Thoughts on Teaching

You don’t really think about the strategies and nuances of teaching until you’re forced to.

People don’t really realize how difficult it is preparing lessons/courses/curriculums while trying to keep in mind a million different things at once, such as incoporating different learning styles, assessing learning, etc. I myself never had to think about this until I came to my graduate program at the University of Georgia. The Plant Biology program values three core values: teaching, research, and outreach; therefore, teaching is a graduation requirement. I have only taken one teaching seminar, and am taking another right now, and have only been a TA in the past, yet forcing me to actually think about teaching has made me realize so many things.

I feel robbed of my education.

Looking back at my undergraduate experience, I realized how many of my courses were taught as a lecture-based, professor-talks-at-you-type class. (I went to a large, public University with an emphasis on research.) There are many reasons for this:

  • Instructor has little teaching experience/training.
  • Instructor’s focus is on research.
  • Restructuring takes a lot of time and effort, which many professors are not willing to spare.
  • The class size is too big, e.g. 100+ people.
  • There are poor resources available to improve teaching.

But what I realized is, I spent so much time memorizing a million different facts and nuances, that I missed out on a lot of crucial learning. Anyone can read a textbook and look up facts, but skills and concepts are things that should be emphasized in the classroom. I recall many of my peers, including myself, skipping lectures simply because the things that were told to us during lecture were things we could read on our own. What, then, was the purpose of attending lecture?

I feel robbed.

While I have memorized many scientific facts in my undergrad, I feel that I have a huge deficiency in higher order learning skills - application, critical thinking, etc. Yes, I can recite terms, understand concepts, solve basic problems and run analyses… but what about synthesis? Evaluation? Creating my own ideas? I rarely felt challenged in these complex skills until coming to graduate school, and I feel like my ability to do these things fell behind peers that went to smaller colleges.

Teaching is hard.

Oh, is it hard. Especially if you want to design a course that isn’t lecture-based. A big buzz word in education right now is active learning. Everyone talks about it how great it is and how we should all incorporate it into teaching, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. First, there is a right way and a wrong away to incorporate teaching strategies. Poor implementation can actually do more harm than good. Second, it takes a lot of time and dedication to incorporate smoothly. There are many different flavors of active learning, from problem-based learning to think/pair/share. To implement them correctly, research must be done to pick the right strategy and properly design a course around it. Active learning should be more than just a buzzword instructors stick in their teaching philosophies to seem progressive.

It’s important and underrated.

The education we receive as students greatly influences how we think, act, and feel. There should be a greater emphasis on teaching in all schools, departments, and mediums. The classroom is a valuable environment where we learn and develop essential skills and ways of thinking. A poor course experience can greatly impact how a student perceives the subject of that course in the future and discourage rather than motivate.

Instructors need to encourage, not discourage.

Many early fundamental courses at large universities are purposely structured to “weed” out students. This is a huge phenomenon in life science courses where there are strict grading schemes and exams that are designed to be challenging, yet standarized. This type of class format caters only to a specific type of student that excels at a standarized testing learning style. Another reason for this is due to the competitive atmosphere that appear in courses dominated largely by pre-med students. Students will feel discouraged from pursuing science after underperforming in these classes, believing that they are not “good enough.”

Why are we discouraging students who love science from pursuing science? Why have we turned learning science into memorizing information rather than discovering, inquiring, and experimenting? When I decided to pursue computer science, I was discouraged by the decreasing number of female classmates as I continued to take harder courses. Even at the introductory course, many of my peers that initially took the course because they were interested later commented that they changed their minds and would not be going back.

Final Thoughts

I always feel that one has to view something from multiple perspectives to be able to form a more objective opinion. I feel that I have learned a lot about teaching so far in my graduate career, but I have so much yet to learn. However, I definitely developed a better understanding and appreciation for teaching.

Happy coding!