In the fall of 2013, at the age of 56 I successfully defended my dissertation and shortly thereafter accepted a job at a regional public university where I taught three new classes. My experiences teaching confirm that even at my age, change and movement to more effective classroom instruction are possible. I kept a teaching journal, and on reanalyzing it I found some “tricks” that helped me in this journey. I'd like to share them with other novice faculty.
Asking for help
Early in the semester, when an administrator asked how everything was going, I responded I could use some help with teaching, and she found a teaching mentor for me. Some of the tricks I write about here I got during a long lunch with my mentor. In addition, I was assigned to teach a lab connected to an anatomy and physiology course. Our departmental lab was sparse, and I reached out to the biology department. A helpful interdisciplinary relationship resulted. My students were invited to the biology lab six different times that fall—once to see a cadaver. New teachers should not be shy about asking for help.
Trusting the students
I had never considered doing a midterm evaluation, but when my large class had uniformly done poorly on the first test, I tried one. I created a connect/disconnect survey that included five questions about the students' study habits and preparation for the test and a sixth question that asked what I could do differently. The students wanted more group work and more activities, and some requested that textbook reading assignments be reviewed in class. In response I added a group activity and included video examples to support the lecture slides. Their report on how they had studied was revealing. Students wrote that they didn't start studying soon enough and disliked fill-in-the-blank questions. Several thought that information on evidence-based learning/studying strategies would be helpful, and I concur, particularly in these large, introductory courses.
Spring semester, I revised the midterm evaluation, asking simply, “What's working? What's not working?” Getting responses from students halfway through the semester, instead of at the end, gave me time to make changes then. In the anatomy class, the students said that the pictures on the PowerPoint slides and the anatomy coloring sheets that I added in the spring helped them learn. In my biggest class some of the feedback was contradictory. Some liked the use of PowerPoint slides and some didn't. Many disliked that I didn't always finish them in one class period. Students in all classes asked for more hands-on, “doing” activities and clearer instructions on assignments (including rubrics). I added more active group work and worked to clarify my assignment rubrics.
Remember the trips to the biology lab? That idea came from a student who complained about our lack of 3-D models and wished to see the ones that had been used when the students took Introduction to Biology. That mild complaint led to a productive interdisciplinary experience that has continued throughout the academic year.
Embracing technology has been the hardest area for this old dog. As a teaching assistant I discovered the great gift of YouTube videos for illustrating concepts in the class. Since then I've expanded my repertoire and now use both www.anatomyzone.com
for brief 3-D explanations of different parts of anatomy. Another find was www.masterclinician.org
, in which practitioners upload entire therapy sessions with a variety of clients aged preschool to adult. This site, discovered in the spring, will be a welcome addition to a class I teach in clinical methods this fall.
Another technological “trick” I learned at a campus-sponsored teaching seminar. I struggled to learn all the students' names. (Why do those two blond girls always sit side by side in the back in every class I teach?) Solution? Spring semester I used my smartphone and took pictures of each student in alphabetical order and studied the pictures over the first few days. It worked! Even in my largest class I knew their names by the second or third class.
The search for effective teaching strategies continues. Colleagues from the technological support department and the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) have answered all my questions as well as offering to show me how to make my syllabi accessible to a visual reader. After a first attempt, I emailed the syllabus to the CELT advisor, and she returned four pages of notes to make it better.
CELT has also offered short presentation from faculty colleagues about different ways to use Blackboard. The first year I had used it only for uploading PowerPoint slides and articles, announcements, and the grading center. This fall, this old dog is planning to use the journaling tool in one class and the discussions tool in another. Right now I'm playing around with the new tablet I just bought and wondering if I can plan an activity around making movies.
This new teacher has found there is much to learn about teaching, she isn't too old to learn it, and the learning is great fun.
Contact Pam Britton Reese at firstname.lastname@example.org.