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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