

We'd love your help to get started. Please get in touch--either through a comment here or by emailing us at opn@osa.org -- to let us know the career-related issues of interest to you and whether you are available to share your story or advice through our blog or magazine column. 

Launching or managing a career is not always easy. But we're here to provide tools and resources that will ensure that OSA's next generation has a bright future ahead. You might even need your shades. Cool

 

 

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